There is a term in mental health circles called catastrophising, the tendency by the anxious to sprint to the worst possible outcome, however improbable, and then mentally prepare accordingly. In reality, such outcomes are uncommon and so, part of the healing process is about realising this, releasing the brain from its state of near-permanent fight-or-flight by incorporating a sense of perspective.
But Derby Day might be one of the few examples, at least from an Evertonian’s point of view, when catastrophising appears to be a proportionate response. In fact, it’s fair to say that some of the recent defeats were beyond anything that even the most fevered of Evertonian brains could have dreamed up.
Horrors like the ‘Origi’ Derby, the Silva 5-2 clusterfuck, the Martinez 4-0 shellacking part one, the Martinez 4-0 shellacking part two.
Such is the degree of bad joojoo that surrounds the Merseyside Derby nowadays, it would probably be naive to think there is ever a floor to our suffering. It is best to assume that the Derby can always invent new and unusual ways to torture us.
We might be better at Goodison than at Mordor, but inevitably, wherever the contest is played out, our internal monologue beforehand is still tinged with the horrors of ‘What If?’
And Wednesday will be no different. In fact, considering our current predicament, those ‘What Ifs?’ will be more negatively charged than usual.
Through the perfect storm of injuries, gutlessness, boardroom incompetency and the appointment of a manager whose holding amongst the fanbase was always going to be tenuous, we have arrived at the fixture in a wretched state.
I had to think long and hard about a comparable moment from the club’s history to equal this one, to welcome the Red Menace to Goodison with the club in such an awful position. The closest I could think of was 1994, when a rampant Liverpool crossed the park to play bottom of the table Everton.
Back then, just like today, as the Derby loomed, Evertonians were in a depressed state. Years of boardroom atrophy had saddled the club with an uninspiring squad and a flailing manager. We had reached the dog days of the Mike Walker-era, the word ‘dog’ being used in this sense because it was almost exclusively dog shit. It was a time that almost every young Blue should really look at when they talk in the modern-era about watching the ‘worst Everton side ever’. You don’t know ‘bad’ until you have watched a Mike Walker Everton.
Thankfully, on that occasion, the new owner, Peter Johnson, acted just in time, jettisoning the hapless Walker and ushering in the Joe Royle-era. The new manager’s side took to the pitch with transformed intent, encapsulated by Joe Parkinson slide-tackling an empty crisp packet during the warm up. Royle’s Everton kicked Liverpool off the park, sending the Spice Boys back to Anfield to lick their wounds. The victory, courtesy of goals from Ferguson and Rideout, lit the touchpaper for a phoenix–like resurrection, one that would see the club survive the drop and ultimately go on to claim the FA Cup.
That sense of a boardroom waking up to the error of their ways will obviously not occur before Wednesday. Whatever happens in the bizarre relationship between Rafa Benitez and Everton Football Club, we can be certain that he will get to contest at least one Derby while sitting in the Blue dugout.
While it’s easy to blame him for the predicament we currently find ourselves in – and he does shoulder some of the responsibility, most notably in his unshakable conviction that Salomon Rondon is a professional footballer – in reality this is a catastrophe that has been a long time in the making. Whether it’s the club’s scattergun transfer policy, the ‘jobs for the boys’ behind-the-scenes set-up, the dysfunctional boardroom, the hiring and firing of managers at a whim, the absolute absence of coherence, the origins of this ‘moment’ – to use modern managerial speak – go back further than the arrival of the hapless Spaniard.
Yes, there has been bad luck this season. And yes, the fixture list has turned against us. But if you reach a point where, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds, your strategy for a campaign hangs on not getting any injuries and relying the kindness of the fixtures, then you don’t really have a strategy at all.
The sad truth is that Everton are a mess. We seem to be the only club in English football to have watched Sunderland ‘Til I Die and viewed it as aspirational television. Where the Mackems blazed a trail of incompetence, Everton have followed but done it on a much bigger scale. We now have an expensive squad that was assembled by seven different managers. And like anything cobbled together in that way, it is an incoherent shambles.
But wait, thought our owner, surely I can make this even worse? And so, into this binfire of a set-up, Moshiri, for reasons unknown, thought it a good idea to drop in a manager who once dismissed Everton as a ‘small club’ and who is loved and revered by our neighbours. This would be more forgivable if Benitez was the only manager left in world football. But he wasn’t. Instead of him, Moshiri could have chosen anyone. Literally anyone.
Instead, he’s lumbered us with a boss likely past his best and one forever tainted by his association with the dark side.
And then comes the Derby. Because, why wouldn’t it? Of course, when we are at our lowest ebb, the neighbours would roll into town. Only now, to add to their hilarious songs about our lack of silverware and their social media onslaught of ‘hahahahahhahas’ they have the ‘Rafa’ angle to beat us with. It’s like you’re getting your head kicked in by the school bully and then rather than seeing the headmaster coming to your rescue to break things up, he arrives instead with a baseball bat that he hands to the bully to really finish the job.
Benítez is the icing on a shit cake that we will all be forced to finish on Wednesday. The final punchline to a joke that no Evertonian will ever find funny.
So, what do we do? Essentially how do we navigate the potential catastrophe to come?
The ways in which Blues deal with the neighbours are varied. Some try to blank them, the head in the sand approach. If you can’t see them, they aren’t real. Others go for the ‘tourist club’ slight-of-hand. The anti-People’s Club. If they lack authenticity, the gambit claims, then their dominance is diminished. And then there’s acting like you don’t really care, a sort of conscious uncoupling, an attempt to stop seeing them as different to any other club.
Does any of it work? No, not really. You can never completely suppress that sense of visceral loathing Liverpool conjure up, no matter how hard you try. They are the yin to our yang, an elemental part of what it means to be an Evertonian; an experience that is as much about dark as it is about light.
Liverpool have undeniably played a part in the formation of the modern Blue. On the pitch, even diminished for a generation before Klopp arrived, they stood as a reminder of how much Everton had fallen short, a propensity for self-immolation denying the club the opportunity to match even their more modest haul of trophies in the pre-Teutonic age.
Off it, they represent a road not yet travelled, something to perhaps define ourselves against. Liverpool’s untethering from the local bonds that once held them so tight stands as a cautionary tale of the perils that modern football’s love affair with the bottom line can potentially bring.
And underwriting the whole relationship, simple hate. A pure and undiluted loathing that has become an indelible part of the Blue psyche. Loathing not necessarily of individuals, although that can often be the case, but of the body, the great heaving Kopite mass.
Importantly, something that is not always appreciated by the wider football world, this is a loathing that functions independent of any sense of ‘bitterness’. That’s Liverpool’s own sleight of hand, a neat alliterative trick to try and diminish us further. The truth is that Evertonians hated the neighbours long before Heysel. We loathed them when we were successful. We’ve loathed them for generations. And we always will. Everton could spend the next 20 years winning every trophy put before the club and we as fans would still hate Liverpool. It’s in our DNA.
I suspect that no matter what gambit attempted, this hatred will be flowing at its fullest on Wednesday as yet another Derby goes against us. I could be wrong of course and against the odds, Everton manage to pull a miracle out of the bag. But I don’t think so. It’s hard to imagine that the same side that couldn’t even draw against an under-par Brentford, that couldn’t muster a shot against Man City, that has won just one in the last ten will fare that well against a team as accomplished as Liverpool.
But worse than that just losing will be that Benítez factor. And that’s what will really grates. Because it was avoidable. While the wasted millions, the terrible recruitment and the default setting of incoherence would likely always have brought us to this point, we didn’t have to arrive here with a Liverpool legend in charge. A potential Derby mauling, however painful, might have been just about bearable if just a routinely shite manager was at the helm. After all, it’s not like we haven’t had practise at that. But instead, our humiliation could be accentuated. A rub-their-noses in-it kind of defeat that could make past Derby’s look like a walk in the park by comparison.
And that’s on Moshiri. It reeks of an owner who does not understand this club. Most of the crap that he has unloaded on Everton since arriving can be written off as incompetence, poorly considered decisions that have landed the club in a dire position. When thinking about them, you do wonder how on earth this man has managed to amass a fortune, because judging by his time in charge at Everton, by rights he should be destitute. His staggering ineptitude has gradually run the club into the ground, best exemplified in recent weeks by the fact that despite spending half a billion on players, at one point our forward line cost £1.5m to put together and, like a shite Newcastle United tribute act, boasted Salomon Rondon and Andros Townsend.
But the Benítez appointment is something else. This is more than just routine incompetence. This is cruel. This is exposing the fanbase to the possibility of something new, a novel development in humiliation. We thought we’d seen every kind of Derby Day misery, delivered courtesy of the likes of Curtis Jones, Divock Origi and Sadio Mane. But Moshiri might have innovated, creating the potential for new layers of suffering. The owner of your club should not be doing that. If he understood anything about Everton, he’d have ensured that such an outcome, however likely or unlikely would never have been possible.
For many Evertonians, Wednesday night could be unforgivable.