Not quite a derby

WHAT, in football, constitutes a derby? I was thinking about this while watching the UEFA Cup draw on UEFA’s website this lunchtime.

The chap presenting the draw suggested that the tie between Djurgården and Rosenborg was a “semi-derby”, despite the fact that the clubs are in different countries.

(I can’t tell you how excited he was when FC Zurich were paired with Sturm Graz. If you need me to tell you how big a tie that is, then quite frankly, you’re reading the wrong blog. No wait, come back…)

The UEFA Cup is, increasingly, Europe’s answer to the FA Cup. There are lots of chances in the early rounds for the minnows to make a name for themselves (or, in the case of any team from the League of Wales, a fool of themselves), before all the big teams come in after Christmas and send everyone else packing.

(In fairness, this didn’t happen last season, for once. The winners, Zenit St Petersburg, were not Champions League dropouts; they had actually started out in the second qualifying round.)

Like the FA Cup, it isn’t considered as important as the Champions League, and Bolton always play their reserve side in it.

But for those of us who grew up watching fuzzy pictures of European ties on Sportsnight and Midweek Sports Special in the 1980s, the early stages of the UEFA Cup have their own magic. It’s a trip back in time to the days when European draws were populated by teams from the other side of the continent, with intriguing names and fearsome reputations.

I’m old enough to remember when Dundee United knocked Hajduk Split out of the UEFA Cup 20 years ago (in the Scots-Yugoslav semi-derby, as I believe it was called), and it was considered a real achievement; a huge upset.

These days, Hajduk Split are about as likely to threaten in a major European competition as, erm, Dundee United. All the same, just the mention of the name is enough to bring those memories back. So it was good to see them in the draw for the UEFA Cup second qualifying round today. They probably won’t get much further, though, given that they have been drawn against Deportivo La Coruna – who are still formidable, even though they only finished ninth in La Liga last season.

With just four teams still to be pulled out of the various glass bowls in Nyon today, it looked as though Aston Villa might get an Anglo-Irish semi-derby against St Patrick’s Athletic. Alas, it didn’t happen, as Villa instead drew last season’s Icelandic Landsbankadeild runners-up, Hafnarfjördur.

If that’s not crying out for a Terry Wogan commentary, I don’t know what is. And quite frankly, it might be a good idea to get Wogan to commentate on the UEFA Cup draw, not least because it would give him plenty of opportunity for mickey-taking and no chance at all for him to indulge in the tiresome moaning about Balkan blocking voting with which he now manages to fill the final hour-and-a-half of the BBC’s Eurovision Song Contest coverage every sodding year.

Sadly, there was no Wogan commentary, just as there were no derbies in the draw. That, though, did not make it any less exciting.

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