IN 2006 ECHO chief sports writer David Prentice wrote a comment piece on the demise of the so-called ‘Friendly Derby’. Here we reproduce the column in full as much of it still rings true – particularly this week...
IT’s 28 years ago that Merseyside derby history was made. Everton and Liverpool contested the Milk Cup final – the first time both clubs had met at Wembley Stadium. That historic showpiece provided an excuse for a city-wide celebration. Street parties were staged back in Liverpool, while North London became a temporary vehicle for Scouse civic pride.
In recent years it has become fashionable to deride the concept of a ‘friendly derby’ as a mythical creation, invented by professional Scousers with no real experience of the nerve-shredding, gut-churning twice-yearly event.
But on Sunday, March 25,1984 - it did happen.
One hundred thousand Scousers travelled together to London, where they mocked fears of violence and unrest by behaving impeccably.
Cars did have blue scarves dangling from one window, red from the other.
And segregation was sketchy at best.
The Daily Post’s Ian Ross, later to be Everton’s head of corporate affairs, was an impartial observer that afternoon – and he reported: “Long before referee Alan Robinson brought a nerve-jarring two hours of fiercely competitive football to a halt, officials at the famous stadium had dubbed this first-ever all Mersey showdown ‘the friendly final’ – and how right they were.
“A combined lap of honour in front of a sea of blue and red was confirmation, should it ever have been needed, that whatever divisions may exist in Liverpool the proud people of a much maligned city are united by their common love of sport.”
The 1984 Milk Cup final wasn’t a one-off.
It was the same at the 1986 FA Cup final, and in two Charity Shields between the sides.
John Bailey, Everton’s man of the match that afternoon in March 1984, recalled: “The moment I’ll take to my grave is when I walked out of the tunnel. The noise, the cheering, the red and blue everywhere, no segregation. You couldn’t see that anywhere else in the world.
“At the end of the game I ran around the ground with Alan Kennedy, with a blue scarf and a red scarf tied together above our heads. I remember the fans singing and it still brings a lump to my throat thinking about it now.”
Did the venue provide the motivation – a desire to prove to the rest of the country that Scousers weren’t the volatile, aggressive types, years later caricatured by Harry Enfield?
Or did both clubs’ domination of the domestic game nationally at that time ease the local rivalry?
It would take a sociologist to examine the cause and effect, but the mood undeniably changed – and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when.
Five years later, the first post-Hillsborough derby match provided another ringing endorsement of mutual respect.
“LFC thanks EFC we Never Walked Alone” was one banner typical of the mood that night.
But in the FA Cup final a month later there were suggestions the mood was subtly shifting. Pitch invasions at the final whistle prevented the triumphant Liverpool team enjoying a lap of honour.
Even so, subsequent derbies were still not accompanied by the level of hostility which now exists.
By the mid-90s, an air of resentment was evident on both sides. By the end of the decade the derby day atmosphere had soured poisonously. Theories abound. Many feel that as the historical significance of the Heysel tragedy on Everton’s fortunes became apparent, their fans became increasingly bitter towards their rivals.
Some feel that Liverpool supporters, bred on a diet of almost unbroken derby success in the 1970s, couldn’t handle a brief period of Everton dominance.
Perhaps it’s a lot more simple than all that.
A more partisan atmosphere was inevitable as soon as both clubs started slashing the allocation of tickets for visiting fans.
At the Wembley showpieces, the split was always 50-50. In Anfield and Goodison derbies of the same era, away fans would always dominate at least one section of the stadium – with a healthy minority finding their way into other sections also.
Blue on the Kop? Red on the Gwladys Street? It happened more regularly than you’d think.
Until the late 1980s.
That outstanding Anfield administrator Peter Robinson remembers the time well.
“After Heysel and Hillsborough, ground capacities were reduced dramatically as all-seater stadia were introduced,” he recalled.
“I think Anfield came down from 48,000 to 42,000. We were the first club to host a derby match after the changes and in order to satisfy our season ticket holders I think the only section remaining for visiting fans was a small standing area of 1,500.
“We reduced the allocation for away fans, but Everton did exactly the same.”
All-seater stadia meant smaller capacities, smaller capacities meant smaller away allocations, and smaller away sections led to a small-minded mentality towards the now isolated away fans creeping in.
The derby day atmosphere has deteriorated dramatically in the past 15 years.
I thought I’d done some Liverpool supporting friends a favour by getting them tickets for a Goodison derby.
They felt so intimidated they asked me not to bother again.
An Everton Supporters Club official said this week: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or get angry at Reds’ safety officer Ged Poynton apologising in a national paper to Manchester United fans over missiles thrown at their fans. What happened last season to Evertonians was just as bad.
“A 12-year-old girl had her head split open. What will it take to stop this spiralling bitterness – a tragedy? Maybe I’m wasting my time asking for decent banter again on both sides.”
It used to be Anfield tradition for a fan to race from the Kop and hand Gordon ‘Honey’ West a handbag before the derby. Twenty years later, Evertonians dressed as jesters jogged onto the Goodison Park pitch and ‘clowned’ about with Bruce Grobbelaar.
Both sets of fans laughed. Supporters today would be more likely to scream for their ejection.
But it’s not so long ago that relations were respectful. Look back again to the coverage of that historic Milk Cup final.
“Fans wearing red and blue travelled down together, shared the stadium together without having to be segregated, and returned home together.
“Everywhere was good humour and not a sign of the violence that has marred many cup final occasions in recent years.
“To consolidate the atmosphere of comradeship which showed a city united in adversity, the two teams did a combined lap of honour in front of the fans. Wembley boomed to the chant of ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Mersey-side,’ as they did so.
“There were no cups or medals handed out, but there was one winner – the unique sporting spirit, witnessed by a worldwide TV audience, brought to Wembley by Merseyside.”
Can that level of camaraderie ever be recaptured?
It’s not a myth. It’s not some sentimental, dewy eyed view of how football fans used to be in this city.
The Merseyside derby was genuinely different.
And it’s time we tried to take a step back and reclaim that difference.