Way back in the mists of time clashes between the red and blue sides of Merseyside were called “the friendly derby” such was the bonhomie between the sets of fans.
Supporters would mix easily sharing brotherly beverages, perm and moustache-tending tips and a collective delight in flinging anything that came to hand at the This Morning weather map on Liverpool docks.
But somehow that sense of camaraderie got lost on its way to the players as the Northwest rivalry holds the record as the filthiest fixture since your flatmate got so drunk he shat in the kitchen sink.
I was as impressed by his agility and balance as I was disgusted, tbh.
Everton and Liverpool’s games have had more red cards than any other pairing – 22 – in Premier League history, and, while some of the fire may have disappeared in recent years, October’s brutal showdown that saw Virgil van Dijk poleaxed by Pickford for the season and Richarlison running an early bath for a horror challenge showed there’s still plenty of aggro bubbling just under the surface.
And now, with the Toffees in with a shout of finishing ahead of their rivals for the first time since Luis Suarez t-shirts were in style, there’ll be an extra edge to Saturday evening’s showdown.
So it’s worth asking how do you take care of yourself – and “take care” of your opponent without getting your marching orders – in the league’s dirtiest game?
Keep Your Head
It’s easier said than done, especially in the febrile atmosphere created by 50,000 screaming fans, but a bit of mindfulness when Big Dunc’s looming over you – and the good sense to get the f**k out of the way – can make all the difference.
Just look at the damage April 1997’s meeting at Goodison Park did to Robbie Fowler when he lost his.
Sent off in the 82nd minute with the score at 1-1 following what any respectable pundit would dismiss as “handbags”, the Liverpool forward still to this day maintains that red card cost the Spice Boys the Premier League title because he’d have scored a winner in the remaining minutes,
Oh, and he’d have not been suspended as Liverpool lost 3-1 to United, 2-1 to Wimbledon and drew with Sheffield Wednesday in the final weeks of the season as the Roy Evans’ side finished fourth, seven points behind the Red Devils.
If Liverpool’s cream suit cup final debacle hadn’t happened a year earlier the red card would probably get the blame for those too.
A tried and tested method for protecting yourself and nobbling your opponents is to be “too big to send off” – and I’m not talking about Jan Molby being so wide he couldn’t fit down the tunnel.
When you’re a Premier League top dog – a Stevie G, a Carra, a… oh, I’m sure Everton had some big names in the fifties or whenever – refs, especially those who like to think you’re their mates, will let you away with murder.
Of course, as Steven Gerrard learned when making just his second derby appearance in September 1999, this level of reputational protection has to be earned, because when you’re a 19-year-old sub who decides to kick Kevin Campbell into orbit in the 92nd minute, you’re not getting away with it.
That was the first of eight red cards for the England midfielder, but some of his most brutal work went tragically unrecognised and unappreciated by starstruck referees, such as Graham Poll, who inexplicably neglected to dismiss the now established first-team star Gerrard in 2002 when he decided Gary Naysmith’s midriff would look better if it had two football boots embedded in it.
Gerrard was subsequently banned by the FA, who had the advantage of functioning eyes over a clearly dazzled-by-the-burgeoning-midfield-tyro’s-overwhelming-charisma Poll.
However, even at the height of his powers in 2006, Gerrard was swiftly dismissed by Phil Dowd such was the violence of his early lunge at Kevin Kilbane, so know your audience when relying on your name to get you off the hook.
Safety in Numbers
Some derbies are just a free-for-all. The ref lets one early reducer slide and before you know it the St John’s Ambulance nicking blasts of oxygen from the tanks as they struggle to handle all the casualties.
Take the April 2001 Goodison Park classic, for example. A pulsating match on the route to Liverpool’s tin-pot treble, Liverpool came out on top in 3-2 cracker thanks to Gary McAllister’s injury free-kick struck from 35-yards as Everton keeper Paul Gerrard daydreamed over his post-match pie.
Almost as memorable as the dramatic finale was the 13 cards dished out as ref Jeff Winter struggled to take names and follow the game at the same time it was so filthy.
However, you don’t want to be the Igor Biscan of such occasions – or in general really, he was sh*te – who managed to grab the official’s attention one time too often and finally got told to clear off after kicking Michael Ball rather than the football.
A word of caution as well; when your team’s already lost a man, like Everton had in 2003’s April meeting via two yellows for David Weir, booting El-Hadji Diouf as Gary Naysmith did, regardless of how morally justified it might be, is always likely to end with a long, solitary walk to showers.
It has to be said that sometimes there’s just no option though than to give as good as you get, whatever the consequences.
Take Arsenal legend Francis Jeffers. He bumped into Liverpool keeper Sander Westerveld in that same 1999 Gerrard derby and was summarily thumped across the head by the keeper.
But the slight forward didn’t take it lying down and showed the kind of fighting spirit that earned him so many seats on the bench at Highbury as he threw a few haymakers of his own.
Both keeper and forward were ordered off, but no one in the reserve leagues or Championship assumed Franny was a pushover for the rest of his career.
Hands by your sides
Of course, it’s not all about leg-breakers. Sometimes it pays to be cunning in football.
Diego Maradona and Thierry Henry knew when to stick out a helping hand and how to get away with it. Unfortunately for Everton, Phil Neville wasn’t quite so shrewd as his shot-stopping effort in the dying minutes of October 2007’s clash could be seen from space, resulting in a straight red card and game-winning penalty for Liverpool.
On the plus side, Tony Hibbert had already got the early bath sorted after being dismissed in the first half, and we’ve heard reports that the Blues are interested in offering Phil a short-term contract to stand-in for Jordan Pickford until they sign a decent keeper.
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