The Merseyside derby used to be one of the most anticipated fixtures on the football calendar. When Liverpool and Everton were both in their pomp, notably the 1960s and the mid-1980s, games between the two clubs were decisive and often packed with incident. Invariably, they made a contribution to the outcome of the season.
Today, both clubs are a shadow of their former selves, wrestling between a glorious history and an uncertain future. That particularly irks Liverpool fans, for Everton have had barren periods before – those that remember their 1970 league title win, with a very fine team, will also recall an era when the club struggled to live up to the legacy left by Harry Catterick and his “school of science”.
This weekend’s derby may only be relevant for deciding local bragging rights, for European football in 2013-14 is unlikely on Merseyside, unless Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea slip-up.
In reality, the Mersey duo are way behind their Manchester contemporaries and are struggling to live with the London triumvirate. Money, once the big advantage that Everton (so often called the Bank of England club) and Liverpool had over their rivals, has long been the problem.
The city of Liverpool is a hard place and one that seems to have been in economic decline since the 1970s. When Liverpool ruled Europe, the success of the football team provided a distraction from the troubles of the 1980s. Liverpool was, after all, one of the battlegrounds of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Apart from the maritime theme-park that is Albert Dock, and shiny new generic shopping areas, Liverpool still looks like a city under stress.
In the week of a Mersey derby, there seemed little evidence of football fever gripping Liverpool. Indeed, when I bought a copy of the Echo from the vendor outside Liverpool St. James’ station, he was not aware that a derby was on the horizon. Thirty years ago, it would have been so different.
Walking past the many filled-to-capacity (in mid-afternoon) pubs in the city centre, an indication that a lot of people don’t have work in Liverpool, you could see red Liverpool shirts propping up bars or sitting outside aspirational eateries like Carluccio’s and Patisserie Valerie. But where were the blue shirts of Everton? Not one did I see.
Yet in many ways, Everton have more to cheer about than their more celebrated neighbours across Stanley Park. They do not have the burden of living up to a history that includes five European Cups, four of which came in the golden age of Kop mythology. They do, however, have a team that could go on to better things, if they keep their talented and much coveted manager, David Moyes.
Moyes has been at Goodison for a decade and he now needs some silverware to make it all worthwhile. Everton’s last pot was won in 1995, when they beat Manchester United 1-0 in the FA Cup final. He has a handful of very good players, such as Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jagielka, Nikica Jelavic and Leighton Baines, who could break that barren spell. That’s if United or Chelsea don’t come calling, although the excellent Fellaini and England full back Baines will take some keeping.
As for Liverpool, well, we are all sick to death of hearing about Suarez, but in the Uruguayan, Brendan Rodgers has one of the most gifted strikers in the game. Around him, it’s mostly mediocre, and when Gerrard hangs up his boots, they will be in trouble. Daniel Sturridge has made the transition from Chelsea’s bench to Liverpool’s forward line well, but in players like Downing and Henderson, not to mention Shelvey, the future looks decidedly mid-table.
So what of this weekend’s big game? Everton last won at Anfield in a league game in 1999-00, a 1-0 victory thanks to a Kevin Campbell goal. Everton last beat Liverpool in October 2010, a 2-0 win at Goodison Park. The two teams drew 2-2 at Everton earlier this season.
Everton have lost just one of their last eight games, and at home only Chelsea have beaten them in the league. but they have shown some extreme vulnerability when losing to teams like Wigan (at home in the FA Cup) Norwich, Reading and Sunderland.
For Liverpool, it’s been another season when Hillsborough has dominated the talk around Anfield Road. Rodgers got off to a potentially terminally damaging start, but in the second half of the season, Liverpool have lost just three league games. Although they crept up to sixth for one week, seventh is their highest placing. For supporters weened on success, the title drought, which is now in its 23rd year, is too much to bear.
English football needs a successful team from Merseyside and at the moment, it seems as though the two clubs are destined to remain also-rans. If you want a comparison with the top leagues in Europe, for Barca and Real, read United and City. As for Liverpool and Everton? They’re fighting, with the Londoners, to be Atletico Madrid and Valencia. As it stands, they’re losing that battle……but watch out for Everton.