The gradual break up of Everton’s fantastic league-winning side of the late-sixties was especially painful to Evertonians since it coincided with the dominant emergence of ‘that lot’ across Stanley Park. In truth describing Liverpool’s twenty-year reign as merely ‘dominant’ is flippantly underselling it: for generations they were the epitome of excellence and the intimidating benchmark of what can be achieved when you put eleven men in shorts on the same park. Their trophy haul requires a GCSE in maths at C grade or above.
It is possible to compare peak Liverpool from that era with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United but not when you consider which straddled English football more comprehensively. The incredible achievements orchestrated by Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish played out pre-internet and before 24/7 media meaning their rare failings could not be mocked outside of a pub. All you saw or read were highlights of their magisterial fare on the telly, or positive, sycophantic headlines in the papers.
As a Manchester City supporter myself, I know full well what it’s like to live in the shadow of a globally-admired behemoth – and I still curse Ferguson each and every day for it – so God knows how much harder it was back then when the world only had reverence for success. As Everton slipped into largely mid-table mediocrity it must have felt like being Rob Kardashian. There but not there.
It’s natural then that the Merseyside derbies of the seventies and early-eighties took on far greater relevance to the blue half of the city than to the red contingent. I certainly know what that’s like and for most of my childhood and teen years, beating United became only slightly less important than avoiding relegation. It wasn’t just a neighbourly dispute; it was a chance to avenge all the times other clubs had gone to Old Trafford and rolled over because they didn’t care as much as we did.
Unfortunately for the Toffees there wasn’t a huge amount of avenging to be enjoyed. A string of 0-0s showed their defiance and a fiercely-contested 1-0 win in 1978 is still fondly recalled to this day, but elsewhere Liverpool took their local rivals apart just like they did everybody else and viewed the derby as just another challenge on their way to amassing seven league titles in ten years. The noise was significantly louder. The tackles were harsher. But Everton were a bump in the road to dispense with usually while having one eye on a European Cup trip midweek.
Someone you hate beating you with relative ease and celebrating it only half as much as it pains you – is there anything worse in sport?
But it got better. Much, much better. In 1981 a distinguished alumni from Everton’s School of Science returned to Goodison Park and set about building one of the most balanced and fluid exponents of 4-4-2 the domestic game has ever witnessed. Howard Kendall’s superb side deserved more than their two league titles and would have got them too if not for, well, you know who. For Liverpool were still in the ascendancy and consequently the dynamic of the Merseyside derby changed beyond recognition. Now it was staged on an equal footing. Now it mattered hugely to both.
The encounters bear this out. Graeme Sharp’s dipping pearler at Anfield in ’84. Liverpool’s FA Cup Final triumph two years later. These, and more, are iconic moments that transfixed neutrals and made the north west city the nation’s sporting capital. For fans of both hues, there was now far more than mere bragging rights at stake. For ninety minutes twice a season everything was at stake.
All great things must come to pass of course and the downward trajectories for each club occurred within seasons of one another. Everton slid back to merely being good while Liverpool faced a difficult and prolonged shedding of their superpowers that began when one of their own alumni – Graeme Souness – took over the reins and started buying dross. Give or take the odd Champions League miracle and a brief spell for Everton under David Moyes, when being David Moyes was still a good thing, and this remains the case to the present day.
It is interesting to note, though, that while the standing of each club diminished, the dynamic of the derby didn’t change. If anything, their respective downturns only intensified the clash and where a once-hared scouse pride had united the divide – to an extent – now there was only a calcified hatred. Liverpool v Everton went from being a box-office prize fight to a street scrap. Which is not necessarily a bad thing for any derby. Certainly the tension and drama was cranked up and from the 54 clashes since Souness’s appointment (to denote ground zero for both club’s decline from power) there have been an astonishing 21 red cards and a reliable flurry of controversy. In 2010 the journalist Rory Smith described the fixture thus – “Toxic in the stands, brutal on the pitch. To those involved it remains a battle of all or nothing proportions.”
The situation though may be changing once again. There is no longer a battle to be first among equals nor a contest fought in mutual struggle: Liverpool are beginning to focus on the bigger picture with more substantial things to concern themselves with than a localised tussle. The ferociously entertaining 3-3- draw at Goodison in 2013/14 very much had the feel of the hosts attempting to bring Liverpool down to size as their fans began to dream of an unanticipated title charge. Since then two 4-0 drubbings at Anfield hint that the Blues have become the weakened sibling, unable to persuade their brother to play with them out in the wider world.
This Monday evening, Goodison Park will be barbaric and bouncing, the home faithful desperate to head into work the following day singing Romelu Lukaku’s name to their red colleagues.
For Liverpool however it is, once again, mainly another bump in the road in their pursuit of glory.