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Toxic fallout the abiding memory from chaotic Merseyside derby

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Saturday’s thrilling Goodison clash has been tainted by its bizarre aftermath. Yet the enmity between Everton and Liverpool hasn’t always been this vitriolic, so what’s changed?

Everton v Liverpool - Premier League
There has been a great deal of conjecture since Saturday’s derby draw, particularly around Jordan Pickford’s challenge on Virgil van Dijk
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It’s Tuesday, February 5, 2019. An Everton fan stuns a Sky Sports News reporter into silence by saying he wants his side to lose at home to Manchester City the following evening to dent Liverpool’s title hopes. “Do you work with Kopites?” he smiles. “They’re ‘orrible.”

It’s Sunday, May 12, 2019. Cenk Tosun scrambles Everton into the lead in their final-day dead-rubber at Tottenham Hotspur. Not that a fair portion of the away end are there to witness it, mind. They’re down in the concourse, too busy revelling in Ilkay Gundogan simultaneously sealing the title for City with their fourth goal at Brighton & Hove Albion. March’s goalless draw at Goodison Park proved fatal for Liverpool, as the last time either they or City dropped points. “You lost the league at Goodison Park!” the travelling Blues bellow.

It’s Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Everton arrive at Anfield already on their knees and sink into the relegation zone after a 5-2 derby defeat; Marco Silva’s last stand as manager. Liverpool maintain their eight-point lead at the summit, with their third December derby win in the last four years. The Kop serenades a desolate away end with their seemingly annual rendition of “Merry Christmas, Everton,” as well as songs about Everton’s then-24-year trophy drought and the apparent minuscule nature of Jordan Pickford’s arms.

Now, willing your own side to lose for its detrimental impact on your nearest and least-dearest may be a little petty, and the Pickford jibes might translate as school playground fodder. But really, all of the above is fine.

In fact, it’s more than fine, because it fanned the flames of a deep-seated animosity between two old foes through good-natured needling. Especially in the week football sold another chunk of its soul for £14.95 a match, there should be something quite heartening about the way fires like this can still burn so fiercely rather than fizzle out into ambivalence, without (for the most part) descending into invective and vitriol. After all, they’re woven into the game’s tapestry just as tightly as crunching tackles, Cruyff turns and crescendos of sound from the terraces.

Which brings us to this weekend’s Merseyside derby. Which, in truth, was always going to be the aberration it transpired as. Until then, most of Liverpool’s recent trips across Stanley Park have been like watching every war film ever made: an inevitable sense of Us v Them, a cinematic backdrop, a cacophony of noise (pre-COVID, anyway) - but ultimately, they all look the same. That seven of the last eight have been stalemates - with the sole outlier goalless until the 94th minute - would certainly suggest as much.

Yes, this one just felt different; an electricity where formerly there was mostly dead air. Maybe because Everton, having vanquished all seven opponents so far despite supposedly playing no-one of note yet, appear to finally be quite good now. Maybe because Liverpool’s defence, having shipped four at City in July, three to Leeds in September and most recently seven at Aston Villa, appears to no longer be the impregnable brick wall that once stood so defiantly.

Or maybe the real truth existed somewhere between these two notions. Either way, it all seemed to leave Carlo Ancelotti’s men better-placed to end the ten-year wait for a derby win than any Everton side have ever been in the last decade. A fourth successive Goodison 0-0 felt an outlandish bet, at least.

What followed was a frenzied maelstrom with one red card, one very absent red card, four permissible goals and plenty more kicks. The game itself was a thrilling mess; twice Liverpool led thanks to slapdash Everton defending, twice Everton equalised through towering headers. People were kicked. Jordan Henderson would have won it for Liverpool had someone in Hillingdon not declared an unspecified part of Sadio Mane’s anatomy offside in the build-up. Richarlison was rightly sent off. Jordan Pickford probably should have been. More people were kicked. After countless stodgy Goodison derbies devoid of incident, this felt the absolute antithesis, and mostly for the wrong reasons.

Everton v Liverpool - Premier League
Saturday’s derby was packed with incidents
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

But the most perplexing aspect of this most draining of games has been its fallout, and why those aforementioned episodes of harmless goading have been shoved aside in favour of something darker, something sinister. Pickford clumsily clattered a marginally offside Virgil van Dijk; a horribly mistimed collision that may have ended the Dutchman’s season. That he went unpunished, unlike Richarlison, who deserved his red card for a petulant, nasty lunge on Thiago Alcantara, is perhaps what has made Pickford the target of a witch-hunt since.

Indeed, in the short time between van Dijk’s injury and writing this, Richarlison (who also apologised for his own misdemeanour) has been the subject of racist abuse, while Pickford has been the subject of death threats and a petition for him to be banned for as long as van Dijk is sidelined, as well as being accusing of assault and all manner of whataboutery-isms, chiefly ‘What if he did it in the street?’. Er, well, he didn’t.

What Pickford did was an awful attempt at a tackle in the relatively safe haven of a football pitch, but this was not Richarlison on Thiago, Andrew Robertson on Allan and Mane on Yerry Mina in this very game, or Ramiro Funes Mori on Divock Origi and Dirk Kuyt on Phil Neville in past derbies. To that end, suggesting there was intent to harm from Pickford, in the split-second he had to think before the blameless van Dijk hurtled towards him, is a bold enough call in itself, let alone venturing into the realm of scenarios which didn’t actually happen.

But really, when did we lose touch with reality so drastically? When did a footballer most of us have never met, making a mistake for which he has since apologised in something as trivial as a football match, warrant such a vicious, bile-infested backlash? And when did a rivalry usually served with good humour and harmless tribalism plummet into such crass, toxic enmity?

Everton v Liverpool - Premier League
Pickford has been subject to horrific abuse since Saturday’s derby
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In many ways, these are unanswerable, so perhaps it’s easier to reminisce about when it wasn’t like this. Like when Evertonians unfurled a banner reading ‘Two Clubs, One City’, referencing the tragic 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Or when supporters on either side have been able to sit in the wrong end of the ground on derby day without reproach. Or when the 1984 League Cup final - the first involving both clubs - saw chants of “Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside” ring out around Wembley. The oft-used ‘friendly derby’ label has always been a stretch, but Liverpool and Everton’s relationship has brought out the best of a proud city on many an occasion previously.

Yet more recently, it’s unleashed the wolf in a militant fringe of both fan bases. And it must be said it has come from both sides before, because just as the Liverpool supporters who have vilified Pickford, or aimed a firework at Everton’s headquarters, the Liver Building, in June, or vandalised Prince Rupert’s Tower last year acted shamefully, so too are any Evertonians celebrating van Dijk’s lengthy layoff, or who defaced the mural of Jurgen Klopp last year, for instance. Aside from anything else, some of these acts only perpetuate the outdated stereotypes that some outside Liverpool still harbour of a truly great city (you know the ones I’m on about) and offer a firm slap in the face to those who do so much to enhance its reputation and debunk these myths.

Yes, Pickford ought to have seen red. Yes, Liverpool were the better side and can feel aggrieved not to have left with three points. Debate either of those issues and more to your heart’s content. Drink in your own club’s glorious success and rejoice at your rival’s ignominious failures by all means. Sing about Pickford’s arms, Everton’s trophy drought or losing the league at Goodison until you’re blue in the face. Just maintain perspective and don’t cross the line in the process.

Football is characterised by such rivalries as Liverpool and Everton. It has garnered enough bad press in the last week alone to do without another pathetic carry-on for another match which, in the cosmic scheme of things, could hardly matter less, not least in the midst of a hellish pandemic. What a shame, then, that a football match lasting 90 engrossing minutes has been overshadowed by the ensuing shouting match in the echo chamber of social media, lasting 48 hours and counting.