When the two most successful clubs in England clash, little introduction is needed. Between the two north-west clubs there are 38 top-flight titles, eight European Cups and 200 competitive matches, but it is the countless tales of blood spilt and historical enmity that characterise the fixture. Ask any football follower, not just those from Manchester or Merseyside, and they will be familiar with the statistics and key moments. Instead of recounting the numbers,Tale of Two Halves has decided to delve into the personal side of Liverpool against Manchester United: a rivalry too close for comfort.
When Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in Manchester, he took one look at Liverpool and famously stated his desire to “knock them off their ****ing perch”. In one fell swoop he connected to what has driven Manchester United for decades, and highlighted the gaping chasm between the clubs. At that point, there was an imposing aura about Liverpool that had built up over a considerable period of dominance that rankled with United. Sixteen First Division titles to six will do that to a club.
A shared character
It wasn’t the volume of silverware rolling into Anfield that stoked the aggression, however. The sheer self-confidence with which Liverpool swatted away all who stood in their path was a red rag to the Mancunian bull. Manchester has long been a city that has prided itself in exploring, innovating and leading. As J.B. Priestley once said: “What Manchester thinks today, the rest of the world thinks tomorrow.” This was the attitude that seeped into the fabric of United. To have Liverpool’s testosterone-fuelled swagger shoved in their faces was simply too much to take.
Liverpool has also long thrived on a reputation for innovation and self-advancement. The Albert Docks was a world-famous import-export epicentre, driving overseas trade for centuries. While its maritime influence has waned somewhat in a purely business context, it helped imbue the city with a multicultural attitude. There is a rebellious streak born out of this melting pot that has lead to individual expression becoming a huge part of what Liverpool as a city – and by extension, its eponymous club – means.
Liverpool shares many characteristics with its near neighbour, however much residents of both may hate to admit it. Steven Scragg is Senior Writer at These Football Times and a lifelong Liverpool supporter, and he believes this closeness has germinated an intensity to the rivalry.
“The two cities are too similar to one another for the comfort of their inhabitants. This breeds a competitiveness to go along with the generational mistrust. Subconsciously at least, there is an uneasy mirror image that reflects back when they look at each other.”
An unpleasant edge or a battle of pride?
Familiarity breeds contempt. Contempt can unfortunately sometimes overflow into aggression and unpleasantness. Another factor that binds the two cities closer together is tragedy, and it has caused hostility that goes beyond base tribalism of football support. A shameful side of the relationship that has thankfully remained in a minority, but exists nonetheless, is the baited reference to Hillsborough and Munich in gaining an edge.
It would be wrong to tarnish either city or club with a reputation for exploiting the other’s grief, as it simply isn’t indicative of either camp. Equally, it is important to acknowledge the presence of the bigoted few who still gorge themselves on suffering. Around the festive period there are always some Manchester United fans who chant mindlessly about food shortages, unemployment and victimisation. In return, airplane gestures have been made.
Aside from these disgraceful flashpoints, Liverpool and Manchester are proud cities. Never content to settle for the status quo, they are constantly evolving. Manchester was the birthplace of the suffragette movement in the early 20th century, and hosted much of what made the Industrial Revolution so explosive. Liverpool has stood firm against political movements that have sought to suppress them, most notably the Thatcherite Conservative government of the late 1970s and early 80s.
“Both cities rebel against ‘the system’,” continued Scragg. “They will not be told how to conduct themselves. Within this, a never ending game of one-upmanship is taking place. Victory is orgasmic, while defeat is literally painful.”
Like warring siblings, confrontation is never far from the surface. In the early days of Ferguson’s reign, he took a side still in the process of being rebuilt to Anfield in 1988 with more hope than expectation. They were 3-1 down, and with a man sent off, but that meant little to the men on the pitch. John Ludden is a prolific Manchester-based author, and he recalls the game vividly.
“Enter big Norman Whiteside, and carnage. Steve McMahon and John Barnes in a heap, Anfield going crackers, 3-3 and Gordon Strachan smoking an imaginary cigar and giving it two fingers to the Kop.”
Any comeback against a rival is heartily welcomed by any support, but to do so under such pressure and still have the temerity to goad the bear pit itself was emblematic of the atmosphere. Not just joy, but a arrogance to it. This is us, we own this place. A large part of the tension grew from a slant of jealousy at Liverpool’s success of course, and the knowledge that to rip that up, if only for a moment, was a rare privilege.
The Sir Alex Ferguson effect
After Ferguson’s unparalleled period of success, the balance had shifted somewhat. Liverpool had built some fabulously entertaining teams in the 1990s, but without enough substance to challenge the Manchester United juggernaut. It was an eerily reminiscent role reversal of the previous two decades.
Since the Scot’s departure from Old Trafford, something has been missing from the soul of United. It has affected the relationship between the sets of fans too. With him in charge, there was a substantial target to aim for. It meant something; to beat United was to earn it, as Sam Maguire, Senior Writer at Football Whispers, explains.
“The relationship appears to have deteriorated. There was once a respectful rivalry but now it’s just toxic with many fans eager to just point score. It coincides with Ferguson’s retirement, too. He left and United weren’t the force they once were. This role reversal is at the root of all of the friction between the two sets of supporters.”
Around the middle of the 20th century, the relationship was healthier. It mattered to beat the other, of course, but there was little of the outright hatred that can be seen today. There was an outpouring of grief that shook English football when Sir Matt Busby’s breathtaking young side was decimated by the Munich Air Disaster. The aftermath gathered sympathy from all corners, including Liverpool, as they attempted to drag themselves off the canvas and get back fighting.
Since then, though, the mood has changed. Liverpool began to dominate, most notably in Europe which had been a public crusade of the Red Devils. United stumbled after Sir Matt Busby retired from management, dropping into the Second Division and proceeding through a mixed assortment of managers who all failed to different degrees to establish an empire.
In that season outside the top flight, United fans rampaged through towns up and down the country as fandom took on a whole different taste. Violence became not just normal, but endemic to football terraces. Tribal feuding became physical, and nasty.
“The two sets of supporters stopped seeing eye-to-eye in the mid-1960s,” explained Scragg. “Both parties have a confident sense of superiority, which is unaffected by either side owning the contemporary upper hand in any given era. There is an air of defiance towards one another which is generated by the core support of each club.”
City derbies playing second fiddle
Both Liverpool and Manchester United have complex relationships with their city rivals too. Everton have played second fiddle to their Stanley Park neighbours for some time now, and as such the edge to the Merseyside derby has sapped from what it once was.
“Obviously the derby means a lot,” continued Maguire. “It’s all about local pride, bragging rights and being able to wind up family members who sadly backed the wrong horse from birth, but Everton haven’t beaten us for a while now. So there isn’t as much of an intense rivalry as perhaps there was when both teams were competing for league titles.”
It is inevitable that with the fall of one contest, there is a rise within another. Before Manchester City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi royal family, they had lived mostly in United’s shadow for some time, and a similar shift in importance towards Liverpool took place in the minds of most United supporters. As Ludden describes it, the atmosphere of the relationship between Liverpool and United has taken on a more sinister edge.
“With Liverpool it’s pure hatred, too much has gone before. Munich chants, tear gas, Stanley knives, United are no angels but there really is a toxicity in the air when we play them. City is more a local tribalism.”
There have been too many moments that stand out to mark the rivalry, but some are more significant indicators of the mood than others. This is a relationship based on power, swagger, arrogance and dominance. By definition, both teams can’t be the dominant force. Busby famously detailed what it takes to make a Manchester United player. “Skill, fitness and character,” he once said. “But the greatest of these is character.” The same could have been said of Liverpool.
Moments maketh man
One of Ferguson’s last great teams was built on this substance, particularly around the impermeable Serbian rock known as Nemanja Vidic. That meant little to Fernando Torres when he arrived with his teammates in 2009, as Maguire recalls.
“The 4-1 win, with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres running riot, always stands out in my mind. It means more than the 3-0 win because this was Fergie’s United: a side going for the title, not a side managed by David Moyes.”
After Torres had run rings around Vidic, it could be argued that he never quite had the same aura about him. Liverpool went close in their title challenge, but fell just four points short of United. That it is a discussion at all whether Liverpool fans enjoyed that individual humiliation of their rivals on the own ground more than the pain of missing out on the title is indicative of the result’s significance.
Titles vs rivalry
Which matters more? Beating your rival, or winning trophies? Liverpool haven’t been crowned champions in almost 30 years, and yet have built up a cockiness based on the knowledge that United are in decline. A brief litmus test of both sets of fans would show a far more content Liverpool fan base than United’s.
The fact that Liverpool are now challenging for the title with a thrilling attacking side and a manager whose philosophy ties in with the club is influential in this respect. Until they get the league title monkey off their back, though, there will always be a nagging gap eating away at their conscience, however much they enjoy the mood.
The Liverpool vs Manchester United rivalry will inevitably evolve as time goes by, like all of football. Perhaps one, or even both, will fade from prominence, and once more the pendulum will swing. Now, though, the two are tied eternally bound together, whether they like it or not.
“When you meet Liverpudlians away from the battleground trenches of football, you could not work with or enjoy the company of nicer people,” Ludden opined. “But, like us, when it comes to football, the mask comes down. It’s an unhealthy rivalry in many ways that can spill over, but in today’s whitewashed, polished, ‘‘we are the world’’ modern game, it’s good to have a little old fashion in-your-face, fuck you rivalry.”
It might be raw, brutal and at times excessive, but this rivalry will never die out.