"Loving you is not a choice," sang Fosca in the Stephen Sondheim musical, Passion. "It's who I am."
Well, if love makes the world go round, then hatred turns football on its axis. Nothing guarantees a sell-out like a bitter rivalry reloaded; no fixture able to ignite the increasingly apathetic faithful like one dripping with spite and bile.
The game is, of course, magnificently illogical. Add geographical rivalry into the mix and the whole silly thing is sillier still.
But there are a handful of rivalries which have nothing to do with local bragging rights – feuds born out of an incident or moment in time which neither party can – or wants to – shake off.
If we take as a given that Celtic and Rangers will forever share a mutual hatred, that Arsenal will always be to Tottenham what Brown was to Blair, and that Sunderland fans would punch a horse in the face if they thought it was Geordie, then what of those simmering quarrels that relate not to location?
“Oh fuck. Fuck. The old bill love me out here, they do. They fucking love me.”
Roy McDonough – the man who holds the record for most red cards in English football – is driving when I call him for our pre-arranged interview. And the mobile phone clamped to his ear seems to have attracted the attention of a passing Spanish police officer.
“Hang on… I think I’ve shrugged him off, give me two seconds and I’ll pull over. My missus would be impressed with that… another fucking ticket.”
I’ve tracked the 56-year-old down to his home in Murcia to ask him about one of English football’s lesser-known and even less glamourous rivalries: Wycombe Wanderers versus Colchester United.
Because Roy – sent off on 22 occasions, including once for kung fu kicking Tony Pulis in the chest – is at the heart of a feud that has rumbled on for more than two decades.
In 1991, McDonough was Colchester’s player manager, tasked with lifting the Essex outfit out of the Conference and back into the football league. (During his tenure he also found time to marry the chairman’s daughter and run off with the groundsman’s wife, but that’s another story).
As the only professional side in the division, expectations were high. But a young upstart by the name of Martin O’Neill was turning fellow Conference outfit Wycombe Wanderers into a force to be reckoned with. And as the 91/92 season developed, the two sides couldn’t be separated.
“I had a part-time assistant manager, Ian Phillips, who worked for the gas board because we couldn’t afford to pay him enough,” recalls McDonough. “I ran it on my own as the player, coach, manager, penalty taker, centre-forward. O’Neill had about seven backroom staff.
“The catalyst was that a local reporter who worked for the Colchester Evening Gazette was a Wycombe fan, so if ever I put any remarks in the local rag about Colchester and Wycombe… I used to throw a couple of little one-liners in because I knew it would stoke O’Neill up… then everything got back to them.”
Colchester defeated Wycombe home and away in the league, the latter fixture settled by a 93rd minute freak goal scored by the United keeper.
“At home, we beat them 3-0. We passed them to death and they didn’t get near us. With about 25 minutes to go, the ball went out of play right in front of the dug-outs.
“Our player Paul Roberts was taking the throw-in. I said ‘hold it a minute’, and I walked up to him, within three yards of Martin O’Neill, and said, ‘Robbo, tell the lads no more goals, we’ll play keep-ball’. I looked straight at O’Neill. He knew then I’m taking the piss.”
But as the season reached its climax, the two clubs were neck and neck – a full 21 points ahead of the chasing pack.
Wycombe travelled to Dagenham on the Thursday before the final day of the season for a fixture they had to win to stay in touch with Colchester. McDonough took his entire first team squad to the game, standing them all behind the goal.
“At half-time Wycombe were winning 4-1, so I took the lads into the players’ bar. Three blondes with us that I knew from round the circuit, who were like the proverbial groupies, sat with the whole of my squad.
“We had about three or four pints each – it’s the Thursday and we’re playing on the Saturday to win the league – so all the Wycombe boys walk in the players’ bar in their blazers feeling a bit smug because they won, and they see three tables of the Colchester United team, 40 or 50 empty pint glasses, and three little blondes in the middle of us.
“Alan Parry (Sky Sports commentator and former Wycombe director) walks in with Martin O’Neill and thought what the ‘fuck’s going on here?’. Parry walked over and said to me, ‘Roy, it ‘aint all over yet’. I said ‘Alan, the fans are coming on Saturday in fancy dress, I’ll get our lads playing in fancy dress to give you lot a fucking chance’. The whole bar laughed. So good old Alan Parry, all 5ft 2ins of him, walked away about 3ft 6ins.
Alan Parry (left commentating for Sky Sports).
Two days later, McDonough’s team earned the three points to claim the title on goal difference. Wycombe would eventually join United in the football league in the 93/94 season – where hostilities would be resumed, on and off the pitch.
“We played them away in the league and we smashed them 5-2,” recalls McDonough, who these days earns his keep working for Currencies Direct.
“At the end of the game, I’ve waved to their fans at the far end, and walked down the pitch milking the applause from our fans. I’m blowing them kisses and all that malarkey… and then there’s Alan Parry stood with the old bill in the tunnel trying to get them to arrest me for inciting a riot.
“I don’t know if you call the rivalry a legacy or whatever, but it’s nice.”
Kerry Andrew, the composer and performer (and Wycombe fan), recalls events rather differently.
“Blackguard of the piece in that season, and the next few as we joined Colchester a year later in the league, was McDonough, who gleefully liked to stir up trouble, saying helpful things like ‘it takes two to fight, one to punch, the other to stand there and be punched’ after Colchester fans got their fists out at Adams Park.
“There’s not much logic in hating a middling team from Essex and rejoicing in their defeats even when they’re in a different league. But these things stick.”
Years later, as Celtic manager, O’Neill raised eyebrows when he compared the ferocity of an Old Firm derby to that of a United/Wycombe fixture.
Crystal Palace and Brighton share another at first seemingly inexplicable rivalry. The fault line between the two first opened in the 1970s and has shown little sign of healing since.
“Brighton’s rivalry with Crystal Palace was something I took for granted and didn’t query when I first started attending games in the ’90s,” says Ben Cove, journalist and Albion die-hard. “Our anti-Palace agenda was as hard to ignore as it was to understand.
“In an environment beset by diminished responsibility, we grew up singing about Steve Coppell’s supposed sexual health problems. But me and my friends were at odds to explain why.”
The story goes like this: In the 1976/77 season, Brighton and Palace were striving for promotion from the third division. Managing the clubs were two former Tottenham team-mates: Terry Venables at Palace and Alan Mullery at Brighton.
The clubs met five times that season – twice in aggressive league encounters and the remaining trilogy in the FA Cup, where sparks really began to fly and a hatred that burns on today was born.
After two feisty draws (no penalties in those days), the second replay was staged at the neutral venue of Stamford Bridge.
After Palace had scraped a controversial 1-0 win, an Eagles supporter delivered a final act of indignation by pouring boiling hot coffee over Mullery. The steaming – literally – Brighton boss pulled some loose change from his pocket, threw it to the floor and shouted “that’s all you’re worth, Crystal Palace” with what the Guardian described as “none too polite signs”.
Soon after, in another act of fire-stoking, Brighton changed nickname from the Dolphins to the Seagulls, in direct (and petulant) opposition to Crystal Palace’s Eagles tag.
The enmity was further stoked by two matches in the ’80s, one remembered for five controversial penalties, and a later battle in which Brighton favourite Gerry Ryan had his leg broken – and his career ended – by a horrific tackle from Palace’s Henry Hughton.
That Colchester and Wycombe, perennial lower league stalwarts since time immemorial, continue to hold one another in the lowest of regards is both charming and a lesson in dogged perseverance. Similarly, that such a rivalry continued even as Albion and Palace languished in financial mismanagement.
Perhaps though it is the zero sum nature of football: the love we feel for our own team is matched only by the hatred we reserve for our enemies. After all, what would Superman be without Lex Luther, Spiderman without the Green Goblin, Supergran without The Scunner Campbell?
Not that any fan of Wycombe, Colchester, Brighton or Palace would admit it, mind
// You can buy Issue 11 of Pickles Magazine here.