Inferiority complex weighs heavily at Goodison
But Everton are well placed to gain upper hand on their great rivals, says Paul Wilson
Phil Neville knows what it takes to win a derby match when there is not much to choose, football-wise, between you and your neighbours.
"It takes balls," is the Everton captain's pithy assessment, by which he means your senior, most experienced players have to stand up and be counted and not be intimidated by the occasion or the opponents.
As far as cojones go, Everton under David Moyes are up there with the best the Premier League has to offer. Feisty, combative and hard-working, everyone admires the spirit in the Everton side and the reputation they have deservedly gained for punching above their weight, although club officials have recently been at pains to point out that with the ninth highest wage bill in the division the commonly held view that they are as poor as church mice is a little outdated. While money is still tight at Goodison, there appear to be 11 clubs where it is tighter, and each of them would envy Everton's ability to find value in the transfer market, bring through quality players of their own, and open the season with a victory over Manchester United.
The only weakness in Everton's bold facade, the one that keeps showing the view from the back of the film set rather than the front, is a recurrent loss of nerve against the neighbours. Far too often the fight and conviction that has characterised Moyes' 10 years at the club has been conspicuous by its absence when Liverpool have provided the opposition.
Last season was a case in point. Everton finished higher in the table than their Merseyside rivals, yet did not manage to beat them in three meetings, and the last of those encounters, the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, produced such a limp, lifeless performance that people began to suspect some sort of collective inferiority complex was at work.
The FA Cup is one of the few trophies that Everton are in with a chance of winning these days; to reach the final at Liverpool's expense would have been the stuff of supporters' dreams, and Moyes' team were in better form than their rivals back in April. Yet no sooner had blue Merseyside dared to dream than the big day out foundered on an unrecognisably timid display.
So the question has to be, as Everton go into the first derby of this season at home, in form and well above Liverpool in the table: are they ever going to make superiority count in this fixture? Will it be vibrant blues or shrinking violets?
When Moyes first arrived on Merseyside, Liverpool had all the best players, plus the tradition and the more recent success. The roles have not exactly reversed in 10 years, but there are quite a few Everton players that Liverpool might fancy now, and not as many Anfield names that would automatically get a game across Stanley Park.
"There have been occasions when we have fluffed our lines in the past," Moyes says. "We have been the team in better form and we have not managed to produce it in derby matches, I accept that. The difference from 10 years ago is that now we have a few game-changing players of our own. Liverpool used to have so many good players it was hard to work out how to stop them, and maybe that's still how we see them, but the two teams are much closer now.
"We have always managed to compete in derby matches, we have never suffered a really heavy defeat even when playing really strong Liverpool sides, but I accept we probably haven't won as many as we should have done. We are improving all the time though, we are stronger this season than last, and when opponents look at us they can see we've got some good players."
Moyes came to England with first-hand experience of Old Firm derbies in Glasgow, and recognises that the Merseyside version is neither as intense nor as all-consuming. "You are looking to give your fans the result they want, but the derby result isn't going to define our season," he says. "Finishing above Liverpool in the league doesn't count for anything in the long run either. I would far rather finish in Europe. Trying to finish above Liverpool is a big ask, and if we are favourites going into
this game because we are currently higher in the table than Liver-
-pool I am happy to take the compliment, but we can't just judge ourselves by our rivals. I would like to finish above Manchester United and Manchester City too, and I very much doubt if Liverpool set out every year hoping they will be able to finish above Everton."
Last season's Goodison derby was marred, from an Everton point of view, by the harsh dismissal of Jack Rodwell, a red card that was later rescinded when it became clear that Luis Suarez had somewhat over-dramatised a ball-winning tackle. Still fuming at the injustice even now, Moyes has warned that football will drive away its supporters if it does not do something to stamp out cheating, diving and going to ground too easily, and personally supports a system where incidents could be reviewed retrospectively and bans handed out to players who attempt to con referees.
"People want to see the game being played correctly, they won't stand for players going down too easily," he says. "I think players should stay on their feet, and if I had a player who was diving regularly I would have a word.
"It's not the way to play, though I must be honest and admit this is a tricky area. A penalty to win a tight game once in a while might be a different matter."
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