The Merseyside Derby Makes Goalkeepers Work Overtime

By Tim Ellis

News • Feb 12, 2023

The Merseyside Derby Makes Goalkeepers Work Overtime

The “friendly derby” dramatically exposes the rough and smooth of goalkeeping life.

During Liverpool’s latest league outing at Molineux, Jurgen Klopp looked as passive as his team. That energy, that intensity, that ‘over my dead body’ resilience was replaced by a group that still had their pre-match oversized headphones on. Well, metaphorically at least. 

This needed the intervention of a goalkeeper who has taken on a leadership role at Anfield in good times and bad.

Immediately after the 3-0 reverse, Alisson owned the stage. His honest appraisal of the team’s weaknesses was a call to arms. Sean Dyche’s Stanley Park steam express is coming down the track. It’s a time for steel barricades and a strong mentality. Alisson’s pulse rate will remain stable. That’s who he is.

Alisson v Everton.jpg

Merseyside clashes naturally attract raised temperatures elsewhere. The heat map inside the box isn’t for the weak. The pressure of a bigger story within the longest-running top-flight derby in England certainly makes the goal harder to defend. As recent history proves, it’s perilous between the sticks after the clock strikes 90.

Alisson was the recipient of Klopp’s biggest public bear hug in 2018. Jordan Pickford misjudged  Virgil Van Dijk’s 96th-minute high-altitude shank and Divock Origi did the rest. The Brazilian looked genuinely delighted to receive an in-your-face blessing from his manager. Welcome to what it means to beat the neighbours, Mr Becker. 

There was a grimness post-match for Pickford and the Toffee fanbase. It was a moment that might have blown away lesser characters but the England goalkeeper apologetically engaged with an away clan who were seconds from spoiling Jurgen’s pint of Erdinger. Pickford is your marmite or your maverick, a man that cannot elicit neutral feelings from fans and pundits alike.

He has pushed back and excelled in recent episodes. The compelling moment of the September meetup came when the 28-year-old tipped Mo Salah’s late strike onto the post right at the death to complete a perfect set of saves.  The Egyptian’s face told us everything you needed to know about the quality. Whisper it. Derbies can be exciting goalless draws.

Pickford’s celebration was the energised opposite of the Origiverse clanger. “Why always me” might be a slogan destined for JP in this fixture. He flailed at a last second Jordan Henderson ‘winner’ in the ghoulish 2020 derby under Covid restrictions, having already taken out Van Dijk with a WWE challenge. VAR saved his blushes on both occasions. Adrian wore black pants. It was that kind of funereal day.

The 2014 Derby at Anfield wasn’t a particularly memorable one for Simon Mignolet either. What happens late in a match endures well beyond the white lines. This was the beginning of the end for Brendan Rodgers. Mignolet’s positioning for Phil Jagielka’s rocket gave us a premier of one of Gary Neville’s studio dance moves too, in an attempt to provide some expert punditry.

Red and Blue goalkeepers dominated the iconic memories of the 80s when Evertonians could dream of trophies and even challenged their lofty neighbours for the title. That most emotional post-Hillsborough 1989 FA Cup final at Wembley was a topsy-turvy affair that finally ended when Ian Rush fired a double past his fellow countryman Neville Southall. 

The enduring image for those custodians that live and breathe the pain of being breached was the sight of Big Nev sitting alone in the goal for what seemed like an eternity after the final whistle. Winning and losing local battles in global technicolour, even when the city was united after tragedy, mattered. 

The prequel three years previously saw Bruce Grobbelaar take centre stage. Hardly a shrinking violet, the Zimbabwean had a physical altercation with teammate Jim Beglin as Liverpool struggled defensively on the day. With the score locked at 1-1, Alan Hansen misdirected a clearance across the face of his own goal which fell onto the razor-sharp head of Graeme Sharp.

The Scot’s looping header looked destined for the net but even in these pre-Strictly times, Grobbelaar backpedalled and leapt acrobatically to tip the ball over the bar. This was no camera save. The Zimbabwean called it the “kangaroo leap”, something that midfielder Craig Johnston (the 80s version of Harry Kewell but with earrings and curly hair) had taught him. 

Johnston scored one minute later to put Liverpool ahead to set them on course for the double.  It was Brucie’s bonus bounce that paved the way. The power of one in the derby struck again.

One of the most personal and emotive stories was in the maelstrom leading up to the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2012. There was a genuine feeling pre-match that David Moyes’s team could put one over Kenny Dalglish’s struggling band of brothers. 

The backstory to Liverpool’s man between the sticks on the day, Brad Jones, was an astonishing one. Pepe Reina was already suspended for his hothead headbutt at Newcastle and Alexander Doni was drafted in for the league match at Blackburn preceding the trip to Wembley way. The Italian was then sent off for stopping a goalscoring opportunity in the first half. Jones replaced him, saved the resulting penalty, but almost got his marching orders too for taking out Yakubu. 

All of this happened after the Australian had lost his son to leukaemia just a few months previously. He celebrated the birth of a new child, Nico, during the days before the big match. “Luca is with me every day. I carry him everywhere. In that sense, I’ve got someone looking over me.” Indeed he did. Despite a mix-up from Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger to give Everton the lead, Liverpool won 2-1 and Jones enjoyed his day in the sun.

When Mark Hughes tried to big up the noisy neighbours at Old Trafford in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson scoffed. Tim Howard agreed with the sentiment having played in both: “The Merseyside derby is the greatest game I’ve ever played in. It’s a thousand times better than the Manchester derby. Anyone who tells you differently is just pulling your leg.”

The leg, hand or chest might make the difference on Monday. If it’s anything like the game in the Autumn, then the goalkeeping community will be very happy too.

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