Liverpool versus Everton. 'The Friendly Derby'... Not so fast with your footballing clichés. The Merseyside clash has vitriol in abundance and is all the better for it.
There was a time when the 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. We were united in our city’s brilliance, each respectful of the others footballing achievement. Fans 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 Heysal disaster and Everton’s subsequent loss of their place in the European Cup is seen by many as the seed from which are now toxic rivalry eventually grew. From that point on the relationship began to alter and the two sets of supporters saw each other as more than just rivals and instead as something more loathsome.
But how much of the above is really true? For many years and certainly until the ‘Shankly-era’ the rivalry between the clubs was relatively benign. This was specifically the case from the end of the war until the early-1960s when Liverpool were essentially a little bit rubbish. During most of the 1950s it was difficult for Evertonians to maintain much of a rivalry when our neighbours were languishing in division two (or the Championship as it’s known to our younger readers).
Contrary to popular myth, from the Shankly-era on, when Liverpool started to become the footballing presence that most people would recognise today, our relatively benign relationship definitely began to change. I doubt there are many Evertonians who lived though the team’s inability to win a derby game during much of the 1970s, and suffered the unending smugness of our neighbours, 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.
It was an atmosphere poisoned for many blues by Liverpool’s increasing success. I’m sure it would have been nice to have looked on their championship and European triumphs in the 1970s as a wonderful boon to a city suffering from an increasingly poor reputation; but we didn’t. Like most supporters who have a footballing rival it made us dislike them all the more.
Superficially, during the 1980s the relationship seemed to become more cordial. Fans did travel to Wembley together and some did chant ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside’ (hopefully to their eternal shame). But this was a facade. Underneath there still bubbled a cauldron or simmering hatred. And it was one that cut both ways.
Contrary to their protests of being a group of supporters above the fray, as an Evertonian coming of age during the 1980s I was on the receiving end of some rancorous bile courtesy of red-s***e acquaintances. From nowhere, Everton had challenged their reign of supremacy and naturally their supporters didn’t like it.
‘Merseyside/Merseypride’ might have played well in the press and the rivalry was free from the violence that characterised cities such as Glasgow and Milan, but to suggest that we 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 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 us bitter and jealous, whereas blues think them smug, shallow and homo-erotically obsessed with Kenny Dalglish. Evertonians also find it hard to bear the endless veneration of Bill Shankly. He might have been a decent manager but arguably not one worthy of such disproportionate levels of adoration. It also tends to grate on us that the manager Liverpudlians worship so much ended his days training with Everton, having been shunned by the club he did so much for (a fact rarely mentioned by Liverpudlians).
And so as a result of the above and any number of additional grievances, the Merseyside derby has become one of the most poisonous fixtures in the Premiership calendar. The games themselves are rarely beautiful to watch, consisting mainly of frenetic football and wild tackles. For most fans the tension that created exceeds that of other games and in a city as divided as Liverpool, winning the fixture and being able to hold your head up high at school or work on a Monday morning is something that really matters. As an Evertonian there are few things as sweet as being able to smugly greet Liverpudlians following a derby victory.
But ultimately is there anything wrong with this? Football is by its very nature a partisan sport. As long as it doesn’t descend into violence, is animosity between set of fans something to be discouraged?
It’s not as if support of either team precludes each set of fans from befriending each other. Disagreeing with a friend’s football choices doesn’t mean you can’t ultimately get along. I don’t like Liverpool FC or Liverpool supporters as a group, but individually, despite their inferior cognitive development, some of them are alright. I especially like it when you give them a banana and they do a little dance for you.
After the internecine violence that so marred the game in the 1970s and 80s 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 I think 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 a ways that a clashes between teams that ‘get along’ could never hope to be.