Everton vs Liverpool: Merseyside football’s resurgence gives city welcome distraction as lockdown bites

The 235th Merseyside derby is the most eagerly anticipated match between Everton and Liverpool in decades. Carlo Ancelotti has re-energised Goodison Park and Jurgen Klopp brought the title to Anfield for the first time in 30 years this summer.

Everton are the only unbeaten side in the Premier League after four games. Their neighbours need to rebound after a shocking 7-2 defeat by Aston Villa. The scene is set for great drama. It has been a long time since the city’s football clubs held the balance of power in English football. The last time was in the 1980s.

Karl Marx said history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. That cliche does not apply on Merseyside. The people would appreciate a bit of farce every now and then.

It was singled out for tier three restrictions this week, the only area initially to be handed such draconian measures. Scousers feel that the Conservative government are experimenting in Liverpool, inflicting conditions that threaten the local economy to test the reaction in a place where there are few Tory votes to lose before imposing them on other districts. The Pariah City has once again been shunted to the margins of national life while at the same time being served up as an example of everything that is wrong.

It was the same in the 1980s, when Liverpool and Everton were the best teams in Europe. Then, a Conservative minister proposed a “managed decline” of Merseyside – a deliberate policy of fiscal neglect meant to force the population into poverty and cause widespread economic migration from the area. That strategy was never enacted: not that Liverpool noticed the difference.

Today, Boris Johnson’s government is wreaking havoc with mismanaged decline. The region has revived itself economically over the past two decades – with the help of European Union money, rather than handouts from Westminster – but the new restrictions threaten to reverse the advances unless a support package is arranged. Few believe that the Prime Minister has any empathy for Merseyside.

Johnson has history with the city, having expressed views in the past that are so breathtakingly stupid they verge, like most of his persona, on farcical. Unfortunately, they are tied up in tragedy.

In a Spectator editorial written by another journalist but appearing under Johnson’s aegis, the old tropes about Scousers “seeing themselves as victims” were aired. The jumping off point for the piece was the death of Ken Bigley, who was beheaded by extremists in Iraq, but it soon turned to football. It repeated lies about Hillsborough, blaming “drunken fans” for the disaster that led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters and claimed that the police were “a convenient scapegoat”.

The 16 years that have passed since this careless, spiteful column have not eased the anger on Merseyside. The divisions between supporters evaporate when it comes to Hillsborough. It is not a red or blue issue. The continuing pain reaches into all corners of life in the city. Only last year the Prime Minister refused to apologise for what was said in the Spectator. Clearly, he does not feel he needs to distance himself from the opinions that appeared under his name.

It is unlikely a privileged Old Etonian can imagine what the football clubs mean to the city. They are flagbearers for an identity that goes beyond Englishness. Liverpool did not crave its outsider status; that was bestowed upon it by those who despised the Irish-flavoured culture that grew after the mass immigration of the 19th century. Football fanaticism ties in with this. The same cartoonish characteristics than have traditionally defined anti-Celtic discourse – excitability, irrationality, sentimentality, drunkenness – are applied to supporters.

Yet Everton and Liverpool are crucial to civic pride. This is evident in the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, which has used Goodison and Anfield as rallying points to try and alleviate the impact of austerity for the past five years. Football is important to the psyche of the populace.  

When the city was under the most extreme political, economic and social pressure and its citizens had little to crow about, the teams were dominant. Opposition supporters in the 1980s sang jibes about the dole and poverty – some still do, even those from areas where deprivation and hardship are worse than Merseyside – but it was music to Scouse ears. Evertonians and Liverpudlians chanted about their supremacy.

As a place, Liverpool is the easiest of targets for its enemies. The imposition of tier three status underlined the impression that it is a rogue metropolis that requires earlier, more excessive clampdowns than elsewhere. When its residents complain, the widespread eye-rolling indicates that too many people maintain the “self-pity city” view of Merseyside.

Everyone wants to see the lockdown derby, though. There will be regrets; in different days Goodison would be a bearpit. Times are tough but the idea that Merseyside can once again be the capital of football is an uplifting notion – at least in this beleaguered corner of the country.

The Pariah City deserves better treatment. Its people need more than football to sustain them. For now, though, they will take pleasure in having the two best teams in the country. Everton and Liverpool are a metaphor for a region that will not be kept downtrodden. 

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