Fury 'cross the Mersey

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The ‘Friendly Derby’? Not any more. As Neil Billingham reports, tragedy, mediocrity and financial uncertainty have made things turn nasty...

St Luke’s Church in Walton, Liverpool, is like no other in the world. Not because of the remembrance garden that has the ashes of Everton fans from places as far afield as New Zealand and Canada scattered there, or that the building is Grade One listed. Its uniqueness comes from its location – on the corner of Gwladys Street and Goodison Road, the church is as much a part of Goodison Park as the 
goalposts, pitch and main stand.

Inside St Luke’s three hours before the 212th Merseyside derby, Reverend Harry Ross conducts his Sunday-morning service in front of a dozen or so elderly parishioners. Hymns are sung, lessons are read and various jovial references to the forthcoming match are made. Halfway through the service the congregation shake hands with each other: “Peace be with you.” At the end of the service, Rev Ross makes a final joke about Everton winning the derby and then concludes, “May we part with love and peace towards each other.”

While the churchgoers of St Luke’s are likely to take such sentiments to heart, supporters of Everton and Liverpool haven’t always shared that holy outlook in recent years. When The Reds and The Blues meet each other, sporadic violence, vicious chanting and bitterness are now the common themes, and the Merseyside derby is fast earning a reputation as one of the most acrimonious and unpleasant matches in English football.

It wasn’t always that way.   “In the ’80s we played against each other in a few cup finals,” recalls Rev Ross. “Liverpool and Everton fans travelled down to Wembley together in coaches, cars and trains and we’d stand together on the terraces and sing ‘Merseyside, Merseyside’. We showed the world how it should be.” He pauses solemnly. “It’s a shame it’s not like that anymore.”

Having accounted for 27 league titles, 12 FA Cups, seven League Cups and nine major European trophies, Liverpool is by far the most successful city in English football. The first Merseyside derby took place in 1894 with Everton winning 3-0 at Goodison Park and up to the outbreak of World War Two, the blues had claimed five league titles to the reds' four. Both clubs suffered relegation in the ’50s before the appointment of two vastly different coaches changed the fortunes of football on Merseyside forever.

In 1959, Bill Shankly took over at Anfield and set about returning The Reds to the top flight and knocking Everton off the city's perch. “The city has two great teams,” bragged the Scotsman: “Liverpool and Liverpool reserves.”

In 1961, Everton appointed Harry Catterick, a secretive introvert from Darlington who made some astute signings and took Everton to the league title in 1963. The following season, after securing promotion in 1962, Shankly led Liverpool to the championship. He joked, “When I have nothing better to do, I look down the league table to see how Everton are getting along.” More success followed for both teams but while Liverpool continued their winning ways in the ’70s, Everton struggled as a result of Catterick’s ill health. It wasn’t until the appointment of Howard Kendall in 1981 that the good times returned to Goodison.

Shankly and Catterick both brought success to Merseyside

During the ’80s, Liverpool was a pariah city. In 1981 the worst riots in the history of mainland Britain broke out in Toxteth, unemployment was at 50 percent and the local council was at war with Thatcher’s Government. Conversely, the decade saw the city’s two clubs enjoy their most successful spells. Both won league titles, the FA Cup and European honours. But derbies weren’t always a big Scouse love-in, as John Barnes would testify: during a derby at Goodison, the Liverpool forward infamously had bananas thrown at him.

There was plenty of schadenfreude, too. Boyhood Evertonian Jamie Carragher admitted in his autobiography to “celebrating as if Everton had won the league” when Arsenal pipped Liverpool to the league title on the last day of the 1989 season. Overall, though, relations were cordial. “There was a ferocious sense of local identity,” says Rogan Taylor, head of Liverpool University’s Football Research Unit.

“It was very much a case of the city of Liverpool against the world. Unlike in some British cities there was no geographical, religious or social divide among Liverpool and Everton supporters. Families had Reds and Blues in them. There was a shared joy when the clubs were successful and after the Hillsborough disaster the closeness between the two sets of fans was at its peak.”

Hillsborough had a profound impact on the city as both sets of supporters mourned the loss of 96 loved ones. The first scarf tied to the Shankly Gates was a blue one and later a chain of red and blue scarves was linked between both stadiums across Stanley Park. Both followings also joined the citywide boycott of The Sun after its fabricated coverage of the tragedy.

In the early-’90s, though, Merseyside’s football dominance came under threat from Leeds, Arsenal and Manchester United and success became increasingly harder to come by. Liverpool’s last league title came in 1990 and, apart from the FA Cup in 1992 and League Cup in 1995, The Reds endured their first major barren patch for 20 years. Everton’s decline was even more severe, the 1995 FA Cup win a rare bright spot in a period of mediocrity and relegation battles. As Blues fans realised the glory days of the ’80s wouldn’t be returning any time soon, they began to look for explanations.

The 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster resurfaced as a major source of irritation. Thirty-nine fans died in the tragedy before Liverpool’s European Cup final against Juventus and resulted in English clubs being banned from European competition for five years. “Heysel was always at the forefront of the rivalry,” says George Orr, editor of Everton fanzine Blue Blood. “It rankled with Everton fans as it did with the other clubs that missed out, like Norwich and Wimbledon”.

The post-Heysel ban meant that Everton’s league-winning side of 1985 and 1987 never got to compete in the European Cup. Howard Kendall’s team comprised the likes of Neville Southall, Peter Reid, Kevin Sheedy, Trevor Steven and Graeme Sharp, and many Evertonians believe the side could have gone on to conquer Europe.

Everton's side of the mid-80s: denied a crack at the European Cup

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool fans aren’t so convinced. “I think that’s bullshit,” says John Pearman of Liverpool fanzine Red All Over. “Everton fans say that if it wasn’t for Heysel their team wouldn’t have broken up. But Howard Kendall left for Athletic Bilbao, who were the Spanish Norwich. Why didn’t the Liverpool team break up after Heysel?”

Rogan Taylor has a more balanced assessment. “Everton are one of the most extraordinarily unlucky clubs,” he says. “They had a magnificent team that won the league in 1939, only for Hitler to then invade Poland – and after winning the league in 1985, English clubs were banned from playing in Europe.”

After Heysel came Hillsborough, but when the unifying effect of the latter began to wear off in the early-’90s, and the performances of both teams dipped, relations started to deteriorate. The banter, jokes and songs of the ‘friendly derby’ gave way to more personal and vindictive chants, with Robbie Fowler suffering more than most.

In his autobiography, Fowler dedicates a whole chapter to the false accusations of drug-taking made by Everton fans, and describes the heartache his family had to endure during his time at Anfield. The fact that Fowler and team-mate Steve McManaman were boyhood Evertonians only added to all the friction.

As the rivalry continued, the chants became more spiteful – and both sets of supporters have been guilty. Even the ultimate taboo of Hillsborough has been breached. On April 16 2001 at Goodison Park, a minute’s silence to mark the 12th anniversary of the disaster was broken and then cut short, while chants of "Murderers, murderers" in reference to Heysel have been heard at recent derbies.

Evertonians have also sung songs about Gerard Houllier’s heart attack and the parentage of Steven Gerrard’s children. Liverpool fans have their own hall of shame, which has included songs about Joleon Lescott’s facial disfigurement due a near-fatal road accident as a child, Phil Neville’s disabled daughter and Tim Cahill’s imprisoned brother.

Verbal abuse has sometimes spilled over into violence. In 2005, 33 fans were arrested following Everton’s 2-1 defeat at Anfield and, in 2008, Phil Neville was punched and spat at while taking a throw-in at Anfield. “It’s a small minority,” says George Orr. “The press like to make out the derby is worse than it is, but 
I don’t think it’s that bad.”

Fowler celebrates in typical, headline-grabbing style...

Merseyside Police beg to differ. Last year when Liverpool were drawn at home against Everton in the fourth round of the FA Cup, and with a Premier League derby scheduled six days before, matchday commander Chief Superintendent Dave Lewis decided enough was enough.

"One of the catalysts was Sol Campbell’s treatment by Spurs fans when he was playing for Portsmouth,” says Lewis, who wrote to both clubs appealing for improved relations between the fans. “We also felt that the abuse of certain players had gone a step too far. We spoke to the Crown Prosecution Service and asked them what songs are deemed offensive enough for us to make arrests.”

So, is the poisoning of the Merseyside derby a microcosm of what has happened elsewhere? “People in society are a lot more aggressive and less tolerant now,” says Lewis. “I call them the Saturday Afternoon Abuser. They turn up to the match and think normal rules don’t apply. That’s why things have got more bitter here, but it’s the same all over the country and it’s very sad.”

That said, football fans on Merseyside are still capable of overwhelming displays of respect and dignity towards each other. When 11-year-old Everton fan Rhys Jones was shot dead in Croxteth in August 2007, Liverpool was again a city in mourning. Six days later Liverpool played Toulouse at Anfield in the Champions League and, in an unprecedented move, the Everton anthem ‘Z-cars’ was played as the teams walked out. A minute’s applause followed and both teams wore black armbands. “It seems that only death unites the people of Liverpool,” says Lewis. “The city has always been that way inclined. It takes the death of a son or daughter of the city to bring people together.”

The arguments that it’s only a ‘small minority’ that sing the abusive songs seem unconvincing when entire sections of support can be heard singing in unison. Divisions of opinion between the two sets of fans are palpable and even the most right-minded are keen to emphasise the perceived chasm between the two clubs.

“I’ve always found that Everton is more of a club for the people,”  says Reverend Harry Ross. “When Liverpool are playing at home you can’t get a hotel room because all the out-of-town Reds come for the match.

"When I started at this church 32 years ago, I met a young lad who had a brain tumour. He was a Liverpool fan so I tried to arrange a couple of tickets for him. I went to pick up the tickets from Anfield and they asked me to pay for them. I couldn’t believe it. If that lad was an Everton fan he would have been given the best tickets, met the players, the manager and been given food. Everton look after their people. David Moyes was right when he called Everton ‘The People’s Club’.”

Neville and Gerrard have both endured abuse from opposition fans

Such a statement is like a red rag to Red All Over editor John Pearman: “Moyes was just resurrecting what Shankly said about Liverpool. It’s true we have a global fanbase, as do all the most successful clubs in the world. But to say that more people in the city support Everton is a nonsense.”

Liverpool’s perceived arrogance has always been a source of discontent among Everton fans, none more so than when Rafael Benitez called Everton a “small team” after the derby in February 2007. “By saying Manchester United are their biggest rivals Liverpool have disrespected the derby,” says George Orr. “It’s Manchester City’s job to be the main rival of United, not Liverpool’s. Liverpool are in the same position as Everton – they havens’t won the league for a very long time but every time Liverpool do win a trophy they think they should own it for good.”

Many Everton fans also feel that Liverpool get preferential treatment from the authorities. Liverpool’s Stanley Park stadium is a major source of discontent among Toffees fans. It’s claimed that in 1997 Everton made an enquiry to Liverpool City Council to see if building a stadium on Stanley Park was viable. The council said it was a public space and couldn’t be built on, yet nine years later it approved Liverpool’s application.

It’s a claim the council denies. “We can’t accuse the council of bias because Warren Bradley [council leader] and Joe Anderson [opposition leader] are Everton season-ticket holders”, says Alfie Hinks, who was a councillor in 1997. “Maybe they think Liverpool would draw more money into the city because they play in Europe”.

In 2005, when Everton pipped Liverpool to fourth place in the Premier League, Evertonians hoped it would mean Liverpool missing out on the Champions League. But when Liverpool defeated AC Milan in Istanbul, and were then granted dispensation by UEFA to enter the following season’s competition, Everton fans despaired.

In contrast, Liverpool fans think the Toffees have a persecution neurosis. “Maybe it goes back to the Clive Thomas incident,” says John Pearman, referring to the 1977 FA Cup semi-final at Maine Road when the Welsh referee disallowed a perfectly good Everton goal against Liverpool.

Clive Thomas frustrates Everton at Maine Road in 1977

Victim mentality versus superiority complex? Maybe. But the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the humour, banter and respect between the fans and towards the players has all but vanished in the top flight’s longest continuous running derby. What used to be a unique and agreeable feature of th
Merseyside derby has now been eroded and matches can be as spiteful and vitriolic as any other major rivalry.

November 29, 2009. One hour before kick-off and fans have started to arrive outside Goodison Park. Whether it’s the Merseyside weather or the recent form of both clubs, the atmosphere is noticeably subdued. Four days earlier Everton lost to Hull City, a result that put them in 16th place in the Premier League. Liverpool travelled across Stanley Park having just been knocked out of the Champions League and with only one win in their last six league matches. Rarely has the run-up to a derby been so dismal for both clubs.

As the match kicks off, it’s easy to see how the derby has changed in the past 20 years. There are no red scarves among the Evertonians and the 2,000 Liverpool fans are protected by a 40-strong ring of police and stewards. Two minutes in and the first bad challenge is made as Tim Cahill scythes down Javier Mascherano.

Referee Alan Wiley resists the temptation to produce a yellow card, but not all officials have been so lenient. Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, 17 players have been given red cards in the Merseyside derby, more than in any other fixture. (Ed's note: in February 2010's derby, Steven Pienaar and Sotiros Kyrgiakos both joined the list.)

Five minutes have elapsed when the first abusive song is directed at Steven Gerrard. Seven minutes later and the Everton fans fall silent as Javier Mascherano’s long-range shot deflects in off Everton defender Joseph Yobo. The rest of the match is typical derby fare with lots of huffing and puffing but little quality. Everton’s efforts probably merit a goal, but when Dirk Kuyt scores from close range with 10 minutes to go, a blue tide pours through the exits.

“Going down, going down, going down” sing the Liverpool fans, but given the current financial position of both clubs, their stalled plans for new stadia and lacklustre form this season, rarely have derby bragging rights been taken with so little to brag about. “I’d love to go back to the days when finishing above Everton meant you won the league,” says John Pearman. “You could have a pint with an Everton fan, a bit of banter and a good natured argument. They were great times for the city, but sadly those days are long gone.”

This feature was originally printed in the New Year 2010 issue of FourFourTwo.