The Merseyside Derby is a unique fixture. Granted, the ‘friendly derby’ tag is a little tired and not wholly accurate in the modern game. But supporters of Everton and Liverpool are a lot more accommodating and accepting of each other than a host of English football’s other city rivals.
Resultantly, the build-up to the game is rather full-on. You chat about it in work and with your family; reds and blues alike. It’s on the radio. It’s in the papers. It’s oozing out of every pore of social media.
As a supporter, it gets embedded into your mind. You run through scenarios in your head over and over: “Should he play there?” “How will he match-up against him?” “Maybe we should play this system?”. It’s a cyclical search for anything that may offer a slight crumb of comfort ahead of the weekend. Anything that might help quell those nerves.
The thing about Everton vs. Liverpool is that, in recent times, they haven’t been very enjoyable contests. The Merseyside derby is typically a tight, tense affair. Tackling, battling and passion usually reigns over the ‘beautiful game’, so they aren’t aesthetically pleasing contests for the neutral.
But for me, the main reason these games aren’t all that fun is because Everton usually lose them with a whimper: “We’ve bottled it against Liverpool again” I’ll often find myself muttering in the pub post-match. For the entirety of my time as a match-going Evertonian, the Toffees have been awful against the team from across Stanley Park. Under the previous regime, those off to the game donning blue would adopt a mentality of ‘expect the worst and hope for the best’.
This year, with David Moyes weaving his magic at Manchester United and the infinitely positive Roberto Martinez taking charge of Everton, I was expecting something a little different. Renewed blue belief and confidence for starters. An Everton team bereft of the inferiority complex that has long hindered them, I hoped.
The best thing about the derby in years gone-by has been the day itself. Not the seven day build-up which leaves you clockwatching in work. Not even the match itself. But making a day of things. The early kick-off means that if you want a couple of pints beforehand, you need to be in the pub early. So we usually have a substantial breakfast followed by a few beers. Obviously if you win, you’re straight back out.
We usually head out about three hours before kick-off on derby day and get a taxi from the pub up to the ground about half an hour before the game gets underway. So at about 12:15pm, feeling particularly, well, lets say “refreshed”, we flagged down a taxi and were in the ground for 12:30pm.
There is an extra buzz in the air on derby day (not just because of the booze); it’s like any other game in most respects, but everything is cranked up by about 10%. Chants start to ring out a little earlier than usual. The ground, typically half empty five minutes before kick-off before a swell of spectators take their seats, fills up quicker. Anticipation is heightened , your heart beats faster and the roar when Z-Cars starts is just that little bit more raucous and hostile.
Prior to kick-off, Liverpool supporters unfurled a banner commemorating Everton’s 18 years without a trophy. Quite the effort considering the majority will tell you they “don’t care about Everton”. Toffees supporters responded with usual jibes about a chunk of the Liverpool fan base coming from outside the city, with “f*** off back to Norway, the city is ours” one of the most prominent chants.
But compared to the majority of derby games in the country, the chants aimed at the opposition are minimal. Both sets of supporters rally behind their own team instead focusing their attention on the opposition. The way it should be.
There was little in terms of chanting in this game though, with every supporter perpetually mesmerised by the on field action. What ensued when Phil Dowd blew his whistle was probably the most pulsating and unashamedly attacking game I have ever seen at Goodison Park.
It looked as though it was going to be business as usual for Liverpool after they took the lead on four minutes through Philippe Coutinho’s lofted strike. But Everton responded, with Kevin Mirallas making his mark on proceedings with a neat finish at the back post. Both goals came inside the first eight minutes and after extremely poor defending. In truth, it set the precedent for a whirlwind afternoon.
Luis Suarez restored Liverpool’s lead with a free-kick before the 20 minute mark, although the Everton wall and Tim Howard could have perhaps done better. Then, with Suarez limping from an earlier clash, Mirallas took aim at the Uruguayan’s knee. It was a bad tackle, but in real-time, was difficult to see exactly how bad. I suspect there is a bit of needle lingering after Suarez took a rampant Mirallas out of the same fixture last season, but nonetheless, Everton got away with one this year.
If anything that tackle cranked things up further, with both playing with vigour and at a frantic pace. Everton putting Liverpool under real pressure before the half-time whistle and in the end, Martinez’s team were unlucky to go in 2-1 down.
There were two, key moments in the second half for me. The most obvious being Joe Allen’s awful, awful miss with the goal gaping and Suarez in acres of space to his left. “The only time in his life he hasn’t passed it sideways” one of my red mates quipped afterwards. The second was the injury to Leighton Baines, which in turn saw Gareth Barry shift to left-back, Ross Barkley into a deeper midfield position and Gerard Deulofeu introduced.
That attacking move from the Catalan boss, one that his predecessor may not have made, saw an already fluid game blown wide, wide open. Everton streamed forward through Liverpool’s paper-thin midfield with Mirallas, Barkley and Deulofeu revelling in the space behind Romelu Lukaku. Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet kept Everton at bay for long spells, but could do little as Mirallas teed up his compatriot Lukaku to finish right-footed.
The goal ignited a marvellous finish as both teams continued to press for a winner. One unbelievable spell of football saw a Liverpool corner, an Everton three-on-two breakaway and a superb save from Howard all within a sixty second period. Everton maintained the greater threat, though, as Mignolet thwarted Deulofeu on two further occasions.
One of those saves produced a corner, which Mirallas put on the head of Lukaku. The Belgian powerhouse smashed his header home in Duncan Ferguson-esque fashion and the Goodison Park crowd erupted with unparalleled delerium. It was unrestrained mayhem and as I type this a couple of days later, I am still littered with bruises from those goal celebrations.
I thought we had it won, but credit to Liverpool, they battled back. Gerrard whipped in another excellent set-piece and Daniel Sturridge glanced a header in at the near-post. The England forward ran to the other end of the pitch to celebrate in front of Everton supporters who had been giving him stick, and I’ve got no problem with that. If you give it out, you’ve got to take it I suppose.
A draw was probably about fair in the end. It’s a difficult game to pick the bones out of because so much happened at such a furious tempo. But I’m delighted with the positive intent Everton showcased. Young players like James McCarthy, Lukaku, Deulofeu, and Barkley played without the fear that has crippled so many Toffees players in the past. Hopefully, under Martinez, they can shake off this underdogs tag and emerge from the admittedly vast shadow of the Anfield club.
The first thing I do after any derby is call my granddad – a Liverpool fan of 65 years – to talk about the game. His first words to me this time where “I’m getting far too old for games like that Matt”.
I suspect with two progressive, attacking and ambitious managers at the helm of each club, there will be many, many more on their way.
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