A debate has raged on the blue half of Merseyside this week – would Everton fans happily see their team lose on Saturday to Manchester City to harm Liverpool’s chances of winning the Premier League title?
It’s a row that drags up a lot of historic ill-feeling between the two sets of supporters. Merseyside derbies don’t feel very friendly when you’re in the stands amid a poisonous atmosphere, rivalry giving way to outright hate.
Heysel was a turning point. Crowd trouble during the Liverpool vs. Juventus match led to the death of 39 fans and English clubs banned from European football at the precise moment the Everton team built by Howard Kendall looked set to establish themselves as one of the continent’s elite.
That year, 1985, Everton won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Bayern Munich in the semi-final, and the league, finishing 13 points clear of Liverpool. The five-year ban that followed events in Belgium meant Kendall’s Everton team never got to play in the European Cup and broke up in the years that followed, players heading off for Barcelona and Marseille, among other destinations, despite a second title in 1987. Kendall himself went to Athletic Bilbao at the end of that season.
Everton have only briefly threatened to reach those heights again. The 1990s were a period of awful decline and Liverpool are blamed by some for that. If the actions of Liverpool fans that night hadn’t led to English clubs being barred from Europe, Everton could have claimed a European Cup, maybe more than one, and laid the groundwork for a golden age the effects of which would still be felt to this day, the argument goes.
Not everyone agrees. It’s clear Everton were a very strong side in 1985 – a European trophy, the league title and, not to mention, an FA Cup final appearance – but there’s no way to tell how the following seasons would have transpired. Everton were denied their chance to compete for the European Cup; that much is true. Anything else is conjecture.
United now have 20 and Arsenal 13. If anything is to blame for Everton’s mid-1990s decline, it is the club’s complete failure to capitalise on the modernisation of English football in the manner of a United or an Arsenal.
But it’s easier to lash out at those with whom you’re forced to share a city than look inwards and point the finger at the club you support. The European ban may have started the decline; it’s been exacerbated by Everton for much of the past 29 years.
Maybe, under the careful stewardship of Bill Kenwright and inventive coaching of Roberto Martinez, it’s finally been arrested and Everton can again push on to fight for trophies. But maybe, after the influx of foreign owners and erection of cavernous new stadia, football has changed too much and Everton have been left in the dust for another generation.
And so we come to Saturday. A Manchester City win would take them level on points with Liverpool prior to the Reds’ game against Crystal Palace on Monday. After that fixture is played at Selhurst Park, City would have a game in hand. Essentially, three City wins in three games and the title is theirs.
The bitterness from Evertonians who blame Liverpool fans for three decades of decline is such that there is a significant number who would be content if Everton lost this weekend. It may be a minority – it’s hard to judge – but it’s enough to where supporters are now split against each other.
It’s a point of view conditioned by a few more recent factors – namely defeats to Palace and Southampton that mean Everton have little chance of finishing in fourth place. If the Champions League was still a realistic possibility then the numbers would be much slimmer.
With little left to play for – the difference between finishing fifth and sixth is negligible – those Evertonians of a more anti-Liverpool mindset are banking on Liverpool being knocked off top spot. If it takes an Everton defeat for that to happen, then so be it.
Not all agree and plenty are dismayed at that attitude. Even if fourth place is no longer a genuine aim, Everton still have plenty to play for. It’s the final home game of the season and ending on a win should be of paramount importance. Upstaging the moneyed visitors, again, would go down well. And then there’s simple pride.
There should be enough Everton fans at Goodison who care more for the success of their team than failure of the one on the other side of Stanley Park to create an uncomfortable atmosphere for the visitors. Whether it will be enough, considering Everton’s bare-bones squad, is another matter.
City, fuelled by petrodollars, should beat even a full-strength Everton, more often than not. Everton have though routinely turned over City, but this weekend could be without Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines, Darron Gibson, Bryan Oviedo, Steven Pienaar, Arouna Kone, Lacina Traore and Kevin Mirallas, all injury doubts or definitely missing. Gareth Barry, on loan from City, is also out.
Some players will make it, others won’t, but viewed dispassionately this is a game City should win. If they do, and go on to win the title, it won’t be a turning point. Liverpool’s defeat to Chelsea was the turning point and rather than blame Everton, that, much like myopic decisions made by Everton in the 1990s as they contributed to their own downfall, is where the analysis should focus.
If Everton really wanted to harm Liverpool’s title challenge, then taking more than a point from the two games this season would have been the way to do it. For the sake of unity between the Everton support, the sooner the club is in a position to contest titles themselves – and not live vicariously through the success or otherwise of Liverpool, as if Anfield is the centre of Everton’s world – the better.
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