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Everton stake claim to Merseyside

A football rivalry is one aspect of the beautiful game we enjoy most — and yet its qualities are not easy to discern. 

There are any number of reasons for these modern day blood feuds.

Proximity usually plays a part, but it does not need a long-standing hatred. Neighbours Chelsea and Fulham, to name one example, couldn’t give a damn about the fate of the other. 

Another cause is a competition for the same resources. But that doesn’t explain why Sunderland and Newcastle maintain a healthy loathing of each other even if they’re in separate leagues.

Historical reasons are carried down from father to child — you hate the other side of town merely because that’s how you were raised.

As indelible as the hatred is, the rest of the world is not guaranteed to care about your squabble indefinitely. The Merseyside derby has been in danger of drifting towards that indifference.

It’s not that Liverpool’s success in recent years dwarfs that of Everton’s; nor that they are a global conglomerate while their rivals are seen as a more homely, neighbourhood team. 

What has really stunted the appeal of this fixture is the Toffees’ decade-long failure to stick a knife in The Red’s heart. Football fans can bear supporting the less glamorous team, but they live for the moment that they get a big one over their more-esteemed rival.

The last time Everton managed a win was October 2010. The time since has seen a number of lacklustre, largely one-sided encounters. 

The cliché is that form goes out the window in a derby, but on Merseyside the game has mirrored the contrasting fortunes of Liverpool and Everton. 

At long last there is hope that this may change. Optimism — not cautious but fully-fledged — has returned to Goodison Park. The expectation has even shifted from the Toffees beating a lifelong foe to doing something extraordinary.

The early signs of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign are that Everton may become the club they have always felt they are. Seeing them at the top of the league may seem strange to many but for older Toffees it’s a breath of warm nostalgia. It was not that long ago — just a few years before the start of the Premier League age — that Howard Kendall guided the club into its most successful era.

Once part of the famed Holy Trinity — the midfield trio that included Colin Harvey and Alan Ball won the league in 1970 — Kendall took charge of the club in 1981 and moulded it into one of the best in England. Everton won the FA Cup in 1984 before again winning the league in 1985. Having added the European Cup Winners’ Cup that year too, Kendall achieved an historic double. An extra time loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup final was all that prevented it from becoming a treble. 

With a spot secured at Europe’s premier table for the next season, there was great anticipation about what the future held — until tragedy struck. The type of tragedy that goes way beyond the significance of sporting matters. 

The Heysel Stadium disaster occurred mere days after the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Ahead of the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in Belgium, The Reds’ supporters charged at their counterparts, triggering a stampede. In a desperate attempt to escape, fans were crushed against a wall that soon collapsed. Thirty-nine people were killed and about 600 injured, most of them Italians. 

To stem the English disease — football hooliganism — all English clubs were banned from taking part in European games for five years. 

“There were no attempts to find an alternative punishment, despite Liverpool’s decision to withdraw from European competition,” former player Peter Reid said in his autobiography. 

“Margaret Thatcher wanted us all to suffer because that suited both her dogma and the class warfare that she was waging,” he wrote. “It would be five years before English clubs returned and, by then, Everton had lost their way.”

There can never be certainty in conjecture, but what is true is that their verve was lost somewhere in that dark period. Everton managers have tried and failed to find it ever since. 

It’s early days but the Toffees desperately want to believe Ancelotti has cracked it. To have Dominic Calvert-Lewin on his best form has also contributed to the world class veneer that has wrapped the Goodison pitch so far this term. 

There’s always the chance the champions, Liverpool, strip away some of that expectation on Saturday. But even if they do, Everton, finally, won’t give it up meekly.

 

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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