For a welcome spell in the mid-to-late nineteen-eighties the Merseyside derby became a fascinating prospect for neutrals. In the preceding decade and a half Liverpool was not only the dominant force in the area but a side that regularly conquered Europe and consequently the local dust-ups very much had a David v Goliath vibe. Between 1970 and an all-Merseyside Charity Shield in 1984, the two clubs locked horns on 35 occasions. Everton won only three of them.
Then Howard Kendall came along and changed everything. From back to front, Southall to Gray, the Toffees now had a team perfectly balanced with every attribute required to challenge for silverware and with Liverpool still intimidatingly good this meant that for a five year period the title was passed back and forth between Anfield and Goodison Park.
A duopoly was created within a singular city and so it naturally followed that the neighbourly disputes that took place during this era were similarly carved up fifty/fifty. From that Charity Shield clash to Kendall’s departure for Spain in 1987 there were fifteen derbies. Everton won six. Liverpool won six. Three were drawn.
It is often said of derby games that the form book can be thrown out of the window while the points are relegated to a secondary importance. Furthermore, this is an axiom that is trumpeted but really it’s far from the ideal. More accurately these encounters are elevated significantly when they’re contested on a level playing field and they amount to proverbial six pointers. Those derbies were ferocious and compelling. They held a nation spell-bound.
And the same can be said of the Manchester meetings in the five year window that followed City’s transformative take-over and the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. Prior to the take-over the blue half of the city were long established as the underdogs, contenting themselves with the occasional bloodying of their superior neighbours nose. Most times though class prevailed.
In recent seasons we have seen a role-reversal as United flail in prolonged crisis while City scale extraordinary heights and granted four wins in the red column from 12 derbies is hardly an embarrassing return, but we only have to look at the exaggerated celebrations from last year’s 3-2 comeback – that simply postponed a title romp by one week – to fundamentally know that United are now the weaker sibling punching up. Their 2-1 reverse at the Etihad last month was accompanied by palpable relief at the avoidance of a humiliation.
Whereas those five years, oh boy, the drama was Shakespearean featuring as it did a king long in situ but fading in strength refusing to relinquish power to a rising prince. Proportionate in stature on the pitch and in direct competition for trophies and esteem those five years led to a quite incredible 4-3 slug-fest at Old Trafford; a 6-1 hammering; a last minute winner to a five-goal thriller at the Etihad; and a two-legged League Cup semi-final that was colossal in its scope.
For all the reasons laid out above there is currently no derby more relevant, important and downright unmissable than the one that will ground north London to a standstill for ninety minutes this Sunday afternoon. Yet most of us across the country will be viewing it as little more than an appetising hors d’oeuvres ahead of its Merseyside equivalent scheduled for kick-off shortly after. In reality, that is the dessert: it is Arsenal v Spurs that should hold our full attention.
Historically this fixture too has suffered from a sustained imbalance, with the Gunners racking up three titles in the Premier League era, one of which had them immortalised as invincible. Yet now a debate over who are the top dogs of their postcode would last long into the night, with Spurs fans pointing to their team’s third, second and third league finishes in recent campaigns while Arsenal supporters would surely ask when was the last time a trophy resided at White Hart Lane.
Even so, for all the admitted lack of glory this is anything but an inconsequential match-up: in the last decade both clubs boast an average league finish of fourth and in an era when Champions League qualification is so profoundly crucial that counts for a great deal. It also happens to make the north London derby a meeting of equals.
Throw in the incendiary nature of the fixture itself that is steeped in combative folklore, not to mention its habit of producing crazy score-lines and controversy aplenty and what we have is an encounter that is pure box-office for all, not just the participating few.
Everybody loves a David v Goliath derby and those of us not of a red persuasion will presumably be rooting for Everton this weekend, hoping they end a nineteen-year Anfield hoodoo.
But for the real deal; for the match-up of equals, where the same targets are aspired for by either side, there is no contest as to which derby holds the most appeal. It is a fascinating prospect for neutrals. Let’s savour this window while it’s ajar.