Saturday, 13 Jul 2024

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football

Northwest derby, Tyne-Wear derby, Dockers derby, and more! This article explores the greatest club rivalries in English football.

Contemporary football finds its roots in the English public schools of the 19th century, evolving from medieval traditions. The dissemination of football rules coincided with the cultural influence of the British Empire, spreading the sport to regions under British sway. The passion for football has been particularly pronounced in England, developed through enduring regional rivalries. Whether it’s the iconic Northwest derby featuring Manchester United and Liverpool or the intense Dockers derby in the East End of London between Millwall and West Ham United, these clashes go beyond mere football matches, becoming immersed in local identity.

In short, this article tries to explore the greatest club rivalries in English football, where the pursuit of excellence sets the stage for fascinating competition.

Leeds United – Manchester United (Roses rivalry)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The intense rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds United, both prominent northern English clubs, finds its roots in the deep-seated historical animosity between the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Traditionally traced back to the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, this regional rivalry has transcended into contemporary football matches. Research by the Football Fans Census also underscores the significance of this clash, with both Leeds and Manchester United consistently ranked among the top three clubs based on the number of other clubs considering them rivals.

While clashes between the two teams were infrequent after Leeds’ relegation in 1982, the passion remained high, with Leeds fans continuously regarding Manchester United as their main rivals. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson characterized these clashes as “fantastic, feisty occasions”. It further demonstrates why the Roses rivalry is one of the greatest club rivalries in English football.

The rivalry experienced a resurgence in the 2020-21 Premier League season, marking Leeds United’s return following their triumph in the 2019-20 EFL Championship. The initial encounter in this renewed era of their clashes resulted in a 6-2 victory for Manchester United. In the 113 matches played between these two sides across various competitions, Manchester United emerged victorious 50 times, while Leeds United secured 26 wins, with 37 matches ending in draws.

Portsmouth – Southampton (South Coast derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The South Coast Derby unfolds in the fascinating clashes between English football clubs Portsmouth and Southampton. It stands as one of the greatest club rivalries in English football. These two clubs, situated on the southern coast of England, share a rich footballing history and are regarded as the most successful in the region. The roots of the intense rivalry are somewhat ambiguous, with a shift from amicable fan interactions in the early 1970s to the emergence of a more heated competition. Some attribute this change to the economic trajectories of the respective cities.

The increasing tension has been fueled by elements such as jealousy, boastful banter, fluctuating fortunes, and the unfortunate surge of football hooliganism in 1970s England. Portsmouth supporters frequently label their counterparts as “Scum” or “Scummers,” while Southampton fans reciprocate by referring to their local adversaries as “Skates.”

Despite the geographical proximity, the two clubs have often found themselves in different divisions, leading to only 71 official clashes since their first meeting in 1899. Southampton has claimed victory 35 times, Portsmouth secured 21 wins, and 15 matches concluded in a draw.

Swansea City – Cardiff City (South Wales derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The South Wales derby refers to a notable local clash between Welsh football clubs Cardiff City and Swansea City, recognized by The Independent as one of the fiercest rivalries in the UK. Although situated in Wales, both clubs actively participate in the English football league system. It also makes their derby one of the greatest club rivalries in English football. Originating as a friendly competition, tensions escalated after the 1960s, leading to high-profile, violent clashes among supporters.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the South Wales derby faced challenges due to escalating hooliganism. It resulted in the unprecedented decision to ban away fans from attending, also marking the fixture as the first in Britain to implement such measures. The rivalry witnessed a renaissance in the early 21st century, culminating in both teams reaching the Championship and eventually meeting in the Premier League in 2013, where Cardiff emerged victorious.

Since their first meeting in 1912, these two teams have contested each other 116 times across various competitions. Cardiff secured 46 wins, Swansea claimed 42 victories and 28 matches concluded in a draw. The most recent South Wales derby, occurring on September 16, 2023, in the EFL Championship, concluded with a 2-0 triumph for Cardiff City at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Aston Villa – Birmingham City (Second City derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The Second City Derby, an English rivalry, unfolds between the well-known football clubs of Birmingham – Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Considered as each other’s fiercest adversaries, this clash is dubbed the Second City Derby, drawing its name from Birmingham being recognized as the second city of the United Kingdom after London.

Established merely a year apart, the rivalry took some time to manifest on the football pitch. Their first encounter occurred in September 1879. During those early years, Birmingham City, then known as Small Heath Alliance, secured a 1-0 victory at their Muntz Street ground, characterized by Villa’s players as ‘only suitable for pot-holing.’

A memorable moment etched in this rivalry occurred on March 10, 2019, when Jack Grealish, playing for Villa, was “punched from behind by a pitch invader” during the derby match at St Andrews. Despite the inedible incident, Grealish rallied and scored, leading Villa to a 1-0 triumph. Since Villa’s promotion, the teams haven’t clashed, but the rivalry also extends beyond the men’s teams to their women’s football counterparts. Across 126 clashes in various competitions, Aston Villa earned victory 57 times, Birmingham claimed 38 wins, and 31 matches concluded in a draw.

Newcastle United – Sunderland (Tyne-Wear derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The Tyne-Wear derby refers to the intense rivalry between the neighboring football clubs Sunderland and Newcastle United in the northeast of England. Rooted in history, this modern-day extension traces its origins to the English Civil War, where grievances over trade advantages fueled tensions. It made Sunderland a stronghold for Parliamentarians against Royalist Newcastle. The rivalry has not been without its share of controversies, including incidents of football hooliganism and a noteworthy episode in the 1996-97 season when proposals to ban Newcastle fans from Roker Park were met with intricate negotiations.

One infamous moment occurred in 1990 when Newcastle fans entered the pitch during a playoff semi-final, hoping to force an abandonment as Sunderland led 2-0. Despite challenges, the Tyne-Wear derby remains a fixture marked by passion and historical significance. It also stands as one of the greatest club rivalries in English football. The 1996-97 season, when both teams entered the Premier League, saw unique tensions and negotiations surrounding fan attendance.

The all-time top scorer in this heated rivalry is George Holley, a former Sunderland player with 15 goals, while Newcastle’s Jimmy Lawrence holds the record for the most appearances in the derby. Across 157 encounters in various competitions, Newcastle won 54 times, Sunderland triumphed 53 times, and 50 matches concluded in a draw. It also demonstrates the closely contested nature of this iconic rivalry.

Manchester City – Manchester United (Manchester derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The Manchester derby is a fixture that brings together two football powerhouses, Manchester City and Manchester United. It traces its origins back to 12 November 1881. In its early days, when both clubs were just among several emerging sides in the Manchester area, the fixture held no particular significance. While the main rivalry for both sets of fans currently lies with Liverpool, the animosity between the two Manchester clubs further escalated during the football tribal fervor of the 1960s and 1970s. This rivalry experienced a resurgence in the early 2010s as Manchester City emerged as a dominant force in English football.

One of the defining moments in this heated rivalry occurred in April 2001 when a longstanding feud between Roy Keane and Alfie Haaland came to a head. The match saw Keane receive a red card for a knee-high tackle on Haaland, marking a dramatic chapter in their contentious history. Another memorable clash transpired on 23 October 2011, when Manchester City secured a historic 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, handing Manchester United their first defeat of the season.

With a combined total of 101 honors, both clubs are considered among the world’s elite. They consistently reach the latter stages of UEFA competitions and rank in the top 5 football clubs by revenue. Throughout 191 clashes across all competitions, Manchester United emerged victorious 78 times, Manchester City triumphed 60 times, and 53 matches ended in a draw.

Liverpool – Everton (Merseyside derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The Merseyside derby stands not only as one of the greatest club rivalries in English football but also as the longest-running top-flight derby. It delights the Everton and Liverpool fans in the heart of Merseyside, England. The proximity of their home grounds, separated by less than a mile across Stanley Park, adds a unique intensity to this storied rivalry. Goodison Park, Everton’s fortress, and Liverpool’s iconic Anfield share a line of sight across the park, named after the 16th Earl of Derby, possibly giving rise to the nickname “The Derby.”

Initially dubbed the “friendly derby” for the amicable coexistence of families with allegiances to both clubs, the Merseyside derby underwent a metamorphosis in the mid-1980s. The heightened rivalry, both on and off the field, has set records for red cards. A memorable moment in the derby’s history unfolded in the 1989 FA Cup final, shortly after the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool and Everton, amidst mixed fans displaying “Merseyside” solidarity, contested a fascinating final.

Since their first top-flight encounter on October 13, 1894, the Merseyside derby has maintained an unbroken legacy, with 243 face-offs across various competitions. Liverpool earned victory 99 times, Everton celebrated triumphs on 67 occasions, while 77 battles concluded in a draw.

Millwall – West Ham United (Dockers derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The Dockers derby, a historic clash between Millwall and West Ham United, derives its name from the shared background of both sets of fans who were predominantly dockers employed at shipyards along the River Thames. This added a unique layer to the rivalry, as fans from each club worked for rival firms competing for the same business. It also heightened the natural tension between their football teams. Widely considered one of the longest-standing and most bitter rivalries in English football, the history of this matchup has unfortunately been marred by sporadic violence.

Incidents such as the death of a Millwall supporter in 1976 and the murder of a West Ham fan in 1986 underscore the intensity of this rivalry. The 2009 Upton Park riot further intensified matters. It resulted in widespread disorder and numerous injuries, including a Millwall fan being stabbed before the match.

Beyond the pitch, the rivalry between the teams has found its way into cinema and literature. The 1989 film “The Firm,” directed by Alan Clarke and starring real-life Millwall supporter Gary Oldman, delves into the hooligan culture surrounding the clubs. Additionally, books like “Millwall vs West Ham: The London Working Class Derby,” penned by Luca Manes in 2014, provide an in-depth exploration of the rivalry, positioning it as one of the greatest club rivalries in English football.

Since their inaugural encounter on December 9, 1899, these two teams have faced each other 99 times across all competitions, with Millwall securing victory 38 times, West Ham triumphing 34 times, and 27 matches ending in a draw.

Arsenal – Tottenham Hotspur (North London derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
The North London Derby, featuring Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, stands out as one of the greatest club rivalries in English football. The roots of animosity between the two clubs trace back to their first clash in 1887. However, it was the geographical proximity and Arsenal’s move to North London in 1913 that truly ignited the flames of this rivalry. Since then, the North London derby has further continued to captivate football enthusiasts worldwide With its rich history, dramatic moments, and fierce competition.

Among the memorable North London derbies are Arsenal’s clinching of the league title at White Hart Lane in 1971 and their invincible campaign in 2004. Notable performances, such as Tottenham’s 5-0 triumph at home in 1983 and Arsenal’s identical scoreline away in 1978, contribute to the fascinating story of this intense rivalry. The highest-scoring game also remains Arsenal’s thrilling 5-4 victory at White Hart Lane in November 2004.

Harry Kane, the North London derby all-time leading scorer with fourteen goals, surpasses football legends like Bobby Smith and Emmanuel Adebayor, each with ten goals. Over the course of 194 games since their first official meeting in the Football League in 1909, Arsenal has secured victory 81 times, Tottenham 61 times, with 52 matches concluding in draws.

Manchester United – Liverpool (Northwest derby)

Greatest Club Rivalries in English Football
Do you wonder which English football teams have the biggest rivalry? Or maybe Who is Manchester United’s biggest rival? The Northwest Derby refers to the fierce competition between English powerhouses Liverpool and Manchester United. Surpassing local derbies in significance, this matchup has captured the attention of players, fans, and media for its historical roots in economic and industrial competition dating back two centuries. It stands as one of the greatest club rivalries in the Premier League.

The bitter rivalry originated with Manchester’s merchants constructing a canal to evade Liverpool’s port taxes, shaping the intense atmosphere that characterizes these clashes. For these highly successful and widely supported Premier League clubs, the Northwest Derby extends beyond a football spectacle; it is a cultural and historical clash. Notably, the genuine animosity between the two teams is evident in the absence of direct transfers between them since 1964.

“My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f*** perch, and you can print that.”

  • Sir Alex Ferguson

The intensity of this rivalry reached a disturbing moment in March 2011 during an FA Youth Cup game, marked by “sick chants” from Manchester United fans at Anfield regarding Hillsborough and Heysel, as reported by former Liverpool player John Aldridge.

The first encounter between Liverpool and Manchester United occurred on April 28, 1894, marking the beginning of an intense rivalry encompassing 213 matches. In this enduring battle, Manchester United emerged victorious in 82 clashes, while Liverpool secured 71 wins, with 60 games concluding in draws. The rivalry’s pinnacle unfolded on March 5, 2023, when Liverpool achieved a historic 7-0 triumph. It further emphasized the significance and intensity of the Northwest Derby.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the best English club rivalries in football?
  • Northwest Derby: Liverpool vs Manchester United
  • North London Derby: Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur
  • Manchester Derby: Manchester United vs Manchester City
  • Merseyside Derby: Liverpool vs Everton
  • Tyne-Wear Derby: Newcastle United vs Sunderland
  • South Coast Derby: Portsmouth vs Southampton
  • South Wales Derby: Swansea City vs Cardiff City
  • Second City Derby: Aston Villa vs Birmingham City
  • Dockers Derby: Millwall vs West Ham United
  1. Which English football team has the biggest rivalry with Manchester United?
    Liverpool has the biggest rivalry with Manchester United, known as the Northwest Derby. The animosity between these two clubs extends beyond football and is rooted in historical and cultural factors.

  2. What is the longest-running top-flight derby in English football?
    The Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton is the longest-running top-flight derby in English football. The rivalry has been ongoing since their first meeting in the top-flight in 1894.

  3. Which English football teams have the fiercest rivalry?
    Several English football teams have fierce rivalries, each with its own intensity and historical significance. Some notable examples include Liverpool vs Manchester United, Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur, and Newcastle United vs Sunderland.

  4. What is the significance of regional rivalries in English football?
    Regional rivalries in English football help foster a sense of local identity and pride. These rivalries often transcend the sport itself, ingrained in the culture and history of the regions. They add an extra layer of excitement and intensity to matches, making them more than just football games.


Defining the greatest club rivalries in English football is a subjective task, as each rivalry brings its own unique story, passion, and history. The Northwest derby between Liverpool and Manchester United stands out as one of the fiercest and most significant, fueled by the deep-rooted animosity between the two cities. Other rivalries like the North London derby, Merseyside derby, Tyne-Wear derby, and Dockers derby have also captivated fans and showcased the fierce competition and historical significance of English football. Whether it’s the heated clashes on the pitch or the cultural clashes off it, these rivalries continue to shape the fabric of English football, creating moments of joy, tension, and unforgettable memories.