Imagined derby hatred can still flare up into ugly reality
Just what inspired the 11 arrests and vandalism as 4,000 Stoke fans followed their Under-21 side to Vale Park for the littleplayed
Strange old game, the derby of the Potteries. When this mysterious rivalry was ignited on Tuesday night in the Checkatrade Trophy, it had not been played for 16 years and, really, when one checks the histories of Stoke City and Port Vale, it has, relatively speaking, seldom been played at all.
Between 1887 and 2002, there were just 51 meetings of these two clubs, English football’s
El Ceramico, and no more until the Football League Trophy game this week when Stoke’s Under-21s lost 4-0 at Vale Park. There were 4,000 Stoke fans in the Hamil Road Stand that night and, indeed, Port Vale could have sold more tickets to their local rivals had they wished to, although by yesterday morning they will have been glad they did not.
There were 11 arrests, lavatories and windows smashed and Port Vale were fairly sure checking the damage that someone had tried to start a fire in the stand, although it could have been connected to the smoke flares that the away support also brought. At the very least, there will be much work for those tradesmen represented by the trophy sponsor, although the wider question does beg itself: what is it about these seldom-played derbies that sees unfamiliarity breed such contempt?
It was the same on the south coast where Brighton faced Crystal Palace, another active rivalry, the roots of which no one can quite agree upon, and 10 arrests were made. When West Ham played Millwall in the League Cup in 2009, the first east London derby in more than four years, there was a stabbing and 54 supporters banned for life. Another one of those rivalries that is prosecuted with a maniacal fervour that makes the Super Sunday blue-riband derby events look tame.
There were seven arrests around the game at the north London derby on Sunday, including the banana skin episode, and, generally speaking, any occasions when the arrests reach double figures stand out in the modern age because of the ever-diminishing occurrences of that behaviour. In the Home Office figures released for football-related offences committed last season, the club with the most arrests were Birmingham City, and those were over the course of 51 games.
The number of arrests at football matches has declined year on year for the past five seasons, with the total for 2017-18 standing at 1,485 out of an estimated 42 million visits to stadiums over the course of the season. It works out at 3.5 arrests per 100,000 match-going fans, so when one looks at the smashed windows and broken loos at Port Vale, it might be an embarrassment to the Stone Island devotees of a new generation but it is by no means representative of a trend.
Exactly what was at play at Vale Park on Tuesday is not clear, between two clubs who faced each other most regularly during the end of the last century when both were going through rough patches – and one might argue Port Vale are yet to emerge from theirs. The games between the two from that era are less remembered for trouble and more for a 1992 FA Cup first-round replay at Vale Park when the Stoke striker Dave Regis saw his goalbound shot stop in a puddle.
Often, when a well-supported club such as Stoke drop out of the Premier League, their big away following is regarded as a lucrative source of income for smaller clubs they might encounter in league and cup games. Stewarding can often be less thorough. Port Vale originally considered accommodating the Stoke fans in the Railway Stand – traditionally for the home supporters – until there was a considerable outcry. Even so, by the time the gates were closed, the stadium accommodated the biggest crowd of the season, despite just three sides of Vale Park being open.
As for the game itself, the only player in the Stoke side with any connection to the first team was goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard, who has been an unused substitute. The