Feature

A (losing) trip to the Merseyside Derby

The Brick is a rugged old pub, one that smells and sounds exactly how a football pub should. The withered taps spew out cheap lager and ale at a furious pace. This is where craft beers come to die.

Everton v Liverpool - Premier League

Fans queue outside Goodison Park ahead of the Merseyside Derby. Source: Getty Images

It’s also packed – to the absolute brim – with Evertonians. From every walk of life they congregate here to reminiscence about Kendall, Ferguson and Lineker and mutter about Rooney, Clattenburg and Martinez.

The cackled loudspeaker is pumping out a wondrous, never-ending soundtrack. Z-Cars. Forever Everton. All Together Now. Spirit of the Blues. Grand Old Team. And everyone is singing, beer swilling out the edge of pints. 

All for one (clap-clap), One for all (clap-call), Everton’s the team that plays beau-ti-ful football.

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It’s been a long time since Everton played that beautiful football but nobody cares too much tonight. Just win by any means necessary. Of course, it’s the fixture Evertonians look forward to – and now dread – the most. The derby.

I’ve been driven across the country by two marvellous people, Francis and Jan, who between them, bear an encyclopaedic knowledge of the club, the city of Liverpool and the derby. 

“Contrary to what people say, it was never the ‘friendly derby’ once you set foot in the stadium,” said Francis, who grew up watching Everton in their 1960s pomp. “But I can remember about 4000 Evertonians standing on the Kop. It wasn’t segregated, you could go with people you knew on both sides. It’s a lot different now.”

The derby has a nastier edge these days despite the Premier League era - where everything seems to have more riding on it - serving to diminish both clubs in stature. Still, both clubs are at capacity for season tickets for the first time in a long time, such is the eternal hope among red and blue. Yet neither has won the league in over 25 years.

To explain why the derby is the cause of such angst would require a degree in sociology, psychology and geography. Suffice to say, while Merseyside unites for most things – far more than any other city in Britain – this game sees the city turn on itself. Viciously.

From the Everton point of view, Liverpool is no longer an authentic version of itself, shamelessly craving global eyeballs and bearing little resemblance to the working class struggles of the city itself.

From Liverpool’s perspective, Everton are just a miserable collection of “bitter Blues” - a club who can’t win anything any more and, for the forseeable future, won’t win anything again. A club that has failed to adapt to the Premier League era and remains stuck in a bygone time: an old stadium, outdated values, clinging to history.

And making the derby even harder to swallow for Evertonians is that Liverpool have taken out a mortgage on the thing since the turn of the new millennium. Everton haven’t won at Anfield since 1999, while Liverpool semi-regularly win at Goodison Park.

The nature of modern ticketing means that even though Anfield and Goodison Park are less than a mile apart, the entire area around the stadium is a sea of Blue. As we exit the pub, all Liverpool feels as though it belongs to Everton tonight.

Having defeated Arsenal in a thrilling, come-from-behind fashion last Tuesday, the Grand Old Lady is rocking in anticipation. Everton come bolting out of the gates and the noise is frenzied from kick-off. Every 50-50 challenge is greeted by a thunderous roar.

Liverpool fans, in their corner, are reduced to a bundle of nerves every time the Blues surge forward. Seamus Coleman is flying down the right, James McCarthy is owning the midfield. Even the unpredictable Antonio Valencia seems especially up for it.

But Jurgen Klopp has a few aces up his sleeve. One of them is Ragnar Klavan. He isn’t just getting the better of Romelu Lukaku, he’s carving up Everton’s entire attack. It is a masterful display as he single-handedly repels everything.

At 31, it is hard not to think what Liverpool could have achieved if he had turned up a decade earlier. Physically dominant in the air and clean on the ground, the Estonian looks a clone of Nemanja Vidic. It is his presence that Everton can’t unpick – they can’t even get a shot on goal, despite their positional dominance.

But the injury to McCarthy changes the complexion of the game and he is wheeled off at half-time for Gareth Barry. Yet the 35-year old, such a bargain get for Everton, now looks his age and cannot contribute as once might have. 

The game has begun to turn in Liverpool’s favour, and it’s no longer Klavan alone. Sadio Mane, in the absence of Philippe Coutinho, is taking all before him. To watch him on television is one thing, but live, he looks even better. Impossibly fast feet, huge stamina, talent to burn and bundles of confidence. A magnificent player.

Roberto Firmino is coming into the game as a threat. James Milner has a dogged, relentless quality. Nathaniel Clyne is making huge ground down the right, often getting the better of Leighton Baines. Then Maarten Stekelenburg gets injured, leaving Joel Robles to take the gloves for Everton.

Confusingly, with Kevin Mirallas on the bench, Everton manager Ronald Koeman brings the skinny, untried Dominic Calvert-Lewin into the game for his second match. Three substitutes for Everton are already gone and there’s 20 minutes still to play. None of them can have an impact, even if two were forced by injury.

Everton look finished, as evidence by the terrible tackle by Ross Barkley on Jordan Henderson. Given another chance by Koeman, Barkley had a poor game and the challenge typifies his night. He has lost all his swagger under the Dutchman.



As injury-time approaches, it’s still 0-0, and given how little Everton have penetrated into Liverpool’s defence, a point would be a fair result for the Toffees. But Mane is having none of that, and as he moves fastest to tuck home the loose ball deep into injury time, it is no surprise to even the most fervent Evertonian.

Goodison Park cannot empty quickly enough, the fans already dreading the next day in the office or at school. A derby provides endless ammunition for the winners; unlimited shame for the loser. The mood around the ground is a mix of anger and futility. Emotions are clearly fraying on the streets.

Before things get out of hand, it’s time to head back to The Brick, for a soothing ale, under a framed, signed copy of Tim Cahill’s famous shirt. How the Blues could have used him tonight.


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6 min read
Published 22 December 2016 at 6:52am
By Sebastian Hassett