Merseyside derby no longer a friendly affair

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LIVERPOOL - The days of Liverpool and Everton fans singing "Merseyside" together at Wembley may seem a long time ago when they meet in next week's derby double-header at Anfield.

The teams clash in the Premier League on Monday before reconvening for an FA Cup fourth-round tie on Sunday.

While their first cup encounter for almost two decades will stir memories of their Wembley showdowns in the 1980s, the local rivalry is not as friendly as it used to be.

Twenty five years after the two sets of Mersey supporters shared songs in the 1984 League Cup final, the fans have been warned by police that they run the risk of prosecution for abusive chanting.

After last season's Anfield derby, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez criticised Everton's supporters for a tasteless chant about captain Steven Gerrard's daughter.

Everton, in turn, pointed to abuse directed at defender Joleon Lescott and a punch thrown by a Liverpool fan at skipper Phil Neville.

Benitez had also got in on the act 12 months earlier by describing Everton as a "small club".

It is all a far cry from past cup final encounters, as former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson remembers.

The Mersey rivals met three times at Wembley in the 1980s, following their 1984 League Cup final won by Liverpool after a replay, with FA Cup finals in 1986 and 1989.

"The whole city moved itself to north London for a day," Lawrenson told Reuters.

"You just saw Blues and Reds together everywhere. People tell me it's not particularly great any more but in those days it was just fantastic banter and both sets of players got on very well."

Such scenes offered a striking contrast to the widespread terrace violence of the era.

"I don't think the rest of the country could understand that," added BBC pundit Lawrenson, who played in the 1986 FA Cup final which Liverpool won 3-1 a week after pipping their neighbours to the league title.

SHARED PRIDE

Graeme Sharp, who appeared for Everton in all three finals, recalls a strong sense of shared pride.

Sharp said: "Everybody came together, there was none of the bitterness seen now. When we went on to the pitch we wanted to beat them but we still remained friends."

The mid-80s also brought the first mooted proposals for a shared stadium, though this prospect still seems as distant as ever.

Lawrenson said: "I believe they should share one stadium. That is the way forward."

There are different reasons for the souring of relations. The fortunes of both clubs dipped in the 1990s, although Everton's more markedly.

Soccer's increased popularity also makes it impossible for fans to make a last-minute decision to watch a derby game, meaning fewer Blues and Reds sit together.

The last time the clubs met in the FA Cup they shared a 4-4 draw in a fifth-round replay in 1991, widely regarded as one of the best games of their 208-match series.

Everton came from behind four times, with Sharp netting twice. "I don't think there have been any to beat that one," he said.

Kenny Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager the next day, Everton won the second replay and the Anfield club finished the campaign deposed as champions.

Fast forward to 2009 and Benitez's Liverpool are hoping to finally reclaim the championship for the first time since 1990.

Everton, of course, will have other ideas.