- in Environment
Merseyside derbies are usually played out to the backdrop of sound and fury – the first meeting between Everton and Liverpool behind closed doors was accompanied by the soundtrack of a saxophone.
The 202nd league meeting of these great rivals was the first played in such reduced circumstances and was a suitably surreal occasion lacking the passion and noise that is an integral part of these fixtures.
In derby history there have been two 19:00 BST kick-offs, the first an FA Cup fifth-round tie in March 1967 which drew a combined crowd of 106,000, with almost 60,000 watching in the flesh at Goodison Park and the rest on a big screen at Anfield.
Here, in the second, Everton and Liverpool played out this goalless draw to only the shouts of those directly involved, with less than 300 people dotted around this famous old arena.
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And, lending an even more bizarre slant to a derby like no other was the sound of a very talented saxophone player lurking somewhere in the vicinity of Goodison Park.
The musician’s repertoire was occasionally repetitive but it certainly added to the mood with a stirring version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”.
And why not?
This was, in the silence, a derby war of attrition in which an Everton side superbly organised by manager Carlo Ancelotti frustrated the Premier League champions-elect, who were ultimately thankful to goalkeeper Alisson and the woodwork as Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davies came closest to ending Everton’s decade-long wait for a win in this fixture.
Portable dressing room in a car park
This game was the biggest test yet of how “Project Restart” will fare without fans, of what difference the new environment would make to such an emotional, colourful fixture so often driven by the intensity of those watching.
And there is no doubt it was not the same without those clad in blue and red but this is the new, perfectly understandable, reality.
Liverpool’s players changed in a portable dressing room tucked in the car park behind Goodison’s Sir Philip Carter Park Stand on arrival and entered in a corner of the stadium while Everton emerged from the usual tunnel.
The familiar strains of “Z Cars” and the blaring air raid siren that are now a familiar part of the ritual seconds before kick-off at Goodison Park were still in evidence, but a Merseyside derby without the roar of the crowd is a strange sporting beast to behold.
Indeed, the most prominent sound in the early stages came from overhead in what sounded like a drone or a police helicopter.
If there was one indicator that this was the first derby played out in the so-called “new normal” it was the noise levels coming from the players on the pitch.
Everton captain Seamus Coleman, who had a magnificent match, was particularly vocal along with his young defensive colleague Mason Holgate, while Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson was predictably vociferous in his urgings to colleagues.
It just was not the same – nor should it be in the current global crisis but this was a game, an occasion, when the adjustment to life without fans for the time being was brought into its sharpest relief yet.
The respective managers Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp, members of the royalty of their trade, enjoyed a lengthy and clearly very warm conversation before kick-off with the smiling German an animated contrast to the laconic Italian, looking smart in a dark suit and without the usual shirt and tie.
And just to add to the sense of anti-climax from the Liverpool side of the equation, they were unable to get the win they required to set up the possibility of securing their first title in 30 years against Crystal Palace at Anfield on Wednesday.
It would have been a special moment, even with The Kop deserted and those other Anfield landmarks empty – it may still be. Liverpool could get the opportunity but it is dependent on Manchester City losing at home to Burnley on Monday.
As an occasion, this was a very sobering acquaintance with how Premier League football will be for now, purely because this was so far removed from what was normal before coronavirus brought a halt to the season in March and from what a Merseyside derby usually inflicts on the senses.
Police presence and few fans outside ground
There was a very visible Merseyside Police presence around the ground as kick-off approached because this was a fixture many feared would draw crowds and test social distancing guidance even though the game was behind closed doors.
In the end, a few supporters gathered before kick-off and a small group assembled to take photographs of players as they drove out of the stadium on to Goodison Road less than an hour after the final whistle.
Merseyside Police insisted they were confident there would be no security issues, Liverpool City Council were happy on public health grounds and both were proved correct.
The result was the right outcome and the game ended in the subdued atmosphere in which it started, Liverpool a step closer to the crown that has eluded them for three decades and Everton showing an organisation and fitness late on that once again showed what smart work owner Farhad Moshiri did in luring Ancelotti back to the Premier League.
In the end honour was satisfied – even if there was hardly anyone there to witness it.