How 25 years of poor planning left Merseyside trailing Manchester

Back in 1986 Liverpool and Everton were England's top clubs but now they play second fiddle to their neighbours

The short, history-suffused walk from Anfield to Goodison Park often transports pedestrians back in time. Emerging from the maze of tight Victorian terraces surrounding Liverpool's ground, the route winds gently downhill across the green expanse of Stanley Park, passing its imposing centrepiece, the beautifully restored, grade II-listed, 19th-century Isla Gladstone Conservatory.

Down the years this monument to an era when, as the then gateway to the Americas, Liverpool was one of the British Empire's great ports has echoed to plenty of noise from the two stadiums each situated within half a mile of its precincts. The cheers can rarely have seemed louder than during the 1980s, when Merseyside gloried in its status as England's foremost football power and, for a time, Everton regularly challenged Liverpool for the title. Yet as the two great rivals reconvene at Goodison Park on Saturday lunchtime for the latest derby meeting, another city, 35 miles east along the M62, now arguably houses the two finest teams in the land.

There are myriad reasons why Manchester United and Manchester City look so dominant but, leaving Stanley Park and stepping into the dense, terraced streets surrounding Goodison Park, it becomes clear that stadium location has much to do with the cities' respective football fortunes.

Whereas Manchester United were surrounded by sufficient open space to enable them to dramatically expand Old Trafford, Manchester City's move, facilitated by the local council, from Maine Road into the former Commonwealth Games arena flanked by acres of disused brownfield land, proved a prime attraction when Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour sought a football investment for his petrodollars.

David Fairclough was born nearby to both Merseyside clubs, and the former Liverpool striker describes their comparative decline as "an emotive subject for me which I blame on a lack of vision and foresight". One source of a problem with many roots can be identified at local government level.

"Manchester as a city moved forward quicker than we did," Fairclough says. "Winning the race to become European Capital of Culture [for 2008] has changed everything but, until we won it, it was almost as if we were stuck in our own little republican bubble; people just accepted our world the way it was. Then everything changed. Liverpool is an amazing, fantastic place now, it's really buzzing and, despite the recession, this is the most exciting time in the city's regeneration I can remember. It's just a shame the current vision and foresight didn't come earlier – or extend to the football clubs."

A lack of clear boardroom strategy, something compounded by cash shortages and sometimes truculent planning officials, certainly conspired to stymie development of Liverpool's long envisaged new citadel in Stanley Park. Similar stumbling blocks prefaced the collapse of first Everton's proposed move to an intended 55,000-capacity ground within the King's Dock regeneration area and then, more controversially, a mooted switch outside the city boundaries to a proposed site share with Tesco at Kirkby.

As John W Henry, Liverpool's owner, ponders either extending Anfield or commencing digging in Stanley Park, Everton are torn between a necessarily limited expansion of Goodison or moving out of town. Not that Bill Kenwright, their financially challenged owner, can afford either option. A rare British face at the helm in a sphere peopled increasingly by American billionaires, Russian oligarchs, Gulf Arabs and Asian tigers, Kenwright seems almost as anachronistic as Goodison's charmingly atmospheric yet frustratingly impractical Victorian architecture.

"Stadiums are not the entire story but Liverpool's should have all been sorted out years ago, it shouldn't even be an issue now, and it's the same for Everton," Fairclough says. "They've both paid the price for not having the vision to see they needed new grounds."

The original Anfield "super sub" believes assorted Liverpool managers should also shoulder their share of blame. "When it came to refreshing the dressing room [with new players], one or two have maybe taken their eye off the ball," he says. "And I think a couple didn't grasp that winning the Premier League is more important than doing well in the Champions League."

As head of restructuring and insolvency at the accountant PFK, Trevor Birch feels finding a new home is Everton's priority. Birch, a former chief executive at Goodison, points out that, considering Manchester United's matchday revenue is roughly five times that yielded by his old club, the manager, David Moyes, has performed miracles. "David is armed for hand-to-hand conflict but he's competing against armoured artillery," Birch says. "The gulf is just too great for Everton to compete when Manchester United earn £3m a game and Everton generate £500k-700k."

He fears Kenwright will struggle to sell. "When someone looks at purchasing Everton they have to think about building a new stadium and that costs £300m to £400m. Who at a club which has incurred losses of £30m over the past five years is going to make that sort of investment?"

While the applause reserved for Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, at this week's Labour party conference in Liverpool prompted mixed feelings among scousers of Red and Blue footballing persuasions, neither Moyes or Kenny Dalglish begrudge their fellow Glaswegian his moments of glory. "No one has any divine right to success," Liverpool's manager says. "You have to work for it. If someone is better than you, they're going to be successful."

Dalglish declines to debate whetherobdurate city council bureaucrats have proved enemies of on-field meritocracy. "There's no point me getting involved in politics," he says. "I can't pass any educated comment. I would much rather Liverpool were the most successful team but we have to earn it. The responsibility is on us."

If much of the wider resentment and suspicion involved in an inter-city rivalry, inflamed in 1894 when the newly opened Manchester Ship Canal prompted a decline in orders for Liverpudlian merchants, has faded now, the footballing enmity still burnsso fiercely that regaining top spot remains paramount. "Our years of success were amazing and they can return," Fairclough says. "I'm quite optimistic about Liverpool now. Kenny fits the bill as manager and the new owner seems to have the right balance between respecting the club's heritage and increasing revenue."

A man who during the 1970s and 1980s won six League titles and three European Cups at Anfield is rather less confident about the Goodison prognosis. "Their situation is disappointing for the city, we need two strong teams," he says. "Everton are a bit worrying."

Additional reporting by Andy Hunter

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