At lunchtime on Sunday , in a somewhat dilapidated stadium in an unfavoured district of an old port city in the north-west of England, the teams lying 17th and 18th in the Premier League will meet for the 214th time in competitive football. Never, in a fixture dating back to 1893, have the stakes seemed higher for both Everton and Liverpool. These are desperate times and desperate teams, and this is one of the matches of the season.
Some of the edge was taken off Liverpool's desperation, however, at 4pm today, with the climax to the compelling, sometimes excruciatingly protracted saga of the club's change of ownership. When Steven Gerrard leads his team out to face Everton at Goodison Park, he will be representing an institution in new hands: those of John W Henry and his fellow investors in New England Sports Ventures.
After an often bewildering flurry of legal arguments in London, Dallas and New York, followed by the signing of a contract at the City offices of Slaughter and May, the owners of the Boston Red Sox now appear to be free to pay off around £200m of debts owing to the Royal Bank of Scotland, giving them control of a club whose honours include five European Cups and 18 English league championships.
A jubilant Martin Broughton, Liverpool's chairman, emerged with the contract signed and Henry alongside him. "Every Liverpool fan knows that the most nerve-racking way to win a football match is in a penalty shoot-out," Broughton said. "But as long as you get the right result, it's worth the wait. We've always known that we were in the right and now we've got justice."
Henry, greeted by the cheers of waiting fans, declared himself "proud and humbled" to be the club's new owner. "We have a lot of work to do and I can't tell you how happy I am that we've finally got to this point," he said. He was unwilling to commit himself on plans for investment in new players or in a new, larger stadium. "It's too early to say what we're going to do," he said, "but obviously we're here to win and we'll do whatever is necessary."
By contrast with the previous owners, his style seems to be one of understatement. There was no red scarf around his neck and no one from NESV will be present at Goodison Park on Sunday. "I think it's better for our first experience of the Liverpool supporters to be at home," he said. That opportunity will come when Blackburn Rovers visit Anfield a week on Sunday.
"A very good day for the club," Roy Hodgson, the Liverpool manager, called today's events. And how badly he needed it, barely three months into the job and with only six points from a possible 21 – one win, three draws and three defeats – in his team's first seven league matches of the season. "It's a relief," he continued. "It's been a very difficult couple of weeks. We've had to live through a bad time. A big cloud will have been lifted from the football club."
But no one would expect a Texas gambler and a New York-based hedge fund to accept losses of more than £140m and melt away without putting up a fight. Tom Hicks and the hedge-fund managers at Mill Financial, the inheritors of George Gillett's 50% of Kop Holdings Ltd, have made clear their intention to sue for around £1bn in damages, but the legal position would now appear to allow Henry and NESV – and, presumably, a reconstituted board of directors – to assume the task of guiding Liverpool to a recovery from their worst start to a season since they returned to the top flight of English football under Bill Shankly in 1962, the point at which their modern history began.
Until recently, Everton's desperation seemed the more urgent. Trapped in a shabby home, the Toffees have effectively been for sale for several years, with no sign of a buyer willing to take the club off the hands of Bill Kenwright, the most benign of chairmen. Kenwright's only fault is that the business of filling theatres with plays and musicals does not raise the kind of money that Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks are able to pour into their English football clubs, or that American investors can still borrow, even in the present economic climate.
Over the past few weeks, however, and particularly in the past 10 days, Liverpool's problems have taken precedence. This greatest of English clubs, in terms of aggregate results, found itself accelerating towards a precipice, increasingly out of control, and unsure how, and by whom, the brakes would be safely applied before the point of no return was reached.
Until the arrival of Hicks and his erstwhile partner Gillett less than four years ago, this was a club that might not have won the league title for a decade and a half but could still consider itself stable, solvent, reasonably well run and bursting with potential. But this week it veered perilously close to becoming a laughing stock to some and a sad example to others of what can happen when business imperatives and market forces are permitted to control the affairs of sport.
A resolution of the dispute over the ownership will remove an important excuse for poor performances. Apologists for the recent run of bad results can no longer claim that the players are depressed by the uncertainty hovering over the club, unable to deliver their best football and thus unusually prone to unexpected reverses like the shattering home defeat by humble Blackpool only two weeks ago.
"This comes on the back of a very bad result against Blackpool, something that would have set us back under all circumstances," Hodgson continued. "But if it's true that they [NESV] are taking over, it's very positive news. All clubs, all managers and players need stability. We've been a big, big story for the last few weeks but I'm hoping that the new owners will bring stability, give us a chance to concentrate on the football, and wipe out the debts, which will put us into a very different position."
The money that would have been spent on servicing the bank loans, he said, may now be freed to spend on players. "If that money was made available, we'd be quite wealthy. We've started the season badly, but luckily quite a few other teams have also started badly, so we're not entirely divorced at the bottom of the table."
Sunday's game, he added, is of crucial importance to both clubs. "I'm a great admirer of Everton. I think David Moyes has done a magnificent job there. We've only played seven games. It's 38 matches that count, and I'd be very surprised if Liverpool and Everton were fighting at the bottom at the end of the season. A local derby against our fiercest rivals is the best way to bounce back, if we're capable of doing so."
He will be hoping for an instant response from players such as Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina, the ones seemingly most affected by the recent turbulence, and whose continued presence on the playing staff would be most imperilled were the slump to continue. "As a manager at the moment I'm having some bad games and I'm trying to put that right," Hodgson said. "But I need the players to help me."
Torres will be the object of particularly close scrutiny in the coming weeks. In patchy form for Liverpool last season thanks to a series of injuries, he was almost unrecognisably subdued in Spain's colours at the World Cup finals and has only one goal to show for his appearances in all seven of this season's league fixtures. A revival of his characteristic effervescence on Sunday would be the clearest sign that the rebuilding of Liverpool will not be confined to the boardroom.