November 2017

Thursday, 23 November 2017

It Matters. (No Matter What They Say)

Why our differences – and uncomfortable similarities – make Mansfield v Chesterfield still one of the fiercest and best rivalries in the Football League.

Stags fans celebrate victory after prolific goalscoring legend Calvin Andrew won it for Mansfield back in 2013.

“Did ya go on Sat-dee?”
“Ahhh, wish I’d stayed at hom’ though. They wo’ crap.”
“They wo' woss than that! Still goin’ tomorrow night though?”
Ahhh mate

I’m in the gym on a Monday after the Saturday before, and two blokes nearby are shooting the shit about the game at the weekend. It’s a very familiar conversation to me - one I’ve heard umpteen times before in almost the exact same tone, format and language in plenty of Mansfield’s finest sticky-carpeted drinking establishments.

I stop myself seconds before I pipe up to join in though. It’s probably a good job I do.

You see, I’m deep in ‘enemy’ territory. I’m west of the blissful boundary and safe haven that the east side of the M1 affords me. I’m a true Stag in the true Spireite heartland of Brimington - the very definition of an imposter.

The M1 - the correct side is signposted

But I’m alright if I keep quiet. In fact, even if I don’t keep quiet, I’m relatively sure no one would suspect a thing… well unless I started talking about my footballing allegiances, for example.

That was one of the first things that caught me off guard when I moved to the wrong side of the motorway from my beloved Mansfield a few months ago. Far from being an outcast on some sort of alien planet, I found things strangely – and perhaps uncomfortably – familiar.

That wouldn’t exactly be a complete surprise to a layman, given the geographical location between my homes old and new. But I have lived and breathed Mansfield Town Football Club since I was 7 years old (early 1990s). I know all about the history of the rivalry. I know exactly who the ‘enemy’ are, almost as much as I know my veins bleed amber and blue, and it’s taught from a very young age. We are taught that they are ‘different’ to us on many levels and I’m sure they are taught the same.

The bitterness of the social and political divides is epitomised in very visual terms by that physical border the M1 provides.

But it doesn’t feel a massively different place.

I don’t really know what I should have expected really – I mean, it IS just down the road. If I was a Liverpool fan and moved to Manchester, I’d probably get a bit of piss taking now and again down the pub. But I certainly wouldn’t expect to have my windows bricked at night, regardless of location or allegiance.

But that’s precisely what I thought might happen when, on mine and my long suffering (Stags fan) lass’s second night in our new home, there was a knock at the door which was so hard I thought we were being raided by the Old Bill. Cautiously answering, I found a displeased looking chap in his 50s stood there, arms folded. His opening line: “Interesting car sticker you have…”

He was referring to the Stags badge proudly on display on my windscreen. 

A very similar potentially offensive car sticker (available at all good club shops)

Quite luckily though, it turns out it was the next door neighbour. And it also turns out, he is a Stags fan too (and a top lad!), and is ecstatic that a mini Stags invasion of his quiet cul-de-sac in the middle of Chesterfield is quietly occurring. (Though we are planning a Catalonia-style bid for independence from Derbyshire in the near future...)

I’ve seen plenty of running battles on the streets between fans of both clubs, and have experienced all the vitriol and hated at matches since my first local derby, back in 2001.

But this experience, on my own doorstep, brought home a reality to me that the Mansfield v Chesterfield rivalry is different, despite - or maybe fuelled by - the similarities we share. It runs deeper than any outsider could ever truly see. The fact that  - even for a split second – it crossed my mind that a fan of the opposition had actually come to my house, looking for a scrap... It would (probably) never happen of course, but nevertheless, it was indeed a passing thought and a provoking one at that. Though luckily our lass is scary as fuck, so I doubt there'll be any bother. (only joking dear...)

There’s no doubt that clubs like Man United and Liverpool, for example, enjoy good rivalries. And sure, there are real, true fans of both of those clubs. But they are heavily outnumbered by the ‘Sky Squirrels’, happy to pay their hard-earned wad to snakey Rupert Murdoch every month, who would probably have to Google how to get to their own ground from their house 200 miles away. There's the so-called 'fans', content to watch their team from the comfort of the pub week in, week out, spouting statistics. ("We've won it 19 times!" *yawn*) 

And don’t even get me started on the tourists.
It all seems to water it down somewhat.

A typical 'Sky Squirrel' in its natural habitat

Inner-city rivalries are obviously usually fierce too. But the lines are constantly blurred, with fans living side by side for the most part, with even some families having split allegiances. That simply doesn’t happen with the rivalry between us and Chesterfield. There are very definite divides.
Man United fans are allowed to have mates who are Liverpool fans and are quite content watching their derby match in the pub together... probably even in Manchester or Liverpool itself. But the day that happens with Mansfield and Chesterfield fans is the day that hell freezes over – or Carlton Palmer becomes a decent manager.

Carlton Palmer during a televised Keith Haslam love-in in 2007

Being a fan of either Mansfield or Chesterfield isn’t exactly a path you take for the glory it brings. Both sets of fans have been through thick and thin, mainly thin. And that has created a commendable loyalty, camaraderie and sense of community. Sure, attendances have swelled when either has been doing well. But realistically, there’s a genuine core of 2,000-4,000 for each, who will be there rain or shine. I guess that commands begrudging respect on both sides.

The towns we reside in themselves are not that dissimilar either. With almost identical populations (Mansfield – 99,000. Chesterfield – 101,000), both economically and socially devastated by 1980s politics (which I really don’t know enough about to truly comment here – as well as it being a fucking big can of worms to open here on my first ever blog post!). This was compounded on both sides by a complete lack of government support in the years that followed and has led to a major economic downturn for both, despite a few green shoots now beginning to appear.

But while the similarities are stark, the rivalry is as fierce as ever, and is one that transcends demographics.
A good proportion of fans at Saturday’s game won't have even even a glint in their Dad’s eye during the early 1980s, but that sense of bitterness and loathing is still engrained within them, and crosses generations in a way rarely seen nowadays in English football.

The rivalry is one Chesterfield fans seem to want to play down in recent years.  While Mansfield were rotting in the Conference for the best part of 6 years, the Spireites were enjoying jollies away at Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, citing them as their ‘true’ rivals on our forums as a result.

But it’s mainly bluster aimed to score points. Sure, they had a couple of good away days over in Steel City against the ‘Deedahs’. However, despite the Spireites’ protestations, most fans of both Sheffield clubs couldn’t really give a rats arse about Chesterfield, really. It was just a passing rivalry, similar for the one we had with Alfreton for a couple of seasons (take a bow Anthony Howell, and I mean that!).

They’re good days out I’d imagine. Just like ours are when we take 4,000 to Nottingham for a few beverages on the Waterfront. But they are ‘plastic’ local derbies, make no mistake.

Stags regularly takeover away at the bed wetters... but it isn't our 'real' local derby, even if it is theirs.

Ask any (truthful) Spireite who their main rivals are. What the first fixtures they look out for are when they come out in July. They will say Mansfield. And the same goes the opposite way.
After our time in the Conference, and their foray into League One, it would appear absence really does makes the heart grow fonder – or the ‘hatred’, in this case.

And now it looks like the pendulum in this long rivalry has swung again. We are are a club very much on the ascendency after years of financial mismanagement by the Dark Lord who shall not be named.

In the Radfords, we are extremely lucky to have two fantastic people who genuinely love the club. Their investment – not only financially, but emotionally – leaves Field Mill a completely different place to the one left by the Calver Cowboy- one of optimism, one of hope, and one of pride and stability. Average attendances are on the rise, and the atmosphere in and around the ground is as good as it has been in years.

The 'Q-Block' has transformed the atmosphere at Field Mill
Of course the Spireites gloated at our demise. They loved Keith Haslam so much they even made a theme park named after him (Hasland). But now they are suffering at the hands of their very own Dark Lord. A gamble to get into the Championship that didn’t pay off, followed by terrible recruitment and years of potentially questionable fiscal practices leave the Spireites pondering the very real possibility of their first ever plunge into non-league (bar an unbelievable turn around in form and some very astute January signings or a takeover) and financially are very much in the shit.

Many of their fans are disillusioned and the town’s people are no longer going to matches. Attendances would look even worse were it not for the rumoured 300 season ticket holders per game that simply aren’t going but are still counted in the official attendance. And I can guarantee, they don't sell many raffle tickets anymore!... #rafflegate

Chesterfield's predicament currently echoes our own in times gone by

Their current predicament is just another striking similarity to a situation we have previously faced. I don’t envy them one bit.

But make no mistake, even if they drop into the doldrums, we will still be their rivals, and they will be ours.

 Plenty of empty seats are to be found at Tesco Arena nowadays, in stark contrast to a few seasons ago.
It is undoubtedly a good time to be a Stags fan and a bad time to be a Spireite, but anything can happen on derby day. While I’m confident we will beat them, the result is much less relevant than our league positions on Saturday 5th May at 5pm.

While our differences will always be the focus of our rivalry, that rivalry is only enhanced by the similarities we share.

But whatever they might say about Saturday, it matters.

Just as it matters to us.