Football - FA Premier League - Everton FC v Reading FC

LET’S not pretend for one second that there aren’t some people who attend football matches the length and breadth of this country and others worldwide intent on causing trouble.

Let’s not pretend for one second that before a match between Everton and Liverpool thousands of rival supporters walk hand in hand singing “Merseyside” as they head off to enjoy ‘the friendly derby’.

But also, and crucially, let’s not pretend that relations are so bad between the red and blue halves of Liverpool that a match can’t be held in the city at 5.30 on a Saturday evening.

The thankfully now scrapped legal challenge by Merseyside Police to bring the derby forward to a lunchtime kick off is believed to be unprecedented. So what does that say about the city of Liverpool when compared to the rest of the country? It’s hardly the greatest PR exercise is it?

Yes, this will be the latest kick off for a Saturday derby since 1967. But why predict trouble before it’s happened? Why set the stage? Why almost will it to happen?

Not only does it cast aspersions on the city and its residents — red and blue — it allows for the sweeping generalisations that have dogged the reputation of football fans from Liverpool to continue. Given everything that Liverpool — and supporters from the city — has suffered in relation to this problem, in particular the families whose heartbreaking fight for justice for the Hillsborough disaster continues, it’s a staggering and thoughtless stance from Merseyside Police.

Think about other events that have taken place in Liverpool on a Saturday night. Major boxing matches. Concerts. Football matches that don’t pitch the L4 rivals together. All passing off without major incident. All taking place without legal challenge from the police. All taking place without the force that serves the city telling the world that the people who attend are heavy drinking would-be hooligans who will revel in “the protection of darkness” (the police’s words, not mine).

Police concerns over Saturday’s kick off time reportedly centred around the fact people are off work on a Saturday and more likely to drink with a later kick off time. Apologies for stating the obvious, but people are off every Saturday. A football match kicks off somewhere in the country at 5.30 every week. Why is Liverpool different? Why is this game different?

By making such a high-profile challenge to the kick-off time, Merseyside Police has unnecessarily drawn attention to the fixture. Now, any argument, any disagreement, any skirmish will receive extra scrutiny. Everton and Liverpool fans will effectively face trial by TV on Saturday through no fault of their own. Where is the sense in that? You can bet that TV producers and sections of the media that seek a scandal will train extra eyes on proceedings before, during and after this match because of what has come before from the mouths of Merseyside Police. If there is now an incident, any incident, will there be context? Will there be fairness?

How many people are arrested in any city centre on any Saturday night? How many football fans up and down the country cross the line on a Saturday afternoon (or evening)? The police have simply pointed an arrow at Liverpool and said Scousers are different. They can’t be trusted. There are too many troublemakers, red and blue. That seems to be the underlying message. And even if that wasn’t the intention you can bet any money you like it will be interpreted that way by many.

Football fans around the world drink before, after and even during games. And that happens no matter what time the game kicks off — morning, noon or night. Some do it sensibly, some do it to excess. Every week. Every match. Those that take things too far are generally dealt with by police. That’s what they’re there for after all.

For what it’s worth, as a season ticket holder who also goes away regularly I have some appreciation for the job Merseyside Police usually do. In my experiences they do it much more efficiently and successfully than some other forces I could mention. But on this they’ve got it wrong. Very, very wrong. Thankfully it seems common sense has finally prevailed but not without damage being done.

Football fans get a bad enough deal as it is — think of the expensive tickets and thoughtless scheduling of fixtures for starters.  But the stewarding and policing has — by and large — improved markedly since the dark days of the 1980s. This whole episode has felt like an unnecessary step backwards, and one which has wasted time, effort and money.

According to reporters from the Liverpool Echo who were in court today, police wanted to stand up to broadcasters more than anything else. A bit of posturing. All well and good. But once again consideration of football fans is bottom of the list. Had the kick-off time changed, what recompense would there have been for fans having to cancel travel arrangements? Would the police, or Everton, or Sky, or Liverpool City Council have sought to reimburse supporters for financial loss? Would they even have said sorry?

Thankfully we’ll now never now but I know where I’d place my bets.

So now it’s back to the football. Back to Everton v Liverpool. Steven Gerrard’s last derby. Back to all the things we should be talking about. Let’s hope now that the police stick to their job and let football fans stick to theirs: supporting their team and enjoying football.