Not since JR Ewing’s pomp have events in Dallas held such fascination in Liverpool as they did last week with Tom Hicks’ ultimately futile machinations, yet Merseyside’s red half will hope to avoid another echo of the 1980s at Goodison Park today. Liverpool enter the contest in a relegation berth and should they fail to win their 214th duel with Everton, it will be the first time since October 1984 that they have ended derby day in the bottom three.
As the provider of Everton’s winner that day – a spectacular 25-yard volley – Graeme Sharp remembers it better than most. Liverpool were reigning English and European champions but under new manager Joe Fagan had made their worst start for two decades, winning two of 10 league games. Howard Kendall’s team prevailed 1-0 for a first Anfield triumph in 14 years and Sharp, second only to Dixie Dean in Everton’s scoring pantheon, recalls: “People remember my goal but the most important thing was we won the game and that gave us the belief we had something special. They’d been the top dogs for so long.” Everton ended the campaign with the first of two league crowns in three seasons, while Liverpool recovered to finish runners-up.
Sharp says he will be “too nervy” watching in Goodison’s Main Stand today but he relished his own derby scraps, notably with Match of the Day pair Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. “They were great footballers who looked good on the ball if you gave them time so our philosophy was, ‘don’t give them time ... when you get the chance, put the ball in the box’, because Alan was the first to admit heading was not his biggest asset. Alan was too good-looking to be a centre half and wasn’t into the flying elbows so we had an advantage if we made it a scrap. But don’t get me wrong, they had hard players too like Graeme Souness. The derbies have changed in recent years with the influx of foreign players. Then there was a real desire and determination to put one over on your neighbours and everyone had that same attitude. You’d kick lumps out of each other but meet them afterwards in the pub in Southport.”
Given the clubs’ league positions, the era when English football supremacy was a parochial affair played out across Stanley Park now seems almost as distant as 1899 and the last derby featuring the pair in the relegation zone. With football’s traditional cycles a thing of the past, Sharp suspects only money can restore the glory days to either team. “For Everton and Liverpool to get back to the 1980s when they ruled football it will take massive investment in both clubs to try and get us up there again. Liverpool look as if they are closer to that than Everton.”
Of their immediate future, Sharp acknowledges that both “need to start winning” if Europe is to remain a realistic aim. Everton’s pre-season optimism – fuelled by two defeats in 24 league outings up to May – has vanished with another poor start and the Scot identifies the key problem as a toothless attack, with only six goals in seven matches. “Our all-round performances have been decent apart from the Newcastle game here. We’ve passed the ball well but in that final third we can’t kill teams off.”
Yet he maintains that David Moyes has the better group of players. “Roy Hodgson has inherited a squad poor in quality. I said last season Liverpool had probably the worst squad since I’ve been down here. There are great players in [Fernando] Torres, [Steven] Gerrard, [Pepe] Reina, [Jamie] Carragher but around it not the quality.”
Yet the timing of this fixture may favour Liverpool, and not just for the ownership saga’s successful conclusion. With Torres back and Phil Jagielka and Marouane Fellaini newly injured, Sharp – citing the absent Steven Pienaar – fears for Everton if Liverpool go in front on a ground where they have won eight out of the last 10 league derbies. “If they score first, I can’t see where we are going to get a goal from. I hope I’m wrong.”