SOUTHAMPTON — Donning my black winter jacket and hopping on a train down from London for 90 minutes to the South Coast, this weekend was all about deciphering if the Premier League’s newest derby was even a rivalry.
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Leading up to the first-ever clash between Southampton and Bournemouth in the Premier League there has been much talk about whether this is a “derby” or a “rivalry” as the two South Coast settlements sit just 30 miles apart and are separated by a national park, The New Forest, but historically they haven’t been deemed major rivals.
That notion sparked my latest piece on NBC SportsWorld, trying to describe what this rivalry has been for many years and what it can become. Growing up on England’s South Coast, I can say it’s a peculiar derby where fans of Bournemouth want it to be a full blown rivalry but fans of Southampton only have a rivalry with South Coast rivals Portsmouth, based 17 miles to their east.
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Below is my account of “derby day” after starting the journey in a small town equidistant between Southampton and Bournemouth, deep in the New Forest.
NO MAN’S LAND
Waking up in the idyllic New Forest in a town called Brockenhurst, which is located 15 miles from both Southampton and Bournemouth, on Sunday it was hard to believe a big game between two Premier League sides was taking place a 15-minute train ride away. Ponies strolled the streets. A hastily assembled river blocked my way on a walk after heavy morning rainfall created it. There was no indication that this sleepy, beautiful national park in Southern England sits between two settlements set to square off on the pitch and in the stands in the most popular soccer league in the world on Sunday.
The intertwining of Southampton and Bournemouth is peculiar. As I wrote for SportsWorld, this is not a true derby. Not like Liverpool vs. Manchester United or Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur. These clubs usually play preseason friendlies against each other. Both sets of fans mingle amicably and generally get a long in day-to-day life. It is a friendly rivalry. Well, it always has been. When these two teams were slugging it out in the third tier in 2010, something more was brewing. Checking out of my hotel, the receptionist revealed he was a Bournemouth fan. “My Grandad was a big Cherries fan, so it is just a family thing really,” he explained. “I just hope we don’t get embarrassed today.”
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Jumping into a cab to the train station, the taxi driver was a Saints fan. “The thing is, it is not really a rivalry. There is no hatred,” Mike said as he drove past a few ponies and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Some have dubbed this rivalry “The New Forest derby” but it is so embryonic that the tag has yet to catch on between fans.
At the train station, fans of both teams mingled on the platform. Friendly banter was chucked back and forth. On the train, the 14-minute journey was packed with fans of both teams heading into Southampton, the banter was getting a little livelier. One Bournemouth fan opened up his can of beer and it started spraying everywhere. “You didn’t miss your mouth did you? Surely not…” said a Saints fans sat down with his son a few seats away. Laughter. Friendliness. Not one of the fiercest rivalries that soccer world has ever seen. Bournemouth fans were asking which pubs were best to go to in Southampton and soon enough, they were about to find out which was the best.
Given this is Bournemouth’s first-ever season in the top-flight of English soccer and Saints have spent most of the past 50-years in the top-flight, it’s easy to see why Southampton’s fans don’t deem this is a rivalry. We are talking about a team who they used to loan out plenty of players to when the Cherries were in the third or fourth tier of English soccer and almost see them as a feeder club.
Walking outside a pub in Southampton City Center, troubled flared up momentarily. The pub had been taken over by Bournemouth fans in the top and bottom tiers and a few scuffles broke out between locals and the supporters as the police wadded in with batons and hooked out certain individuals.
“F*** off Southampton, we rule the South Coast!” chanted the Bournemouth fans. A Bournemouth fan was hospitalized in a serious condition after the game after reportedly being attacked by a Southampton fan after the game. The violent undercurrent of a fierce rivalry is brewing.
Jumping in another cab towards St Mary’s, the cabbie told me how he had hardly ever seen riot horses and police lined up in the center of the city. There were over 20 horses lining the route from the station to the stadium as violence — a few outbreaks in previous meetings had occurred — was anticipated.
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In and around the stadium, Bournemouth’s young manager Eddie Howe, he played for Portsmouth and once turned down the manager’s job at Saints in 2010, had his players on the pitch nice and early. All the talk was about this rivalry and the fact that if Bournemouth could win a few, then it would truly become something special. Everyone I spoke to, be it Saints or Bournemouth fans, also agreed it would be a case of how many Saints would win by. “I just hope we play well and keep it close,” said the Bournemouth supporting hotel receptionist while printing out my bill in the morning.
The Cherries had not beaten Saints in a competitive game since 1987. That was a League Cup game where Harry Redknapp was in charge of Bournemouth. You have to go back to 1958 for the last time Bournemouth beat Southampton in a league game. Sunday marked only the 22nd time these clubs had met competitively in over 125 years.
“There’s only one South Coast derby” was the song from Saints fans in the opening 10 minutes as they wanted to remind their neighbors just how little they cared about them. Moments later, “We are Southampton, we don’t care about you” rang out.
The South Coast spirit was strong in Bournemouth’s squad. Southampton lad and former Saints academy graduate Andrew Surman started in central midfield. Howe, a Bournemouth man through and through managed the Cherries. Southampton fan Baily Cargill was on the bench for Bournemouth. Throughout the game Bournemouth’s fans burst out with chants of “scummers, scummers” (like Portsmouth, that is their nickname for Southampton supporters) to which Saints fans simply replied once again: “We are Southampton, we don’t care about you” and then in a teasing manner: “Aaaaagain… you’ll never play here again.”
They may be right. Saints pummeled Bournemouth early on with Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane going close. Eventually Bournemouth succumbed to sustained pressure in the 27th minute as Ryan Bertrand‘s left flank cross found Steven Davis at the back post and he tapped home. Moments later it was 2-0 as Mane’s cross-field ball found Dusan Tadic and his cross was headed home by Pelle. 2-0 to Southampton and the gulf between these two sides, not just historically, was clear for all to see. Chatting to home fans at half time as I wandered around the Itchen Stand, many I spoke to just said: “I don’t see it as a rivalry, not at all.” Another had a bone to pick with their rivals from down the coast: “These Bournemouth fans have somehow got this idea in their heads we are rivals. I remember back in the day, we took our team down there for a friendly and helped raise money to save their club in their time of need. It’s bizarre.”
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In the second half Saints took their foot off the pedal and the Cherries had plenty of the play. Bournemouth fans sat in and around Southampton fans in the home end, something which is not technically allowed or looked upon kindly in the PL, but they were easy to pick out. As brief moments of hope in and around the box arrived, it saw them rise among the home fans. When Junior Stanislas‘ free kick went narrowly wide, one elderly Bournemouth fan stood up among the Saints fans with his hands on his heads. There was nothing said. The friendliness remained during a few chants between both set of supporters and as the game headed towards a conclusion, it became more jovial in the stands. Acknowledging that tough times will be ahead in their debut season among the big boys with ACL injuries robbing them of key players, Bournemouth’s fans chanted: “Premier League, we’re having a laugh!” Victor Wanyama was sent off 12 minutes from time for two yellows which made things interesting, as tackles flew in and the Cherries gave it their all but came up short as they sit one point and one place above the relegation zone while Saints sit in seventh place, just four points off the top four.
“We are Southampton, the South Coast is ours!” sang the home fans as the final whistle blew to signify the win. So, after all, Saints’ fans did care.
What Sunday proved to me was that this rivalry is brewing but may not get the chance to flourish in the Premier League. The hunger for this to become a rivalry and a derby seems to be almost exclusively from Bournemouth’s fans. After years of living in the shadows of Southampton, the Cherries want to challenge the nearest club to them, geographically, and are desperate for this to become something more than it currently is. This rivalry is sometimes friendly, sometimes nasty, but if Bournemouth manage to stave off relegation and remain in the Premier League beyond this season, given the passion and pride on show in the stands, around the region before the game and on the pitch, the league will be a richer place for it.