Ahead of Saturday’s 179th Manchester derby, Club journalist Neil Leigh spoke to leading sports psychologist, Professor Damian Hughes, to get his unique insight into why the game is so important to sup

Damian, can you explain from a psychological point of view just what is it that help makes the derby such a special and important fixture for supporters?

The phrase that is often used when we talk about a derby is that it’s tribal. And that phrase is apposite as it goes right back to our earliest survival mechanisms as a species.

We learnt that hunting on our own was a dangerous activity so very quickly we learnt that we had to identity with a group or a pack or a tribe of people with identified with to keep ourselves safe and secure. In the early days of evolution that was about how we survived.

Then you see how it manifested itself in things like religion and football also serves precisely that purpose. We can identify ourselves by being a City fan or a United fan and get behind that as it gives us a common bond with a tribe of like-minded people.

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It goes right back to that primitive sense of understanding that we need to belong, and football gives us that perfect banner. And the idea of going up against your nearest rivals - whether that’s a local rival or geographical, or big professional rival - is down to wanting to establish a pecking order that we are better or more superior than you.

That’s why it speaks to our primitive tribal needs.


People obviously talk about derby bragging rights but does the sense of satisfaction – or disappointment depending on the result – run much deeper than that?

We belong to lots of different groups. Our family is a tribe and our workmates are also a tribe – our social groups and football teams provide us with a tribe too.

So, while you may belong to a City or United tribe on Saturday afternoon, when you leave the ground and go into a different environment in the work place, it give you a pecking order in the work place.

You have transferred to a different tribe but now have risen in the pecking order and have the opportunity to show that the other group I belong to is better.

That’s why it does provide such a powerful emotive pull on people. It really matters.

For instance, though it was massively disappointing when City lost to Wolves earlier this season, how many City fans will find themselves working next to a Wolves fans the next day?

The reality is it stings but doesn’t hurt as much as going in that Monday morning into a tribal environment and sitting next to a United fan who may have the ability to crow or lord it over you. 

There is no escape. Football is just one one tribal aspect of our lives, but it bleeds into so many other areas that allow us to establish a powerful pecking order.


Do you think the derby taps into something deeper and fundamental about the human psyche itself – the importance of our need for a sense of belonging, establishing tribal affiliations etc?

It does and that’s why we really get behind young local lads out there competing for us as we sense they are even more closely entwined with our own tribe.

They come from our neighbourhoods; they went to our schools. They are the embodiment of us.

We are happy to adopt anyone into the tribe such as Sergio Aguero but I would imagine if Phil Foden scores the sense of exhilaration is even more heightened as its someone who has grown up within the tribe rather than being adopted into it.

In essence, they represent us.


In general, why do you think that football is so tribal and engenders such strong feelings and passions amongst us?

It’s a fascinating question.

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I have worked in many different sports and I remember working in Rugby League before I worked, I was invited as a guest to the Grand Final at Old Trafford between St Helens and Leeds

I went with a football mindset thinking that there would be segregation, so I was shocked that people were mixing and having a laugh. It was nothing like the presence we’ll get on Saturday.

So, it’s always intrigued me. In Rugby League it’s a smaller sport and people still see it as a Rugby League family… they recognise a dual purpose in that they want their team to win but also for the game to flourish.

Because football is a such a bigger sport and with a rich history, I think it goes a lot deeper for us. 

When people talk about the good of the game – we think ‘I’m more concerned about my team!’

I think it’s the long history that we have with the sport that means those tribal allegiances go so much deeper. I also think the global scale of football merely emphasises those tribal feelings inside us.

The torch is also passed generationally and there is a shared lineage.

You think of past derbies and the emotional effect they had on your father, uncles, grandfathers… it’s part of your heritage. We have shared history in our teams and those bonds speak on so many levels.

When you watch a derby, it speaks to your community, your family and your own history.


There have been fluctuating fortunes for both sides down the years, yet the importance of the derby has remained as strong as ever. Does that testify to the unique nature of the fixture?

I don’t think the fixture is any different to any other great derby. I remember a few years ago I went to Boca Juniors play River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the atmosphere there was incredible. 

Whatever tribe you are in, it will always matter more when you are against your big rivals, so it’s special for all Mancunians and those of us of either persuasion.

But, no doubt, Scousers would argue that their derby matters just as much.

It’s not more unique than any other per se, but it is unique for us with an emotional allegiance attached to it.


Do you think that extra special feeling of anticipation, excitement and nerves associated with a derby also resonates with players and staff as well as the supporters?

No, as their job is to do the opposite of that. Their job is to focus on the process rather than the significance of the outcome.

If you were working within that environment, I think you’d be working to downplay the importance of it.

I think players and coaching staff recognise the significance of the game, but their message is to uncouple that emotion and focus on doing the job.

There is a phrase in sports psychology – especially for big occasions like this – where the mantra is ‘Play the game, not the occasion.’

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In other words, do what you have always practiced and don’t get side-tracked simply because it a derby or a cup final or whatever. Just get on with your job.


From a psychological standpoint if you could pass on any effective tips or coping strategies for approaching a derby – both for supporters and players – what would they be?

For supporters I would say enjoy the emotion of it. And the key word is enjoy it.

These games are a real privilege. Often, we can get ourselves so hyped up by the derby that it can feel like a disappointment can’t it?

So, relish that primitive thrill of getting behind your team and creating an amazing atmosphere. 

From a player’s point of view, it’s the exact opposite.

It’s about stripping away all that emotion and focusing on your role and not to get caught up in the hype – that’s the fans’ job.

It’s the players’ job to focus on playing the best they can.

I remember working with a team in Australia preparing for an important game and one player didn’t fancy it. He was happy to come off – and it was a big lesson for me as I was thinking: ‘How can you come off in a game like this?’

When I spoke to him afterwards, he said: ‘It’s a job for me – I’ve got to stay fit for the next six weeks.’ 

Fans don’t have to understand that but the reality is players have to be solely focused on doing a good job.


Because of the global nature and popularity of the Premier League – and the huge fanbase for both Clubs – has that only added to the sense of occasion and pressure surrounding the derby?

The sense of occasion definitely. When you know you’ve got a worldwide audience running into the hundreds of millions that creates a special aura about the fixture.

I’d argue not in terms of the pressure though. From a coaching and playing perspective – one: that isn’t where you want the players to be focused and two: these are guys who have played in big Cup finals, World Cup finals etc, so this is just another big occasion for them as opposed to being the biggest game of their lives.

I don’t think they will feel the pressure other than their own desire to perform but the sense of spectacle outside that bubble is enormous.

The noise come 5.30pm going to be something else. 


Are there some players who are better predisposed to deal with an occasion like the derby than others? Can it inhibit some and inspire others? 

Without doubt. Some people see the pressure of a game like this as a privilege.

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They think how lucky they are to be performing at this level in front of such a huge audience and really flourish in that setting.

But some players need help in reaching that conclusion.

They might see the pressure as something that is a threat or challenge to them, I’d argue that any of those players in the derby they will have reached a stage in the process where they are able to understand it, but it is a  journey for some to be able to reach that kind of awareness.

Some are predisposed to be able to learn how to cope with it very quickly. For others it’s a case of you have to experience and live through it and then understand what has happened.

The theme from a lot of the coaches will be that this type of pressure is a privilege and that will help inspire them.


Finally, going forward do you think the importance and special appeal of the derby will continue to resonate with fans?

I think so as there is something so much deeper to the game. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a quote that I really like where when everyone talks about what is going to change, he says: ‘Talk about what’s going to stay the same.’

There are certain things that will be consistent to us.

We are always going to be pack animals and tribal by nature, we’re always going to want to see our tribe do better than others.

That’s where the derby occupies such a rich lineage from our parents and grandparents and we pass on those instincts. It’s a huge part of our identity.

That’s why if you are a fan you should really enjoy it – after all, this is a key part of your own rich history!

The opinions published here are personal to the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester City Football Club.

You can find out more about Professor Damian Hughes’ work at liquidthinker.com

Amongst his books is The Barcelona Way - which examines the unique winning DNA of the Catalan club.