Brian Viner: Evertonians savour rare chance to look disdainfully down at visiting neighbours

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The Independent Football

The oldest rivalry in English football resumes today in the arena where it began, 110 years ago. Plenty of other local derbies - in north London, Manchester, Tyne and Wear, the east and west Midlands - are woven into the nation's cultural fabric, but none has a heritage like that between Everton and Liverpool

The oldest rivalry in English football resumes today in the arena where it began, 110 years ago. Plenty of other local derbies - in north London, Manchester, Tyne and Wear, the east and west Midlands - are woven into the nation's cultural fabric, but none has a heritage like that between Everton and Liverpool, whose inaugural match took place at Goodison Park on 13 October, 1894. The crowd was 44,000, about the same as it will be today. Gate receipts totalled £1,026, 12 shillings and 10 pence; also about the same as today, allowing for inflation. For all we know there may even have been an announcement inviting the owner of the shaggy-hoofed piebald illegally tethered on the Bullens Road to please return to his horse immediately. As for the result, Everton - a belated hooray! - won 3-0.

Every Merseyside derby since then has been a noteworthy occasion, but today's has a particular significance: it is the 200th meeting between the two venerable clubs. I have attended more than 10 per cent of those matches, stretching back to the mid-1970s, and rarely in that time have Evertonians gone into derby day boasting a lead over Liverpool of nine points or more; the last such occasion was 17 years ago.

A lead of any kind, indeed, has been something to savour. So it is a measure of the club's renaissance under David Moyes that twice in his three seasons as manager, the Reds have arrived at Goodison looking covetously up, not disdainfully down, the league table. It is also, of course, a measure of Liverpool's decline. But today, confidence in both camps will be high; Everton's thanks to last Saturday's gutsy defeat of Bolton Wanderers; Liverpool's following their stirring midweek comeback against Olympiakos. I will be in the Main Stand South, wearing gloves to stop me gnawing my knuckles, although probably biting through the leather every time Steven Gerrard shapes up for a shot 25 yards out.

There is no doubt that, in recent years, the derby has meant more to Blues than it has to Reds, who for intensity of rivalry have looked eastwards along the M62 rather than northwards across Stanley Park. But Liverpool's stagnation under Gérard Houllier and Everton's improvement under Moyes have cast a new perspective. Five years ago, if you'd asked 1,000 Liverpool fans to name the one league match they most wanted to win, 999 would have said Manchester United at Old Trafford. A majority today would doubtless say the same, but plenty might also say Everton at Goodison Park.

As for Evertonians, I should think that most of us would uncomplainingly take a point today, sustaining the lead over Liverpool, and allowing Gwladys Street wags to continue referring to the Anfield manager as Rafael "Beneath Us". Three points, though, and the sense of incredulity at Everton's lofty position will begin to diminish, perhaps to be supplanted by a belief that maybe the team really can last the course.

That word "uncomplainingly", by the way, I use cautiously. Complaining comes naturally to Evertonians, and in fairness there has been plenty to complain about. Those of us with long memories still feel a knot in the stomach when we consider what that 1985-86 team might have achieved in the European Cup, had a few Liverpool fans not gone on the rampage at Heysel. More recently, however, our wounds have been self-inflicted and therefore even harder to bear. Arrant mismanagement has almost got a great club relegated.

I don't think the club is being mismanaged now. On the contrary, Bill Kenwright, the chairman, is working tirelessly to secure the investment that will reinforce the progress made by Moyes. That investment is reportedly imminent. And yet from some quarters, the complaining continues.

Even Kenwright's manifest devotion to Everton earns him the sneering nickname "Blue Bill" from one or two columnists on the website Toffeeweb, this from fans who damned the previous owner Peter Johnson because he was a Liverpool fan.

I should declare an interest here: I know Kenwright pretty well and like him enormously. It is true that the great impresario should take some responsibility for the fiasco in the summer, when a superstar and a chief executive exited stage left, while the spotlight fell on directors grappling for power. But he didn't deserve to be vilified - let alone spat at, which he was. Nor can his critics have it both ways, lambasting him for the bad that has happened and disassociating him from the good. After all, Kenwright it was who identified Moyes as the man who could make Everton a force again, and increasingly it looks as if no football club chairman ever made a shrewder decision, the more so if the 200th Merseyside derby finishes in the same way as the first.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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