This is what I inevitably end up feeling like as an Everton fan on the day of a Merseyside Derby. A blur of black eyes, beige wall paper, and shattered hope. Perhaps only the melancholy of Hopper’s “Nighthawks” can rival it as an image of human despair.
This photograph was taken at the final whistle of Derby Day, November 6, 1983. On the back, my Dad has marked the date and carefully noted “Rog with black eye watches Liverpool 3 Everton 0,” but I need no reminder. The memory remains as fresh as it was harrowing. The day before I had gained a concussion durig a school rugby match. Playing fullback, I had dived in desperately like a proto-Spencer Lanning, to make a last-ditch tackle on an opposing big man, tripping him up by putting my eye-socket in front of his kneecap. I was knocked out cold, and my right-eye instantly swelled shut.
Though I had tickets for the match, I was in no fit shape to use them. Instead, I sat at home in a pair of Wrangler sweatpants and my luxury Scandinavian slippers, donning the Everton hat and scarf it had taken my mother 18 grueling months to knit.
I had been unable to sleep overnight. My head was an aching fog from concussion, but in truth, it was the threat Liverpool’s attacking tandem of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush posed to Everton’s defence that kept me awake. Come game time, only being able to see out of one eye turned out to be a blessing.
Everton were thrashed, my heroes snuffed out with barely any resistance. Clad in his tight red shorts, Ian Rush pounced within 16 minutes to punish the kind of defensive sloppiness that has defined Everton’s play this season. Dalglish cut through the right flank to conjure an open goal for Michael Robinson to finish, and Stevie Nicol finished the rout by heading home at the last, with the Everton defenders looking on, as broken and defeated as we fans.
By the final whistle, Liverpool were top of the table, and Everton had plummeted to 17th place. When my father decided to take this photograph, it felt like both sides of my face had been smashed in.
That game was almost 31 years ago. But Liverpool have lost just one of the last 15 league Derbies so the feelings it conjured are all too familiar. Numbing ones of defeat, doom, impotence, and perhaps, worst of all, shattered hope. I last experienced them at Anfield back in January, typing my match report through the tears, after I had witnessed the rampant Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, and Philippe Coutinho eviscerate a naive Everton 4-0, springing their counter-attacks with such punishing glee. Every time the Blues attacked, Liverpool seemed the more likely team to score.
Both teams enter Saturday’s game as wounded creatures. Tim Howard kept 15 clean sheets last year, yet this season, the Everton defence carries the stench of 2012-13 Wigan, leaking 17 goals in just seven matches. A relatively stocked squad, which only six weeks ago appeared to inspire such optimism, lacks spirit, spine, and tactical cohesion.
Liverpool have also appeared all too mortal. Shorn of the defected Suarez and injured Sturridge, Brendan Rodgers has lost three of his first five league games. Yet a clash against Everton is too often the cure for what ails them. I type while braced for the irresistible Steven Gerrard Derby Day strike which has come to feel like one of nature’s most inevitable laws and the very worst case: a Mario Balotelli hat trick – especially if those goals prove to be the only ones the Italian scores this season.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about a conversation I had broached with a Liverpool supporting friend, Simon Critchley who is a philosophy professor at The New School. Critchley admitted he feels a similar sense of Derby Day doom, even as the Red. “The game,” he explained, “matters too much.” His final words that day have stayed with me because I believe any fan, even Arsenal or Tottenham supporters, can relate to them. “The worst part about football in general and the Derby in particular is not the disappointment, it’s the endlessly renewed hope,” he explained. “It’s the hope that kills you.”