More Than Just a Game

When Everton take to the pitch at our former ground this weekend it will be 18 years since the club has won at Anfield.  By any definition, this is a woeful statistic.

Everton have now long surpassed the previous record, which stood at 14 years, spanning the period 1970-1984. Although dreadful, there were mitigating circumstances for this dismal performance. That period covered Liverpool in their pomp, when the notion of ‘Fortress Anfield’ was grounded in unshakable reality.

In the past 18 years, there is no mitigation. Liverpool are long past their best and if Anfield is any kind of fortress today, it is one whose edifice is crumbling and whose defences can be breached with ease.

But where the likes of West Ham, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa have succeeded in recent seasons (regarding a trip to Anfield as no different to any other away game) Everton have stumbled, burdened by a self-imposed mental block that has made the prospect of winning appear near impossible.

In recent seasons this has blossomed into an inability to rarely put out a competitive performance. Not only do Everton seem to enter these contests defeated before a ball has even been kicked but they have also on occasions been porous to the point of saturation.

The 4-0 defeat in 2016 might stand as a low-point in this era of misery, a game where the scoreline could have reached double figures, but although the worst example, it remains only one of a litany of recent abject performances.

The sad reality through these years of pain is that much of it has been avoidable. Few of the Liverpool sides that Everton have encountered since the club’s last victory in 1999 have been unbeatable. The club’s dismal record has spanned one of Liverpool’s more lamentable periods in their history. Compare the sides of the past two decades to those that played their football at Anfield in the 1970s and 1980s and its evident just how much Everton have fallen short.

The Shite have been there for the taking time and time again. But Everton do not seem able to grasp the opportunities presented. Perhaps most criminal was back in 2012 when an on form Everton took on an out of sorts Liverpool and with a front line of Anichebe and Stracqualursi  let them off the hook, enabling our hosts to build up a bit of confidence and run out 3-0 victors.

The Blues now effectively start each season at a numeric points disadvantage because the three points available at Anfield are effectively off the table. And by extension, Liverpool start at an advantage, so certain is it that the Anfield derby will end at worst, as a draw, at best, a victory.

But as depressing as this is, perhaps worse is what Everton’s dismal record at Anfield says about the club. Since Moyes arrived and began to restore some footballing pride at Goodison, Everton have possessed aspirations of moving back into the higher reaches of the game.

Like most clubs outside the top six, when visiting the stadiums of the ‘big guns’ there is an inevitable sense of wariness.  Playing City, Chelsea or United away will always be a test. But none of these fixtures enjoy the same sense of fatalism as the Anfield Derby does for Everton. A sliver of optimism remains stubbornly persistent and occasionally it is rewarded. But against Liverpool, pessimism reigns and such an outlook generally proves to be appropriate.

The Anfield derby is Everton’s first and arguably greatest mental block. If the club has any desire or opportunity to both return to the upper echelons of the game and claim silverware then victory against the auld enemy would be hugely beneficial.

The mental fortitude to grasp silverware, to push for the Champions League, to consistently take on the best, does not currently reside at Goodison. But turning over the Shite in their own backyard would be an enormous first step in building up the club’s self belief, arming for the ‘project’ to come.

When I interviewed players from Everton’s mid-1980s Golden Age for my recent book, Everton’s Greatest Games, the likes of Sharp, Sheedy and Ratcliffe all pointed out just how important Everton’s win at Anfield in 1984 was for what came next. For them, it didn’t just represent an end to the 14 year hoodoo that Anfield had held over the club; it also provided tangible proof that anything was possible.

Although there are no parallels to be drawn between this current Everton squad and that of the mid-1980s, and few amongst us expect another Golden Age to arrive any point soon, the hurdle of beating Liverpool at Anfield can awaken possibilities within a group of players.

No other club in the top flight has such a mental block (or sense of inferiority) when it comes to playing their neighbours. Today, Liverpool are a good side. On their day, they can beat most teams. And at Anfield, with 60,000 Norwegians behind them, they are generally better. But they are not that good. And nor have they been for some time. They are not a side that should be beating Everton 4-0, they are not a side that should be outplaying the Blues all the time and they are not a side that should be going into this fixture always expecting to win.

When Kevin Campbell slotted home his early winner back in September 1999, I doubt anyone watching thought that nearly two decades would pass without Everton bringing home all three points from Anfield again.

The club’s shambolic record at our old ground is a shameful one. If we ever hope to be something more than we are now, that has to chang

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