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Merseyside derby: It's the hope that kills you

Last season, Liverpool defeated Everton in the league 2-0 and, in the return fixture (above), 3-0. Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

To the outside world, the Merseyside derby may just be a regional scuffle between the Blues and the Reds, but growing up in Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, it always felt like something more. The game was nothing less than a savage battle against which I would fine-tune my sense of good and bad, truth and injustice, reward and punishment.

In contrast to the prevailing atmosphere of carnival that grips the city in the week up to kick-off, the actual experience of watching the games can be a tortuous one. The football is inevitably helter-skelter as the adrenalin-fuelled atmosphere infects the players, local-born and foreign alike. Tackles crackle. Headless decisions are made. Red cards are brandished (20 in the past 40 games, more than any other matchup in the Premier League era.)

At the core of the agony is that the two teams' histories and fan bases are so intertwined. Liverpool emerged as a splinter of Everton 14 years after its founding back in 1878. Their home grounds, Goodison Park and Anfield, sit at opposite ends of a park, less than a mile apart. Extended families contain both blue and red factions. Witnessing the game is like watching a boxer trot into the ring solo and proceed to punch himself in the head.

In the spirit of full disclosure -- in my lifetime, Everton have savored just 15 wins to Liverpool's 40, but many Reds fans also loathe the game. Simon Critchley, a philosophy professor at The New School, confided, "I hate watching the Derby. There is too much emotion at stake, and although I would never miss it, all I want to happen is for it to end."

The first derby I remember was Everton's 1-0 win in 1978. Liverpool swaggered into the game as league leaders who had not lost a Derby since 1971. A sumptuous 58th-minute volley by Andy King changed that. Bereft in defeat, Liverpool defender Phil Thompson could only utter he was as "sick as a parrot." With his thick Scouse accent, the first word dragged on as if it contained multi-syllables, supplying Everton fans with the perfect sound bite to torture their rivals in offices and schoolyards until the next game.

The roles were often reversed in excruciating fashion. In 1982, Kenny Dalglish propelled his pass-and-move Liverpool side to a 5-0 rout at Goodison Park. Liverpool attacked with an unrelenting fury that could not be repelled. To make matters worse, mustachioed marksman Ian Rush, who knocked home four goals, had been a boyhood Evertonian. Et tu, Rushie?

Mercifully, I had been unable to secure tickets for the game and was forced to listen to the action unfold on the radio in the privacy of my bedroom. Back then, I believed quite literally in the footballing cliché "It only takes a second to score a goal." Until there were five seconds left in the game, I clung to a naïve belief that Everton would somehow turn the game around. By the final whistle, I was lying on the floor in prone position, groaning softly, as if I had been kicked in the kidneys. My heroes had been humbled, a harsh and early life-lesson about idols and clay feet.

In the 1980s, Liverpool was a bleak, economically scarred backdrop with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Social unrest simmered. Margaret Thatcher's cabinet debated the possibility of allowing the city to sink into a "managed decline." Football was a respite. When both teams battled their way into the 1984 league cup final, one out of every four Liverpudlian males invaded London to savor the first-ever Wembley derby, an event which was less a game of football and more a delirious celebration of the city itself.

The final, which ended goalless, was best remembered for both sets of fans uniting to bellow the name of their beloved county in unison. Cries of "Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside" rang out across North London. Despite these emotional scenes, I seethed in silence on the long journey home with my father. The referee had inexplicably allowed Liverpool defender Alan Hansen to use his hand and save a goal-bound Everton shot. The rematch, which Liverpool won 1-0, told us what we already sensed -- Everton were doomed.

We were right as it turned out, but in a way we could never have foreseen. In the mid-80s, Everton finally managed to assemble a squad to rival the gold standard set by their neighbors. Their 1985 team plundered both the league title and the (now-defunct) European Cup Winners Cup and was poised to become one of the best sides on the continent. Yet the '80s were the peak of the English game's hooligan years, culminating in the tragedy of the Heysel disaster, a fatal confrontation between Liverpool and Juventus fans ahead of the 1985 European Cup final, which led to the death of 36 Italians. A blanket five-year ban resulted, expelling all English clubs from European competition. Everton never recovered.

The Blues failed to adjust to the new financial realities of the game and the derby entered a dark age in which it felt as if Evertonians had no choice but to line up for the inevitable humiliation of a bare-bottom spanking. The nadir came during a 3-2 loss in 1999. Robbie Fowler controversially dropped to the Anfield turf after scoring a penalty and celebrated by "snorting" the white line along Everton's penalty box, mocking Evertonians who had long sung of his rumored drug habit. As Fowler ridiculed the fans, they howled in derision, the cries a thin attempt to mask their powerlessness.

Moments of happiness proved to be fleeting. Most carried the stench of gallows humor. Set-piece specialist Kevin Sheedy blasted a free kick into the top-left corner of the net, and then celebrated by manically giving Liverpool fans the finger (in a game they lost 3-1!) A young Steve McManaman was attacked by his own teammate, the manic Bruce Grobbelaar, in 1993. Tiny striker Francis Jeffers traded punches, toe-to-toe, with bewildered goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. Both men were sent off, but the jug-eared Jeffers later crowed, "I won on points. I landed a few more shots than big Sander."

In 2007, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez smugly labeled Everton "a small club." At the time he was right. My cousin was "webmaster" of the local Liverpool paper and he spent his day tracking Liverpool news stories as they were read across Asia, Africa, Australia and Scandinavia. I asked him where Everton's global digital footprint spread to. "Liverpool and North Wales."

But by the time Benitez repeated the claim in 2009, his words were ones of frustration and an awareness that the tides were turning.

Since Liverpool's ill-fated takeover by Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club who had been "knocked off their perch" by Manchester United sunk into the mire of Premier League mediocrity. Their blunt start to this season has Critchley nostalgic for the past. "I long for the 80s and 90s," he said. "I now see them as days of tremendous arrogance because when I look at Everton now I realize they are the kind of team that Liverpool should aspire to be: solid, modest, unassuming and under David Moyes, fiercely competitive. This is why they are in fourth spot and we languish in lower mid-table. The first step to changing that would be to learn a little humility."

Everton finished above Liverpool last season for the first time since 2004-05, yet the derbies always exist within their own ecosystem. However badly Kenny Dalglish floundered as a manager, he never lost his ability to motivate Liverpool for the game. They won both fixtures last season, adding a crushing 2-1 come-from behind-victory in the FA Cup semifinal for good measure. This will be Brendan Rodgers' first opportunity to prove he can do the same.

Though Everton currently sit eight places and six points above them, Rodgers' side is given a slight edge by the bookies. Everton may be without Marouane Fellaini, the world's largest security blanket. Steven Pienaar will certainly be absent after his unfortunate dismissal against QPR. Without him on the left, Leighton Baines may be like the sound of one hand clapping.

Critchley's philosophical specialty is the twin subjects of death and disappointment. I asked him if this expertise provides him with any unique insight on the derby and he quipped, "The worst part about football in general and the derby in particular is not the disappointment, it's the endlessly renewed hope," he said. "It's the hope that kills you."

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.