By Patric Ridge
“You lost the league, at Goodison Park. You lost the league, at Goodison Park.”
Two goals in the space of three second half minutes had just put Everton 2-1 up against Tottenham, but it was not Cenk Tosun’s scruffy finish that had sparked the loudest cheer of the day from the travelling Toffees support, or inspired the song that reverberated around the concourses at full time.
No, that honour went to Riyad Mahrez, who – as Tosun was bundling home just his fourth goal of a frustrating campaign at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – had just hammered Manchester City into a 3-1 lead over Brighton and Hove Albion.
Flashback to March 3. Liverpool went into the second Merseyside derby of the season with the league title, a first in 29 years, still very much in their hands. A seven-point lead over Manchester City had been whittled down but still, it was the Reds who held the initiative.
Mohamed Salah raced through on goal in the 28th minute, as he has done countless times before in a red shirt. The Egypt forward put the ball onto his stronger left foot, as he has done countless times before. But, one split second of hesitation, and Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeper whose calamitous mistake at Anfield in the reverse fixture had handed Liverpool the most dramatic of victories, pounced, keeping Everton’s clean sheet in tact.
29′ BIG, BIG save from @JPickford1!
Salah cuts in unmarked off the right and takes aim but Pickford gets a hand to it. Great work from @IGanaGueye to block the rebound.
0 – 0 #EFCmatchday
— Everton (@Everton) 3 March 2019
In the second half, a similar situation arose. This time, Pickford may well have been helpless to prevent Salah finding the net and nudging Jurgen Klopp’s side ahead. We never found out, however, because Michael Keane made a crucial intervention. Liverpool were held to a goalless draw.
Flash forward to May 12.
City sit first. One point ahead. Liverpool, having claimed eight successive wins since that derby draw, need to beat Wolves and hope Pep Guardiola’s imperious, treble-chasing team slip up on the south coast.
It starts well. Sadio Mane continuing his excellent form with a typical poachers’ finish from close range. And it soon gets better when, following a mischievous onlooker spreading fake news around Anfield that Brighton had gone ahead against City, the Seagulls do actually take the lead – Glenn Murray potentially becoming Liverpool’s unlikely hero. Everton are, at that stage, 1-0 down. Disaster looms.
Sergio Aguero had other ideas. Brighton’s lead lasted 83 seconds. Aymeric Laporte made it 2-1 before half-time. Anfield’s joy turned to dejection, an acceptance that Liverpool’s incredible season might just not end with a league title that, in almost any other campaign, would have warranted. But hope remained. That was until Mat Ryan palmed Mahrez’s strike into the top corner. Ilkay Gundogan’s pinpoint free-kick rounding things off.
Down in north London, Evertonians rejoiced. Christian Eriksen’s fine free-kick had just drawn Spurs – Liverpool’s opponents in the upcoming Champions League final – level, but it did not matter. Tottenham’s home support were serenaded with chants of “we’re gonna have a party, when Tottenham win the cup”. Blue Moon – City’s famous anthem – was belted out. One end of days scenario has been avoided, even if just for another year.
This is not a slight against Liverpool. This is rivalry. The bitterness, the humour, the temporary backing of another team. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.
Revelling in a rivals’ near-miss, because ‘failure’ in this instance is perhaps too strong of a term, is part of the tribalism that sill makes football – and for that matter, other sports steeped in working-class history – great. In the mega-money Premier League, it is one of the few callbacks to the old days that remains firmly, and fantastically, intact. Ask Sheffield Wednesday fans how they felt about their owner taking to the club’s website to congratulate Sheffield United on their promotion to the big time.
— Everton (@Everton) 12 May 2019
This is not the social-media vitriol that is far too present across all subjects, not just sport. It is genuine rivalry that goes back generations. Why should Evertonians, who like their Red neighbours will put the rivalry aside when it really matters, when it effects real life, real issues, not enjoy the moment? Enjoy that, even though we are all quite aware that it does not quite work that way, Liverpool lost the league at Goodison Park?
Less than two weeks remain until Klopp will take Liverpool and their merry band of raucous support – the self-proclaimed best fans in the world – to Madrid to face Spurs. They may well win their sixth European Cup, having missed out last year. In fact, they will be overwhelming favourites. They are a fantastic side with five or six genuinely world class players. There is little shame in acknowledging that.
But June 1 is not yet here. And in the meantime, fans of Everton, Manchester United, between a rock and the proverbial hard place this season, and, of course, the champions City, who for so long have lived in the shadow of their own nemesis, have every right to goad Liverpool. They have every right to take some form of sick pleasure in the fact that 97 points and just one defeat was not enough to win the league. If it were the other way round, you would expect the same.
Everton have not won a trophy since 1995. A fairly middling but promising first season under Marco Silva has at least, with a positive finish, seen some form of momentum return to L4.
But while the blue side of Merseyside cling onto the hope that good times are around the corner once again, they should be able to at least take delight in their arch rivals’ own barren spell without silverware continuing for just a little longer.
We’ll never hear the end of it either way.
97 – Liverpool’s tally of 97 points would have been enough to win the Premier League in all but one of the previous 26 seasons of the competition. Brutal.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 12, 2019