BY JIM KEOGHAN – @jimmykeo
Cast your collective minds back to the mid-1980s. A heartless Tory government was busy destroying the lives of millions, poverty blighted the nation and the prospect of nuclear apocalypse hung heavy over the planet.
Although some things might never change, football has. And one of these changes has been the diminishing importance of the Merseyside Derby.
Younger readers might find it hard to believe that there was a time, back in the 1980s, when the Merseyside Derby was the most important fixture in the football calendar.Embed from Getty Images
Back then, Everton and Liverpool were the giants of English football; dominating the league, appearing together in cup finals and successfully representing the country in Europe.
Although the Merseyside Derby had long been a big deal, the ascendency of the two clubs elevated it to primacy, making it something akin to the El Clásico encounters that dominate Spanish football today (only with much tighter shorts, glorious perms and some of the best muzzies ever seen).
Fast forward to 2017, and even the most blinkered of Scousers (if an Evertonian) or the most blinkered of Norwegians (if a Liverpudlian) would be hard pushed to suggest that the Merseyside Derby is still the most important fixture in the domestic calendar. That claim has instead travelled along the M62, to Manchester. Their twice annual head-to-head now arguably occupies the place where the Merseyside Derby once smugly parked its arse.
This has recently been elevated to preposterous levels of hype with the arrival of ‘Jose’ and ‘Pep’. The forthcoming encounter (pitting first against second) represents the apex of the trend that has seen the ‘Sky Clubs’ fawned over by a compliant press to a degree never seen before. For many a writer and pundit, you would imagine that the weekend’s Manchester Derby represents the high point of their lives, a moment to overshadow wedding days or the birth of their children.Embed from Getty Images
But as much as the rise of the Manchester Derby has been attributable to each club’s respective success (fuelled by a slavish media), so equally the decline in the importance of the Merseyside Derby can be laid at the feet of Everton and Liverpool, whose withering fortunes have undermined its appeal to neutrals.
The past 25 years have not been kind to the former Merseyside giants. Collective dominance dissipated very quickly and for the last two-and-a-half decades both clubs have watched in frustration as Manchester United piled glory upon glory, and then in disbelief as Manchester City rose to become one of the biggest clubs in the world (a long way from the club that once looked to Shaun Goater, Paulo Wanchope and Darren Huckerby to provide the goals).
Now, before Liverpudlians reading this (or more likely having it read to them) turn to a loved-one and ask them to type-up some anguished grunts into a vaguely coherent rant, let me say that I acknowledge that the decline in each team’s fortunes has not been an equal one.
Over this period, Everton – my own team – have had a much more difficult time than Liverpool. Aside from coming very close to relegation on two occasions, the Blues have only won one piece of silverware and suffered periods of soul-sapping mediocrity.Embed from Getty Images
That said, by Liverpool’s own lofty expectations, the club and fans can hardly look back at the Premier League-era and view it as a ‘Golden Age’ either. Despite a smattering of League Cups, FA Cups and even a Champions League, the nineties and noughties haven’t lived up to the standards that most Kopites have come to expect. In short, they’ve been left behind, compelled to life in the slower-lane as other teams (specifically Manchester based ones) have powered ahead.
And all of this means that come Sunday, when this season’s Anfield Derby kicks-off, few neutrals will probably care that much what the outcome will be. The game simply doesn’t matter anymore.
But what about in the city itself? Well, here too the Derby has undergone something of a transformation since the 1980s.
During this time, it’s become a much more acrimonious affair. Contrary to the popular belief that in the past both sets of fans got on famously, there has in reality long been a degree of mutual hostility come Derby day, which is as it should be between city rivals.Embed from Getty Images
But in recent years this has mutated into something harsher. It might not reach the insane levels of loathing evident somewhere like Glasgow, Belgrade or Milan, but the atmosphere has certainly become more hostile between opposing sets of fans.
Whether this is because the fixture now matters more, its significance exaggerated due to the absence of success in other areas, is unclear. Kopites certainly give the impression that this might not be the case. For them, it is the rivalry with United that has become all-consuming, one fuelled by a level of bitterness unmatched in English football.
Alternatively then, it could be symptomatic of the growing lack of objectivity amongst supporters in general, the demise of any capacity to appreciate another fan’s perspective or recognise the quality of the opposition. Perhaps this trend, which began in earnest when the Premier League first started, has accentuated the mutual loathing that already existed in Merseyside, incrementally heightening the levels of hostility year-by-year.
Whatever the reason, the result of Sunday’s Derby really matters in the city. No supporter wants to walk into work or school on Monday morning and be greeted by the smug-smiles and endless gloating of the opposition’s fans.
This relatively inconsequential game by national standards, yet hugely important match by local standards would have been easier to call a few weeks ago than it is today. Back then, one of the worst Everton sides in living memory would likely have been massacred, making it 18 years since the Blues had last won at our old ground.Embed from Getty Images
But (and it is a very, very small but), a new manager, two Premier League clean sheets, and a hitherto absent degree of confidence and organisation might provide a sliver of hope for us Blues. Although I would still put good money on Everton leaving the pitch the unhappier of the two sides, an Allardyce Everton might be capable of providing a surprise.
Not that any neutrals will give a shit. Looking at Sunday’s fixtures it’s evident that the Merseyside Derby is very much the ‘fluffer’ for the main event. There to keep viewers moderately stimulated for the Pep/Jose-fuelled football orgasm to come. But for those of us with a horse in the race, it remains a game to get the heart racing.
Jim Keoghan is the author of Everton’s Greatest Games, the Toffees Finest 50 Matches