It was the plumes of blue smoke that gave the game away. As the Everton team bus inched its way up Goodison Road, the crowds reluctantly parted to allow it through. Shirtless children. Women with blue soot on their face.
Men clutching their four-packs of San Miguel with one hand and shaking a fist with the other. A swelling, soaring, billowing wall of noise filled the narrow little terraced streets like a fever. A “Road Closed” sign was slapped by an Evertonian for the crime of being red.
Where does that fervour and longing come from and where does it go? It doesn’t simply disappear between Monday and Friday. Instead it builds and festers, unquenched and often unrequited. The hours pass slowly and the years pass quickly.
Five seasons without a trophy became 25 in the blink of an eye. And yet still they come, and still they throng, through rain and snow and Rafa Benítez, a love that is not contingent on silverware or net spends or non fungible tokens. In a way the enduring appeal of Everton Football Club is its own small miracle. Not everyone grasps that. Frank Lampard, to his credit, does.
And so to this gripping and draining 241st Merseyside derby: not so much a stalemate as a draw by perpetual check. There were chances at both ends, an intense and faintly epic quality to the game that was more reminiscent of a cup semi-final than a league fixture in early September.
Naturally, Everton were the happier side at full-time: high-fives and backslaps and serenades from the crowd as Liverpool’s players trudged heavily towards the tunnel.
But this was no great escape: over 90 fraught minutes Everton offered further evidence that the much-maligned Lampard may finally be starting to make things happen.
All the necessary caveats, of course: while this was another watery Liverpool performance, they still managed to hit the frame of the goal three times, ratchet up the pressure late on, force Jordan Pickford into several outstanding saves. But in large part Everton had earned their occasional strokes of fortune by knocking Liverpool off their stride, moving the game to more boggier terrain, pressing and counterattacking and threatening to claim all three points through Neal Maupay, Conor Coady or Tom Davies.
There was, perhaps, one major difference between this and the pallid surrender at Anfield in April, when there were two goals, 614 passes and a spectacular gulf in ambition between these sides. That day Everton’s midfield of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Alex Iwobi made 42 passes between them.
Here, by contrast, Iwobi made almost that many on his own, a metric that illustrates the extent to which Lampard has upgraded his options in the centre. For the past couple of seasons Everton have often looked a team petrified of the ball. Now they crave control.
Has there been a more improved player than Iwobi in the last few months? The Everton fans sang his name with relish and were rewarded with a masterful display of cunning and bravery and bite, as well as one delightful piece of skill to send Mohamed Salah for a milkshake late on.
Davies might also have a claim: a midfielder who looked utterly lost at times last season, a Championship player in the making. He pressed with energy and passed with purpose and was unfortunate to hit the post in the first half. Maupay was a nasty, buzzing presence up front, although his glaring second-half miss suggests goals will continue to be a problem.
Nathan Patterson made a fine pantomime villain, enraging Luis Díaz and putting Darwin Núñez on his backside. On the other flank Vitaliy Mykolenko sat on Salah and only rarely let him come up for air. Demarai Gray looked like a transformed player on the right wing.
The point is this: when this many players are improving at the same time, something has to be going right on the coaching side. Lampard may attract frequent ridicule for his faint veneer of salesmanship, the head-boy superciliousness, the carefully curated public persona. But there is clearly a talented coach in there.
Lampard’s evidently high opinion of himself is part of the appeal. Perhaps the reason Everton fans have warmed to him so readily is that they see in him a little of the effortless self-regard they crave for themselves.
This is not an easy fanbase to win over: Roberto Martínez lost them quickly, Marco Silva arguably never won them over, Benítez certainly never did. But slowly, and in small steps, Lampard is giving them a weekend team worthy of their weekday longing. The mockery and derision isn’t going away soon. But right now, Everton fans are in. And, frankly, theirs are the opinions that matter most.