Rivalries in soccer are nothing new.
Most are based on proximity, such as the South Texas Derby or the infamous Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders rivalry. Others stem from a long history of competitive wins and losses like the Atlantic Cup.
But every once in a while there’s one that bucks those geographic and historical trends. That’s exactly what you’ll find with the Henny Derby, one of the most unique rivalries in all of U.S. soccer.
Founded by the supporters of the Richmond Kickers and Forward Madison, the Henny Derby is about more than just the wins and losses on the pitch. It’s a celebration of Black supporter culture and bringing people together from different worlds to enjoy soccer.
“We never thought the Henny Derby would get to this level.”
It all started with a simple Twitter bet.
In 2019, before the Richmond Kickers were scheduled to play their first match against newcomer Forward Madison, Elliot Barr of Richmond’s River City 93 soccer podcast sent a message to Kyle Carr in Madison.
While the two had never met in person, Elliot knew that Kyle was one of the founders of Featherstone Flamingos, a supporters group for Forward Madison established specifically to celebrate and promote Black culture. Seeing as Richmond was one of the stalwarts of USL soccer, Elliot was eager to give the Featherstone Flamingos and the ambitious Madison supporters a proper welcome to the league.
Elliot thought what better way to do that than with a bottle of Hennessey.
“When Kyle and I first made the bet, we were expecting it to be some small thing between our supporters,” explained Elliot. “But the more we talked about it with other people, the more it caught on. We never thought it would get to this level.”
Kyle, never one to shy away from a friendly challenge, agreed.
To his dismay, Richmond won the first match and he had to pay up with a bottle of Hennessey. Fortunately, Madison followed it up two weeks later with a win of their own.
For the third and final match of 2019, Elliot and Kyle decided to step it up.
Elliot sourced an empty bottle of Hennessey from his brother and worked with one of his wife’s friends to decorate it. The original bet of Hennessey had now become an official Henny Derby Trophy. And to mark the occasion, Kyle and his fellow Featherstone Flamingos founders, Chris Fox and April Kigeya, joined a handful of other Forward Madison fans on a road trip to Richmond.
“Traveling to Richmond in 2019 was better than I could have imagined,” recalled Kyle. “One of the things you never realize is how much you talk to all these people online and then you finally meet them in person and you already know them so well. It adds a bit of a personal touch and while you want to win, it does make you appreciate the work that needs to be invested not only in a derby but lower league soccer in general.”
To Kyle’s delight, Madison won that third match and the group of Madison supporters left Richmond as the first holders of the official Henny Derby Trophy.
Since then, the rivalry has taken on a life of its own.
Soccer fans from all over, not just Richmond and Madison, travel to watch the Henny Derby matches. And within the U.S. soccer landscape, there are few better places to see Black soccer culture on full display. As Elliot has explained, the Henny Derby is an HBCU homecoming in soccer form.
“It has become a huge event because there’s nothing else like it,” said Eboni Christmas, a supporter from North Carolina who was there in 2019, attended the virtual event in 2020, and traveled again to the latest meeting in 2021. “It’s made by Black supporters for Black supporters. There are not a lot of Black supporters in this sport, so to have this Derby become a namesake in US Soccer scenes means Black supporters are on the rise.”
What makes the rivalry so unique is that it is 100 percent fan-driven. It also represents something much bigger than the two teams on the field.
As Chris Fox, co-founder of the Featherstone Flamingos, put it, “There are so many ways Black folks communicate, whether it be through a friendly competition of spades or game of dominoes. The Henny Derby is another way for Black supporters to connect and make a football contest about more than just three points.”
While most derbies in the sport can be acrimonious, the Henny Derby is as much about Black celebration as it is who gets the annual bragging rights. Outside of those 90 minutes, you’ll find the two sets of supporters sharing a drink (of Hennessey, of course) and swapping stories before traveling back home and preparing for the next match.
“We hope it can give the Black supporters a safe space to try and create something for themselves in any supporter group structure, in any league,” said Kyle. “The more supporters of color we can get involved, the better it will be for everyone.”
So whether you’re a Richmond Kickers supporter, a member of The Flock in Madison, or simply a fan of soccer, you need to save the date for next year’s version of the Henny Derby. It is guaranteed to be on everyone’s bucket list of 2022 matches.