Nerves prevalent ahead of the Merseyside derby
LIVERPOOL -- I usually savor every second of any trip back to my hometown of Liverpool, wallowing in the chance to revisit the greasy fish and chip shops, public houses and vinyl record stores that collectively shaped my youth.
Yet as I drove around the city on this frigid Monday evening, I felt only a numbing sense of dread.
These are emotions common to many Everton fans (if they were to be honest with you) on the eve of any Anfield derby and are a conditioned response born of repeated disappointment, frustration and despair.
Might Tuesday night’s clash of fourth and sixth prove to be different?
The optimism and lucky brown shoes of Roberto Martinez’s brave new world have already delivered glory at Old Trafford and a dizzying draw at the Emirates, but victory against Brendan Rodgers’ oft-rampant Liverpool would undoubtedly be Martinez’s greatest accomplishment yet on Merseyside, if only for one simple reason:
A generation of Everton fans have come of age without experiencing a win at Anfield.
David Moyes’ record of five losses and seven wins veered between false hope and no hope, leaving Evertonians with the dubious gain of nobility through suffering.
You have to dredge back to September 1999 to uncover the last Everton away derby victory, when a goal by “Super” Kevin Campbell won the points in a manic game best remembered for an NHL-style punch-up between oafish Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld and Everton’s tiny terrier, Francis Jeffers.
Both were sent off, as was a 19-year-old Steven Gerrard, who saw red for a scything tackle. The BBC report archly noted that “referee Mike Riley could have probably removed more players from the pitch.”
Like Jeffers’ career, the joy of that victory has long since faded, and Liverpool are unbeaten in 14 straight home games against Everton.
Much has been made of the fact that the Blues have finished ahead of their rivals in the Premier League for the last two seasons, and yet, as that occurred outside the gilded spotlight of the Champions League places, the feat always felt empty to me. Like fallen Hollywood stars doing really, really well on "Celebrity Rehab," both teams still felt far away from the A-list.
This season, though, has been different. At their height, Liverpool have unfurled some of the Premier League’s most intricate, avant-garde, attacking football. As Luis Suarez breaks records for breaking records, it has become humanly impossible not to admire his strutting audacity.
The once overhyped Raheem Sterling has engineered a backlash to the backlash, and perhaps most impressively of all, Daniel Sturridge has become consistently clinical.
Defensive concerns will not dissipate, however. The deployment of the gray wolf Gerrard remains a tactical piece flapping skin as Rodgers grapples with the challenge of getting the best out of a swashbuckler whose “swash” appears to have “buckled.”
Meanwhile, as pugnacious as Liverpool have been, Martinez’s Everton are the Premier League’s surprise team of the season.
With a deft touch bordering on alchemy, Martinez has sustained the fantasy that a Champions League can be won by a club armed only with pluck, positive vibes, and a bag of beans. The Catalan has woven youth and experience, loan acquisitions and canny purchases together to forge a steely, high-pressing collective whose highlight reel can best be described as “L.A. Clippers Lob City in days of yore.”
Granted, many of the key components -- Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and Gerard Deulofeu -- have been borrowed but, as they say in Liverpool, “even though the tux is a rental, you can still have a magical night.”
Martinez has been typically bullish in the run up to the game, declaring, “We're not going to go to Anfield feeling inferior. … I think we are capable of going anywhere and beating any team.”
Yet with doubts over Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman and injuries to the unfortunate Bryan Oviedo and Deulofeu, his squad has wilted since Christmas; the now dreadlock-sheared Lukaku is also notably lacking in energy.
Nonetheless, while Evertonians have had to watch their team struggle to break down inferior opposition of late, their top-eight form remains second only to that of Manchester City.
With the race for fourth so wide open, few league derbies have seemed to have such high stakes. I will be there, grimacing, watching with my hand over my eyes for spells, and fearing the worst, just as I did at the last derby I went to, the 2012 FA Cup semifinal at Wembley.
That day, Everton went ahead through a strike by then-red-hot Nikica Jelavic. As the referee blew for halftime, I turned to the Everton fan standing by me, a burly stranger who just 20 minutes before had lifted me clean off my feet in rapturous celebration.
Only now, he was shaking his head mournfully even though his team were ahead. “I hate derbies,” he told me. “These games are impossible to watch. They matter too much, but I feel compelled to be here all the same.”
Liverpool inevitably won that game 2-1. As we exited the stadium, I passed a beer-bellied Blue who stood defiantly relieving himself against a Wembley wall.
Drunk and despondent though he was, the question he bellowed was profound: “How do Liverpool always find a way to do us?”
If Roberto Martinez can render that query obsolete on Tuesday night, it will feel less a victory and more a denial of history.