BLOG: The biggest rivalry in Europe? No, it’s not

As I write this I’m currently in the gap between the ninth and tenth meetings of what has been called, for purely marketing reasons, the “biggest rivalry in Europe”.

Yes, I’m talking about Nottingham Panthers versus Sheffield Steelers. There’s definitely going to be another two games after that and who knows there could be at least another before the season ends.

Is it any wonder that I really couldn’t be bothered with going to the game in Nottingham on Saturday? OK, I went but it was with a heavy heart.

If I hadn’t already paid out for a season ticket I could quite cheerfully have stayed at home. As it was I had to seriously think about whether or not I could be bothered to get out my comfy armchair, get on a bus and go to a game that had, at least for the home side, little more than (short term) bragging rights at stake.

I went in the end and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t a great game – Panthers versus Steelers games rarely are these days but it was worth the effort.

I don’t normally write match reports – I leave that to people far better at such things than me – but if I had to I’d probably start by describing it as a game that saw both teams play 40 minutes.

Panthers had the best of a first period against a Steelers team who didn’t look as though they were at the races, but an almost 180 degree swing in the second saw them right back in the game causing, I’m guessing, a lot of other Panthers fans thought, like me, that we’d thrown it away (again).

A more even third period saw Panthers just edge it, but that swing from the first to the second periods made me remember again why I don’t like these derbies.

I don’t like Panthers versus Steelers games and I can’t remember a time when I did, at least not before or during them. I’ve seen too many of them to believe that everything will be OK.

As a Panthers fan things don’t usually turn out that way. I don’t know what the figures are, how many games each team has won or lost, but I know it isn’t anywhere near being in the Panthers’ favour.

We’ve lived in the shadow of Sheffield for so long now that it can feel like it’s, if not normal, then to be expected.

I never feel that the Panthers are going to win when they play the Steelers. I’ve seen so many games where the Steelers were simply better than the Panthers that it has become the norm.

I was there when Panthers were beaten 7-0 in a play-off game. I remember leaving and seeing a massive Panthers advert running across the windows of the now disused shops on the other side of Lower Parliament Street claiming that when it came to the play-offs it was “excitement guaranteed”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There have been highlights too, the play-off semi-final in 2011 with Lachowicz rounding Mustukovs to score the overtime winner springs to mind and it’s moments like that that make you keep going back.

Let’s clear something up, it isn’t the biggest rivalry in Europe. It never has been and it never will be. I’ve been lucky enough to see Cologne play Dusseldorf in the 18,500 capacity Lanxess Arena in Cologne.

Walking in that building you could feel the palpable tension in the air. There was a buzz about the place that I just don’t think I’ve ever felt at a Panthers versus Steelers game or any other I’ve attended.

You could just feel what it meant to the home crowd both before the game, during it and then in the disappointment after they had lost.

So, we’re not talking about the biggest rivalry in Europe and that’s before I’ve talked about similar rivalries in Sweden or Norway or wherever. If I’m honest I’m not even sure it’s in the top ten. In fact, I’m not even sure that I can work out quite why it exists anyway.

Back in the 1980s Panthers had rivalries going with Streatham and later on Cardiff that were born out of the fact that the two teams didn’t like each other.

I might be wrong, there’s been a lot of games since those days, but I can’t remember why our rivalry with Sheffield exists. It feels like they got promoted into our league and then, suddenly, they were Panthers’ rivals eclipsing everything that had gone before it.

I’ve always felt that it was manufactured rather than something that had grown organically out of a dislike between squads. There have been periods of animosity on the ice, but they seem to have been after the rivalry existed, not the reason it exists.

It feels to me that it was created so to sell tickets. I might well be wrong, I probably am, but it just feels that way. It feels, as a Panthers fan, that a lot of the talk that has fuelled the rivalry over the years has come from our friends in the north.

You only have to look at what was possibly the lowest point of the whole rivalry, where Dave Simms referred to the Panthers as “b******s”.

I’d be at best embarrassed and downright disgusted at worst if Gary Moran had said something like that about anybody. Mind you, I’m usually embarrassed when the Panthers GM has got a microphone in his hand.

Having said all that, I don’t really subscribe to the theory that the rivalry has gone stale. I think it’s just changed over time. The fixtures are becoming just another game for two reasons.

The first is the sheer volume of games the two sides play against each other. I know people don’t like it when football comparisons are used but local derbies have a rarity value about them.

Forest will play Derby twice this season – Panthers and Steelers played each other twice in about 27 hours over Christmas.

Add that to the other ten games a season and the games start to resemble buses on Derby Road in Nottingham – you might be a bit fed up when you run for a number 36 and just miss it, but that frustration soon dissipates because a quick look at the board tells you there’s another one in a couple of minutes.

The other reason is that nothing much has happened in any of the games for a few years. A rivalry needs a bit of controversy every now and then. It’s 16 years since the bench clearance – 16 years! It only feels like yesterday.

Now, there were two teams that didn’t get on. They may be confusing to watch – you spend half your time trying to work out which fight to watch and end up missing half the action – but you’ve got to admit that a bench clearance certainly gets the crowd involved and that kind of involvement does wonders for a rivalry because it is with the fans that a real rivalry sits.

One of the great things about being an ice hockey fan is the way fans interact before and after a game, but a bench clearance in the middle of a game? Well, let’s say it has certainly given us something to talk about with our Steelers friends over the years.

We’ve not seen anything even close to that since Kelsey Wilson speared Simon Ferguson back at the end on 2012. There’s always the edge of it being a Panthers and Steelers game but that’s it – we can’t even rely on McGrattan and Fitzgerald having a tilt.

It just feels the whole thing has lost a little something. I’m not saying that it needs an injection of something unpleasant, but just imagine what would have happened if Joe Grimaldi had been playing for the Steelers when he threw his helmet at Max Parent (unfortunately, I don’t need to imagine what Grimaldi playing for the Panthers would be like).

I don’t think the rivalry is going to go anywhere. The games still attract the biggest crowds at the Motorpoint Arena and what used to be the Motorpoint Arena and I doubt that will change any time soon. We’re just in one of those lows that I mentioned earlier.

That might change at any time but I’ve got a feeling that it won’t. Teams might still have rivalries but it feels like the rivalries between squads are on the wane.

Rivalries based on teams disliking each other don’t seem to happen as often as they used to. Panthers and Coventry had a period a couple of seasons back when it felt like something happened every time they met, creating what seemed like a real tension between the sides.

I think the main reason is that a lot of players aren’t here long enough to create anything over time anymore, as they’re only here for a season or two before moving on. It could also be that as time goes on the game becomes increasingly professional and players don’t want to get involved.

I know I’m in the minority when I say I don’t like the derby games and I know the rivalry isn’t going anywhere (on any number of levels) but it just feels as though it takes over everything else.

It isn’t just about us and Sheffield – we’ve had plenty of other bench clearances with other teams in the past. I don’t want to play Sheffield every week – they may be the easiest games to sell but I want a bit of variety.

Still, I guess they pay the bills and I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the priority for my team, but that’s another article for another day.

(Image permission: Karl Denham)

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