The New Forest Derby

Just 30 miles apart, Southampton and Bournemouth have lived in different parts of the footballing universe for years. Until they meet on Sunday, that is.

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When it comes to derbies and rivalries in the Premier League, you probably won’t have listed this one near the top. That’s because up until recently, it wasn’t really a derby.

On Sunday Southampton host AFC Bournemouth at St Mary’s Stadium (11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with the “New Forest derby” taking place in the Premier League for the first time in history.

This rivalry is so embryonic, in fact, that the “New Forest derby” tag is yet to catch on.

Southampton and Bournemouth sit 30 miles apart on England’s South Coast. Over the years the City of Southampton and the Town of Bournemouth have shared business, transport, media and many other amenities peacefully. In truth, they still do.

The newspaper that serves both is called the Southern Daily Echo, with its main headquarters in Southampton and the sister paper, the Bournemouth Echo, based in Bournemouth. Train journeys between the two cities take 27 minutes on South West Trains and in-between them sits one of the most beautiful national parks in England: The New Forest.

Which explains the name of this new but very intriguing derby.

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How has this rivalry seemingly sprung up from nowhere? At some point it must have been brewing, no? Well, it took the demise of Southampton to turn this into a very real “thing.” When Saints – not the Saints of today but a financially mismanaged Saints — fell to the third-tier of English soccer in 2008, like Bournemouth, they were days away from going into liquidation. However, with both teams suffering and then being revived in the same division, a rivalry which began to blossom in League One has now risen up to the Premier League given the success of both cash-rich and well-run clubs.

When Bournemouth sealed promotion to the top-flight for the first time in their 125-year history in the summer, it was a huge surprise. Young manager Eddie Howe had masterminded their success and when asked about which fixture he would look for first when the schedule was announced for the 2015-16 Premier League season, he earmarked the big boys but also the home and away games against Southampton. Bournemouth wants to rule the South Coast and Southampton are never far away from their thoughts. In fact, Howe turned down the chance to manage Saints in 2010 after they fired Alan Pardew and they instead appointed Nigel Adkins, who led them to back-to-back promotions from the third-tier to the Premier League.

Historically there has been a big difference in the size of these teams. Southampton get average crowds of over 30,000. Bournemouth’s average attendance at the tiny Vitality Stadium is 11,000. For years you would see car loads of Saints fans streaming through the New Forest and up the M27 towards Southampton for home games, as having a Premier League team 25-30 minutes away was easy and accessible for the people of Bournemouth, whether they were supporting Saints or the big away teams rolling into town. That pilgrimage from Bournemouth to Southampton wasn’t restricted to fans either, as the best young players in and around Bournemouth – Southampton bought Adam Lallana for $30,000 when he was 12 years old from Bournemouth, for example — would be snapped up by Saints’ academy and larger resources, further irking the Cherries. The fact that Bournemouth have to compete with Southampton for fans in their own town often upsets the chairmen and directors at the club, but with Saints entrenched in the top-flight for most of the last 50 years, it is inevitable to expect otherwise.

Even though the distance between Bournemouth, Southampton and Portsmouth, the three biggest clubs in the center of the South Coast, is small, they hardly get to play one another. All three have been embroiled in financial meltdowns over the past decade, meaning they have been up and down like a yo-yo, often bypassing one another. In fact, Saints and Bournemouth have only faced each other 21 times competitively in over 125 years, but as the fierceness of this rivalry proves, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

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I fondly remember going along to watch Bournemouth play Southampton in a preseason friendly at their old Dean Court home some years ago. Fans of both clubs mingled together and there was a jovial atmosphere. Everyone had common experiences and lived within 30 minutes of one another. For most of both clubs’ existence, this has been a friendly rivalry. A bit of banter back and forth, songs like “I’ve got a shed that’s bigger than this” from Saints fans when they played at Bournemouth’s away grounds and things like that. In fact, in Bournemouth’s numerous times of need, Saints put on friendly matches with the Cherries to help them raise money. They also loaned several players to Bournemouth, meaning they were always seen as Southampton’s younger brother; Saints keeping the smaller Cherries at arm’s length as if they were holding their head with an outstretched arm while Bournemouth would keep pointlessly swinging back at them. Well, now things have changed, as they’re slugging it out side-by-side in the big time.

The rivalry has, in fact, turned violent in some recent instances, with video footage on YouTube showing isolated disturbances between fans of both teams at stadiums and in small seaside towns on the South Coast over the past five years. Those clashes are rare, however, as both settlements generally live in harmony. Bournemouth plays the role of local nightlife hub, providing rest and relaxation thanks to its famous beach, while Southampton is the hub of economy on the South Coast due to its bustling container and cruise port, one of the largest in Europe. People in the area cohabit relatively seamlessly. Southampton FC’s vast Staplewood training center is in the east of the forest and many of their players live closer to Bournemouth than Southampton. Even in the New Forest, a vast swath of protected, idyllic land which sees its renowned ponies roam the streets and small thatched cottage pubs dot the woodland, there is no real sense that one particular town or village is supporting either club. It is a rivalry which locals aren’t really sure what to make of.

That may be because Southampton and Bournemouth have not met in a competitive match since March 2011 when Saints won 3-1 away and both teams were pushing for promotion from League One. The last time Bournemouth beat Saints, in fact, was in 1987 in a League Cup game. The last time they beat Saints in a league game was in a third-tier clash in October 1958. Yet, these clubs aren’t really strangers on the pitch. Like death and taxes, it has customarily been a certainty that each preseason Southampton play Bournemouth in a preseason friendly. It’s just what happens. Saints will roll into town, Bournemouth fans will fill the stadium and everyone gets a run-out in the sun on the South Coast before the new season begins. Only, that friendly didn’t happen this season and if Bournemouth remains in the PL, it won’t happen for a while. And with good reason; when you look at all of the big rivalries in the Premier League, can you really see any of them playing preseason friendlies against each other? Nope. Manchester United and Liverpool won’t square off for a tune-up in July. Neither would Arsenal and Tottenham.

The fact of the matter is, if you ask Bournemouth fans who their big rivals are they will say Southampton because that is the closest professional team geographically, but if you ask a Southampton fan who their main rival is, they will say Portsmouth without hesitation. Therein lies the strangeness of this rivalry. It is a rivalry where, at least it seems from the outside looking in, that fans of one club want it to be a rivalry, while fans of the other don’t really care. Fans of Bournemouth call Southampton supporters “scummers” which is also the same name fans of Portsmouth used to describe Southampton fans. As for Southampton fans, they call supporters of Portsmouth “skates,” but have no derogatory term to direct at their rivals from across the New Forest. Not yet, anyway. Give it time. We are still in the early stages here.

In general, Bournemouth has always been viewed as somewhat of a feeder club to Southampton, like a Triple-A affiliate of a Major League Baseball franchise. In the past, some of Saints’ most talented youngsters from their famed academy have gone out on loan to the Cherries to gain experience – see Adam Lallana, Andrew Surman and countless others – while Bournemouth were ensconced in the third or fourth tier of English soccer and seemingly a million miles away from a Southampton side who were in the top-flight from 1978 until their demotion to the second-tier in 2005. During that 27-year period, only Portsmouth challenged Southampton’s supremacy on the South Coast, so due to that fact — plus Portsmouth being just 17 miles east of Southampton — that rivalry is known as the “South Coast derby” and will always be the main rivalry down by the English Channel. There is no comparison, at least not in the eyes of Saints fans.

And yet, could this newfound rivalry flourish in years to come?

With Bournemouth adapting to life in the PL rather well — up until recent weeks when a trio of ACL injuries to key players has given Howe a headache of epic proportions — you get the sense that Bournemouth could be good enough to stay up this season. Thanks to investments made by wealthy Russian owner Maxim Demin, the Cherries could eventually become a mid-table club in the PL, a la Swansea City and Leicester City. If they do, expect this recent rivalry to gather steam and enjoy its heyday under the bright lights of the Premier League.

It is fitting that the first-ever top-flight derby between Saints and Bournemouth will be played on Nov. 1, which is All Saints’ Day. After years of living in the shadows of Saints, it would be quite a day for the Cherries to finally have their time to shine.