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An Echo from the Much-Missed Past

By Lyndon Lloyd :  08/01/2009 :  Comments (0) :

For a club boasting Everton's FA Cup traditions — five trophies and, until recently, the most semi-final appearances of any English club — making the Fourth Round of the world's oldest and most famous knockout competition should be a formality. Recent history, and particularly that under David Moyes, however, has made progressing beyond the Third Round if not something of an achievement, then at least a relief.

So, having side-stepped the open manhole-cover represented by Macclesfield Town and watched Liverpool safely negotiate their way past potential embarrassment at Preston North End, it felt like a perverse and cruel inevitability that having cleared the first hurdle for the first time in three years, the Blues would not only be pitted against the Dark Side in the next round but be drawn away at Anfield. Such is the so-called "luck of the draw."

It seems odd to think, though, that there hasn't been a Merseyside derby outside of the League for 18 years. Time was, in the mid- to late-1980s and the very early 1990s when Liverpool's Blue and Red giants were regularly clashing in Cup competitions, often in the Final itself.

In hindsight, however, it's almost as if the Titanic tussle in the FA Cup Fifth Round in 1991 that saw Everton emerge victorious after a second replay and heralded the end of the Kenny Dalglish era at Anfield was the last explosive chapter of an era dominated by the Mersey duo.

The fixture circumstances behind that tumultuous tie were similar to the derby double-header that looms later this month (though Evertonians will hope the Premier League result is very different). The two teams met in the League, with the Reds winning 3-1 at Anfield, before meeting on the same ground in the FA Cup eight days later where neither side could score, forcing a replay at Goodison Park just three days after that.

Four times Liverpool led that replay and four times Everton came back, capping one of the most thrilling games the Old Lady has ever witnessed. In those days, of course, before Sir Alex Ferguson and his ilk whingeing about the impact of fixture congestion on his players, there were no penalty shoot-outs to decide FA Cup replays. Instead, second or even third replays — the venue decided by coin toss — were required until one team could best the other. On this occasion, the Blues won the toss and the second replay was staged at Goodison where a Dave Watson goal was enough to send Everton through to the Quarter Finals (where, typically, having beaten the hated enemy from across Stanley Park, they lost to West Ham of all teams).

The derby defeat was all too much for Dalglish, though, who resigned, ushering in a succession of failed managerial regimes at Anfield and, as Everton started the slide to their own nadir that twice almost cost them their top-flight status, the two clubs didn't meet in a cup competition again... until now.

The draw has, of course, sparked memories of those halcyon days, not only on Merseyside but in the media as a whole — TVNZ in New Zealand go so far as to brand it the "draw of dreams". It does invoke a more romantic pre-Premier League time when football was more about which teams were best managed rather than who had the most cash to spend, the balance of power didn't rest with four clubs, and a genuine one-city rivalry between two historic foes could take centre-stage.

To a certain extent, though, such memories do belong in a by-gone age because as the Premier League era has worn on, the Mersey rivalry has taken on a decidedly darker tone. While many fans still do and will continue to attend derby games together, friends and families sitting side by side despite their opposing allegiance, there is undoubtedly more bitterness to the atmosphere.

While saddening, it's not altogether surprising given the two clubs' vastly different experiences since the inception of the Premier League. While Liverpool may not have won the Championship since the 1989-90 season, they have at least always been there or there abouts thanks to vastly superior resources that are bolstered annually by the goldmine that is the Champions League. Everton, by contrast continued the downward spiral that had begun with the departure of Howard Kendall in 1987, one which gathered pace in the mid-1990s, and came within a hair's breadth of relegation in 1994 and 1998.

The David Moyes era has certainly restored a great deal of pride to the Evertonian ranks and helped close the yawning gulf between Red and Blue on Merseyside to the point where Everton defied the odds and actually edged Liverpool out of the Champions League places in 2005. Nevertheless, a chasm in resources, symptomatic of the dominance of the Sky Four, still exists and is a large factor in why Moyes has presided over just two derby victories in seven years and thus far failed to beat the Reds at Anfield.

With that inferiority comes a large measure of bitterness among Blues, so much so that Liverpool fans have taken to branding Evertonians "the Bitters." Again, it's not surprising. Though Everton harboured hopes of a golden age in the 1970s after being crowned Champions in 1970, it was Liverpool who laid the foundations for their current stature by dominating the decade, racking up five titles while Everton suffered through a drought of trophies that would last until 1984.

That year, they might have won both domestic cup competitions had Alan Hansen's deliberate but unpunished handball not denied the Blues victory in the Milk Cup Final. Then, having been crowned League Champions and standing on the cusp of Continental greatness, the rug was pulled from underneath Everton when English clubs were banned from European competition for five years following the Heysel disaster. The fact that it was rioting Liverpool fans who robbed Everton of a crack at the European Cup in the 1985/86 season has not been forgotten. Nor has the further ignominy that followed in 1990 when Liverpool were admitted straight back into Europe by Uefa while Everton were left in the cold, denied any kind of complementary entry by way of compensation for their injustice five years previously.

Indeed, when Everton have triumphed in modern times, Liverpool have been there to play the spoiler on almost every occasion. In 1986 they not only pipped the Blues to the title, they beat them in the FA Cup Final as well. In 1989, though fitting given the Hillsborough tragedy a month before, the Reds edged a thriller at Wembley 3-2 in extra time.

Then in 2005, having dragged themselves back to respectability under Moyes and gained entry to the Champions League qualifiers at their neighbours' expense, Everton had to watch as Liverpool first won the 2005 Champions League Final, on penalties no less having come back from 3-0 down against AC Milan, then used all their power as member of the G14 cartel of clubs to get Uefa to change the qualification rules and admit them into the competition as holders the following season. The final kick in the nuts was, of course, seeing the Reds progress to the lucrative group stages while the Blues were dumped out at the hands of another scandalous refereeing decision that August.

Throw in the fact that the shower from across the Park seem to benefit from so many dodgy refereeing decisions — Graham Poll, Mark Clattenburg, anyone? — and so much rub of the green compared to Everton that you'd swear they're in league with Satan... well, you've already got the picture, you're a Blue.

So, if Evertonians appear bitter towards their Merseyside brethren it's with damned good reason. The trail of misery and outrage going back to Heysel may not be as obvious as it was, say, a decade ago given the fact that Everton have under Bill Kenwright and Moyes spurned a few golden opportunities to advance the club by leaps and bounds — most notably with the Kings Dock debacle in 2002, the failure to strengthen the squad in key areas ahead of that 2005/06 Champions League campaign, and arguably during the farce of last summer when the team looked poise to finally make the kind of genuine go at the top four that Aston Villa are currently enjoying in their stead. Nevertheless, the root cause of Everton FC looking up through the glass ceiling at the Sky Four rather than being in their number was the Heysel ban and it's timing prior to the creation of the Premier League in 1992.

Years of standing in Liverpool's shadow has engendered that bitterness and the Goodison hierarchy's attempts to rip Everton out of the city of Liverpool to Kirkby have only rubbed salt into the wounds. Facing the very real possibility of leaving the city in which Everton was the first club to a bastard entity that would not have existed without them is especially galling.

So, if the so-called "friendly" derby is not quite so friendly any more, no one should be surprised because the rivalry that existed in 80s was based on a grudging but unstated respect and an underlying pride that two Liverpool teams were the kings of English football. Now, with the abhorrent exclusivity of the Sky and Champions League era having so distorted the playing field that Evertonians feel that they may forever be the poor relations to Liverpool, that respect has vanished.

Ironically, it's success for Everton in the form of repeat Champions League qualification — unlikely, though, still possible — or an FA Cup triumph this season that would go a long way to improving relations between the two sets of fans. A return to those days when the two clubs competed on a more level playing field would engender more of that lost mutual respect and perhaps bring some truth back to that "friendly derby" label.

The fulfilment of both scenarios would likely require an Everton double over the Reds this month; the Blues obviously need to knock Liverpool out to progress in the Cup and they're going to need every victory they can get if they are to squeeze past both Villa and Arsenal between now and May.

The prospects of that are probablly dim given the fact that Liverpool are top of the Premier League, it's now almost 10 years since Everton won at Anfield and Moyes can still only call on just one striker, but the spirit in his team right now is exactly what will be needed to spring a twin surprise. That thought alone will buoy Evertonian hearts as they prepare to descend into the belly of the beast twice in the space of six days and look to recapture some of the spirit of the mid-80s glory days.

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