Legendary scheduling machine the fixture computer has gone hyperlocal in MD9, with not one, not two but three derbies on the card as Arsenal play Tottenham on Saturday, the Manchester clubs engage each other on Sunday and then Leicester City take on Nottingham Forest on Monday night. The East Midlands claims an important role in the use of “derby” in sport, with a 12th century football game in the Derbyshire village of Ashbourne (sorry, but football simply didn’t start in 1888) widely believed to be the birthplace of the term, albeit in a game that contained up to 1,000 players, theoretically enough to allow Leicester to adequately defend a corner. Fans anticipate a derby game because those sweet bragging rights are a currency that simply cannot be devalued, but while supporters of the teams involved might be engaged, often neutrals can be turned off as the game they watch descends into tribal stalemate. Here, then, we rank the 12 biggest* Premier League derbies to have been played 6+ times in the division’s history using a combination of numbers and vibes. Will you agree with the order? Almost certainly not.
*a note on London, a sprawling city with simply too many football teams. West Ham’s real derby is with Millwall, who are yet to play in the Premier League. The Hammers have a significant rivalry with geographically distant Chelsea and closer Tottenham but if you include those then why not West Ham’s games with Arsenal or even Palace? London has been limited, therefore, to Arsenal vs. Chelsea, Arsenal vs. Tottenham, Chelsea vs. Tottenham and Chelsea vs. Fulham. And if you don’t agree with the latter fixture then you’ll be delighted to see it in…
12. Chelsea vs. Fulham
No-one who tries to conjure up images of a fearsome local rivalry sees visions of Chelsea against Fulham in their mind’s eye. The Blues have only lost one of 30 Premier League games against the Whites, and that game, back in 2006, is memorable not only for Mike Dean’s 20th red card, but also for imperial-era Jose Mourinho ostentatiously substituting Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips for tactical reasons after only 26 minutes. Overall, this is not only the most one-sided derby in English football but the most one-sided game in English football; of the 1,538 fixtures to have been played at least 50 times in English Football League history, Fulham’s win rate against Chelsea (9.5%) is the lowest. Bragging rights shouldn’t be decided this easily. This game doesn’t even provide that many goals either, with an average of only 2.40 per game in the Premier League.
11. Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City
Other than Norwich being geographically further east than Ipswich there isn’t much that’s surprising about this encounter. It sneaks into this ranking on the six-plus game minimum thanks to the first three Premier League seasons, the last time that both East Anglian clubs graced the top-flight at the same time. The most recent of the six encounters saw Norwich win 3-0 at Carrow Road in March 1995, a game notable largely as being the last time a team started a Premier League local derby with two Canadians in their starting XI.
10. Derby County vs. Leicester City
This branch of the East Midlands triangle of rivalry certainly offers goals (37 of them in 12 Premier League games) but it often feels like both teams would rather be taking on Nottingham Forest, something Derby haven’t done since April 1999 but Leicester get the chance to this weekend. Still, any derby where both teams have employed Robbie Savage at some point has to be respected.
9. Arsenal vs. Chelsea
You might be thinking this derby is ranked too low but the most pivotal games between the sides have tended to come in cup competitions, including five major finials (the 2019 Europa League among them) and the pivotal Champions League quarter-final in 2003-04, which saw Chelsea end the Invincibles’ chances of also becoming European Champions. There’s Kanu’s hat-trick in the late 1990s and Robin van Persie’s treble – also at Stamford Bridge – in that 5-3 game in 2011 but the games between them are often decided by that most un-derby like thing of “good play” and “goals” rather than the seething hatred that flows through most local rivalries. Perhaps if Diego Costa had stayed at Chelsea a bit longer it might be a bit different.
8. West Bromwich Albion vs. Wolves
In the negative column, this is the only pairing in this list not to produce a single red card in the Premier League but on the other hand it oozes goals, with a monstrous 21 of them in only six games (that’s 3.50 per match). Six of those strikes came in a pivotal game between the sides at Molineux in February 2012 as West Brom cavorted to a 5-1 win on their arch-enemy’s home turf. It was the sort of game that proves the overwhelming influence of local derbies because even though WBA still ended that day below Wolves in the table, the embarrassment of conceding five times at home to Albion cosmically forced Wolves to sack manager Mick McCarthy without having a replacement lined up. His assistant Terry Connor took charge temporarily and then considerably less temporarily as the club failed to find anyone at all to replace McCarthy and went down while West Brom finished in mid-table. They had to sack McCarthy though, because of derby optics, the most important energy in the game.
7. Leicester City vs. Nottingham Forest
The seventh Premier League game between the sides comes on Monday but the previous six have served up three red cards, making this the Premier League’s most sending off-fuelled local rivalry on a per game basis. The guilty men are bruising defender Nicky Mohan in 1994, Neil Lewis in 1995 and striker and strike enthusiast Pierre van Hooijdonk in 1998. All names from the mists of time but dredging up long-held grudges is part of the tapestry of football rivalry. The games between them in 2022-23 will be supercharged by the fact that they are the two most recent “new” champions of England. Forest backed up their 1978 domestic title with two European Cups, something Leicester couldn’t do in the 2010s, but the Foxes did win the title in the backpass rule era, so it probably evens out.
6. Newcastle United vs. Sunderland
This pairing – one of the most historic and contested in the country – feels like it needs a few more classic hits in the Premier League era, something that requires Sunderland to climb back into the top-flight after suffering some torrid years in the second and third tiers. Yes, it contains Alan Shearer’s 260th and final goal in the competition, and yes Lee Cattermole did collect four yellows and a red in eight games against Newcastle but when it returns to the Premier League we want, and in many ways need, more horsepower from the Tyne/Wear derby.
5. Manchester City vs. Manchester United
Into the top five now and a combination that has been seen 50 times in the Premier League and will be witnessed once more on Sunday. From the 1990s when City could barely sneak anything – losing seven in a row between 1993 and 2000 – to the modern era, which began when City won their first Premier League crown in 2012 with a late season run of form that included a 1-0 home win against United to go with the epoch-shifting 6-1 they recorded at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Recently this fixture has been the away team’s dream and the total of 21 away wins in Premier League Manchester derbies is more than any other fixture in the competition’s history. Another one on Sunday would set the title race alight and make United fans dream of winning their crown in nine years, a period in which the noisy neighbours have been champions five further times.
4. Everton vs. Liverpool
Everyone knows what to expect from Merseyside derbies. Lots of combat but not many goals. Liverpool’s most recent league fixture in the current season was a goalless draw and that took this fixture to 24 0-0s, which is six more than any other combination of teams in Premier League history, so it’s no surprise to see that at 2.26 goals per game, this is the lowest scoring fixture in this list of derbies. But who cares about goals when you can cut to a montage of limbs and fervour. With 22 red cards, the Merseyside derby towers over the division as the epitome of derby passion and fury. All it is missing these days is the presence of Divock Origi, who scored six of his 22 Premier League goals for Liverpool against Everton, haunting them like a Belgian ghost.
3. Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur
The Premier League kicks off this weekend with Arsenal vs Tottenham and it’s not just any clash between them. If Spurs win – and let’s not gloss over the fact they have won only one of their last 29 Premier League games away at Arsenal – then it will be the first time in top-flight history that one of these north London rivals has replaced the other at the top of the table by beating them. That means the good times are (possibly) back at both clubs but it doesn’t really matter how they are faring in the league because this game is intensely contested and would be in a pub car park if that was the only playing space available, as it sometimes is. Providing a steady stream of goals, comebacks, penalties and red cards, this is one of the best derbies in English football.
2. Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur
But the North London derby is not the capital’s best Premier League derby. That honour goes to games between Chelsea and Tottenham which seem to reach a level of supercharged loathing that you might expect from the two clubs most put out by the fact that Arsenal have dominated London in terms of overall honours. From the Battle of the Bridge in 2016 to the pantomime handshake rage of the game at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, this fixture almost never disappoints. Only one team in Premier League history has picked up nine yellow cards in a single game and it was that furious 2016 Spurs side seeing Chelsea ruin their title hopes in 2016. Chelsea also inflicted defeat on to Spurs in the first ever top-flight game played at Wembley Stadium and, as it stands, 19% of the defeats Tottenham have ever suffered at their new NFL-equipped home. Arsenal may have won the league twice at Spurs, but Chelsea have seemingly made it their life’s mission to annoy them every single time they play each other.
1. Aston Villa vs. Birmingham City
All of which brings us to the Premier League’s finest local derby and, sadly, one that we haven’t been able to enjoy in the top-flight since 2010 but which lit up the 2000s with some extraordinary encounters. Ok, it only produced 2.29 goals per game and two red cards in 14 matches, but both of those dismissals came in a 2-0 win for Birmingham at Villa Park in March 2003 and included arguably the most complete headbutt ever seen in Premier League history, by Dion Dublin on that man Robbie Savage. Why were Villa so riled up in this fixture? Perhaps because the reverse fixture that season at St Andrew’s saw Birmingham – enjoying their first top-flight season since 1985-86 – win 3-0 against their arch-rivals in a game memorable for Peter Enckelman’s part in the second goal. Receiving a throw-in from Olof Mellberg, the Villa keeper failed to control it and let it run under his foot into the net. If he hadn’t touched it, then the laws of the game state that Birmingham should have got a corner. Whether referee David Elleray remembered that rule or not (Enckelman didn’t, as revealed by his manager Graham Taylor in the post-match clip below) it was deemed that the ball had brushed his foot and therefore the goal stood, leading to some admittedly unsavoury scenes.
As a two-part Premier League derby fixture, the second city games of 2002-03 are arguably the purest essence of local rivalry ever seen in 30 years of the competition. The last three top-flight games between the sides in 2009 and 2010 produced only three goals in total but a season like 2002-03 lives on in supporters’ memories for eternity. Trapped in a dismal era, Birmingham have finished between 17th and 20th in each of the last six Championship seasons but one day they’ll be back in the Premier League and ready to play their part once more in the division’s purest derby.