Our European guru educates and enlightens
If the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges had ever dropped into the pub next to Nuneaton Borough’s old Manor Park ground on matchday and I had attempted to regale him over a pint of Pedigree with a potted history of our rivalry with Bedworth United, he would probably have likened this longstanding derby in an obscure, moist part of the West Midlands to “two bald men fighting over a comb”.
He would have been right. But that’s the beauty of Boro vs the Greenbacks. It is easy to generate the passion and heat of local rivalry when serious silverware is at stake, as is often the case between, say, Real and Barça. But when there’s not much at issue – except a temporary berth atop the old Southern Premier League – and 5,172 fans turn up (as they did to watch this fixture on February 23 1982), then you can truly say, with the kind of gruff conviction John Wayne brought to his roles: “This is more than a game”. For the record, through gritted teeth, Bedworth – derisively pronounced by Nuneatonians as “Bed-uff” – won 1-0 to go top. Briefly.
Football rivalries are driven by petty slights – our derby became more furiously contested when Bedworth, once a separate town, was forcibly incorporated into the borough of “Nuneaton and Bedworth” back in the 1970s – and by schadenfreude, a long German word to describe the joy we experience watching someone else suffer. At secondary school, it amused me to discover that Bedworth Town, the forerunner of United, played at a ground that was officially known as The Knob. Killjoys have since had it renamed The Oval.
As a supporter of a non-league side that has reached the third round of the FA Cup three times (the last time, in 2005-06, we forced a replay and gave notice about Steve McClaren’s managerial ‘prowess’), I found it hilarious that Bedworth’s idea of a cup run was a place in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup. Mind you, when they did get that far – in 1951-52 – they had the nerve to beat us on the way.
Now they languish in the prosaically named British Gas Business Football League Division Midlands, while we toil a few rungs up the ladder in the upper echelons of the Blue Square North. Every football rivalry is also driven by the knowledge that, as with the famous John Cleese-Ronnie Barker-Ronnie Corbett TV sketch about the British class system, we look down on them in full knowledge that someone else – in our case, Coventry City’s Sky Blue Army – looks down on us. (I don’t know who looks down on Real Madrid but then, if you read John Carlin’s seminal White Angels on the arrogant heyday of the Florentino Perez era, that might explain a lot of their problems.)
But, as with the class system, we like to exaggerate the differences. The similarities can be just as striking. Both Boro and United have sprung from a predecessor called Town, both have been mismanaged into serious debt and both were big in the 1980s. OK, bigger. And both of us, when talking trophy cabinets, quickly end up extolling our heroic performances in the Birmingham Senior Cup which, for the record, Boro have won eight times, and United have won thrice.
It’s not a lot with which to whip up a crowd on derby day is it? As a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, it didn’t seem to matter, although I remember the ambience of the derbies – the day me and my mate staged a half-time pitch invasion to get a rare autograph and were laughingly reprimanded by the announcer – better than the goals, results or players (though a nippy winger called Ken Goodwin, small enough to fit on my Nan’s mantelpiece, sticks inexplicably in the mind).
Ironically, the derby I remember best was against another local rival, Atherstone Town, in 1972. And that had nothing to do with the football. The Duke of Gloucester’s eldest son had just died in a helicopter crash and the announcer called for a minute’s silence. After 20 seconds, some smart aleck in the Atherstone end began yelling “Up the Boro!” and I was nearly exploding with the strain of smothering embarrassed laughter.
So the next time Real vs Barça or Milan vs Inter are billed as el clasicos, I’ll silently cheer all those "bald men fighting over a comb" derbies which are so inconsequential they deserve to be celebrated in song by Half Man Half Biscuit. Maybe: “God gave us life, but he also gave us Bedworth United...”
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