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Liverpool set for Merseyside Derby history but face Everton without biggest weapon

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk

History will be made in Saturday’s Merseyside Derby as for the first time, Anfield hosts the fixture without fans.

It will be the 238th meeting between Liverpool and Everton in an on-field rivalry that stretches back 127 years but never before have the Reds gone into battle with their neighbours on home turf in an empty stadium.

Since the global pandemic started, Goodison Park has hosted two Merseyside Derbies behind closed doors.

First there was the tame goalless stalemate last June when the two sides shook off the rust in their first Project Restart fixture following the three-month coronavirus-induced hiatus and then there was the 2-2 draw in October that produced considerably more incident.

With limited numbers of fans (2,000 per game) allowed back in at both Anfield and Goodison Park in December under the government guidelines for a Tier 2 area that the Liverpool City Region was placed, hopes were raised that this next Derby match might accommodate some spectators.

A third nationwide lockdown to combat an alarming rise of COVID-19 cases over winter has put pay to that though so for once the Kop and indeed the other three corners of the ground will fall silent for the most talked about game on the fixture list.

Liverpool fans need few reminders of the powers that they have wielded over the years when it comes to roaring their team on to victories at Anfield.

When it comes to famous European nights, it would be a bold claim to suggest that the recent comeback successes against Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund or indeed older memories such as Saint-Etienne could have been achieved without the backing of the vociferous home crowd.

The erosion of home advantage has been demonstrated in the Premier League this season with several teams doing better on the road and picking up victories at opposition grounds where they had previously struggled for long periods.

Liverpool themselves saw a 68-game unbeaten record at Anfield in the Premier League stretching back to April 23, 2017 come to an end on January 21 when they lost 1-0 to Burnley.

Indeed, they now go into this fixture on the back of three successive home defeats having lost 1-0 to Brighton & Hove Albion and 4-1 to Manchester City.

Everton come into this game without a victory at Anfield since September 1999, their longest ever winless streak across Stanley Park, but while the Derby has provided slim pickings for them in recent decades, having your own fans still seems to be a significant factor with the Blues triumphing at Goodison Park on four occasions over the same period.

So ahead of what will be a very different kind of Merseyside Derby, here’s a look into the crowds that this fixture has attracted in the past.

In terms of attendances, matches between Liverpool and Everton have been a big deal since the very start.

Liverpool’s neighbours of course had a 14-year head start on them in the pioneering Victorian era with Everton attracting the highest average attendances in the country for the inaugural decade of the Football League.

However, even though the Reds average gate for their first top flight season of 1894/95 in which they finished rock bottom and were relegated was just 12,015 (albeit more than double their figure of 5,215 in Division Two the previous year), a bumper crowd of 30,000 turned up for Anfield’s first Merseyside Derby, a 2-2 draw on November 17, 1894.

Anfield crowds of around 30,000 were standard for the first decade of the fixture but there was something of an anomaly on January 19, 1901 when just 18,000 turned up.

A 2-1 defeat that day left Liverpool in eighth place but by the end of the season, they’d be crowned champions for the first time.

For over 120 years that has been the lowest-ever crowd for a competitive Merseyside Derby at Anfield but this weekend that record will finally be broken.

But why did the Reds suffer such an attendance slump for this particular game?

Curiously it was the same day that Queen Victoria was reported to be seriously ill.

The 81-year-old monarch’s 63-and-a-half year reign would end three days later with her death at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Although it was undoubtedly the end of an era and an event that would send the country into mourning, would it really stop Scouse football fans from attending the biggest match of the season?

A more likely explanation seems to be with the weather that Merseyside was experiencing that day.

That evening’s ECHO headlined the report: “A game in the mud” and declared: “What promised to be a highly interacting and enjoyable function at Anfield Road today was completely prostrated by the miserable and wretched weather prevailing.

“Jupiter Pluvius (the god Jupiter was believed to bring rain in Roman mythology) thought fit to mar proceedings by an unwelcome visit, rendering matters most uncomfortable for players and spectators alike.

“A record (high, not low) was not unnaturally looked for, but the continuous downpour rendered this consummation altogether impossible.

“As a consequence of the continuous rain the ground was in a wretched condition, resembling a perfect quagmire.

“Though the gates opened at 1:15pm (for a 2:45pm kick-off), only the most rabid enthusiasts put in an appearance at that hour.

“With the downpour falling continuously, matters so far as the attendance was concerned, did not improve.”

Since then, crowds for Anfield Derbies have only dipped below 30,000 on four occasions.

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There were three further games in the 1900s that attracted gates of 25,000 and two of 28,000 – two of which were FA Cup ties – but it wasn’t until the creation of a short-lived competition that failed to capture the public’s imagination that a crowd for the fixture dipped so low again.

Following the building of what came to be the famous ‘Spion Kop’ after Liverpool’s second League Championship in 1906, Derby attendances would regularly reach 40,000 at Anfield while these figures increased to top the 50,000 mark by the 1920s.

Liverpool’s current record attendance for a home game with Everton – a figure that might soon be broken following the future expansion of the Anfield Road stand – is 55,994 for what proved to be the final fixture between the sides before the Second World War on February 4, 1939 with the visitors – en route to their fifth title – triumphing 3-0.

After the Reds’ return to the top flight in 1962 following a club record eight seasons in the wilderness of Division Two, Derby attendances at Anfield would top the 50,000 mark until 1981.

Although the 1980s would prove to be the decade in which Liverpool and Everton slugged it out for domestic honours with the League Championship being passed back on forth across Stanley Park between 1984-88 and the two sides meeting at Wembley on five occasions, including three cup finals, there was one battle for silverware that just didn’t cut it.

Despite the on-field success of their teams, money was tight for many Merseyside fans in the era with traditional industries declining and unemployment rates high, so when the game’s authorities added a new competition called the Screensport Super Cup, supporters were unconvinced.

Originally named the Football League Super Cup, it was a six-team tournament for the clubs who would have qualified for European competition but had been hit by the post-Heysel UEFA ban.

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Played over the 1985/86 season, Liverpool topped a three-team, four match group with Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton while Everton overcame Norwich City and Manchester United.

There were then two-legged semi-finals to come – so four of the six teams advanced – but the form book prevailed with the Reds defeating Norwich City and the Blues beating Spurs.

The final was carried over to the start of the following campaign but despite a sponsor now being found in the shape of cable television company Screensport, who later merged with Eurosport, interest had fizzled out and just 20,660 turned up to watch Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 in the first leg of the final on Tuesday, September 16, 1986.

For the record, some 26,068 were at Goodison a fortnight later to see Kenny Dalglish’s side finish the job 4-1 for an overall 7-2 aggregate success.

The last sub-40,000 Merseyside Derby crowd was for a goalless draw on January 24, 1995 while since the Main Stand was rebuilt, attendances for the fixture at Anfield have topped 50,000 for the first time since the 1970s.

With plans to get the entire adult population of the UK vaccinated against coronavirus by September, hopefully this Saturday’s game will prove to be a unique occasion at Anfield.

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