x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Diluting of the derby

Question: When is champagne not champagne? Answer: When it is not produced in the Champagne region of France, under strictly specified conditions.

Question: When is champagne not champagne? Answer: When it is not produced in the Champagne region of France, under strictly specified conditions. That rather boring answer is not wine snobbery - it is the law. Specifically, it falls under European Union laws enshrined since 1992 to protect high-quality produce from cheap, inferior imitations. Well, if it's good enough for champagne, why not football?

The term "local derby", like the term "champagne", is a benchmark of quality and should therefore only apply to matches which meet the strictest criteria. Yet it is sprayed around with impunity by the sports media. This weekend, for example, saw two alleged "derbies" in English football: Sheffield United versus Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United versus Manchester City. Under my proposed laws, only one of those matches could correctly be called a "derby". So which was the Tattinger ... and which was the tat?

The first derby law is that both clubs must lie in the same town, or at least within sensible walking distance. This slight leniency enables Newcastle versus Sunderland (13 miles) to boast the "derby" tag, for example, but not Newcastle verus Middlesbrough (40 miles), as apologists for this season's Coca-Cola Championship will try to claim. Both the Manchester and Sheffield matches pass this first test with ease. Secondly, a true derby match should really contain at least one local player per side. Ideally it would be 11 but this would be unworkable, and English soccer fans have long since reconciled themselves to their local "bragging rights" lying in the hands of men from Togo, Scandinavia and even Scotland.

However, if a team cannot field just one local lad - someone who genuinely understands what the result means to the supporters - then the term "derby" should not apply. Both Sheffield teams on Friday night contained certified Yorkshiremen (United captain Chris Morgan is from Barnsley, Wednesday defender Tommy Spurr from Leeds) so its derby status remains intact. As for the Manchester match, United ticked the local box with Ryan Giggs and while City did not field a local player, manager Mark Hughes is a naturalised Mancunian.

My final rule, however, is the litmus test. Is the alleged "derby" match the very first date that supporters check when the fixture list is released? For both Sheffield teams this would undoubtedly be the case. As indeed it is for the other true derby in English football: Aston Villa v Birmingham. Would the Manchester "derby" pass this third test? Categorically not. Yes, the City fans will immediately seek out the Reds ..... but so will United supporters. The first two dates in any United fan's diary are Liverpool home and away, because that rivalry means more to them.

Sunday's match between the two Manchester teams had everything: drama, controversy, some awesome talent and a feast of seven goals. It was champagne football, yes, but it fails the Champagne Test for the title of "local derby". The city of Manchester boasts many fine assets but it will not have a true local derby until the United fans get as excited about the five-mile trip to Eastlands as they are about the 35-mile trip to Anfield.