The formerly-friendly derby has become distinctly unfriendly. An atmosphere that is downright poisonous, songs slung back and forth that approach the worst possible taste, antagonism often spilling into violence. This is the reality of the Merseyside derby in 2011.
Liverpool fans taunt Everton for having a ‘Manc’ – someone from Manchester – as captain – Phil Neville. Nothing wrong with that, clearly banter playing on the centuries-old rivalry between the two predominant cities of the North West. But when those songs degenerate into bellows of ‘Munich! Munich! Munich!’ at the same player, a reference to Neville’s Manchester United past and the tragedy that befell the club in 1958, the Munich air disaster, a line has surely been breached. Not least because Liverpool lose the moral high-ground when it comes to outrage at songs delighting in their own bereaved history.
The Munich insult is a relatively new one at Neville, although games at Anfield against Manchester United hear that phrase with depressing regularity, and feature behaviour even further beyond the pale. A much longer-used taunt from Evertonians is the equally-reprehensible ‘murderers’ tag. It is directed at Liverpool fans after the deaths of 39 Juventus supporters during the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel, and the resulting ban eventually caused the break-up of the most talented Everton team in a generation. Unable to compete in Europe as League champions the following season, Everton entered a decline the effects of which are still being felt today.
But that is no excuse to diminish the lives of those that died in a petty effort to score points against your opposing supporters. The lack of humanity it takes to use the tragic deaths of innocent people to get one over your local rivals is staggering and does what is a warm-hearted and friendly city a huge disservice.
Rivalry is what makes football so thrilling. But not at any cost. Some experiences are bigger than a football rivalry. The insults directed at Steven Gerrard and his wife, songs aimed at the disabled children of Everton players, objects thrown at opposing players and fans, and incidents of violence and aggression inside and outside the ground all fall short of acceptability, but all are frequent occurrences when the teams meet.
Where the disintegration of the fixture ends, or what it takes to bring the two sides closer together, hardly bears thinking about. There have been times of unity in recent years, but those moments all-too-often come when another life has been lost. It should be remembered that, sadly, it is not just Merseyside that is guilty of such an escalation, but the chances of Liverpool as a city taking a stand seem as remote as the days when the derby really was friendly.