The Anfield Derby. Are there three words that strike more dread into an Evertonian’s heart than those?
Maybe ‘Kenny is starting’?
‘Holgate is captain’?
Or possibly ‘Tosun contract extension’?
I’m old enough to remember when that wasn’t the case. While a trip to the stadium we once built and then discarded was never something particularly relished, there was a time when the fixture didn’t carry the same emotional baggage that it does today.
But then, that was a simpler age, a time before half-scarves, before generated football content, before ape-themed non-fungible tokens.
It was also an era before horrors like the ‘Origi’ Derby, the ‘Curtis Jones’ cup tie, the Silva 5-2 clusterfuck, the Martinez 4-0 shellacking part one, the Martinez 4-0 shellacking part two.
These bleak moments in Everton’s recent history have curdled what the Anfield Derby means to us, turning a fixture that was simply something not necessarily welcomed into one that is dreaded. It’s also one, more so than its Goodison counterpart, that often throws into sharper focus the question of how to deal with the neighbours in the modern football age.
The ways in which Blues cope 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? The answer is no. 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 rolled into town, 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 partial 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 of individuals, although that can sometimes be the case, but of the body, the great heaving Kopite mass, with its ‘hahahahahahas’, its imprudent use of emojis and its unrivalled lack of self-awareness.
It’s a hate that often sits uneasily within the anodyne landscape of the Premier League football product, with its happy clapping, half-scarved smiling faces that people its back-drop. As football morphs into an entertainment product alone, one to be enjoyed and never, ever endured, the place for such deep-seated animosity is uncertain. While the Premier League and Sky will happily promote rivalries, you are meant to wear them lightly. A kind of ‘banter lolz’ sort of rivalry.
In short, you’re not meant to fucking despise them.
But why not? As long as it doesn’t revisit the bad old days of football’s violent past or use tragedy as the principal ingredients of your tone deaf and deeply offensive ‘banter’, there’s little wrong with loathing the neighbours. In an increasingly bland football world, it’s part of what makes the game interesting. It’s that deep-seated emotional pull that allows football to transcend other, more conventional ways to spend 90 minutes. A film or a play will never move you in the same way a match will. Football grabs you and conjures up extremes, light and dark.
And, despite what they and others say, our loathing functions independent of any sense of ‘bitterness’. That’s Liverpool’s very 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.
That’s what’s in our DNA.
Which brings us neatly to Sunday’s game and our seasonal journey to Mordor. While there is rarely a great time to play Liverpool away, it’s fair to say that this is a particularly inopportune moment. Sauron’s forces are in imperious form, chasing down an unprecedented quadruple. While Everton, by contrast, despite a recent improvement of sorts, are in the midst of one of the worst seasons in our modern history. The Blues have, damningly, not fared well against energetic sides who harry and chase every ball, hunting our players down remorselessly. Liverpool excel at this, a fact that does not bode well for the contest to come. And all that before you even consider the reality that one of the most explosive and prolific forward lines in world football will be up against a defence hardly renowned for its organisational fortitude. Considering these factors, it’s difficult not to envisage some kind of horrific battering, specifically when you throw in our already less-than-impressive historic form when crossing the park.
Of course, anything is possible in football and there remains an outside chance that Everton could rise to the occasion and upset the odds. But considering the team’s away form, the manager’s insistence on playing open football and the squad’s inability to withstand the kind of relentless pressure Liverpool will inevitably throw at them, that chance remains woefully slim.
And if that isn’t bad enough, at the moment there exists a very real possibility, that should Burnley’s game go in their favour, a defeat at the hands of the RS will consign us to the bottom three. That’s the true failure of recent weeks, the fact that opportunities blown against both Burnley and Leicester have potentially handed Liverpool the possibility of inflicting a psychologically damaging blow to both the club and the fanbase. Always be careful when people say that we have reached ‘Peak Everton’ because it seems as though the footballing gods are constantly looking for new and unusual ways to torment us. That past humiliations at the hands of our neighbours have been insufficient in their cruelty.
Are there any silver linings to be found in our current predicament? Perhaps only one. Although his parting left a bitter taste in the mouth, we can at least thank Ancelotti for leaving us with a single gift, namely victory across the park. The defeat of Liverpool last season, a win that came with almost unaccustomed ease, finally rid us of the ‘not since 1999’ pressure that had built on the club over the past few decades. While I don’t for a minute think that Everton will get a win this time around, at least defeat will not add to an oppressive narrative that for some time turned this fixture into an even more foreboding prospect than it needed to be.
But will the sustenance provided by this small crumb of comfort be enough to sustain me sufficiently through Sunday’s potential shitshow? I don’t think so. I am mentally prepared for brutality, for a chastening experience more harrowing than anything we have been put through before. And yet, equally unsurprised by this. This, it seems, is now the lot of the modern Evertonian, a succession of blows and disappointments courtesy of a club who, if we’re honest, probably don’t deserve the support we give them.
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