Football: Merseyside's fortresses of fear

Ian Ridley explains why a city's fans are becoming increasingly restless
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The Independent Online
A few weeks into the season, the "My-day" flares have already been fired on Merseyside. It involves Scouse legends lamenting the present state of play and goes something along the lines of: "Now in my day..." Even George Harrison has been at it with Oasis.

Some of the critics are ex- professionals trying to make an honest living among the journalists they once disdained, not having received the rewards now available during their own careers. That may be part of the dynamic at work; an envy and refusal to come to terms with the changed nature of football on and off the field.

And nowhere are the changes more evident than in the cases of Liverpool and Everton, clubs who share a city and a mood of support on the cusp of turning against them. Liverpool know they need to serve up something reassuring today against Newcastle United at an Anfield that these days almost works against them, while tomorrow at Bolton, probably relieved to be away from Goodison Park, Everton seek to stem a more obvious tide of discontent.

In the red corner of Stanley Park, richly rewarded young men unable as yet to emulate yesterday's all-conquering heroes, who of course never drank, always ate healthily, trained diligently and were never seen on the town with celebrity consorts. Softened by materialism, which can see even a squad player incongruously drive a red Porsche past sacked dockers with collecting buckets at the Shankly Gates, the modern lot possess not the strength of character. So goes the argument.

In the blue corner, a huge club being left behind by more inventive and flamboyant teams. They have money to burn but seemingly few top-class players are willing to test the temperature of the flame. At both venues, as the heritage of success recedes, so grows the resentment born of comparison, which the old pros act does little to dispel.

It is hardly any wonder both clubs are becoming defensive. The Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, still admirably approachable while his players refused to talk to the press, was asked by a journalist for an interview about "things generally" after Tuesday's 2-0 win at Leeds. "I don't want to talk about things generally," he replied. "It can be dangerous once you start going down that road."

The next day brought correspondence to the Liverpool Echo that Evans had gone as far down the road with the club as he should be allowed while in the evening at Goodison Park the Everton chairman, Peter Johnson, stood next to the press box before the match against Manchester United clutching a copy of an article by a local columnist who had urged him to quit and let a "real" football man take over.

A couple of hours later, as a predictable and outclassed Everton were subsiding 2-0 to United, a shout was ringing in his ears. "Get your chequebook out, Johnson. We've suffered enough." It all echoed a recent caller to Radio 5 about the man who made his fortune from seasonal foodstuffs: "He should remember that hampers are for Christmas; Everton is for life."

With more media outlets than previous generations had to supply or endure, the mood can appear sour, as even a traditionally supportive local press has had to reflect. Actually, this visitor last week found it teetering but still more indulgent than might be expected, given the bulletins from the front. Take the Everton fanzine When Skies Are Grey. Naturally enough, they bemoan "the most embarrassing summer in history" after the chairman's precipitate statement about bringing in a world-class manager to succeed Joe Royle, then failing to deliver Bobby Robson or Andy Gray. Instead, Howard Kendall was left looking like a sales-goer who had turned up five minutes before closing time. But the magazine also urges fans to encourage rather than criticise.

Frustration at being so inferior to Manchester United - who serve also to worsen Liverpool's situation - when they should be more competitive was understandable during Wednesday's defeat but the spender of the chairman's money was easily heard rather than part of a cacophony. It may be heresy to suggest it around Goodison, but much of the on-field trouble comes in the shape of their folk hero Duncan Ferguson. Kendall, as a promising first thrust showed, is commendably trying to bring more passing options, using the immediately popular Slaven Bilic just in front of a back four, but when patience stretches, the lump to Dunc takes over.

Significant signings would help but money - and Johnson can scarcely be faulted for being willing to provide it, even if he does baulk at Fabrizio Ravanelli's wages - is no simple solution. After all, Wimbledon and Leicester have surpassed Everton in recent seasons without similar funds. It is more a mood, a morale that needs to be regained so that the better players might be attracted. Then will follow the mood and morale of fans who are beginning to feel their remarkable support taken for granted.

Current complaints about Everton's new strip not being pure royal blue call to mind the club secretary who once told me he received complaints about the fillings in the meat pies and leaking stand roofs only when the team was losing. They do contain a valid point about feeling for the club, however.

Cannily, Kendall chose to dwell on the excellence of United rather than his own team's shortcomings. His true feelings came out when he spoke of the start of three home games, two of which have been lost, before looking ahead to the Bolton match. "There is a lot of pressure on you," he said. "The expectancy level of the crowd is great. I hope we'll respond on our travels." Away comfort.

So it is with Liverpool. With their Anfield Road end being rebuilt, there is no room for away fans, with a consequent absence of atmosphere. Twenty- one points were dropped last season at what was once their fortress and they have lost their only home match of this term, to Leicester. "Away you can be more compact; you don't have to spread yourself out and chase the game," says Evans. "We can't do that at Anfield; the crowd won't let us. It presses on you to take the ball on. We have to be good enough to do both. Anfield isn't the same at the moment. It is detrimental to the atmosphere without away fans. When we went one down to Leicester, our fans went quiet and with none of theirs making a noise, the place was like a morgue."

That is why today's match against Newcastle, rather than the Leeds game in midweek, will be a more accurate test of whether Liverpool are putting last season's spirit-sapping disappointments behind them. Certainly the evidence at Elland Road showed a determined team working hard to shed the soft-centred criticism. Steve McManaman, particularly, gave a gutsy display after his unsettling, abortive move to Barcelona.

"We have to give them something to shout about," adds Evans. If presented with progress, some of the most committed supporters in world football, red or blue, surely will. If not, the shouting, led by voices from an era when flares were of another sort, will carry an altogether different tone.

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