Are you ready for the New Normal?
At around 6.55pm on Sunday, a siren will sound at Goodison Park. Then the famous Z-Cars theme will ring out, as it always does before an Everton home match.
This time, though, there will be no accompanying roar from the die-hards in the Gwladys Street, no whistles from the away fans crammed inside the Lower Bullens.
There will be no Toffee Ladies or ball boys dotted around the ground, and no mascots either. The Premier League anthem will be played as normal, but there will be no pre-match handshakes, no exchange of songs from supporters, no deafening derby-day noise.
Liverpool’s team bus will not receive its customary ‘warm’ welcome outside the stadium, while their players and staff will not even be allowed to enter the visiting dressing room.
Jurgen Klopp and his team will get changed in a Portakabin in the Park End car park, and will enter the pitch directly from there for their pre-match warm-up.
Yes, the 236th Merseyside derby will be perhaps the strangest ever played. “The antiseptic derby,” as one prominent Merseyside writer put it this week; a derby of face masks, disinfected footballs and elbow bumps, of artificial crowd noise and strategically-placed flags and banners.
That’s the way it has to be, unfortunately. Football, yes, but not as we know it.
For Liverpool, of course, there is business to take care of first and foremost. The Reds know that victory on Sunday evening would move them to within one win of their first league title since 1990. In fact, Klopp’s side could be crowned champions as early as Monday night, if Manchester City were to lose at home to Burnley.
Liverpool have not been beaten at Goodison in almost 10 years, though perversely they have won only two of eight fixtures there since that Roy Hodgson-led loss in October 2010. Blues fans delight in reminding them that the goalless draw last March effectively cost the Reds the league title.
For Evertonians, it will be an evening to be endured, even if the threat of Liverpool being crowned champions on their own patch was removed by City’s battering of Arsenal on Wednesday.
The excitement surrounding ‘Project Restart’ has yet to reach Goodison, it has to be said. Many Blues fans are far from thrilled by the Premier League’s return, making their feelings clear pretty much every time their club posts on social media.
A poll conducted by Reach PLC during lockdown found that 76 per cent of Evertonians were against the season continuing, with 66% voting for a “null and void” campaign which would, of course, have seen Liverpool denied the league title.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side have ambitions of their own, of course, but neither a European push nor a relegation scrap look likely at this point.
The Toffees were 12th when the campaign was paused back in March, with thoughts already starting to turn towards next season when Ancelotti would, pre-coronavirus at least, have sought to reshape and improve his team significantly.
Those plans are on hold as the impact of the pandemic continues to emerge.
Everton made a record loss of nearly £112 million ($139m) according to their most recent accounts but even Liverpool, who posted a healthy profit, are tightening their belts.
The Reds have already pulled out of a deal to sign Timo Werner from RB Leipzig due to financial concerns, with chief executive Peter Moore warning of “an unprecedented loss of revenue” for the club.
Everton, naturally, share those concerns.
Their first-team players, to their immense credit, agreed earlier this month to voluntary wage deferrals of up to 50%, a move which will enable the club to maintain the salaries of all full-time and part-time staff for at least the next three months. Ancelotti and his backroom team had already agreed to cuts of up to 30 per cent when the club went into lockdown back in March.
Both Everton and Liverpool will, like the other 18 Premier League clubs, show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement prior to Sunday’s game. We can expect to see players’ ‘take a knee’ before kick-off, a powerful message which the league says it will fully support.
Seamus Coleman, the Everton captain, was one of the key figures in those talks, while Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson led the impressive #PlayersTogether initiative, which will see funds distributed directly from players to more than 150 registered NHS charities.
These are important moves. Football, traditionally, has sought to separate itself from political and social issues, but if nothing else has come out of this period of lockdown, it is that the sport, and crucially the people who play it, have realised the power they have to make game-changing contributions – off the field as well as on it.
That, then, is the backdrop to Sunday’s game. One of political messaging, uncertainty and, in plenty of places, apathy too. A derby match in name, but not in feeling. A game for broadcasters and money men, not supporters.
Football’s New Normal arrives on Merseyside this weekend, but how long will it stay for?