How long will it take before Merseyside captures the attention of football once again?

For once, relevance was to be found in ridicule. If it wasn’t for more than 70,000 Manchester United supporters politely inquiring if they were watching, Merseyside’s role in the final, defining weeks of the Premier League season would have extended no further than Everton losing their manager to the champions without a single penny changing hands.

The dynamic of the power relations between Manchester and Merseyside is now so well established, so entrenched and so unquestioned that the only wonder is why the Stretford End still feels the need to rub in their superiority. A generation on from Wembley being a second home to supporters of Liverpool and Everton bearing “Manchester: A Trophy Free Zone” banners, the tables have well and truly been turned.

In the space of seven days between Sunday 5 May and Sunday 12 May, Merseyside was put in its place, perhaps more than ever before. The week started with a nondescript derby that has already been forgotten, a match that meant little outside of parochial superiority and how it showed. The following day came a surge of bets on David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, a rush of money that sent the bookmakers running for cover and left Everton fearing that they would be powerless to prevent their manager, soon to be out of contract, from walking away.

Within 48 hours, those concerns had been realised. Moyes was on his way and amidst the avalanche of deserved tributes that followed, the fact that Everton Football Club, the fourth most successful in English history, had left itself at United’s mercy. It almost felt like an afterthought but it should be one of the prevailing issues.

Moyes allowed his contract to run down, not because he knew he was getting the United job, but because of his ongoing belief that Everton lacked the ambition and the financial wherewithal to compete at the highest level. In January, his club had one last chance to prove him wrong by producing the kind of transfer budget that would have allowed him to move for players who might, just might, have propelled Everton to a top four finish.

Had they made that kind of investment, the Everton hierarchy would have been well within their rights to demand that Moyes should commit his future to them. They could even have inserted a clause in any new contract ensuring that if a rival club wanted to recruit the 50-year-old they would have to pay a substantial fee. As it was, January came and went, Moyes’s mind wandered and when United came knocking, Everton could do nothing other than wish him well.

If that is Everton, then what is to be said about Liverpool who finished below them for the second successive season? The most damning thing is that people have stopped talking about them. Two days before their penultimate game of the season, Brendan Rodgers held a routine press conference at Melwood. No members of the national print media were present, partly because of a clash with Everton’s but also due to there being no real story at Liverpool. That, in itself, may not seem significant but it is unprecedented.

Like United, Liverpool are almost always subject to remorseless interest, regardless of form, but this time there was hardly any. Their season has needed to be put out of its misery for several weeks and were it not for Luis Suárez’s unrivalled ability to cause a stir it is hard to think of anything else that has happened at Anfield in recent months that is worthy of attention. When that happens, when the eyes of the world shift elsewhere and no one seems especially concerned by what you do, it becomes increasingly hard to argue with those who claim that also-ran status has been assumed.

At the end of Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge, assuming such irrelevance can be written off as a symptom of transition, a necessary short term regression in order to go forward. But if it is anything more than that and if it goes on any longer, then the prospects of Liverpool reversing a decline which has been more than two decades in the making will diminish still further. Four consecutive finishes outside of the top six isn’t a blip, it is an unmistakeable trend and one that underlines how detached they have become from the elite.

With both clubs toiling and failing to live up to former glories, it is hard to recall a summer of such gargantuan importance to Liverpool and Everton. For the blue half, the challenge is to appoint a manager capable of over-achieving a la Moyes and to take full advantage of the increase in TV revenue by investing shrewdly in an ageing playing squad. For the red half, it is to ensure that for the first pre-season since 2007 the signings they make are capable of instantly improving the team. And that is without even mentioning the ongoing stadium issues that both clubs need to address with increasing urgency.

In the meantime, all supporters of Liverpool and Everton can do is hope that the balance of power will shift once again in their favour. It is hard to see that happening for countless reasons – not least the financial power of City and United – but back when Merseyside was in its pomp no-one was predicting that they would end up in Manchester’s shade within a couple of decades.

“I think what we had going on in the 1980s, that is what they have got in Manchester now, isn’t it?” Leighton Baines said recently. “They are fighting for titles and cups and, unfortunately, that’s not what we are doing. It would be great if, at some point, the clubs could get back to those levels. But things shift in football and, that’s where it is at the minute, over the road in Manchester.”

Merseyside is watching alright, the question is how long will it take before English football’s most successful region captures the attention of others once again? If it’s not any time soon then its relevance to those on the Stretford End will continue to be as a faded rival worthy only of ridicule.

Tony Barrett
The Times
May 16 2013 07:05AM

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