When opposites attract

THAT infamous night in November, when Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland collided in a crucial World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in 1993, stands out in the minds of many of us who were there as one of the most tension-filled and downright hostile sporting events we have ever attended.

Thankfully, a combination of massive security and a low-profile southern presence, ensured that a lid was kept on any potential violence. But the incendiary and even poisonous atmosphere surrounding the game shook many of those present, not least some of the Republic’s Anglo-Irish players who, hitherto distanced from the brute realities of the North’s sectarian divide, afterwards spoke with evident shock about the unprecedented levels of personal abuse they had taken from the crowd.

But when the dust had finally settled — and the Republic had succeeded in securing passage to the finals in America — it fell to Packie Bonner to supply a little perspective.

“The way a lot of people talked about that night, it’s obvious they’d never been to an Old Firm game,” Ireland’s Number One calmly observed.

Bonner, a Celt of long-standing, could hardly be accused of exaggeration. Widely regarded as the most intense of all football derbies, the meeting of Celtic and Rangers might no longer play host to the ugly scenes of crowd mayhem which disfigured it in the past but, despite efforts by both clubs to shake off the more baleful effects of history, an undercurrent of mutual loathing still bubbles beneath the surface and occasionally boils over whenever these arch-rivals meet.

Ibrox is the location for today’s clash and, with Rangers looking to go six points clear at the top of the SPL, the pressure is firmly on Celtic to upset the odds and win away from home. Anything less, and the calls for the head of Gordon Strachan will probably reach deafening levels back at Parkhead.

But then such is the way of the derby game, forever a home to heightened emotions even without the sectarian dimension which makes the Old Firm such a cauldron. The stakes are always raised when close neighbours come to blows. Making a point can even become more important than collecting three, in the sense that defeat will cloud an otherwise sunny campaign whereas victory can bring a measure of crowing redemption to even the worst under-achievers.

The Merseyside derby at Anfield tomorrow will also be about more than simple win, lose or draw. Bad enough for Koppites that the home side come into the game having been hammered 3-0 by Manchester United, in a fixture which is a derby in everything but the strict geographical definition of the term. But should the Reds succumb to the Blues on their home turf, you can be sure that even the most avid Benitez loyalists at Anfield will begin to have second thoughts about their man. As for Evertonians, who have for too long laboured in the shadow cast across Stanley Park from the other side, they would doubtless spin victory as definitive evidence of a changing of the guard in terms of Merseyside preeminence in the Premiership.

None of which may prove to be true in the long run but then the derby experience is all about living in the moment — and feeling it more intensely than most. You won’t find many neutrals around on derby day, which is presumably why the poet Roger McGough was moved to immortalise one such — an unfortunate Liverpudlian who couldn’t decide between Liverpool and Everton — in verse: “I’d be bisexual if I had time for sex/’cos it’s Goodison one week and Anfield the next.”

The Glasgow and Merseyside derbies might hog all the headlines this weekend but they aren’t the only ones taking place around these parts. Elsewhere on these pages, we preview the first eircom League meeting this season of Cobh Ramblers and Cork City, a fixture which adds welcome local spice to the top flight this year. And up north, there’s the small matter of a cup semi-final between Linfield and Cliftonville, a clash of clubs and traditions which only outsiders would ever dare to describe as an Old Firm in miniature. Still, the links are obvious, as one contributor to a website made clear this week. “Hopefully, Rangers and Linfield beat the two scum teams on the same day,” he quipped good-naturedly (not).

In truth, both Linfield and Cliftonville deserve praise for their bridge-building initiatives since a normalisation of their relationship kicked in with a game in Solitude back in November of 1998 — the first between the two at Cliftonville’s home in 28 years.

The match could hardly have had a more politically correct outcome — 1-1 — but it will be mainly remembered for the home supporters’ witty line in hospitality. A banner reading “Céad Míle Fáilte Linfield” was the first thing Blues players and supporters saw when they entered the ground and, while there was the usual exchange of verbal hostilities on the terraces, some kind of award for ingenious chanting should have been given to the Cliftonville faithful who came up with “Cross-border bodies with executive powers” replete with rhythmic clapping.

As the aforementioned rivalry between United and Liverpool suggests, the concept of the derby need not be confined by city limits.

In Spain, Real Madrid v Barcelona is simply referred to as “El Derby” and, for well-documented reasons of politics and history, evokes much greater passion than do games against the club’s respective city rivals, Atletico and Espanyol. Similarly, matches between Holland and Germany and Argentina and Brazil and Scotland and England (or, indeed, Ireland and England or, possibly, ANYONE and England) are essentially derbies transferred to the grand stage of the international arena.

But what is the greatest derby of them all? The Old Firm game is certainly a contender, as are the Milan, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo derbies, while denizens of the north east of England will assure you that, for raw passion, Newcastle v Sunderland is hard to beat and, having attended one such game myself, I can attest that they have a point.

But, by general consensus, the mother of all derbies is the meeting of Buenos Aires heavyweights Boca Juniors and River Plate, a clash between “the people’s team” and “the millionaires” which never fails to produce fireworks, sometimes even on the pitch. Such is the high voltage atmosphere created by the fixture that when The Observer compiled its poll of ‘50 Sports Events To See Before You Die’, the match they call in Argentina “El Superclasico” lorded it over all the rest at number one.

Memo to self: remember to bring apple in for Sports Editor on Monday.

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