WHO will have the hardest job in Saturday’s 216th Merseyside derby?
Kenny Dalglish, deciding which of his big-name strikers to field? Phil Jagielka, who will be charged with containing the livewire Luis Suarez? The Liverpool man detailed to mark Tim Cahill at Everton corners?
The answer, it seems, is none of the above.
Instead, the weight of the Merseyside world will be on the shoulders of one man this weekend. And he won’t be wearing red or blue.
Martin Atkinson is the man charged with keeping a lid on the Premier League’s most combustible fixture, and he is bound to have his work cut out amid a powderkeg atmosphere at Goodison Park.
The Merseyside derby is, by some distance, the most ill-disciplined fixture in Premier League history, with 19 red cards issued over the past 19 years.
That would be a remarkable statistic in itself, but when you consider the fact that the preceding 98 years had seen just six dismissals, it rings louder.
To place that into context, the Manchester derby has seen just five red cards in the Premier League era, the north London derby just seven.
Quite why that is the case is something of a mystery. It may well be much easier to pick up cards in today’s game, but there seems to be something in the air when Everton meet Liverpool, and it often looks like red mist.
It is probably a risk, then, to hand responsibility to Atkinson, who in eight games this season has issued five red cards, and a whopping 33 yellows.
He has form in derby matches, too. It was the Yorkshire-based official who sent-off both Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Steven Pienaar during Liverpool’s 1-0 win at Anfield in February 2010 - though Javier Mascherano admitted afterwards that the players had not made life easy for the referee that day.
It has been a common theme throughout the years, players losing control amid the passion and fervour of the local conflict.
The first derby dismissal came during a goalless draw at Anfield in November 1896. Everton’s Alf Milward was the recipient as, according to the now-defunct Liverpool Mercury he “charged (John) McCartney in such a style as to warrant the referee ordering him of the field”.
Incredibly, given some of the characters involved (think Ron Yeats, Johnny Morrissey, Jimmy Case or Bruce Rioch for starters), the next 83 years would pass without a red card until, in October 1979, a 2-2 draw at Anfield was ignited by a rash tackle by Everton’s Garry Stanley on David Johnson. From the ensuing brawl, Stanley and Liverpool’s Terry McDermott became the first players dismissed in a derby in the 20th century.
“I think it was for dropping our handbags,” McDermott would say years later, reflecting on how “probably the two softest players on the field” had been given their marching orders.
Eamon O’Keefe and Glenn Keeley would pick up reds for the Blues in the 1980s, an era of X-rated tackles patrolled by hardmen artists such as Graeme Souness, Steve McMahon and Peter Reid.
There were bad tackles - Gary Stevens on Jim Beglin, Steve McMahon on John Ebbrell - but it was not until 1997 that things began to get really heated.
At that time, no two players better defined Everton and Liverpool better than David Unsworth and Robbie Fowler, and they would both be dismissed after an ugly confrontation towards the end of a scrappy 1-1 draw at Goodison.
There was farce two years later, as Sander Westerveld and Francis Jeffers were red-carded after what could be loosely termed as ‘a fight’.
A 19-year-old Steven Gerrard would follow the pair down the tunnel later that night, and recalls a grinning Jeffers thanking him for his stupidity; Gerrard’s challenge on Kevin Campbell had diverted the spotlight away from the Everton youngster’s own indiscipline.
Having also been dismissed at Anfield in 2006, the Liverpool captain, incidentally, is one of only two players to have been sent off twice in the fixture.
The other? Everton skipper Phil Neville, who saw red in both 2005 and 2007.
Of the current squads Gerrard, Neville, Tony Hibbert, Tim Cahill and Lucas Leiva have all seen red on derby day. Most bookmakers will give you odds of around 11/5 for another name to be added to that list.
Mr Atkinson, you have been warned.