Bournemouth vs. Southampton: Most complex derby in Premier League?

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What is this game?

Nobody really knows.

Some fans will tell you its a rivalry. Others will tell you its a derby. Others dismiss it as anything more meaningful than another game in the Premier League that happens to be between two teams separated by 30 miles.

There is something extra there about Bournemouth vs. Southampton. But it’s complex.

This Sunday Bournemouth host Southampton in a South Coast Derby (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) for just the second time in the top-flight following their promotion to the Premier League in 2015.

[ MORE: Explainer on Saints vs. Bournemouth ]

Last season I went to the first-ever meeting between Southampton and Bournemouth in the top-flight and spent days with both sets of fans trying to decipher what this rivalry was all about.

In truth, it’s still growing and after being embedded among both groups of supporters before the game in November 2015, by the end I was probably more confused as to what it meant but I was also sure that if both teams remained in the Premier League for many years to come it has the potential to flourish into a full blown rivalry. I grew up in southern England and most of my family still reside in the area. Yet still, I have a tough time figuring out what it means and how big of a deal it is.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and A.F.C. Bournemouth at St Mary's Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Southampton, England.
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What we do know is that the two teams will go into Sunday’s game both on 21 points and looking to cement themselves in the top 10 of the Premier League with a win. There’s no doubting this rivalry has reached its heyday with Southampton no longer the undisputed top dogs, at least on the pitch, in southern England.

Back in 2011 Southampton and Bournemouth were slugging it out in League One, England’s third-tier. Saints sealed two-straight promotions and got back to the Premier League where they’ve been ever since and have now turned into a top six contender which has qualified for Europe in each of the last two seasons.

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After gaining promotion in similar fashion, Bournemouth has similar aspirations and announced earlier this week that they plan to build a new stadium with a much larger capacity than the current 11,000 at the Vitality. The Cherries want to take on their South Coast rivals who have always plucked fans from the New Forest area and towns in and around Bournemouth who wished to watch the Premier League instead of the lower leagues, as Saints continue to attract average crowds of around 30,000.

Now, that’s changed. The gap is closing. These two teams are in the same league and although Southampton’s fan base and resources may be larger than Bournemouth’s, former Bournemouth and Portsmouth defender Eddie Howe is doing a wonderful job to create a young, hungry team which can compete in the top-flight.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s game, Bournemouth’s manager believes this rivalry is growing and when the Cherries were first promoted to the PL in 2015 he earmarked the two games against Southampton as one of the first he and Bournemouth fans looked for. Bournemouth want to make this into a rivalry.

“We know the importance of this game for our fans and our league position,” Howe said. “The more games we play against Southampton the more the rivalry will grow. It’s something we’re looking forward to.”

Over the last few seasons violent scuffles have broken out between Southampton and Bournemouth fans. One fan was hospitalized after the clash at St Mary’s last November and Bournemouth’s fans are desperate to show the “scummers” that they belong alongside them in the Premier League and are willing to go to extreme measures to, at least in their eyes, prove it. Most of Southampton’s fans are lukewarm about this rivalry, at best, creating yet another layer of complexity to this fixture.

Maybe that’s because the Cherries have beaten Saints just once in the league since 1958. However, that victory was last season at the Vitality Stadium in a real landmark moment as Bournemouth easily survived relegation in their debut PL campaign and have built on that with Jack Wilshere joining on loan in 2016-17 and a recent 4-3 win over Liverpool earmarking their ability.

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Southampton at Vitality Stadium on March 1, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.
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Another one of the complexities which muddies this rivalry is the friendliness which has existed between the two clubs over the years. And the towns too, with the two largest settlements on the south coast of England cohabiting rather harmoniously as Bournemouth acts as the chief tourist destination with its golden sand beaches and Southampton is the industrial hub with its bustling port, but there’s so much crossover in business, families and leisure between the two ports.

Pretty much every preseason in living memory has seen these two teams play each other in a friendly but that hasn’t happened in the last two seasons after Bournemouth’s shock promotion to the Premier League for the first-time in their 117-year history. That’s natural. No other rivals in the PL would have a preseason friendly at their home stadium.

When both teams were struggling in the lower divisions and on the verge of liquidation in 2008, the thought of this derby becoming a mainstay in the Premier League would’ve been a wild fantasy for fans of either teams. It always seemed so far off from happening, especially for Bournemouth.

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In their darkest hours the Cherries were bottom of the fourth-tier and cash strapped. Saints agreed to play friendlies at Bournemouth to help raise funds to keep them afloat and have loaned them several players over the years — such as Adam Lallana, current Bournemouth midfielder Andrew Surman, and many others — as they’ve been treated almost like a feeder club for Southampton’s young academy. Hence why Southampton’s fans are not only largely disinterested in the rivalry, but also a bit peeved at upstarts Bournemouth trying to overtake them in the Premier League both on and off the pitch and shouting off their mouths with chants in and around the stadiums and the cities on matchday.

See, it’s complex, right? It’s not like the other rivalries in the Premier League which are much more cut and dry.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United has always been huge, as has Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur and Everton vs. Liverpool. Even a similar rivalry — at least geographically speaking with two settlements close by, but completely separate — such as Newcastle United vs. Sunderland in past PL seasons is much more intense. Simply put, neither team thought this would be the situation they’d be in with only 23 league games played between the two over 126 years. The rivalry is growing rapidly.

Now, with both clubs well-run and funded by wealthy foreign investors, it is a reality and all of a sudden there’s a new derby to watch out for in the Premier League. The problem is, nobody knows what to call it and there’s still a lot of chatter from both sets of fans about what it all means.

Southampton’s new manager Claude Puel will be taking charge of his first game against Bournemouth and he already understands the added importance to fans.

“For our supporters and our fans it is of course important to get a good result against Bournemouth. I know this,” Puel said. “But for me, the players, it is important to stay with the good concentration about our play. I think we will see a good game because the two teams like to play the game on the ground with a good philosophy. I like the philosophy of this team under good work from their trainer and I think it is the same towards Southampton.”

“It’s also a game between the supporters of Bournemouth and Southampton. There is a good rivalry between the two cities. All of this gives a good intensity and atmosphere about this game. The result is important for the fans.”

“The New Forest Derby” was mentioned over the years but that moniker hasn’t really stuck and even the “South Coast Derby” isn’t truly accepted as Southampton vs. Portsmouth is widely regarded as the South Coast Derby given their historically intense rivalry. With Portsmouth languishing in the fourth-tier of English soccer, that particularly derby won’t happen in the Premier League for many years. So, now, almost reluctantly, a new derby on England’s south coast has arrived.

Sunday will be another chance to see just how quickly this burgeoning rivalry is developing.

It may not become one of the biggest in the league but something special is brewing between Bournemouth and Southampton as both teams continue to defy the odds and challenge for a place in the Premier League’s top 10 from their homes on either side of the idyllic New Forest.

You can name this derby whatever you want. Just know it’s on the verge of becoming something much bigger than it ever has been.