When Anthony Gordon recently left Everton, a closely guarded secret was revealed.
Gordon was not the boyhood blue supporters had been encouraged to believe when he burst onto the Goodison Park scene. As a youngster, he followed his favourites Liverpool to cup finals, photographic evidence circulating on social media proof of the ‘treachery’.
For some, it was grist to the mill in explaining Gordon’s motivation in seeking a move the previous summer and getting it in January.
“He was never one of us,” was a phrase heard often in the days before Gordon’s transfer to Newcastle United.
In recent years, there have been other Goodison academy graduates who have shuffled uncomfortably when asked about childhood allegiances, declaring themselves Evertonians publicly while privately it is conceded they switched sides across Stanley Park for professional reasons.
It suggests there is still an anxiety about how the most tribalistic fans will react to the reasonable assumption that not everyone at Everton considered Liverpool a rival in their youth, and in some cases held them in the highest regard.
Amid this history enters Sean Dyche for his first Merseyside derby, the newly appointed coach finding himself tap dancing through a minefield before leading his team to Anfield as he admitted his childhood support of Bob Paisley’s all-conquering team of the 1970s and 80s.
“I don’t mind telling you,” said Dyche.
“At seven years old I’m in Kettering, which is not exactly the metropolis of football. I was actually a Kettering fan. I actually had a season ticket and I used to go and watch Kettering. The sideline is that a lot of kids in [Kettering] in the 70s also supported Liverpool. My mate had the yellow Liverpool kit. You know the yellow one with the stripes down it? We have a picture of me and him together with it. I thought ‘that’s a nice kit, who is that?’ and he said ‘Liverpool’ so I thought, ‘we are Liverpool fans from now on then’. He still is. So that was my first reference point for supporting Liverpool.
“I only actually came to Anfield [once] with Phil Neal because he was from Irchester, a little place near Kettering. We were invited up as a local team if you like to play half an hour before the kick off. I nearly scored an own goal actually. I whipped it off the line. I put it past my own keeper, ran after it and swept it off the line.”
Suffice to say, the sentiments of 51-year-old Dyche could not differ more to those of his seven-year-old self, and his many battles with Liverpool – especially Jurgen Klopp – during his Burnley reign offer as strong testimony as the grown up response to questions about childhood heroes.
Although Kop fans have taken pleasure in winding up their opponents for ‘appointing a red’, Evertonians might consider the time overdue for a boyhood Liverpool supporter to inflict damage on the opposition given the long history of childhood blues successfully switching colours; Ian Rush, Steve McMahon, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher never hid their childhood affiliations and it was never an issue, the latter even turning up for Liverpool training as a teenager in his Everton kit.
It used to be the same at Everton. One of the most successful boyhood Liverpudlians turned Goodison legend – Peter Reid – was a visitor to the club’s training ground in midweek and there is no greater symbol of what it means to passionately represent the club on derby day.
Yet across the country there is still reticence before a Manchester United or City starlet, or those from Tottenham, Arsenal, Newcastle or Sunderland will openly admit swapping sides.
Supporters love singing “he is one of our own” whenever a player graduates into the first team, so the more savvy PR teams of Premier League clubs are reluctant to smash the facade. With some justification they fear it will be a stick with which to beat during more difficult times.
Witness the strenuous efforts to explain why a young Harry Kane was once pictured in an Arsenal kit. The idea he even flirted with Tottenham’s north London rivals was seemingly too much for some to accept.
“I was at Arsenal for a year and obviously I was a kid,” Kane explained once he was a Spurs hero.
“I wanted to wear a Tottenham kit but I don’t think that would’ve gone down well. I was eight years-old.”
If a player of Kane’s class feels compelled to explain, what chance does an underperformer have when a picture of his younger self in a rivals’ kit hits social media?
Whether Dyche acknowledging his past will encourage the next Gordon to be as honest as the manager will probably depend on how much admiration the player instantly draws in from the Gwladys Street. Sadly for Everton, not enough of their recent graduates have found and sustained such devotion or trust, Gordon following Francis Jeffers, Wayne Rooney, Jack Rodwell and Ross Barkley in being linked with a big-money move shortly after their debut.
Rooney, of course, introduced himself to the football world with the t-shirt ‘Once a blue, always a blue’. On Monday, an Everton derby win inspired by an ex-Liverpool fan would be most welcome at Goodison Park.