Book Review: Reds and Rams by David Marples

Words: Gareth Watts
Saturday 05 November 2022
reading time: min, words

Anyone who’s been to the City Ground when Derby County come to town will know the two clubs either side of the A52 aren’t too fond of each other. In fact, it’s a rivalry almost as old as the sport itself, and one that David Marples’ new book, Reds and Rams, chronicles in layered, sophisticated detail. We give our thoughts on this refreshingly mature release…


As someone who’s always been a little sniffy about the local rivalry between Nottingham Forest and Derby County (I usually mark the matchday online with the meme of Spider-Man pointing at his doppelgänger, or a reference to the pointless Springfield-Shelbyville rivalry in The Simpsons), I approached David Marples’ second book Reds and Rams with a little trepidation. Could there be any more to football rivalries than knuckle-dragging tribalism? In a world torn apart by splits between Leave and Remain, Left and Right, was now really the time to revel in yet another, albeit more local, turf war? As a huge admirer of Marples’ first work, The History Boys, I wanted to learn more and be proven wrong.

It soon becomes apparent this book is about far more than crude sheep seduction songs or pub punch-ups. Marples reaches back to the very formation of both clubs and locations, evaluating their social and economic roots. At 432 pages, Reds and Rams goes to great lengths to ensure that neither city is sold short. What’s particularly fascinating is how markedly different Nottingham and Derby are, despite their geographical proximity. Then, as now, wealthy benefactors, political tribalism and industrial upheaval push and pull at our two proud cities like piston valves pulling the first Midland Counties train between them in 1839. 

It would be easy for such a project to get sucked into the gravitational pull of its main characters, but the steady pacing and reasonably strict chronology of this book resists the clichés of more straightforward biographical works. Recent re-examination of Robert Maxwell in light of his daughter Ghislaine’s actions drew me particularly to learn more about his time at Derby, not to mention those players and managers who dared represent both clubs: Dave Mackay, Peter Shilton, Steve McClaren and Nigel Clough to name but a few. Which brings us to the ultimate protagonist of this story, of course, Nigel’s Dad and the man responsible for the most glorious period in not just one, but both of these clubs’ histories. The love we all have for Brian Clough reflects a deeper complexity to the relationship we have with each other and with this mercurial, charismatic father figure. Marples leans into ‘brotherly’ analogies with good reason. 

It soon becomes apparent this book is about far more than crude sheep seduction songs or pub punch-ups

So what’s at the heart of our local rivalry? ‘We define ourselves not just by our own achievements, but also by the failings of others. We measure our success in relation to others’ shortcomings,’ Marples reflects, with customary diplomacy. He’s too astute to indulge trite psychologising, but I can’t help but wonder if the less palatable reality is that we hate people who remind us of ourselves: we see our own vulnerabilities, our need to belong to a place, a badge, a tradition, in someone who happens to wear a white shirt instead of red… and we hate them for it. We’re so good at being outwardly abusive at our enemies on the terraces, because our inner monologue rehearses these excoriating lines each time we look in the mirror.

So, is this a sensationalist tale of gratuitous violence along the A52? I needn’t have worried. Marples is the Rolls-Royce of football writers and thanks to him I now appreciate the importance of Rolls-Royce to the Derby economy. In other words, this is an elegantly-written social history which couldn’t be any further from hooligan porn if it tried: meticulously researched, circumspect and illuminating, Reds and Rams chronicles the rivalry between cities a mere sixteen miles apart, with empathy and insight. Essential reading.

Reds and Rams: A Story of the East Midlands Derby is now available in bookstores and online 


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