The short answer is that you can’t . London’s football rivalries are as impenetrable as Jamie Carragher’s accent. They do not obey the strict rules of geography, they shift over time as relegations dent ambition or minor grudges get blown out of shape, and even at the same club, different supporters will have different rivals, some reflecting age, others temperament.
Take Chelsea. Chelsea are based in south-west London, just a mile away from Fulham – the two clubs share a postcode and after many years apart have now shared a division for the best part of a decade. But while Fulham hate Chelsea, I have never met a Chelsea fan who considers Fulham their rivals. How can they? Fulham are lovely, probably the cutest club in England. Every time I look at Roy Hodgson, I want to tickle him.
Most Chelsea fans instead plump for Tottenham, who brood far way in north-east London. The reasons for this rivalry are, like William Brown’s feud with Hubert Lane, lost to history but may have something to do with a) Jimmy Greaves; b) the 1967 FA Cup final; c) anti-semitism.
It doesn’t end there, though.
Other Chelsea fans, those with loftier ambitions, choose to hate Arsenal, the biggest and most successful club in London by far. A third batch, the type with scary faces and nicknames like ‘Doom’, go for West Ham, that den of resentment and blown dreams along the District Line, for reasons that have much to do with certain off-pitch incidents that have taken place over the years in pubs and stations all over London. But also because Chelsea and West Ham share certain psychological frailties that bigger clubs like Spurs and Arsenal do not understand.
Most London clubs have similarly confused rivalries. Arsenal are the most straightforward – they hate Spurs. And Spurs hate them, although some Spurs fans have a marked dislike for Chelsea, who have all but usurped their place as the second biggest club in London and aren’t shy to remind them of it.
Rounding off London’s distinctive strain of anti-Spurs feeling, West Ham also hate Tottenham – like Chelsea, they know Arsenal are untouchable at the top of the London pyramid, but feel Spurs are gettable. But West Ham fans also hate Chelsea and Millwall. Now Millwall hate West Ham, but Charlton hate Millwall. Charlton also hate Crystal Palace, who hate Brighton, which really screws things up. Nobody really knows who Leyton Orient hate – although Wiki says Southend.
You might think that’s already quite enough hate for one post – in fact, you might even be wondering why we should discuss hate at all - but it gets even more confusing over in West London. Fulham’s Fayed-inspired rise through the divisions has seen them mount a stepladder of hate – first Brentford, then QPR, now Chelsea. QPR have made a similar trip in the opposite direction, but while they refuse to get involved in any sort of rivalry with Brentford, they haven’t got much choice because nobody else will pay them the slightest bit of attention.
And we haven’t even started on non-league clubs yet.
It’s a soap opera, isn’t it?
Why all the hate? Well, most football fans are aware that their chosen club is unlikely to win anything in any given season, so if they ‘unsupport’ (a term conceived by When Saturday Comes many years ago) another club, preferably a local rival, they can take vicarious satisfaction when they lose. It’s a form of hedge betting and means that even though Spurs haven’t won anything substantial for decades and regularly get beaten by Arsenal, they can take tremendous pleasure in each and every defeat experienced by their bigger rivals.
Personally, I hate hate.