There’s a storm brewing. Tension fills the air. I’ve been struck down by what I’m pretty sure is mutant super-Ebola. The river Mersey runs red with blood. That can only mean it’s derby day.
For most sides a derby match is highly anticipated as a close-fought contest between two rivals, but 70s BBC personalities feel better about a police inspection than many Evertonians do about facing up to Liverpool once more. Sure, victory puts you on the parapet, literally at the pinnacle of footballing emotion. But defeat means pain; agonising, everlasting, scarring mental pain. There’s your mood-setter. That’s not the worst thing though. The worst thing is that we’re getting used to the feeling.
I mean, it is the “friendly rivalry”. We work with Liverpool fans, live with them, watch the game with them. But it’s the club that is the antipathy of everything we believe in. It bleeds through to the fans too; some lid from Surrey who hates them Scaasers but loves LFC, that bloke you know who genuinely believes they are a superior human being to you because their team has won all those trophies he knows they won but can’t remember when, the ones scattered worldwide whose idea of support is spamming Blues with daft pictures online. If ever a word has lost all meaning through use and abuse of it, it would be “bitter”. And “banter”. RIP to the pair. It’s this lot that have tainted the friendly derby. Now for every one of those who knew they were red straight away, just as we knew we were blue, and could maintain what is a mutual respect for that choice, there’s a whole heap who make this a real pain to get through.
We have to face up to the fact that the pain stems from us being bottlers in this fixture. When neutrals to the Merseyside derby don’t realise how we feel, I tell them to think of their biggest bogey team, the side they fear to face because they know somehow they’ll mess it up in the worst possible circumstances. Then I tell them to imagine they live less than a mile down the road. Talk about a quirk of fate. No matter what the mood, now every Evertonian’s mind is filled with fear and doubt from this fixture, no matter what circumstance.
The truth is that in a normal fixture the circumstances would not look so bad at all. Liverpool fans know that they will not reach the heights of last year, when the Premier League title slipped through their fingers in the most painful manner (pity that), and with the open-door policy that is their defending won’t find many games that easy at all seeing as they cannot score at the monumental volume that Luis Suarez precipitated. There are exceptions of course, as they wiped the floor with Spurs. But a home defeat to Villa, a pretty routine win for City at the Etihad and three goals shipped against West Ham makes for awful reading for them.
It has been a time of painful revelations for Liverpool. The barnstorming 2013/14 attack will not be matched. Dejan Lovren was not a bargain at £20m (would you believe?!). There really is a dependence on Sturridge and Sterling. Mario Balotelli isn’t a “changed man” and won’t be karate kicking in thirty goals a season. Brendan Rodgers definitely does something dodgy in his spare time. But this is still a squad good enough to challenge at the top. In fact, the way it has started, anyone still can. Chelsea must be laughing their arses off. The good news for them is that it’s the derby, and they know something will come their way. Hansen in the Milk Cup. Poll’s disallowed goal. Clattenburg. Rodwell’s red. And then last season, in which probably the best derby match in the last couple of decades of course ended in an injury time goal for them. Then at Anfield, Gerrard scores, Gareth Barry KO’s Romelu Lukaku and it’s another “LOL” moment for @LFC4Eva5Times sitting in his bedsit in Cornwall. Throw in the fact that apart from Sturridge their injury list is a bunch of spanners – Johnson, Allen, Can and the current recipient of best LFC cringe, “Flanni Alves”.
So you’d expect the team to be: Mignolet; Manquillo, Lovren, Skrtel, Moreno; Gerrard, Henderson; Sterling, Lallana, Coutinho; Balotelli. There might be wild-cards thrown in like Sakho, Lucas, Borini or even Rickie Lambert – did you know he’s a Liverpool fan?! Used to play in the 2134th Division?! How adorable is that eh?!? Considering Simon Mignolet got over only having half a brain to become a goalkeeper it’s not that fascinating. But that’s a strong team.
I’ve held off speaking about Everton for a bit because we’re fuming, and that doesn’t make for great derby build-up. We’re not arsed about exiting the Capital One Cup. We know it was a mostly second string team against a strong Swansea side. The manner of the defeat kills us. 3-0. Their first ever win over us. Our first failure to score. The 17th goal conceded in 7 games this season. It confirmed that we cannot trust our defence at all, no matter what it looks like. The blanks fired on Tuesday are suddenly making us doubt if we can even make up for it by lashing the goals in. Basically, Liverpool away is the worst possible fixture to have at this exact moment. Naturally, that’s just what it is.
But the truth is we’re on a level plain. Right, they have one more point. We have one defeat fewer. Both sides are four points off where they were at this point last season. Both are still scoring but are conceding in spades. Neither goalkeeper goes into this with the confidence of the fans. As is classic in a derby situation, there are no guarantees, except that Everton will do something ridiculous. The derby will be 90 minutes of glorious conflict, and the winner takes it all. The points, the pride, the knowledge that bragging rights are yours until February.
So who does battle for the Blues?
Tim Howard tends net, mostly because there is no alternative. His Everton career has been littered with some really baffling spells of goalkeeping, and they’ve become more frequent recently. So he might make a glorious reflex save today, concede a corner, and then flap at the resulting delivery. Who knows. Our strongest back line at this point includes Coleman, Stones and Baines for sure, but with Jagielka – who of course kept our only clean sheet to date alongside Stones – or Distin? Tuesday suggests it’ll be the captain. If Coleman misses out all sorts of hell breaks loose. What we know is that Tony Hibbert must be kept away from the pitch. Sorry Tone, but it’s for your own good. Barry and McCarthy were powerless to stop Liverpool’s counter-attacking in January and will need to make it tough for the oncoming midfielders as many teams have this season. Mirallas and Naismith, left out of the last two starting line ups, are dead certs. Supposedly it’d be McGeady joining them. Lukaku up front, now with two goals under his belt and fond memories of the Goodison derby last year, will want to make a mark. If Samuel Eto’o is fit it’s an excellent option. Bryan Oviedo’s about! How about it. Look at that beaming grin. It warms your heart.
Maybe there’s magic in the air today, and maybe everything falls into place. But maybe everything falls apart. How long do we need to count back to 1999 for a win at Anfield? Every time the number ticks on we move further away from being a side that can overcome this curse. Don’t expect anything today. Some people may choose to expect the worst, because it’s easier that way. Others will stand tall and stay positive, no matter how foolish they would be made to look if it doesn’t work out. Whether you go for blind faith or rigid pessimism today, the common feature is support. We love Everton. That doesn’t change whatever happens today or any other day. Sure, we can hate them for what they do to us, but when the men in blue enter the field of play they’re everything to us. These players know that. And if they can snatch glory today they know we’ll remember it.
You never know. This might be your day.