The four levels of local derby significance, from must-watch to objectively terrible

For the second time in a week, rivals Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion are set for a West Midlands Derby, with Saturday’s FA Cup quarterfinal at Villa Park coming on the heels of Tuesday’s Premier League match in Birmingham. Surprisingly for what was effectively a “relegation six-pointer” and a local derby, Villa’s home ground was not even close to being full in midweek. Local rivalries, with their often unique histories of animus, usually carry an added level of intrigue that separate them from other fixtures on the calendar, but as we saw while West Brom came up short in the dying seconds on Tuesday (thanks, Ben Foster!), not all derbies are created equal.

It’s taboo to talk about such things (we’re supposed to be reverential of such things, even when the two clubs are absolute shit), but there is a pecking order for local derbies; a ranking, if you will. Here is that hierarchy, with prime examples of each, in descending order of significance.

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Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images.

1. Stop Everything: Mom And Dad Are Fighting Again

Example: Real Madrid vs. Atlético Madrid.

Obviously, the biggest and most-hyped match in Spain around which all other events orbit is El Clásico. In terms of local derbies though, the Madrid version is now as compelling as ever. Atléti has shed its reputation as a serial bottler and is not only the defending champion of La Liga but also a serious player in the Champions League. Real Madrid will perhaps always be the bigger, more glamorous brother in this sibling rivalry, but it is the Rojiblancos that have actually won the last three editions of El Derbi Madrileño.

When two of the best five or six teams on the planet happen to occupy the same city, you are guaranteed a fiery, high-quality matchup. Local derbies in Buenos Aires, Istanbul and Belgrade may be just as fierce on their day, but the cross-city rivalry in Madrid is currently the most compelling.

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AC Milan v FC Internazionale Milano - Serie A

Photo: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images.

2. Formerly Earth-Stopping, Now Mostly Just Country-Bothering

Example: AC Milan vs. Internazionale.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the 1990s anymore. We already know what a sad slide from glory AC Milan has had in recent years, and city rival Inter isn’t far behind. The two giants in Milan currently occupy the ninth and 10th spots in Serie A, which would make the next league edition of the Derby della Madonnina the equivalent of Stoke City playing West Ham United. Yikes.

Still, a Milan derby is a Milan derby. Both clubs are not yet far enough removed from former glories for this fixture to be ignored. If nothing else, you can watch this alongside younger viewers and remind the little whipper-snappers that back in your day this matchup took place in Champions League semifinals. “2003 was a better, nobler time,” you grumble, to no one in particular. Milan-Inter doesn’t have the same luster that it used to, but it can still shine in the right light.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League

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3. Well, If Nothing Else Is On…

Example: Newcastle vs. Sunderland.

The Tyne-Wear derby is still a heated local rivalry, and soccer fans in England’s Northeast are some of the most passionate in the country. It occasionally serves up some exciting games, such as the most recent meeting that was decided by a late winner from future inmate Adam Johnson. For everyone other than residents on Tyne- and Wearside though, this is a match between two struggling midsize clubs that have both seen better days. Watching derbies in this category is just about a passable excuse to stay at the pub and avoid going home to your family.

Sunderland is an utter farce. The team is made up of leftovers from a half a dozen managerial appointments, and even its best XI consists of has-beens and never-wases. Newcastle is less depressing to watch, but wholly more depressing to support. The owner doesn’t give a tuppenny fuck about the team or the fans, and whatever good players the Magpies have now (poached from Ligue 1, of course) will be sold at a profit before you get to properly enjoy them.

But, there’s always a chance that some moron punches a police horse again, so there’s that.

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Aston Villa v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images.

4. Not Even The Fans Of The Teams Involved Are Particularly Arsed

Example: Aston Villa vs. West Bromwich Albion.

I didn’t even realize that these two teams were playing each other twice in five days, after already having started to write this column. That’s how much of a nonevent it is. Villa fans in particular have become so disillusioned with the mess that their club has become that they can barely bother to turn up, even for a derby.

On the other hand, it can be argued that a local derby like this one takes on more meaning when removed from all other relevance. In the case of Villa and West Brom, they’re not going to be competing for anything in the near future (other than “not being relegated”), and their other local rivals (Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers) don’t look like joining them in the Premier League anytime soon. So the two dates on the calendar that probably stick out the most are the games against each other.

That’s locally, of course. On a wider — national, global, cosmic, metaphysical — scale, derbies in this category are less interesting than ever, because both involved teams are dull and largely irrelevant. Tim Sherwood probably doesn’t know what he’s doing, and Tony Pulis knows exactly what he’s doing, but what Pulis is doing is boring us half to death.

If you find yourself committed to watching this fixture “because it’s a derby,” I suggest you seriously reevaluate your life choices. But don’t feel like you’re alone. There are a litany of terrible derbies all over the world. The West Midlands’ version just happens to be terrible twice in five days.

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