It doesn’t quite have the history of Bears-Packers or the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but the Henny Derby has quickly become one of the favorite rivalries in the other kind of football.
It started with a Twitter message from Richmond Kickers fan Elliot Barr to Forward Madison supporter Kyle Carr in 2019. Barr is the host of the River City 93 podcast and a supporter of the club since 2013; Carr is cofounder of Featherstone Flamingos, an all-inclusive Forward Madison supporter group dedicated to celebrating Black culture.
The two had never met, except through Twitter discussions surrounding the then-brand-new USL League One. Richmond, established in 1993, had essentially moved down a division to join the new league, while Forward Madison was playing its inaugural season. Finding common cause in Black fandom, and enduring a long losing streak to start the season, Barr decided to raise the stakes on the first-ever match between the sides.
“I told Kyle, ‘Look, I got nothing else to lose this year, we’re not making the playoffs, how about we just bet a bottle of Hennessy on the game?” Barr recalled. “A friendly bet.”
Carr wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.
“Like the true Black Wisconsinite I am, I’m going to want to do a bet involving Hennessy,” Carr said in an interview on the Talkin’ Flock podcast last week.
“It’s literally the Blackest … not the Blackest, but it’s a staple of Black cookouts,” Barr said. “If you go to a Black cookout someone’s bound to have a bottle of Hennessy. Honestly, I don’t think this derby would have worked if it was anything else but Hennessy. It wouldn’t have worked if it was vodka or tequila.”
Richmond won that first match 1-0, but Carr ran into some difficulty in figuring out how to legally ship a bottle of booze. By the time Barr got it, the teams had played again with Madison coming out on top, again 1-0.
But it was the third meeting between the clubs in September 2019 where the Henny Derby became more than a bet between Twitter friends.
With North Carolina FC fans coming to Richmond to support Madison captain and former North Carolina player Connor Tobin, Forward Madison partnered with The Flock (Madison’s unofficial supporters group) to create the Irruption Tour — a road trip with the mission to bring Wisconsin beer to those NCFC fans. At the same time, Richmond supporters were hosting a heritage night dedicated to the Black community. The convergence of these events put a lot of buzz around the match.
Barr, who more or less organized the entire heritage night event, recalls being invited to stop by the home of Total Soccer Show cohost Taylor Rockwell earlier in the day.
“And I walked in the house and there’s (soccer journalists) Jason Davis, Pablo Maurer,” Barr said. “I’m like, ‘This is soccer royalty, What are you guys doing here in Richmond? Aren’t you guys supposed to be at the MLS game?’ They were like, ‘nah, this is the game everyone’s talking about. We want to go to it.’ I didn’t realize how big it had gotten, that it was on people’s radar.”
That night’s heritage event was “a wild time,” Carr said.
“I know Elliot always called (the event) like a HBCU homecoming. I call it a holiday cookout,” Carr said. “You know, it was just like having all these people show up and have a good time, get to know each other, get to just hang out.”
Madison won that match — once again 1-0. By now the bottle of Hennesy had evolved into a trophy, which Carr proudly paraded at home matches the rest of that season.
The two clubs met only once in the truncated 2020 season, a 1-0 win for Richmond, which means the trophy has been in Virginia for almost a year. The legend of the Henny Derby has only grown, with both clubs and USL League One fully embracing the rivalry.
“I thought maybe it would be like a small little niche thing between Madison supporters and Richmond supporters,” Carr said. “But as we’ve noticed with Black supporters, this is a good representation of what it could be. You know, this was a derby that started by two Black supporters within their own respective supporters’ groups, and the teams embraced it as well. So I think for a Black supporter, this is kind of a good representation of … what we can do.”
Barr said it’s also a good way to get more Black fans interested in the game.
“If you’re looking to get into soccer, and I know of course it’s third division soccer, but if you need an entry point to get into the game, this is an entry point to it,” he said. “And it’s definitely a safe space for a Black supporters’ group. My wife does not watch soccer. She couldn’t care less about soccer. But she will be interested in this game because there’s other like-minded people with her, or people that look like her. We’re not the only ones in the crowd.”
As with any rivalry game, it adds to the stakes, regardless of either club’s place on the table.
“We may not win the league, but we still have this awesome trophy” when Forward Madison wins, Carr said.
“We can lose every game — and I’m being a little dramatic — but we can lose every game, but you don’t lose to Forward. That’s how it is for us. You don’t care about nothing else. Even last year, the way our last year went, beating Forward was like the highlight of the year,” Barr said.
Both Barr and Carr are also leveragung the popularity of the rivalry to do some good in the community. Featherstone Flamingos is hosting a pledge drive of sorts — fans can pledge to donate an amount of money per goal scored in this weekend’s match to the YWCA of Madison.
Barr plans to do something similar for the September 1 match at Richmond, fundraising for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The charitable beneficiaries of the other two matches — the Henny Derby will be renewed again in Richmond on September 11 and in Madison on October 16 — are to be determined.
“It is still fun to have it on the field and have the trash talk back and forth. But we also wanted to make sure that … we can give back to communities, especially with all the things that happened in 2020,” Carr said. “We kind of noticed we had the ability to do good work with it. So why not put a charitable aspect on it as well?”
So far, fans have pledged a total of $232 to YWCA per goal scored Saturday night. Fans can click here to make a pledge.
The Henny Derby match will have additional significance this year, as Saturday night’s match will be the first at which Breese Stevens Field will allow near-full capacity since the fall of 2019. Club officials said they expect more than 4,000 fans in the stands, which could return the stadium to its reputation as one of the most exciting venues in the league — and one of the hardest on visiting teams.
Forward Madison currently sits in the fourth spot in the table, having opened the season with a five-game unbeaten streak but falling 2-1 to Union Omaha last weekend. Richmond, just one point behind in fifth, look to build on a 3-2 win over New England Revolution 2 last weekend. The game is set for a 7 pm kickoff and will be broadcast on ESPN+.