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The Derby of Death

Glenfield Rovers 1, Birkenhead United 1
McFetridge Park, Auckland, May 16 2015

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The Classico, the Superclassico, the Old Firm, the Derby della Capitale, the Merseyside Derby, the Intercontinental Derby, and the Derby of Death. These are the greatest rivalries of world football – the big seven. Which is the fiercest? Nobody can say. There are arguments to be made for any and all. All we really know is this: For those thinking of attending one of these great showcases of the beautiful game, you’d best be well prepared. It will be an assault on your senses, it will be a test of your nerves, and if you manage to get out alive, it will be one of the best days of your life.

Yesterday, I attended one of these terrifying encounters, and lived to tell the tale. This is my story. The story of how I survived – the Derby of Death – fought between the mighty Glenfield Rovers and the fearsome Birkenhead United.

This derby gets its name, not from the body count of the ultras stabbed on the curve, although that would also be fitting, but from the cemetery on Eskdale Road that sits on the border between these two proud North Shore suburbs. On the route between the two stadia, fans traditionally parade past on their way to the home of their rivals, leaving club scarves on the graves as a mark of respect to the fans of generations past.

As I headed to McFetridge Park, the home of Glenfield Rovers, this gave me pause for thought as I adjusted my body armour, wondering if today would be the day that I would end up interred in that sacred shrine. There could be worse fates than forever being a part of this magnificent occasion.

I parked up my car, 10 kilometres from the stadium, such is the size of the crowd for these games. Even at that distance I could already hear the unmistakeable boom of pyrotechnics firing that told me in which direction to set off. Not that I needed it. If not for that audible indicator, all one had to do was join the seething mass of singing fans swarming towards the venue. They almost carried me along on the crest of their wave. But nothing could prepare me for what I would find inside the great Glenfield arena.

It was a wall of noise and a visual feast.

The ultras spend their whole year preparing for this day. Practicing their choreography, painting their banners, learning new songs, and obtaining fireworks and the means to smuggle them into the venue.

The sound of “alè alè Rovers alè, alè alè Rovers alè, alè alè Rovers alè alè Rovers alè alè Rovers alè” is still ringing in my ears more than 24 hours after the final whistle. Every so often, the BOOM of a flare is almost enough to stop your heart.

And then there are the banners, beautifully painted with imagery from Maori folklore such as Birkenhead’s depiction of a red and white clad Māui casting his net over a yellow and black sun to slow it down.

It wasn’t a great day for either of the sets of diehard supporters. Despite all their efforts, neither earned bragging rights as the game ended in a 1-1 draw. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when the ref blew his whistle for full time. The most violent of post-game clashes tend to occur after one side or the other has claimed victory, so the result significantly improved my odds of making the long trek back to my car in one piece.

As the fans filed out past the rows of Police and military personnel deployed to maintain order, the water cannons and tear gas canisters remained unused. Ready to be deployed another day. Perhaps this time next year, when things might not be so tranquil at the Derby of Death.

Categories: NZ Northern Men's Premier

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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