There was a time when Everton and Liverpool supporters revelled in a uniquely friendly rivalry, so the story goes. The apex of this was the 1980s when the two clubs dominated English football.
As fans, they were united in the city’s brilliance, each respectful of the others footballing achievement. Supporters would travel to Wembley together and the terraces would come alive with chants of ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside’.
And then it all went wrong. The fraternity broke down. The Heysel disaster and Everton’s subsequent decline is seen by many as the seed from which the current toxic rivalry grew. From that point on the relationship began to alter and the two sets of supporters saw each other as more than just rivals.
But how much of the above is really true?
It’s certainly the case that for many years the rivalry between the clubs was relatively benign.
When the first league derby took place in 1894 the only enmity that existed was that between the respective boards, who were each smarting slightly after the acrimonious split that had seen Everton leave Anfield for Goodison and Liverpool emerge in the wake of the move.
From Everton’s perspective, the board’s desire to win was best illustrated by the promise of a silk hat to each of the players should they vanquish their neighbours. As anyone who has ever played football knows only too well, when millinery is on the line, you know the stakes are high.
In the years that followed, within the context of a less partisan nationwide football environment in general, the two sets of supporters rubbed along together fairly amicably. Fans of each team would go to each other’s stadiums and derby day rivalry was generally good-natured.
But from the Shankly-era on, when Liverpool started to become the footballing presence that most people would recognise today, the relatively benign relationship definitely began to change. There are few Evertonians who lived through the team’s inability to win a derby game during much of the 1970s and suffered the unending, if justifiable, smugness of Liverpool fans, who would agree that the relationship between the blue-half and the red-half of the city was as amicable as some people would like to suggest.
“I think from the 1960s onwards, a cockiness on Liverpool’s part (born from success), combined with occasional inflammatory remarks from their managers and players bred hostility that hadn’t been there before. It might not have been like it is today but increasingly you saw more of a divide between the two sets of supporters,” says lifelong Blue John Bohanna.
Superficially, during the 1980s the relationship appeared, to the outside world at least, to be defined by that pre-1960s cordiality. Fans did travel to Wembley together, some supporters did chant ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside’ and a few of those involved in these games do look back fondly at the apparent sense of camaraderie.
“At the end of the Milk Cup final, I ran around Wembley with Alan Kennedy. We had a blue scarf and a red scarf tied together above our heads. I remember the fans singing ‘Merseyside, Merseyside’, Merseyside’ and it still brings a lump to my throat thinking about it now. It was an occasion that you just don’t forget and which was a privilege to be part of,” recalls former Everton left-back John Bailey.
And yet, despite this veneer of cordiality, the process of growing antipathy that had started in the 1960s maintained its progression. Take that Milk Cup final as an example. To an outsider, the fleets of mixed cars heading south together and the chants of ‘Merseyside’ speak of an occasion that seemed to embody the notion of the ‘friendly derby’.
But from another perspective, as Graham Ennis from the Everton fanzine, When Skies Are Gray explains, the day can be seen differently:
“Although people travelled down together and there was no division between the fans, that’s just what the city is like. But that didn’t mean that Evertonians had any affection for Liverpool. And when it came to the game, I recall the Evertonians singing Everton songs because we were proud of what our team had done. The ‘Merseyside’ stuff came from the Liverpool fans, largely because they knew they’d underperformed and probably wanted to extract a bit of pride from the game by jumping on the ‘Merseyside’ bandwagon.”
‘Merseyside/Merseypride’ might have played well in the press and the rivalry was free from the violence that characterised cities such as Glasgow, Milan and Belgrade but to suggest that Liverpudlians and Evertonians were one big happy family is just a myth.
But what is certainly true is that the relationship between the two sets of fans has deteriorated markedly since the 1980s, reaching the point today where the breakdown is probably irrevocable. Too much has passed between the clubs for this ever to recover.
Each set of fans has their own list of grievances. Reds think Evertonians are twisted with bitterness and consumed with envy. While Blues think that Kopites are thin-skinned, humourless and defined by a near-pathological sense of self-entitlement.
And underwriting the whole relationship, simple hate. A pure and undiluted loathing that has become an indelible part of the collective psyche. Loathing not of individuals, although that can sometimes be the case, but of the vast, swarming body of the ‘other’.
It’s a hate that often sits uneasily within the anodyne landscape of the Premier League, the happy clapping, smiling faces that people its back-drop. As football morphs into an entertainment product, one there to be enjoyed not endured, the place for such deep-seated animosity is uncertain. While the Premier League and Sky will happily promote rivalries, you are meant to wear them lightly. A kind of ‘banter lolz’ sort of rivalry.
You’re not meant to scream ‘murderers’ at rival fans. You’re not meant to call them ‘scum’. You’re not meant to f***ing hate them.
But why not? As long as it doesn’t revisit the bad old days of football’s violent past, there’s little wrong with loathing the neighbours. In an increasingly bland football world, it’s part of what makes the game interesting. It’s that deep-seated emotional pull that allows football to transcend other, more conventional ways to spend 90 minutes. A film or play will never move you in the same way a match will. Football grabs you and conjures up extremes, light and dark.
After the internecine violence that so marred the game in the 1970s and 1980s it’s understandable that a lot of supporters would like to see the back of the kind of animosity that is evident between the fans of certain teams. But surely that’s part of the game’s appeal and without it, football can be a little bland.
Changes to the game over the last twenty years have already robbed football of much of its character and so we should be glad that fixtures such as the Merseyside derby still exist. The atmosphere might be toxic but it’s also exciting in ways that clashes between teams that ‘get along’ could never hope to be.
This weekend, we’ll get to experience the complete absence of this ‘toxic’ atmosphere at the behind-closed-doors Goodison derby. It will be a sober affair, the trend towards the gradual eradication of partisan rivalry taken to extremes. As ‘Z-Cars’ strikes out to no rapturous roar of approval from Evertonians, no chorus of boos from Kopites, the silence will be deafening, a timely reminder to what we stand to lose if the gentrification of football continues.