Rivalries in English Club Football. Part I: Geography

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Rivalries in English Club Football. Part I: Geography


There can be no doubt that traditional rivalries between clubs add colour to the English game of football.  Matches between rivals are keenly fought; the atmosphere is often intense, and the result can often defy current form.

This is the first of two posts about rivalries in the top flight of English football. Here I look at how rivalries are spread across the country. In the second post I will look at what happens to team performance when rivals meet on the field.

Many football rivalries are legendary and have persisted for decades.  Although feuds may emerge between managers or between players, they are not generally the cause of long standing club rivalries because the individuals concerned move on.  Persistent club rivalries are clearly embodied in the attitudes of the fans.  Many famous rivalries occur between close neighbours and seem rooted in territorial or turf wars.  Liverpool-Everton, Manchester City-Manchester United and Spurs-Arsenal spring to mind as typical local derbies. Other rivalries are thought to have historical roots. The long-standing rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds is particularly intense and is thought to reflect a lingering animosity between Lancashire and Yorkshire that dates back to the Wars of the Roses which began in 1455, while the seeds of the Tyne-Wear were allegedly sown in the English Civil War of the mid 17th century, when Newcastle remained loyal to the crown and Sunderland joined the parliamentary rebellion.  The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid can certainly be traced to Spain’s recent political history.

But who are today’s rivals?  Our best answer comes from a survey carried out by Chris Whiting in 2012-13.   Chris asked over 2,000 fans to nominate the primary and secondary rivals of their club.

A visualization of Chris’s dataset is shown below. The circles are teams and the arrows joining them represent rivalries. [Click to zoom]

The Rivalry Network of English Football

Green arrows represent primary rivalries and pink ones represent secondary rivalries.  The arrowheads convey information abut the direction of the rivalry. An arrow goes from Team A to Team B if Team A fans consider Team B rivals. We need arrows rather than lines because not all rivalries are reciprocal.  For example,  Manchester City fans nominate Liverpool as a rival. but Liverpool fans don’t nominate Manchester City.  So here we just have a single-headed arrow from Manchester City to Liverpool.  On the other hand Manchester United and Liverpool nominate each other so here we have a double-headed arrow.

The colours of the teams identify subgroups or “families” within the overall network.  A family is defined as a subset of the network having rich links between its members, but few links to other families.  I applied a subgroup detection algorithm to the data and found ten different families.

When I plotted these families on the map, it became clear that they  were geographically organized. Generally speaking  club rivalries fall into clusters, each centred on a specific region of England.  There were a few intrusions of teams from outside a region - for example the TransPennine group includes two clubs located just north of London -  but these were the exception.

Most fans in Chris Whiting’s survey also thought that geography was the main cause of rivalry, and this finding proves they were right. But why might this be?

There are a couple of possibilities. Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory tells us that individuals evaluate themselves with respect to others who are similar to themselves.  I don’t feel myself to be a social failure because John Terry drives a Rolls-Royce  Wraith. But what does hurt my self-esteem is if that hatchback parked in my neighbour’s drive is better than mine. The same kind of rule goes for groups.  Groups of individuals don’t compare themselves with every other group, but only with groups that are in some way similar.  A club from the same town or region is a more relevant benchmark against which to compare oneself than one which is far away.

But I suspect another cause of the geographical  clustering of rivalries lies in the footballing past. Before the modern era of player mobility, footballers mostly played for their local clubs, and often played for the same club for their whole career.  In those days, neighbouring clubs would be in fierce competition for the best local players, and competing for these valuable resources would naturally breed animosity and jealousy between the clubs and their fans.  A final reason might be that the potential for conflict increases when large crowds of fans come together on match day, and such contacts are probably longer and more frequent when the teams involved are within easy reach of each other.  So a geographical structure of club rivalries makes sense.

In the next installment of this post I’ll be looking at what happens to performance stats when rivals meet on the field.

Oh and in case you were wondering, the most hated team is Leeds - nominated as rivals by no less than 8 sets of fans.

2018-03-27T15:41:41+00:00 April 4th, 2016|Football Analytics, Older Posts, Thinking Allowed|0 Comments

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