The most emotional ties in FA Cup history have been Merseyside derbies
The most emotionally intense matches in English football have been FA Cup games between Liverpool and Everton. The clubs meet for the 17th time in the competition at Anfield in this year's third round and although the atmosphere will be characteristically fierce, it will be difficult to replicate the drama and emotion of some of their previous ties in the world's oldest knockout competition.
Three games in particular stand out, squeezed into a five-year period and played against a backdrop of tragedy. The first, the 1986 final, was one of the most remarkable events in the game's history.
The Merseyside rivals were arguably the best two sides in Europe. They would not have a chance to test that theory because English clubs were banned from playing in Europe. Twelve months earlier, before the European Cup final against Juventus, Liverpool supporters were involved in violence that resulted in the death of 39 people. The British government reacted to the horrific event by withdrawing English club teams from international competition. UEFA followed up with a ban. Liverpool deserved to be punished but the authorities were determined to share the guilt across the English game.
Everton had won the title. They were expecting to challenge for the European Cup. The ban hit them hard.
"People died at Heysel and that put football into perspective," Peter Reid, the Everton midfielder said. "But it was unjust to ban all English clubs. People who did nothing wrong were penalised."
English football was at its lowest point. Merseyside's image was at an all-time nadir. Over the next 12 months the two clubs would do much to salvage the reputation of a city and a game.
Liverpool and Everton became involved in one of the most exciting title races in years -- West Ham United were in the mix until the last days of the season, too. Kenny Dalglish, in his first year as player-manager, led his team to the title despite being 11 points adrift of Everton in March. The Merseyside rivals then met in the FA Cup final.
With the eyes of the world on Wembley, the teams produced an epic showdown that ended in a remarkable manner. Gary Lineker put Howard Kendall's team one up and for an hour Everton dominated. Liverpool were in disarray and goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and Jim Beglin, the full back, became involved in an unseemly bout of pushing and shoving in their own area. Then the game changed.
Full-back Gary Stevens misplaced a pass and Jan Molby picked up the ball and picked Everton apart. Ian Rush equalised and suddenly Liverpool were on top. Craig Johnston gave Dalglish's team the lead and Rush sealed Everton's fate. The double went to Anfield and Kendall's team, who had looked the best side in England for much of the season, were left without a trophy.
Afterward, something extraordinary happened. Instead of leaving the ground in massive numbers like the supporters of most defeated cup finalists tend to do at the final whistle, the Everton fans stayed to applaud the teams. Not only that, they joined their Liverpool counterparts in a communal chant of "Merseyside". It was an unexpected and much needed display of sportsmanship and solidarity that helped restore the reputation of the city and the sport. The legacy of Heysel would never go away but Everton and Liverpool's uplifting experience at Wembley helped end the sense of crisis in the English game.
Three years later the teams faced off in the final again in another match overshadowed by tragedy. The 1989 edition took place little more than a month after the Hillsborough disaster that resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at the semifinal against Nottingham Forest. The horror of events in Sheffield had almost as much impact at Goodison as it did at Anfield. The mood was sombre at Wembley.
"The '86 final was a year on after Heysel and the disaster didn't happen to the city," Neville Southall, the Everton goalkeeper, said. "In that sense you were distanced from it. In 1989 it was a month on from the disaster and everyone knew someone affected by it. It was hard to play. I didn't want to play. We couldn't win. If we had won, we still would have lost."
The match was as thrilling as it could be in the circumstances. John Aldridge opened the scoring for Liverpool in the opening minutes and it looked like the cup was heading to Anfield until Stuart McCall equalised in the final seconds to take the game to extra time. Rush restored the lead, McCall levelled again but the Welshman gave Liverpool a 3-2 victory with his second strike of the game. Yet again, Merseyside solidarity was on display but the match never shook off its sense of sadness.
The next time the clubs came out of the hat in the FA Cup the consequences of Hillsborough were not immediately apparent but would became obvious later. The teams were drawn together in the fifth round in 1991 and the first game, an uninspiring 0-0 draw at Anfield, gave little hint of the drama to follow. At Goodison, Liverpool went in front four times. On each occasion, Everton equalised. Dalglish looked strained and bewildered in the dugout as the home side clawed their way back into the game every time the visitors went in front. The 4-4 draw was thrilling but Liverpool's defending verged on shambolic. It was a surprise that they were unable to kill the game off.
The next day something even more shocking occurred. Dalglish resigned as manager. At 39, the Scot was mentally and emotionally exhausted. He had steered the club through the aftermath of two disasters and his involvement with the victims of Hillsborough and their families was especially draining. His departure left Liverpool directionless. Everton won the second replay 1-0 and Anfield's era of dominance was over.
Not all the FA Cup ties between the sides have carried so much emotion and high drama but it is surprising just how many of the teams' meetings in the competition have been in the latter stages. Everton and Liverpool have contested two finals and five semifinals in the 16 times they have been drawn together. Even the more mundane ties seem to throw up unusual incidents.
In 2009, in a fourth-round replay, television viewers in the U.K. sat through a goalless 118 minutes before the broadcaster cut to an advertisement prematurely just as Everton were launching a late attack. During the break, Dan Gosling scored the game's only goal to knock Liverpool out. Armchair viewers were outraged at missing Gosling's winner.
The Merseyside derby will never be just another game but when Jurgen Klopp's and Sam Allardyce's teams meet there will not be the emotional intensity of some past cup matches. The drama will all be on the pitch. The way it should be.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.