By Victor Martins, FootballPredictions.NET, 16:36 12/08/2020
Updated at: 10:37 02/03/2023
Some of the fiercest rivalries in world football are about more than just the earthly business of victory after 90 minutes. The Merseyside Derby, for example, is one of the biggest games in world football, pitching Liverpool FC against their neighbours, Everton.
A little less than a mile separates the two clubs, but the rivalry is as fierce as ever. However, unlike other famous rivalries, religious division does not factor in on Merseyside. Liverpool FC may have Catholic fans, but they are certainly not a Catholic club.
Sectarianism, an unfaltering commitment to a particular religious sect, is a crucial factor in some of the fiercest football rivalries. However, no such religious associations can be made with Liverpool FC today.
More than a Game?
Bill Shankly once famously quipped that football – contrary to what many people may have thought – was not a matter of life and death; it was, he claimed, “much more serious than that”.
The late, great manager of Liverpool FC may have been joking, but, for many, football – and especially the rivalries it helps create – does transcend the banalities of 22 men on a pitch.
In some cases, such rivalries may even spill into religion. The city of Liverpool, with its two teams – Liverpool FC and Everton – is a clear example.
There remains to this day a strangely pervasive idea that these two fierce rivals are also divided on religious grounds, despite the clubs making no moves to appeal to such divisions.
Liverpool FC's Protestant Roots
When the two clubs split in 1892, religion may have played some role in the division, based in part on the city’s strong Irish heritage. However, even at the time of the split, there was no strong link between Liverpool Football Club and Catholicism.
John Houlding, the founder of the club, was actually a member of the Orange Order, a staunchly Protestant fraternity.
In fact, Liverpool did not field a single Catholic player in their team for almost 90 years. Ronnie Whelan became the Reds' first-ever Irish Catholic player when he made his debut in 1979.
Such a beautiful goal: Ronnie Whelan scores for Liverpool v Man United in the FA Cup SF in 1985. I even love the way Gary Bailey hangs in the air & the scenes on the terraces #lfc #ynwa @KingKennyStand pic.twitter.com/hI2YVSbrxq
Such a beautiful goal: Ronnie Whelan scores for Liverpool v Man United in the FA Cup SF in 1985. I even love the way Gary Bailey hangs in the air & the scenes on the terraces #lfc #ynwa @KingKennyStand pic.twitter.com/hI2YVSbrxq— @forgottengoals (@forgottengoals) October 20, 2019
On the other hand, it was Everton, founded by George Mahon - a staunch Home Rule advocate in Parliament – who had closer ties to Catholicism.
This was a trend that continued well into the post-war period. A series of Irish stars turned out for the Blues, thus lending weight to their characterisation as a Catholic team.
Nevertheless, any sectarian divides that may have existed on the city streets at this time melted away within the stadiums.
Sectarianism and Sport
Sectarianism, that is the allegiance to a particular religious sect, can be a powerful force in stoking divisions that all too frequently take on a violent complexion. Although lacking from the Merseyside rivalry, it does still exist within British football, notably across the border in the SPL.
There, the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers – Scotland’s two most successful teams and Glasgow neighbours – is fuelled by religious division. Protestant and Catholic allegiances, towards Rangers and Celtic respectively, give the Old Firm Derby a sharper edge.
Much as with the origins of Liverpool FC, some of the roots of this religious friction can be traced back to the tensions between supporters of Orangeism and Irish Republicanism; The Irish tricolour flag is frequently seen fluttering in the breeze at Celtic Park.
It is worth noting, however, that these links remain external; The clubs themselves are not Protestant or Catholic per se, but rather this stems predominantly from the supporters.
Both teams have had a number of notable players who have crossed this perceived divide for instance.
Relating back to the religious affiliation of Liverpool FC, perhaps the most famous individual in the club’s entire history – Kenny Dalglish – played for Celtic from 1969 to 1977, despite his Protestant background.
The Friendly Derby
Recently, commentators and journalists have noted a change in attitudes on Merseyside. Relationships between fans appear to be deteriorating every season, no doubt further fuelled by recent successes on and off the pitch for the Red Men.
Nevertheless, there is a reason that the Merseyside Derby was, and still remains, affectionately known as the ‘Friendly Derby’.
Whatever the beliefs of the fans, it is not so much religion that divides families across the city of Liverpool, so much as their adoration for either Red or Blue.
Thanks to input from Chris Overend in this article.