x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mother of derbies

There are many key matches in a British football season - Celtic v Rangers, Arsenal v Spurs - but few carry the resonance of the Merseyside derby.

The crowds may not be as aggressive with each other but it is competitive on the field.
The crowds may not be as aggressive with each other but it is competitive on the field.

There are many key matches in a British football season - Celtic v Rangers, Manchester City v Manchester United, Arsenal v Spurs - but few carry the resonance of the Merseyside derby, which ex-patriate Scousers all over the world will watch on television tomorrow; in the heat of the afternoon in the Emirates, in the early hours of the morning in bars in New York, and the last thing at night in Australia.

It does not matter that the teams are now multi-national and, in Liverpool's case, American owned and Spanish managed, the significance of the match to the city of Liverpool will have escaped neither players nor managers. It is all about history, but more than that, about the way Scousers see themselves in relation to the rest of Britain. It would not be overstating it to say that the average Liverpudlian, without a hint of paranoia, thinks of his city as beleaguered. The social problems that followed the decline of Britain's heavy industry seemed to hit the city harder than others, and its position on the coast, looking west towards the United States, meant it was less well placed than most to make commercial capital out of Britain's membership of the European Union.

It does not help that people in the rest of Britain tend to blame Scousers for commercial failure, and make them the butt of jokes, not unlike the redneck jokes popular in the US. The gags usually centre on an alleged propensity towards petty crime among denizens of the city, a tendency to be workshy, and a liking for cheap unfashionable clothing, all of which are, of course, massively unfair stereotypes.

To quote one of the less offensive examples: "How do you spot the bride at a Scouse wedding? Answer: She's the one in the white shell suit." (A shell suit, I should explain for those unfamiliar with UK discount clothing chains, is a cheap, shapeless form of leisure wear, easily able to fit over the more generously built physique). Because Everton and Liverpool fans are equally victims of these slurs, there is far more that unites them than divides them. There is a sense that they are all in it together.

Indeed, the fixture has been described as the "friendly derby". It is not unusual to find Everton and Liverpool fans co-existing happily within the same family, and it is one of the few derby matches where there is never a need to segregate fans. Unlike the Glasgow derby and the Barcelona v Real Madrid match, there is no religious or political sub-text. The teams are geographically close too, able to eyeball each other across the one mile of Stanley Park.

Everton, in fact, played at Liverpool's Anfield ground before moving to Goodison in the early years of the 20th Century. Not that there will be much of this best-of-friends business on the pitch. Everton v Liverpool matches are invariably hard fought, and there have been some classics in the past, most memorably a 4-4 draw in an F A Cup replay in 1991, after Everton came from behind four times. Liverpool's manager Kenny Dalglish resigned shortly after, giving some idea of how much this derby means in the city. Last year's match at Goodison resulted in a 2-1 win for Liverpool after Everton had two men sent off, and tomorrow's could be equally feisty.

Both teams need the points having made patchy starts to the Premier League season. Liverpool beat Manchester United, but then failed to overcome newly promoted Stoke. Everton similarly drew last week against another relegation favourite, Hull City. Expect the teams, overseas players and all, to go full tilt for local pride, and expect full throated appreciation from the fans. The Merseyside derby is as much a celebration of the beautiful game as a simple football contest. Liverpool, after all, is the most successful football city in England, having never seen a season without at least one of its teams in the top flight. Between them, its two teams boast 27 league titles. Together with The Beatles, and some magnificently preserved Victorian architecture, its football is something in which Liverpool can take pride, and the reason why tomorrow at least it can cock a snook at the rest of the nation.