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 The 'M23 Derby': The rivalry which has the wider footballing world scratching its head

Modern football is, in many ways, a bewildering beast. The days of a simple sport, revolving solely around twenty-two men and a lump of leather on a rectangle of grass, are long gone. The Premier League era, and all of the riches that came with it, has created an entirely new narrative for fans to consume; one that appears light-years away from its humble roots. Record-breaking transfer deals now get more tongues wagging than moments of magic on the pitch, and the likes of super agents Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes are every bit as well-known on the terraces as generation-defining talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

In this new, post-apocalyptic world, the home comforts of English football's unique nostalgia are an ever-more precious commodity. The match day routines handed down through the generations, the chants sung year after year, those tongue-scorching cups of Bovril during the winter months. These are football's soul, the glue holding the English game together and what gives our national sport a unique appeal around the world.

One thing, however, is more important than all of the above: a good, old-fashioned rivalry.

How many fans can honestly say that, despite all of the advances in the game during the last 25 years, they enjoy anything more than watching on as their footballing enemies are battered, either by their own team or an obliging third party? Very few. For most, it's the stuff dreams are made of.

Now, the rivalries that exist in English football are a unique beast. They may not have the blood-curdling intensity Boca Juniors vs River Plate, or the Graeme Souness-enhanced chaos of Galatasaray vs FenerbahÁe, but their charm is in their simplicity or, in certain cases, their seeming lack of any logic whatsoever.

Your average footballing rivalry is based primarily around geography. Loath thy neighbour is, after all, a uniquely sporting mantra and one that the fans of this country adhere to almost universally. Some, however, have chosen to aim their hatred some 50 miles down the motorway. Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace, we're talking about you.

It's a rivalry that has perplexed the uninitiated since it began, not least because Crystal Palace fans have a fine selection of clubs to hate right on their doorstep. Chelsea, Fulham, AFC Wimbledon, Millwall and Charlton Athletic are just a few of those that sit closer to Selhurst Park than Brighton, but since 1977 Palace's bile has only been heading in one direction, and it all started because of just two men.

Ahead of a 1976/77 season in which both Brighton and Crystal Palace had high hopes of gaining promotion from the old Third Division, the pair appointed new managers. For Brighton it was Alan Mullery who took the helm. For Crystal Palace, Terry Venables. The two men were already well acquainted, having been teammates at Tottenham Hotspur some ten years earlier, and had a burgeoning rivalry to boot.

"I don't really know how it started," Mullery recounted in a 2011. "I think it was probably because I got the Tottenham captaincy before him. I'm sure Terry wanted to be captain but Bill Nicholson gave it to me and he was made vice-captain. I can't really give you any other reason".

In a season where the two would go head-to-head five times, and significantly three times in the FA Cup, reasons for their rivalry would become plentiful.

Having faced one another in a relatively uneventful 1-1 Third Division fixture in October, November saw the pair draw together at Brighton's Goldstone Ground in the Cup. A 2-2 draw followed, with the replay three days later ending 1-1. The second replay, to be neutrally staged at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge, however, was where it all really got going.

With Palace leading 1-0, Brighton had a goal ruled out after referee Ron Challis adjudged Peter Ward to have handled the ball. Frustrating, yes, and discontent began amongst the Brighton faithful and staff alike, but nothing compared to what was to come.

In the 78th minute Brighton's Chris Cattlin was fouled in the box, and a penalty was given. Barry Silkman took the chance to draw his side level with aplomb, only for the referee to blow his whistle once more. A retake was ordered, despite consensus amongst virtually everyone else present that night that it was only men in Palace's colours who had moved towards the ball. The second penalty was saved by goalkeeper Paul Hammond, and the red mist fell for Brighton's Alan Mullery.

After Albion failed to use the final 12 minutes of the match productively and fell to a 1-0 defeat, their dejected players began to leave the field. Their manager, however, took to it. Mullery remonstrated with the referee with such ferocity that the police were called to separate the pair, and as the Brighton man finally returned toward the dressing room, a defining moment took place.

Palace fans, as is often the want of terraces of jubilant supporters, taunted the defeated man, going so far as to hurl a boiling cup of coffee in Mullery's direction.

His reaction was to fling a handful of five pound notes into the steaming remnants and declare the infamous line, "That's all you're worth, Crystal Palace". In that moment, a rivalry than still burns today as brightly as ever, was born.

"I don't think it was just the Cup run that started it off," Mullery, later claimed. "I think it was the rivalry between their manager and me. That's where the rivalry came about. Because we were in the same league, doing the same thing".

Right or wrong, it's hard to argue that the roots of this unlikely rivalry lie anywhere but that ill-fated FA Cup tie in the 1976/77 season.

There have been many famous face-offs between the two since then, both on and off the pitch. Brighton's rechristening in the summer of '77 from 'the Dolphins' to the 'the Seagulls' was undoubtedly a direct avian challenge to Palace's 'the Eagles' moniker, whilst high profile play-off clashes in recent years have also fanned the flames. The result: two clubs as bitterly divided as ever.

Both Brighton and Crystal Palace now reside in the Premier League, and with a difficult season looking likely for both there is plenty more to occupy the minds of fans other than their most bitter rivals. This weekend's football fixtures are fast approach, and points are needed.

No matter what happens this season, however, all involved can be sure of the fact that, whether residing in the Premier League, the Championship or the Conference South, this is an unlikely rivalry that will endure. Eagles vs Seagulls - a uniquely nostalgic and, in its own way, wonderful tale of footballing rivalry, and one for which English football is better off.

Author bio
Tim is a keen sports fan and has been writing about football for many years.

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