Only pride at stake for Everton and Liverpool
Solidarity has grown from tragedy where Liverpool and Everton are concerned, in the season when we have learned how deep an injustice was done to those 96 fans who died at Hillsborough. There has been no more potent image in this campaign than Goodison Park's dedication to the victims – a boy and girl wearing “9” and “6” on 7 September last year with the choice of anthem that night, “He Ain't Heavy”, inspiring the deeply resonant fund-raising single.
David Moyes, the Everton manager, reflected yesterday that "there's been something stronger than football in the last year or two" between the clubs, yet not all footballing wounds heal so easily.
The 100th Anfield derby, tomorrow, is a fight for Merseyside supremacy and little more, with Everton, five points clear of Liverpool, seeking a win that would ensure they finish above their neighbours in successive seasons in the same division for the first time since 1936-37.
Steven Gerrard was withering about quite what an achievement that would represent, given that these are two sides seeking a sixth-place finish at best. The Liverpool captain declared that Jamie Carragher, who will become only the sixth Liverpool player to play against Everton 30 times, would not want to finish his career below the Blues in the table, yet it was "nothing" to finish either sixth or seventh in the Premier League, whoever the side one place above you.
We were searching for a diplomatic way to state that it was all a question of perception when Gerrard interrupted: "Yeah, but they haven't won anything, have they?" Another search for the diplomatic question ensued...
"Listen," Gerrard said. "If Everton finish above us and their supporters are really happy and their players and everyone are really happy, then that's up to them. But if we finish above Everton there will be no celebrating or anything around here because it's nothing really. It's no big deal. No big deal. We want to win the derby, of course we do. We want to finish above Everton, of course we do. But in the big picture is it really, really important? I don't know... maybe not."
For Moyes, any kind of win at Anfield would be a cause for celebration, given that Everton have not managed that since Gerrard and Carragher were playing their first derby together and Kevin Campbell spoilt the party in September 1999. But though the Everton manager acknowledged that what Gerrard said was right without even being asked about it, Gerrard hardly has a cabinet full of silverware to wave under the Bluenoses.
Deeply welcome though that very nervy victory on penalties over Cardiff City was to Liverpool fans last February in the League Cup final, the fundamental point is that Merseyside is trailing a very long way behind Manchester and London. The one-time capital is now Britain's third city for football and for a sense of the shift in power, compare tomorrow's game with the last time this fixture was played out in the late stages of the season. Everton were already champions when Paul Wilkinson's goal saw them beat Liverpool 1-0 at Goodison on 23 May 1985.
The commercial might of the Manchester and London clubs is beginning to strangle Merseyside, Moyes reflected. "The strength the Manchester clubs have got is overpowering everybody, with Chelsea joining in and Tottenham and Arsenal," he said. "Liverpool have been close to it, not so long ago [in 2009] when they finished second in the league with Rafa [Benitez], so football does change quickly." But there is a divide now.
The problem reaches way beyond the field of play for both clubs. While it was Manchester City's monumental benefit to be gifted the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium, making them an attractive proposition to Sheikh Mansour bin-Zayed al Nahyan, Everton's hopes of the 50,000 capacity Kirkby stadium they felt would attract investors were quashed in 2009 after a planning inquiry. Even then, Arsenal and Manchester United were raking in triple the £900,000 match-day takings Everton got from each game.
With Liverpool's own struggles to expand even better chronicled, you wonder what it would take for the two clubs to bite the bullet and ground-share – something Everton want.
"Both the Manchester clubs hold stadiums with over 70,000 for one 50,000 the other," said Moyes. "They've got the council there and then there is the corporate facilities that plays a big part, especially with the Financial Fair Play playing a big part, so much is going to be about relying on marketing teams and how many [executive] boxes you can sell, season tickets you sell and dinners you sell. At Everton we have very few rooms to cater and very few boxes to fill. We're going to find it difficult to keep up because the marketing side is so important. I do think we've got to somehow generate revenue by even thinking about naming rights for the stadium. Obviously [our owners] could do that because they own Goodison. Things like this are going to be relevant to both clubs if we're going to hang in there with the top teams."
On a footballing level, the certainties are no easier to solve. Moyes' side, who will not have Phil Neville but may have Darron Gibson available for the trip across Stanley Park, have been beaten just six times in the Premier League this season – a record only the Manchester clubs have bettered – but their three wins in 21 league derby games gives him no more optimism than usual, even though the fourth Champions League spot, five points away, is not a totally forlorn hope, as it is for Brendan Rodgers.
Last season's unambitious performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool suggested something psychological might explain this local struggle, though Moyes is dismissive of that idea. "Liverpool have had a really good team. It's as simple as that," he said, bristling.
There are just no "simple" equations to explain how a one-time powerhouse city of British football might find a way back in a sport which has altered beyond all conception since the days it bestrode it.
Mersey blues: Title drought
* Neither Merseyside club has won the title since 1989-90, when Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool finished nine points clear of Aston Villa for an 11th championship in 18 seasons. Since then, the Reds have been runners-up three times, most recently under Rafa Benitez in 2008-09.
* Everton have to go back even further for league success – their last title coming under Howard Kendall in 1986-87, finishing nine clear of Liverpool. They have failed to challenge since, with two fourth-placed finishes their best efforts – the most recent with David Moyes in 2004-05.
Belfast Telegraph Digital