Can Everton end a decade of derby futility?


Everton are top of the Premier League. Two weeks ago, they were top of the UK iTunes chart, knocking Miley Cyrus into second position, thanks to downloads of “Spirit of the Blues,” a song that usually reverberates around Goodison Park just before kick-off on matchday, by supporters determined to enjoy every moment of the club’s resurgence.

It’s been a while since things have been this good for Everton, Liverpool‘s neighbours and rivals, but when Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League champions visit Goodison for the Merseyside derby on Saturday, it will be the blues looking down on the reds for once. And there is a growing belief that it may not be a flash in the pan.

Right now, under manager Carlo Ancelotti, Everton sit atop the Premier League, with four wins from four games (seven in seven in all competitions), and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin joint-top of the scoring charts with six goals. Summer signing James Rodriguez has sprinkled stardust over Goodison Park, and belief and optimism is flowing through the club and its supporters.

Since winning 1-0 at Tottenham on the opening weekend of the 2020-21 season, Ancelotti’s team have been rampant, hitting five goals past West Brom and four past Brighton, racking up 12 goals in just four games. With Liverpool next up and managing a spate of positive COVID-19 tests within the squad, plus the after-effects of losing 7-2 at Aston Villa before the international break, there is a growing sense that Everton have what it takes to beat their old rivals and sustain a challenge for Champions League qualification.

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But beating Liverpool isn’t quite so straightforward when you’re Everton. There is no major derby in world football that has become as one-sided as their Merseyside derby. You can scroll through the scorelines of big city rivalries in Manchester, Milan, Madrid or Buenos Aires, and you won’t find a winless run longer than Everton’s 10-year drought.

Saturday will mark exactly one decade since their last derby victory — a 2-0 win at Goodison Park, with goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta — and Everton’s fruitless ruin at Anfield stretches back to 1999. (Yes, they haven’t won at Anfield this century.)

During David Moyes’s 11-year spell as manager, between 2002-2013, Everton were dour, tough to beat and even qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in 2004-05, but they were rarely entertaining or cavalier. And they always seemed to finish seventh.

Since Moyes, a succession of managers — Ancelotti is their fifth permanent manager in seven years — have tried and failed to win and entertain. Some have been unable to do either, but 10 months after arriving to replace the sacked Marco Silva, Ancelotti has given Everton the confidence that they can challenge Liverpool again.

If they win on Saturday, don’t even think about telling Evertonians they can’t “do a Leicester” by emerging as champions this season. Everton are a big, historic club, and they’ve waited too long for the optimism generated by Ancelotti and his team.

But Saturday is big in so many ways. Winning is one thing, but getting rid of that inferiority complex against Liverpool is something Everton have been desperate to do for years.

You have to know the past to understand the present, so as a resurgent Everton prepare to face Liverpool in the 235th Merseyside derby on Saturday, it’s worth turning the clock back to October 1984.

Back then, Everton had grown tired of living in Liverpool’s shadow. At the time, they hadn’t beaten the Reds in the league since the 1970s — they also hadn’t won at Anfield for 14 years — and Evertonians had witnessed more false dawns than their neighbours had won trophies.

As a city, Liverpool was struggling. Unemployment was so high that, by the mid-1980s, fewer than 10% of school leavers were able to find a job within six months of leaving education. The docks on the River Mersey had fallen into decline and work dried up throughout the city.

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The only saving grace for the city in the 1980s was the success of its two football clubs. Liverpool were European champions in 1981 and 1984, and English champions six times in the 1980s. They also won four League Cups and two FA Cups during the decade. Everton would win two league titles, an FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup in the second half of the decade, but they had to wait until October ’84 to lay their marker down. They did it in spectacular fashion when Graeme Sharp scored a stunning goal at Anfield to seal a 1-0 victory against a Liverpool team that were reigning English and European champions.

The YouTube footage of the goal is notable not only for the technique displayed by Sharp in scoring, but the images of Everton fans running onto the pitch to celebrate it. It was a moment of relief and belief merged into one.

“People say I was 25 yards out, but as the years have passed, I prefer to say it was 35!” Sharp told ESPN. “Everybody still mentions that goal, but the big thing was that we beat Liverpool.

“Before that, there was an inferiority complex playing them. They were winning everything, and you had it in your mind that you weren’t going to get anything against them. But that game changed our mentality — it showed we could go head-to-head with them, and it was a turning point for us.”

Everton would win the title that season and again in 1987 as they emerged from the shadows to challenge Liverpool’s dominance. But it didn’t last, and the years since have been a tale of one disappointment after another, with the 1995 FA Cup Everton’s last piece of silverware.

Carlo Ancelotti is a regular at Il Forno, an Italian restaurant on Liverpool’s Duke Street, where they find a table close to the kitchen for the Everton manager, away from prying eyes, but the 61-year-old is not one for hiding away and being distant. Around the club, Everton staff talk of Ancelotti’s humility and easy nature, how he has put smiles back on faces that had become accustomed only to frowning under previous managers.

The supporters love him, too. Before coronavirus lockdown measures resulted in fans being denied entry to stadiums, Evertonians made a huge banner bearing Ancelotti’s image, alongside the words “Carlo Fantastico, Carlo Magnifico,” which was often unfurled at Goodison Park.

“Carlo loves it at Everton,” a source close to Ancelotti told ESPN. “He is having the time of his life there — he rides his bike on the path at Crosby beach, past Antony Gormley’s statues, and has really embraced life in Liverpool. But he also loves the old-school character of the club. There is a real family and community ethos at Everton and, despite everywhere he has been before, he has always been rooted in that family-club mentality.”

Ancelotti, sources say, is particularly taken by the Gormley statues. Named “Another Place,” they are 100 cast iron figures in the sand looking out to sea and over the horizon. He will stop and look out over the same scene and breathe in the air off the Irish Sea. After spending the majority of his managerial career in Milan, Madrid and Munich, Ancelotti enjoys the peace and tranquillity of his coastal home.

A three-time Champions League-winning coach with AC Milan and Real Madrid, Ancelotti has also won league titles with Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. He has bagged 19 major honours in total, an elite coach with a glittering CV, and it was a surprise to many when he agreed to join Everton after leaving Napoli last December. Sharp describes it as a “massive coup” to land the Italian, with defender Michael Keane billing him as “one of the best managers in the world,” but Ancelotti’s son, Davide, who works as his father’s assistant at Goodison, says that outsiders shouldn’t be surprised by the decision to take the Everton job.

“We knew the history of Everton,” Davide told ESPN. “Everton is not a small club — it is a club with history and tradition and the squad has young players like Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Mason Holgate. It was a squad we could work on and the club is really ambitious to be a top team, but more importantly, my father wanted to come back and live the atmosphere of English football.

“It’s the way he is; his character is like this. He is not able to work in an environment where there isn’t this kind of family atmosphere. He feels comfortable in it.”

There is a misconception of Ancelotti being a coach who only works well with established squads at the biggest clubs. His early days with Reggiana and Parma in the 1990s have been largely overshadowed by his subsequent roles at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but his principles have always remained the same: no egos, no superstars and the importance of a collective unit.

“In the training ground and in the locker room, there are no superstars,” Ancelotti told ESPN Brasil. “The name ‘superstar’ comes from the outside. Inside, they are players, and before being players, they are men. You deal with men, not with players. I’ve always dealt with men, not superstars.”

Ancelotti has changed Everton through man-management rather than the nuanced, tactical approach of a Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho. The Italian is not one for long speeches or hours spent in front of a tactics board; he prefers short words of encouragement and minor tweaks, such as urging Calvert-Lewin to be more selfish and head for the six-yard box rather than wasting his energy searching for the ball out wide.

He has also nudged Everton forward by managing those above him, too. When director of football Marcel Brands told him at the end of last season that there was no money for new signings, Ancelotti explained the necessity for signing midfielders Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure. He detailed how the pair would provide a solid platform in front of the back four, before going against his own methodology to present the case for recruiting James Rodriguez from Real Madrid.

“Carlo has never relied on stats when judging a player,” a source close to Ancelotti said. “But with James, there were a few doubts at Everton. Carlo had worked with him before at Real and Bayern, so he used his knowledge of the player and statistics of his assists and involvement in goals to make a powerful case for the club to sign him. And he got his way.”

Allan, Doucoure and James have all been crucial elements in Everton’s flawless start to the season, but for Davide Ancelotti, one of the biggest factors in the team’s success this season, and since his father took charge, has been a less celebrated player.

“We have a great captain in Seamus Coleman, and this is really important for my father and his leadership model,” Davide said. “When he has a real captain, like with Sergio Ramos at Madrid and Paolo Maldini at Milan, it is really important for us because he creates a sense of belonging within the team.

“Seamus does that at Everton. He makes sure that every player coming in knows the history of Everton and what we want to achieve. It is a big factor to have a captain like this.”

Calvert-Lewin came of age at Everton on a November night in 2016, in front of a handful of spectators at Southport’s Haig Avenue ground. But the evening didn’t start well.

“The under-21 team were playing Manchester City and Dom was being dominated during the first-half,” an Everton source told ESPN. “Southport is an old ground and the changing rooms are right under the main stand, so you could hear every word of the bollocking Dom received from David Unsworth, the academy coach, at half-time. He really laid into him.

“But Dom has a tough edge. He’s not the type who will go into his shell after a dressing down and he responded by scoring a wonder goal. Word got back to Ronald Koeman, the manager at the time, and he put him into the first-team and Dom hasn’t looked back since.”

Calvert-Lewin’s path to the top is not that of a young prodigy who has been groomed for stardom since an early age. Born and raised in Sheffield, he signed for Sheffield United‘s Academy aged just 8, with one former coach at Bramall Lane telling ESPN that the youngster was “all arms and legs, no physical presence, fancied himself as a number 10.”

Loan spells at non-league Stalybridge Celtic and Northampton Town were important in physically toughening the teenager, but United manager Chris Wilder needed a seasoned striker, not a kid with potential, to get his side out of League One, so the Blades happily accepted Everton’s £1.5m offer for him in 2016.

Until Ancelotti took charge at Everton, Calvert-Lewin was promising rather than prolific, and according to 1980s hero Sharp, the victim of playing in a poor team.

“I felt sorry for Dom because he was playing in teams that didn’t create many chances,” Sharp said. “He was having to run the channels, hold the ball up and join in play and get into the box at the end of it. I played that role at times and it’s horrible for a striker because you know you are never going to score. You are doing everybody else’s job and end up out of position. But Carlo wants [Calvert-Lewin] in and around the six yard box and he’s now getting the goals he didn’t score because he has quality players like James Rodriguez behind him.”

Ancelotti also took Calvert-Lewin aside for a pep talk about Everton’s legendary No.9s, from Dixie Dean to Duncan Ferguson, and told him he could join that band of greats. Ancelotti also urged the 23-year-old to study the movement of another striker — former Juventus and Italy forward, Filippo Inzaghi.

“I think that idea is more an emphasis on being in the right place at the right time, not to say I’m a carbon copy of Inzaghi,” Calvert-Lewin said. “I had a little YouTube of his goals, and watched a 15-minute reel of him, and obviously a lot of his goals are one-touch finishes.

“He had great movement, you can always learn, and if there are elements of his game that I’ve been showing in my game at the moment, it’s one-touch finishes and being in the right place to put the ball in the back of the net.”

The influence of Ferguson, Everton’s assistant manager, has also been key, with Davide Ancelotti telling ESPN that the former striker works on the training ground with Calvert-Lewin to “make him hear the sound of the net every day.”

Sharp has also noticed a driven mentality in Calvert-Lewin and a determination to be the best, especially when it comes to his heading technique.

“He has really impressed the coaches with his dedication,” Sharp said. “He has really worked on building up the strength in his legs, to give him extra spring, and his aerial ability is second to none. I don’t know if there is a forward out there — maybe only Cristiano Ronaldo — who leaps like Dominic.”

Everton’s record against Liverpool is dismal. Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of their last derby win, when David Moyes’ team triumphed 2-0 at Goodison, and they haven’t won at Anfield since 1999. When a team of Liverpool youngsters beat Everton’s first-team in the FA Cup at Anfield last season, an Everton-supporting friend of Ancelotti told him he had just presided over “the worst result in Everton’s history.”

Simply put, Everton really need victory this weekend; it’s not just about ending that streak, but sustaining this season’s momentum and, of course, giving the blue side of the city something to shout about for once.

“The fans are desperate for some success,” Sharp said. “The last time they had a glimmer was probably under Roberto Martinez, six or seven years ago, but they have been crying out for something to happen and they can see that now.

“The signing of Allan has lifted the fans and he has brought the whole team with him. He sets the standards of what you need to reach — Everton lacked leaders and Allan and Doucoure lead by example.”

So can Everton finally get the victory they desperately want against Liverpool?

“I’m feeling more confident going into this game than I have for a long time,” Sharp said. “We just want to continue doing what we have done so far.

“Liverpool will be hurting after the [7-2] defeat against Aston Villa and they won’t want to suffer another loss. They allowed themselves to be got at too easily at Villa, and I’m sure Carlo will look at how we can get at them. But there is a genuine belief in the players now and they look like they are enjoying their football again.

“Because of Ancelotti, there is a really positive feeling about the club. It is on a roll at the moment.”

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