By Tony Barrett

WHEN Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson first locked horns in English football’s most combustible fixture, it was an era when a minority of supporters came armed with golf balls embedded with nails, Stanley knives that were used for cutting skin rather than carpets and even, on one notorious occasion, a canister of CS gas.

On Saturday, contrary to those who reverted to inflammatory hyperbole to bill it a “blood feud”, the weapons of choice for those who follow Liverpool and Manchester United were words. That terrace chants, however unsavoury they may be, have replaced physical confrontation in this bitter rivalry underlines just how far the fixture has come since its nadir in the mid-1980s.

For those who are so inclined it is still possible to produce a rap sheet detailing the misdemeanours of both set of fans, highlighting their excesses and eschewing perspective. “I would like to thank the majority of fans for their behaviour and co-operation,” Chief Superintendent John Ward, the match commander, said afterwards, providing a snapshot of reality that was in stark contrast to the expectations of doom-mongers. “Despite the large numbers of supporters from both clubs and lively atmosphere, only 17 people were ejected from the ground and, at this time, two people arrested during the policing operation, all for low-level incidents.”

One further arrest was later made, of a 59-year-old man from North Wales, who appeared to bring shame on himself with an alleged racist gesture. But the point still stands that out of a capacity crowd of 43,952 people only the behaviour of three individuals was deemed potentially criminal by those in charge of enforcing law and order. That’s 0.0068 per cent — some blood feud.

This is not to say the occasion was without incident — far from it. The booing of Patrice Evra was as predictable as it was uncomfortable. It was the veracity of the evidence from the United captain that condemned Luis Suárez to an eight-match ban rather than the colour of his skin that led to such merciless baiting. But regardless of the alleged inconsistencies in Evra’s account, we are heading into dangerous territory if someone who has claimed to be the victim of racial abuse — and who has had those claims upheld by an inquiry — is barracked for doing so.

Similarly, those in the away end who blotted the image of their club by using a tragedy in which 96 football fans lost their lives to score cheap terrace points. Hearing “The Sun was right — you’re murderers” being chanted by supporters housed in the same stand that features a memorial to the Hillsborough disaster was as distressing as the intent was pernicious. It is to their great fortune that the media microscope has moved on from sick chants to racism, or else scrutiny of their actions would prompt far greater outrage.

Yet, for all such concerns, this was a world away from February 9, 1986 when United’s players were attacked with CS gas as they alighted the team bus. “Worse than Vietnam,” was Ron Atkinson’s typically colourful description of the incident. Twenty-six years on, his successor and his players had to contend with a smattering of boos that would not have been out of place at a pantomime. Liverpool and Manchester United may still be English football’s most hostile rivalry but even with its obvious pockmarks it is still a far prettier affair than it once was.

From The Times, Monday January 30th 2012