FA Cup semi-final: Merseyside united again?

As Liverpool and Everton prepare to meet at Wembley, two fans' groups are urging the clubs to work together for a happier future

"It felt like it was unique, it had the feeling that Merseyside had moved to north London for the day." Mark Lawrenson is remembering the day in March 1984 that Everton and Liverpool met at Wembley for the first time. It was the Milk Cup final, the first of that decade's three Mersey derby showpieces, and the day that 100,000 supporters sang "Merseyside" and two rival teams performed a joint lap of honour after a goalless draw.

It was an occasion captured by a Granada TV documentary titled Home and Away, available to watch on YouTube, which follows a bus-load of supporters, some in red, others blue, travelling down to Wembley. The chants of "Here we go" and the sight of a bubble perm and moustache that Harry Enfield would die for might raise a smile but it is the words of one of the men interviewed which really summon the spirit of the time. As the coach heads south, one unemployed Liverpudlian muses hopefully: "People seeing Liverpool and Everton supporters together, they'll say, 'They can't all be bad, can they?'."

 

If that show of unity was as a response to the city's sense of disenfranchisement in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, it heralded the start of an era when Liverpool had the country's two best football teams and a famously "friendly derby". According to Lawrenson, the former Liverpool defender-turned-BBC pundit, "it was a rivalry but there was no great animosity." Graeme Sharp, the ex-Everton striker, concurs as he recalls how "in those days Reds and Blues went down together" to Wembley; that said, he still grimaces at the memory of returning with Liverpool on the same plane and joining them on an open-top bus tour after the first of Everton's two FA Cup final losses to their neighbours in 1986.

Today, when Manchester derbies are potential title deciders and the Merseyside teams are scrapping over seventh place, these tales of togetherness sound like ancient history. Some Evertonians still remember how Howard Kendall's champions missed out on European Cup football twice after the 1985 post-Heysel ban but Sharp cites a more general trend. "If you look at football supporters, the culture has changed," he says, noting the increased partisanship prevalent today. Lawrenson adds: "In those days both teams were very close. You could argue they are now [position-wise] but the thing is Everton are crying out for investment and it is something they are struggling to get. Liverpool have got the money and have spent it. I don't think [Rafa] Benitez helped with his statement about Everton being a small club [either]."

The most obvious common ground between the two today is their failure to address the shared problem of what to do with stadiums which, though much-loved, leave them trailing their competitors financially. Liverpool's 2010/11 matchday revenue at Anfield was £40.9m according to Deloitte – a sum dwarfed by Arsenal's £93.1m and Manchester United's £108.6m. Everton, despite Goodison Park holding only 5,000 fewer spectators than Anfield, generated £18.4m. It is against this backdrop that two rival supporters' groups, the Spirit of Shankly (SOS) and Keep Everton In Our City (KEIOC), have come together in an attempt to do something positive. In late December they unveiled a proposal for a Football Quarter in Stanley Park, the swathe of green separating the two stadiums, which includes a football museum celebrating the achievements of a city with 27 league titles, a match-day fan zone and improved travel links. It also envisages two "flagship" stadiums and commercial opportunities such as hotels and restaurants.

A small glimpse of the future these fans envisage may come at the first Stanley Park festival on 20-22 April. Everton's game at Manchester United will be broadcast on a big screen, there will be football memorabilia displayed in the impressively restored 1870 Isla Gladstone Conservatory, and coaching sessions run by Everton In The Community. "Stanley Park is the thing that unites and divides both clubs and is there to be utilised," says Paul Gardner of the SOS group, who admits Liverpool supporters have become "very frustrated" with the uncertainty over Anfield.

"Both clubs have got similar problems," adds Dave Kelly whose KEIOC group opposed Everton's aborted move to a new stadium outside the city limits in Kirkby. "The needs and aspirations may be different but they have similar problems they need to address." The pair are speaking in a cafe opposite the Main Stand on Goodison Road. A few doors down is a boarded-up house with weeds growing from the roof – an all-too-familiar sight in the maze of terraced houses around both grounds.

The Football Quarter plan is viewed with caution, however, by Tom Cannon, Professor of Strategic Development at the University of Liverpool Management School, and an expert on sports finance. Though he praises the supporters' "very creative response", he understands too the reticence of the two clubs towards "another set of artist's impressions".

It is eight years since Liverpool were granted permission by the city council to build on Stanley Park, and five since George Gillett promised a spade in the ground within 60 days of his and Tom Hicks' takeover. Bill Kenwright unveiled his plans to move Everton to King's Dock in 2001, and Cannon believes that with "a more progressive city council", Everton would now be in that planned waterside home and – as with Manchester City and the Commonwealth Games stadium – a rather more attractive prospect to potential buyers. Instead, as the club's own sale prospectus writes, Goodison has "inadequate capacity, limited and low quality hospitality facilities, poor sightlines and limited accessibility".

There have been other missed opportunities. Lawrenson wishes talks over a shared stadium during Rick Parry's days as Liverpool chief executive had borne fruit. Cannon looks further back and argues that the boards of both clubs were culpable of not thinking big enough as Manchester United began Old Trafford's expansion. Liverpool did rebuild the Kop and redevelop the Kemlyn Road and Anfield Road stands but stopped at their current capacity of 45,000 in 1998. Everton have rebuilt only one stand, the Park End, since the 1980s. "The people at Liverpool and Everton didn't do what Martin Edwards was doing at Manchester United, which was basically investing in a world-class ground," he says, albeit adding in partial mitigation that neither Anfield nor Goodison has Old Trafford's footprint.

Instead, we now have SOS and KEIOC offering a bold vision for a deprived area. It has the support of the local MP for Walton, Steve Rotheram, and Joe Anderson, leader of Liverpool City Council and Labour's candidate in next month's mayoral election, and has received positive responses from the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership and Mersey Vision.

"There is a great unity there," Paul Gardner adds of the two fan groups and theirs is not the only proactive undertaking by Merseyside supporters. The Trust Everton group is currently surveying supporters to measure interest in buying back the club's £15.3m Finch Farm training ground, sold in 2007 to raise funds. This venture has the backing of Supporters Direct and Labour MP Andy Burnham and would fit neatly the concept of an active Liverpudlian "diaspora", to quote a recent report on the Liverpool region by Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry Leahy. Exiled Scousers following the lead of a Tory peer; the Mersey derby is back at Wembley but the 1980s revival only goes so far.

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