There may be an arctic chill on the banks of the River Mersey this morning but, make no mistake, beneath its waters a cauldron is bubbling.
Few derbies possess the long-standing ferocity that surfaces whenever Everton and Liverpool face off. It divides families while tackles and insults fly thick and fast. Some pray for it to be over before it even begins.
“I wouldn’t say it means more but there’s more on it in terms of the pressure of being a local lad,”
admitted David Thompson, who rose through the ranks at Liverpool and was involved in three derbies
between 1998 and 2000.
“You’re playing for or maybe against a team that you supported. It means a lot to you and your family. It’s something you have to try and black out, but it’s not easy to do.
“I supported Everton as a kid and it was just a dream to step out at Goodison Park. The atmosphere was very tense and very hostile. I definitely feel the Everton fans are a lot more hostile but it’s still well-behaved. You can tell it means so much to the fans. They’re special times and special games.”
More than bragging rights are at stake this weekend. Victory at Goodison would see Liverpool stem the tide of the recent power shift and draw level with the hosts’ all-time derby win tally. History is also weighing heavily on Roberto Martinez’s shoulders as he attempts to become only the third post-war Everton manager to win a derby at the first time of asking.
Given the city’s Irish connection, the gulf between the ports of Liverpool and Dublin seems almost as sizeable as that between Goodison and Anfield. In the post-war era, 30 Irish players amassed 227 derby appearances. Those numbers have dwindled in the Premier League era. Diminishing locality, however, is a more pressing issue.
Once populated by the likes of Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher, Dave Watson and Alan Stubbs, the line-ups for the 221st derby illustrate just how greatly the local talent pool has dried up. At 33, Steven Gerrard remains Liverpool’s standard-bearer, but his long-term successors are nowhere to be seen.
“I think it’s a sad reality and inevitability that when Steven hangs up his boots, Liverpool fans probably won’t have a local idol to get behind for the first time in almost two decades,” conceded Ste Hoare, from Liverpool fan site The Bib Theorists.
“Liverpool’s Academy is actually functioning quite well in developing youngsters for the first team. Having said that, its brightest prospects in recent years have been either foreigners or recruited from other English clubs at a young age.
“However, every Liverpool fan wants local players in the first team and in that regard, the Academy isn’t really delivering. We all want the team to be successful but in an ideal world it would be successful with local players featuring regularly.”
Liverpool won back-to-back Youth Cups in 2006 and 2007 — their first triumphs since the class of 1996 that featured Jamie Carragher, Thompson and Michael Owen — yet none of its graduates became first-team regulars. That dearth of local talent prompted a shake-up of the system in 2009 by then manager Rafael Benitez.
But four years in, there has been a rethink. On Thursday, Liverpool disposed of Academy director Frank McParland and head of coaching Rodolfo Borrell — the latter widely credited with the development of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas during 13 years at Barcelona’s famed La Masia institute.
Adam Morgan, previously hailed as Anfield’s next great striker, was also condemned to surplus by the club earlier this week. The future for fellow Scousers and former Academy scholars Conor Coady and Jon Flanagan, both fringe players, and Jack Robinson, on loan at Blackpool, does not augur much better.
“It surprises me,” admitted Thompson. “Liverpool and Merseyside, in terms of an area, is a school for hard knocks. It’s a school for hungry lads and determined people. If these lads have the talent, given the opportunity, then they know how to take it.
“I just don’t know what’s happened over the last six or seven years. Maybe it’s the quality of coaching or the hunger and desire of local community that’s been missing, I honestly don’t know.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on. I’m sure if these lads were there and they had the talent, they’d be given the opportunity.”
At Everton, the picture is slightly less bleak. Starlets study under the tutelage of coaches that, as players, either understood the distinction of representing their hometown club, like Stubbs, or whose careers became synonymous with the royal blue shirt, such as Kevin Sheedy and Duncan Ferguson. Ross Barkley has emerged as the latest player to assume the local mantle. But as was the case with Wayne Rooney nearly a decade prior, questions linger on how long it will take for one of the Premier League’s elite to prey on the financial needs within Goodison’s corridors of power.
“I always love to see local players in an Everton shirt, in fact I’d have 11 if I could but that’s not how football works anymore,” says Peter McPartland, an Everton fan and
presenter of local radio show The Blue Room.
“Ross is a Blue, everyone knows he’s a Blue but everyone knew Wayne was also one, and there’s no guarantee that will keep you at the club when the wolves come calling.
“In an ideal world, the team will be built around Barkley as he goes on to dominate for club and country and Everton are in a far greater position than they were when Manchester United came calling in 2004. But this is the real world and in that world the best teams get the best players regardless of loyalties.”
Merseyside was once renowned for its production line but here, similar to the rest of the country, the landscape has shifted. Tales of lore about how a playing field in Kirkby, an overspill for Liverpool, produced two European Cup-winning captains will never be replicated. Brookfield School’s plains are unlikely to ever yield another Phil Thompson or Dennis Mortimer. Many of the other pitches in the region responsible for such grassroots development have since been sold off for development.
Even the streets where countless aspiring players honed their craft nightly are becoming sparse, with today’s generation confronted by increased no ball games zones and the temptation to live out their footballing dreams through video games. Clubs parachuting ready-made prospects from outside the local area — and in some cases the country — into their centres of excellence has done little to help the homegrown success rate.
So while this game still represents a biannual contest for civic pride, the battle to recapture their local nucleus is a struggle both clubs will have to face up to, whatever today’s outcome.
The muted fanfare for the derby outside the region underlines why Merseyside has been somewhat left behind. Once at the game’s fore, it now finds itself languishing behind its neighbours to the east and south. Compared to the bright lights of Manchester and London, Goodison and Anfield are now viewed through increasingly dimming nostalgia.
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