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Oliver Kay Article

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It is a global game these days. Some time today a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi will give his envoy the signal to resume talks with AC Milan about a deal to sign Brazil’s finest player on behalf of Manchester City. At the same time Chelsea’s Russian owner claims that he will commence legal action against a newspaper that claimed that he wished to sell the club to the Saudi royal family. And, when the sun rises in Texas and Colorado, Liverpool’s American owners will ponder how to solve a problem like their Spanish manager.


For better or, in some cases, for worse, the Premier League is now truly a league of nations, but there is just the odd occasion that calls to mind The League of Gentlemen. The Merseyside derby is a case in point. It is what Tubbs and Edward Tattsyrup, the fiercely insular shopkeepers in the BBC television series, would call “a local match for local people”. If you are an outsider, forget it. As Edward might say, there is nothing for you at Anfield this evening — or indeed on Sunday, when Liverpool and Everton meet again in the fourth round of the FA Cup.


As football has gone global, Merseyside football has gone parochial, bitterly, bitterly so. Where once, in the 1980s, Everton and Liverpool supporters revelled in a unique friendly rivalry, these days they cannot stand each other. The atmosphere, once likened to a nauseating love-in, is now as poisonous and as spiteful as any in England. It is not as corrosive as those in Glasgow or in Istanbul or in certain South American cities — yesterday’s match in Montevideo between Nacional and Peñarol ended with 53 arrests and one supporter in intensive care after a shooting — but the friendly derby has given way to the kind of rancorous hostility to which this fixture once proved a welcome antidote.


There is a certain revisionism about the “friendly derby”. Some say that it was merely an unfortunate accident that arose from the two clubs dominating English football, enjoying regular trips to Wembley, at a time in the mid-1980s when the Thatcher Government was doing its best to rip the soul out of the city. Revisionists on both sides of Stanley Park look back on the era of Scouse solidarity, the red-and-blue ski-hats and the chants of “Merseyside, Merseyside”, with a mixture of embarrassment and unease. They call it a myth.


What changed? Society changed. Football terrace culture changed. There was also the Heysel Stadium disaster — with Everton supporters feeling that their history was changed irrevocably by the riot involving Liverpool fans before the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, which resulted in 39 deaths and the exclusion of English clubs from European football — but the two clubs were brought closer than ever by the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died. While Heysel remains a highly complex issue, it alone does not explain the way that the rivalry has sunk so far into the gutter that even the ultimate taboo, Hillsborough, has been broken while Steven Gerrard and Phil Neville, two of the nicest footballers you could wish to meet, are subjected to vile, hurtful chants about their young offspring.


The poisoning of the Merseyside rivalry is one of the most depressing developments of the modern era, but it is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere. Supporters can sit in safety and comfort in all-seater, smoke-free stadiums without fear of being charged by hooligans, but in another sense the atmosphere is more rancorous than in the 1980s. Where once there were generic threats of violence, which might just occasionally be carried out, these days the idiots compose and belt out horrific and deeply personal chants at individuals. Sticks and stones? Try talking to Gerrard, Neville, Sol Campbell, Arsène Wenger and Mido.


Merseyside Police will be out in force this evening, having made clear their intention to clamp down on and eject anyone they find guilty of what they call “criminal chanting”. If the threats from the police have their intended effect, it could be the best thing that has happened to Merseyside football since the 1980s. If they do not — and if the type of poisonous atmosphere, compounded by squabbles with the police, that some fear, is witnessed tonight — you might be advised to avert your gaze and indeed your ears. It is, after all, a local match for local people.

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