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When Friends turn into Foes: A history of the Merseyside Derby

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liverpool_everton_2It is quite an unnatural sight to see, when two great clubs with a vast history of success in the same city take a liking for one another. Take the Manchester derby for example, or the Derby della Madonnina (Milan derby) in Italy, or the Old Firm derby in Scotland, and one commonality is the hostility and acrimony shared between the two contesting sides. However, that's exactly what set the Merseyside side derby between Liverpool and Everton apart. Called the 'Friendly Derby', supporters of both sides used to share stands and each other's revelry in the olden days. Times have changed since, with games between the two sides in the more recent day marred with malevolence and spite. Not many stories in football however are as enriching, or as exciting, as the story of Merseyside.

Everton, having now competed a record 108 seasons in the English top division, was founded as a football club in 1878, with the side then playing their football at Anfield. Interestingly, the formation of Liverpool had a lot to do with their neighbour club, as Everton, after having a dispute with the owner of Anfield John Houlding over the fixed-rent they paid for using the ground, relocated to Goodison Park, where they've been based since 1892. Following that, Houlding, having no one playing at his ground, founded his own club called Everton Athletic. The Football League refused to acknowledge another side with the name of Everton, so the side were forcibly renamed Liverpool Football Club.

Geographically, the two clubs were almost conjoined, as Goodison Park and Anfield fell on opposite ends of Stanley Park, with less than a mile seperating them. The question of how to choose where one's loyalties lied came up, with many believing that a Protestant-Catholic divide was the deciding factor in the choice of one's allegiance. There have also been assumptions that an economic divide could have possibly been the driving factor distinguishing the two sets of fans. However, with many families in the area divided in support for either club, neither of the two likelihoods seem to have completely dominated. It probably was just a simple choice that each person made, and then passed on through the generations.

The first meeting between the two sides took place in 1893, when the clubs played against each other in the Liverpool Senior Cup, with the Reds edging that encounter 1-0. However, their first official Merseyside derby was played the next year after Liverpool's quick ascent to the First Division. The Everton side, hosting their city rivals at Goodison Park, and given the added incentive of each winning a silk hat if they beat their neighbours, comfortably strolled past Liverpool 3-0 on that occasion.

Both Everton and Liverpool saw success in the early 1900s, as both clubs went on to win the league title multiple times, Everton collecting five of their nine First Division trophies before 1940. However, tensions between the two clubs hardly existed, the sides even sharing the same matchday programmes in those times. After World War II though, Liverpool slowly started growing in stature and collecting titles year after year, while Everton went through a lean patch in stark contrast to their high-achieving neighbours.

It was then that rumours of a religion-based divide got further stoked between the clubs, when Everton bought a number of Irish Catholics to their side, and were managed by Johnny Carey, who was himself one. Liverpool were automatically coined a Protestant club, though the side did refrain from signing an Irish Catholic till 1979.

The Toffees had their own resurrection in the 1980s, when they started challenging for titles again and posed a resurgent competitor to their, by now, rather illustrious neighbours. However, the competition between the sides still hadn't broken the two sets of fans, who didn't segregate into sections during the sides' Milk Cup final game in 1984, sitting together and famously chanting "Merseyside, Merseyside!" and "Are you watching, Manchester?", a clear indication of the strong bonds between them.

The tag of 'the Friendly Derby' however, slowly dissipated as fractious relations between the two sides and their supporters started growing after the Heysel Disaster in 1985. Liverpool fans who had made the trip to Brussels in Belgium to witness the European Cup final that year, started rioting before the game, breaching a fence that seperated them from the opponents' (Juventus) fans. The Italian supporters, retreating, moved towards a wall in an attempt to escape, but the concrete structure, not able to withstand the weight of the hundreds of Juventus fans, collapsed, killing 39 Italians and injuring around 600 others. UEFA, as a punishment, rapped all English clubs across the knuckles, banning them indefinitely from all European competitions.

Friends they may have been before, but the decision from Europe's governing body quickly turned the two Merseyside clubs into foes, igniting a wave of hostility between the two sets of supporters. The Toffees had developed a great side in the 80s that won the FA Cup in 1984, along with the First Division and the European Cup Winners' Cup the following year. The ban from European competitions therefore came at a very untimely stage when the club felt that more continental honours could finally have been claimed, and Everton fans clearly lay the blame on the Liverpool hooligans, causing a rift of sorts between the two clubs.

However, the Hillsborough disaster (where 96 Liverpudlians died and another 766 were injured after Liverpool fans were crushed against steel fencing as a result of overcrowding in the stands) indirectly restored at least courteous relations between the two clubs, as Everton supporters laid down flowers in respect of the deceased and scarves of both clubs were intertwined across Stanley Park.

The 1985-86 season saw both clubs competing for major honours, as Liverpool and Everton finished winner and runners-up in both the First Division and the FA Cup, the Reds becoming the fifth club in English history to pick up the domestic double. The tables turned the next season when Everton narrowly beat Liverpool to claim their ninth league title, arguably the last time Everton saw themselves as a force at the top of English football's echelons.

Everton were founding members of the Premier League in 1992, but slumped to a below-average side that very narrowly avoided relegation a couple of times. Liverpool's fortunes too suffered a similar fate, and even though they have maintained their status as one of the top teams of the land, the success-laden seasons of yesteryear have never really returned to Anfield, barring a spark or two in the Houllier and Benitez eras.

The rivalry too, between the two clubs has taken a turn for the worse recently, with camaraderie being blunted by a bitter edge and disciplinary issues in games, giving rise to bad blood and vile chants aimed at specific players of the opposing side. That has surely influenced the attitude of players as well, with the Merseyside derby seeing more red cards than any other game between two sides in the Premier League era.

But it is the history of such fixtures that make a game between Everton and Liverpool so special, and regardless of where the two sides are on the table and the competition in which the game is being played, the Merseyside derby has a special feeling of anticipation and reminiscence springing about it. Current Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, who has featured in numerous derby fixtures, still calls it the biggest game of the season for the two clubs. 215 official games have been played between the two sides, and yet, one never ceases to yearn for more.

A Few Memorable Derby Days :

The FA Cup final in '86 : This was during the time when there was no love lost between the two sides, both of whom were on the top of their games, and the whole season boiled down to a lip-smacking FA Cup final at Wembley. Gary Lineker put the Toffees in control of the game with a first half goal, but goals from Ian Rush and Craig Johnston helped Liverpool celebrate their first domestic double.

The fightback of all fightbacks : In probably the most dogged display shown by a club in English history, Everton fought back from a goal down an incredible four times during their fifth-round FA Cup tie in 1991. Peter Beardsley (two goals), Ian Rush and John Barnes gave the Reds a lead four times during the game, but Graeme Sharp and Tony Cottee each bagged a brace to take Everton to a replay. More significantly, Kenny Dalglish resigned as manager of Liverpool after the game, citing his inability to manage the pressure of the job. Everton went on to win the return leg.

McAllister secures derby-day delight : A classic derby if there ever was one. The league encounter in 2001 saw incidents between the two sets of players, a sending off, penalties and a spectacular winner. Liverpool took the lead through Emile Heskey early in the game, before Duncan Ferguson equalised for the Toffees. Markus Babbel scored a goal to make the score 2-1 in Liverpool's favour, giving his side a lead that could have been doubled had Robbie Fowler not missed his penalty. David Unsworth made no such mistake with his spot kick, and the game headed for a dramatic end when Igor Biscan was red-carded for a poor challenge. However, as time dwindled, new signing Gary McAllister scored from a 44-yard freekick to win the Reds a memorable Merseyside derby.

File Photograph·Copyright:·Nigel Wilson