This feature is part of A Tale of One City
On Merseyside, you are red or you are blue. There is no happy medium when it comes to football in Liverpool, one of Europe’s most culturally enriched cities. The Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton is the longest-running football derby in the English top-flight and the most played game in English football history and a rivalry with so many stories, it could easily be transformed into a BAFTA-winning film. With 224 meetings stretching over a period of 120 years, the Merseyside derby holds a place like no other in the history of English football.
Although some Liverpool fans would shudder at the mentioning of it, their mighty club was born out of Everton. Without Everton, there would be no Liverpool. The Toffees had been part of the professional English League from its inception in 1888, challenging the mighty Preston North End ‘Invincibles’ for the title. Their mighty fortress of Anfield was inhabited by exactly the entity they guard it against; their rivals from across Stanley Park. It wasn’t until an issue regarding rent forced John Houlding, the owner of the land on which Anfield sat, to form a new club to play at the stadium. That club was Liverpool. The year was 1892: the year the Merseyside rivalry was born.
In some quarters, the game is known as The Friendly Derby, because violence between Liverpudlians and Evertonians in the stands is a rarity. So often, the most fascinating footballing derbies around the world are marred by fan violence; the Superclásico in Buenos Aires, between River Plate and Boca Juniors, for instance. Before the game kicks off, the stadiums are bouncing with noise and awash with colour in a simply unique atmosphere. However, once the game begins and tensions boil over, the scenes that transpire are often shameful.
The Merseyside derby is largely devoid of that type of truculent fandom, hence the ‘Friendly’ tag. However, on the pitch, there is nothing friendly about the meetings between Liverpool and Everton. The intensity is increased when the two sets of players descend upon either Goodison Park or Anfield. The tackles are robust, the elbows are flailed and passions are inflamed like no other game. The Merseyside derby has seen more red cards than any other fixture in Premier League history, from vicious two-footed challenges to mass brawls underlining the overwhelming emotion packed into 90 minutes of football.
A player’s debut in a Merseyside derby is a baptism of fire and an experience not soon forgotten, and nobody summed up a derby debut as well as Ronnie Whelan, the legendary Irishman, who played for Liverpool for 15 years between 1979 and 1994: ”I played my first Merseyside derby that November at Anfield. I still have a nice souvenir from that game on my shin, a scar from the five stitches I needed after Eamonn O’Keefe chopped me in a tackle. It was a sort of right of passage, your first Merseyside derby. I had no idea how big it was or how much it meant to the city. Everywhere you went people wanted to talk about it. They left you in no doubt that you had to win it. You just could no escape the pressure or the excitement. Nothing prepared me for that.”
Liverpool won that game and Whelan described the day as a “magical atmosphere”, with the intensity and speed of the action incomparable to anything he had experienced up to that point. Whelan admitted that once he had tasted his first victory in a derby in a Liverpool shirt, he was hooked on the feeling. It’s inevitable, the addiction. That sheer lust for bragging rights around the city. A player could play in a hundred Merseyside derbies and the hatred would never evaporate. Steven Gerrard, ahead of his final derby in February, told reporters of how he was still, to this day, abused by Everton supporters on the streets:
“I had some stick from an Everton fan yesterday but it is part of my life living in this city. I love the banter with Everton fans. It’s what it’s all about. It’s about rivalries and big games of football. I’m up for all that. I don’t mind it at all. Bring it on, as far as I’m concerned.”
The passion still burned deep within Gerrard, just like it did when he was a fresh-faced teenager in his derby debut. Liverpool versus Everton is that type of game. It has longevity in a player’s consciousness. When Gerrard settles down with his grandkids in later life, he will reflect proudly on his career as a Liverpool player; these games will be the first stories told. He will smile as he remembers the glorious evening he banged a hat-trick past Tim Howard, thumping a thunderous finish high into the net to set the Kop into raptures. Gerrard had been in inspirational form in what was a special evening for the red half of the city in what the captain labelled the “perfect night”.
However, special nights are not just assigned to Anfield. Everton has produced their fair share of match-winning heroes to stand alongside Steven Gerrard. Take Australian Tim Cahill, for example, who admitted that the Merseyside derby was a special part of his life during his eight years at Everton.
Cahill was everything the Evertonian supporters loved; a street-fighting footballer armed with dogged perseverance and the heart of a lion. When he stepped out onto Goodison Park and was faced with taking down the Reds, Cahill relished the heat of battle. Having worked so hard to reach the pinnacle of professional football, Cahill, in many ways, embodies the working-class spirit of the city. He left his homeland as a teenager to pursue his dream, a personal odyssey fraught with tremendous risk. Fortunately, Cahill was rewarded when Everton signed him from Millwall in 2004.
Realising exactly what it meant to don the badge and blue of Everton, he approached the derby with even more fiery aggression than usual. “Going into the game, whether you are injured or you have little problems whatever, it is forgotten. Everything is left on the pitch and for me, coming from Australia, I feel the same sort of attitude.” Cahill has been one of Everton’s greatest heroes against Liverpool in recent times, netting five times during his battles with the other side. He, like Gerrard, lived for this game. He, like Gerrard, embodied the spirit and character of Liverpool as a footballing city.
Of course, no footballing rivalry is remembered for one, single game, but there is always that masterpiece of entertainment among the countless meetings. For the Merseyside derby, it pre-dated the Premier League era, back in 1991. It was the FA Cup fifth round and it was a game no fan will ever forget.
After a reasonably drab and uneventful 0-0 draw at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish took his star-studded Liverpool side to Goodison Park for what turned out to be a riotously entertaining eight-goal thriller and an eight-goal thriller that proved to be his swansong as Liverpool manager (in the first spell, at least). “I couldn’t believe what was unfolding in front of me,” Ray Houghton recalled. “That game had everything, it ebbed and flowed, the challenges were really flying in hard, and some very good play was undermined by bad mistakes at the back. I remember Glenn Hysen playing ‘after you’ with Bruce Grobbelaar.”
At that time, Dalglish’s Liverpool were performing supremely in the table, leading by three points and playing an exciting brand of football, thanks to sustained brilliance from the likes of Ian Rush, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley. Everton, on the other hand, had been somewhat underwhelming that year under Howard Kendall. They sat 12th in the league, very much in the shadow of their dominant neighbours. Indeed, Liverpool had comfortably overturned their rivals 3-1 at Anfield just three weeks earlier as a goal from Jan Mølby and brace from David Speedie undid the Toffees. However, on that infamous Wednesday night during a fiercely cold English winter, there was to be no seamless passage to victory for Dalglish’s men. It was to be quite different.
The Reds took the lead thanks to a Beardsley volley from close range and the away side expressed plenty of confidence and swagger as they entered the dressing room 1-0 up after 45 minutes. There had been no immediate signs of Liverpool threatening to surrender their advantage but Everton hauled themselves back into the game just a minute after the restart as Graeme Sharp met an Andy Hinchcliffe cross to bring the hosts back on level terms. 1-1. Game on.
Beardsley and Sharp scored one more before Rush popped up with a customary derby day goal to bring Liverpool to the cusp of a famous victory. But the boys from across the park refused to lie down. Tony Cottee entered play as a substitute late on and, with the roars of the Goodison faithful spurring him on, he equalised at the death of regulation play. 3-3 and extra time. John Barnes had a reputation for scoring the odd wonder goal and he lived up that billing in spectacular fashion in extra-time, curling a sensational effort from 25 yards to make it 4-3. But the game wasn’t done yet. Cottee, once again, struck with mere moments remaining, bringing the Toffees back from the dead for a fourth time.
That game will be remembered forever due to the wildly exciting play on the field, but it was almost iconic for Dalglish, standing in the dugout with a look of pure bewilderment smacked across his battle-hardened face. Frozen with disbelief that his mighty, all-conquering side could surrender a lead four times in the one match. That game was the quintessential Merseyside derby. It had everything: goals, controversy, drama and excitement. It may never be matched. Everton won the second replay and since then, Liverpool have never managed to win a league title. Evertonians like to jokingly remark that Tony Cottee prompted the decline of their great rivals.
Liverpool’s regression from a superpower has seen them occupy a level footing with their rivals over the past decade. Although they continue to win the derby on a more regular basis, the gulf separating the two sides is reduced, certainly compared to the 1980s when Liverpool ruled Europe and collected league titles by the bucket load. When Everton finished above the Reds in 2005 – pipping them to fourth in the table – there was frenzied celebration among the Goodison faithful.
It had never happened in the Premier League, yet David Moyes managed to steer his Toffees side to the halcyon achievement of being able to look down at their rivals at the completion of a 38-game season. Rafael Benítez triggered fury and hysteria when he described Everton as a “small club” during his time as Anfield boss but Everton were certainly not feeling inferior in May 2005.
Despite the animosity that forms the backbone of this great rivalry, the two clubs are brought together by football. They are united by it, just as they are thrown into loggerheads by head it. At times, social, political and economic issues transcend football and when they infiltrate this great game, it is heart-warming to witness acts of harmony between Everton and Liverpool football club. While the Liverpool fans attracted criticism for their part in the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, which embittered relations with their city rivals after the subsequent banishment of English clubs from European football, there have been times when tragedies and moments of great despair illustrate the unique bond between these two iconic footballing institutions.
After the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989 – when 96 Liverpool fans perished in an incomprehensible tragedy – the red half of the city was moved by the sentiments and support from Evertonians. To mark the 25th anniversary, Everton chairman Bill Kenwright placed a Hillsborough memorial plague at Goodison Park as a sign of respect, honouring those who lost their lives.
It says a lot about the relationship between Everton and Liverpool that they can put behind the squabbles and heated tensions on the football pitch and unite when it really matters. Liverpool returned the favour when the city was stunned by the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones – an Everton fan. Anfield played the famous Z-Cars, traditionally blasted through the speakers at Goodison Park, to greet the Everton players as a mark of respect.
Driven apart by an undying passion for football, but united by a respect and honour for their great city, Liverpool and Everton’s rivalry in the Merseyside derby is a unique one that has roots as deep as any in English football. Rivalries shape footballing identity and culture and in Liverpool, one of Europe’s most distinctive cultural centres, it is no different.
The Evertonians and Liverpudlians will never be friends, they will never stand alongside each other, drinking and singing long into the night, for that would be an outrageous contradiction for what it means to be a football fan in this city. Remember, in Liverpool, you are red, or you are blue. That’s the way it was, that’s the way it is and that’s certainly the way it always will be.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11