Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The complexities of a simple game

First published in The Grecian, 18 August 2009, Exeter City -v- Yeovil Town

My American friend was getting very confused – and who could blame him? “So you’ve already played Derby County recently, in a ‘friendly’, despite the fact that they took one of your best players off you. And now you’re saying this game on Tuesday night is called ‘a derby’, even though it’s against Yeovil – not Derby at all.”

Ah, dear. I maybe didn’t help much by commenting that playing Yeovil Town is “what you could probably call a derby, given the football geography of the southwest – even though they’re actually an hour away on the train, and in a different county, Somerset.”

I could tell by the expression on Andy’s face that this might be an apposite time for another pint! Whether things would be any clearer after that, I couldn’t predict. But I did manage to explain that the Grecians (“why on earth are they named after another country?”) couldn’t play Torquay United this season, because they’re a league below us – unless we draw them in a cup competition.

Likewise with the dreaded Plymouth Argyle, who are a league above us. And no, viewed one way, we don’t want them to be relegated because we’d like to go up ourselves and beat them next season. Well, except that most City fans would actually be delighted to see the Greens come down, and Exeter go up.

“Which means”, concluded Confused Andy in triumph, “that you wouldn’t get to beat them after all!” Well, yes, unless we drew them in a cup competition – but that could happen this season too, technically.

“So none of this promotion and relegation stuff is really relevant, then?” he responded, somewhat stunned. “Er… it’s very relevant, Andy. But not to cup competitions.”

At this point, I realised that I was about to be asked whether you got a cup for winning the league, and if so why that didn’t merit the league being called a cup. Or something like that. So instead, I suggested that a glass (or possibly two) of the very, very strong local scrumpy would be an ideal aid to football – not ‘soccer’ – comprehension. This brought the conversation to an end. As far as I can remember. (I had the cider, too.)

Seriously, though. Football, though essentially simple, can be confusing. There’s one thing that isn’t at all complicated about this fixture, however. And that is Exeter City’s need of three points, a good performance and hopefully a few goals off our local rivals tonight.

Once again, it’s going to be a big ask. Norwich, whom we came up against on Saturday, recently put four goals past the Glovers in the Carling Cup, while the Grecians were getting tanked 5-0 by QPR. So both sides have a lot of pride to recover, a ‘regional interest’ at stake, and a desire to get some real traction in League One.

Last term Yeovil survived in the division thanks to a good run of form with two wins and two draws against tough opposition, including a final 1-1 result against Tranmere Rovers. They needed every ounce of practical wisdom from their Club motto “Achieve by Unity” – and I imagine that this sentiment will be close to the heart of Reds’ boss Paul Tisdale, too.

But hang on, is this game a derby or not? Well, there are no strict parameters for local rivalries, and given that our region is spread out geographically and relatively thin on Football League sides (compared to some other areas we could mention), most will say “yes”. It certainly feels like a rivalry worth having, though thankfully without the rancour these things can occasion – never something I’ve really appreciated.

Meanwhile, it won’t surprise you, me or Confused Andy to know that there is no definitive answer to the question, “Why is a match between two local sides called ‘a derby’?”

One theory is that that it originated from The Derby horse race, founded by the 12th Earl of Derby in 1780. Another is that the ‘derby match’ arose with Liverpool and Everton, because their grounds were separated by Stanley Park, owned by the said Earl.

The most quoted possibility is that the term came from an early ‘all-in football’ game contested annually on Shrove Tuesday between the two halves of the town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

Whichever theory is correct, Grecians fans know what they want to go down in history as the outcome this evening. A win for Exeter City.

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