When Mick Kelly turned his Merseyside pub into a football cut and shut, it was visions of derby day that excited him most.
One half of the Orient Hotel pub in Speke by John Lennon Airport is all blue. Blue carpet, blue walls, blue memorabilia on the walls. The pool balls are racked up on a blue baize. The other half is the same, but in Liverpool red.
The atmosphere late this afternoon will be altogether different from anything its Blue and Red regulars ever imagined. It might just be the strangest day in the pub’s semi-illustrious history (it was here that the “Fruit Machine Riot of 1983” took place, an event that has gone down in legend, though the facts of what happened seem to have been forgotten).
In one of football’s fairly periodic twists of existential agony, at 5.30pm Everton kick off against Manchester City. They have plenty to play for: a Europa League place to guarantee, a not yet fully extinguished chance to qualify for the Champions League, not to mention the noble pride of three points, and a result against one of Europe’s best teams.
But the fans know all too well that if City fail to win, the advantage in the title race falls emphatically back to their red-blooded neighbours. Only those of a certain age can even remember the last time they had to face the ignominy of Liverpool being champions: 1990. What is to be done?
“Oh Everton will be the best supported team in the whole of Merseyside tomorrow,” says landlord Mick (a Red). “It’ll be the best support they’ve had for years. I think they’ll want to beat City for themselves.”
But footballing emotions have always run high – and not everyone agrees. When Kelly installed a full steel replica of Anfield’s Shankly Gates over the entrance to his pool room and toilets, many of his blue-shirted regulars weren’t afraid to air their views.
“There was a staunch Evertonian sat in the corner the day we did it,” Mick says. “He didn’t notice it straight away. Then he kicked off. ‘I’m not pissing in them toilets now,’ he said. ‘I’m pissing in the car park. I’m not walking under those, no way.’”
Lifelong Blue Mark Jefford, 32, is depressingly philosophical about it. “I want us to win, but if we do, I’ll have to turn my phone off,” he said.
“It’s been an unbelievably fun opportunity to wind up Liverpool fans this week, by saying that Everton won’t turn up against City. But the reality is that Europe is still not mathematically safe, and no matter what your opinion on whether that’s a good or bad thing for Everton, with our threadbare squad, I’d say the opportunity to play in Europe is always something we shouldn’t turn down.
“But then, my brother’s a Red, a fair few of my mates are too, and I will hate it if they win the title. And how I would love it if it was that [Steven] Gerrard slip [against Chelsea] that cost them the title.”
Inevitably, there is complicated history here. The last time Everton were a legitimate English footballing powerhouse was in the mid-Eighties, when they won the league twice under Howard Kendall. But they never had their shot at European Cup glory – English clubs were banned for five years after the Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 mainly Juventus fans were killed in a crush at the 1985 European Cup final against Liverpool.
Everton have only qualified for the European Cup in its revised Champions League format once, in 2005, and the final weeks of that season were dogged by the raw fear that Liverpool might win the whole tournament but finish fifth in the league and rob Everton of their place. In the end, Uefa let five English teams play, but they’ve since changed the rules (as Tottenham fans know well). Even then Everton were knocked out in the qualifying rounds.
Liverpool faced a similar dilemma of their own 19 years ago, when Blackburn Rovers came to Anfield on the final day of the 1994-95 season needing a win to ensure they beat Liverpool’s fiercest enemies, Manchester United, to the title. In the end it couldn’t have gone any better for Reds. Jamie Redknapp scored in the last minute to seal a 2-1 win for Liverpool, but the full-time whistle went at Upton Park almost simultaneously, where Manchester United had been held to a 1-1 draw by West Ham and Blackburn were champions by a point. The fact Rovers were managed by Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish made it all the sweeter.
The Everton manager, Roberto Martinez, could not have been more adamant on the issue of how his players will feel tonight.
“I can understand the banter between the fans but Liverpool can be assured that Goodison will be the toughest place for Manchester City to travel this season, that is for sure,” Martinez said.
“There is not even a question mark about us. For us it means everything to win this game in terms of the overall season. We need to get the six points [remaining], that’s vital.”
Ian Johal, a student walking across the Albert Dock by the Museum of Liverpool yesterday afternoon in his Everton shirt took a simultaneously short- and long-term view. “Oh yeah, they [Liverpool fans] will all be cheering for us tomorrow. Party atmosphere. Party atmosphere. Well it won’t be a party atmosphere in my house if an open-top bus comes driving down the Anfield Road. Do you think they’ll still be thanking us for it in five years’ time? No. They’ll be rubbing our noses in it.”
Like any club that’s ever tasted success, Everton has a fanbase outside its own city, who, whisper it, may have been softened by their distance from the motherland. One Blue in exile said his dad back on Merseyside wanted Everton to lose. “When I told him off for feeling that way, he just said, ‘You don’t have to live with the b*****ds.’”