WEDNESDAY night sees another Cup tie against ‘our friends from the other end of the M62’ (George Sephton, under P.R duress, April 1988) and the continuation of the Scouse-Manc bunfight. It’s the League Cup so no one should be ‘that’ arsed but if this were a testimonial for the oldest Old Trafford car park attendant we’d still fill our allocation and act like it’s St Etienne. These games matter even when they don’t.
In the pre-match ramble before the Manchester derby, Carra accepted the League significance of that game but still considered the Liverpool/United game to be the biggest game in the country. He’s right. Sorry Chelsea but they’re our rivals, not you. True, the derby is still up there and that march from the Albert across the park, usually in the rain, forms a pleasing high of the season, but the United game edges it. There can’t be many rivals who would swap an Anfield win for an Etihad one and similarly Goodison and Old Trafford wins are two very different things.
It’s not the fact that we’re now underdogs since their Sky age dominance, we never won there when we were hammering the giants of Europe, it’s more that it’s historical. We’ve hated each other for decades now and we’ve hated each other for purely fantastical reasons of little significance. Our mutual annoyance at each other’s existence is a start but there’s the accents, the fashion, the haircuts and the larger game of which is the better city. This last dates back into pre-Victorian age when the pride of Manchester cotton industry was met with sniffs from the inhabitants of the world’s greatest port. The Mersey beats the Irlam. I’m putting that on a banner.
Of course it gets overly nasty, of course some of it is hard to fathom and of course it goes over the top but there’s something welcoming about it too. In April 1988 when relations between the clubs were still of 1985 standard i.e. pretty bad, a decision was made to extend the hand of friendship and unite the footballing North West. For one game only United would run out to the Kop instead of to their own fans at the Anfield Road end and would charitably kick training balls into our end to mark this newfound bond.
Every single ball came back on the pitch.
Every single one.
I love that.
The Kop boisterously sang about Bryan Robson’s supposed susceptibility to certain venereal diseases. He waved a nonchalant hand in a gesture that fooled no one. He was to have his revenge two minutes into the game by which time we’d moved onto their other players. No one wanted a chummy relationship. We like hating them and they like hating us. If United didn’t exist we’d have to create them to make the match more interesting. After that game the two managers went for each other when Kenny told the press that they would get more sense out of his baby daughter Lauren than his ranting rival. We were then eleven points clear and were about to wrap up a title that Ferguson could only dream about at that point but we never let a second’s polemics pass without comment. Winning isn’t enough for those games. You have to craw about it for ages afterwards too.
If the main reason for the rivalry is geographical in nature why don’t we do the same for City? They had a decent side when the Liverpool/United thing first kicked off so why aren’t we ascribing STDs to Vincent Kompany? Well, it’s just not the same. United were glamorous back then. Best, Charlton and Law, nightclubs, massive crowds and media darlings. Liverpool were a ‘pint of mild and a bag of chips side’ by comparison and each was mistrustful of the other. ‘You can keep your image; we’d rather have the trophies’ was the credo and the ‘Glams’, despite relegation and the Tommy Doc scandal, were still the club the press wanted to talk about. Readers of a certain age will remember Gerald Sinstadt and later Elton Welsby effusing endless praise to them on ‘Kick Off’ despite the fact that they never came close to a League title. They weren’t true rivals in the footballing sense – just an irritating side we couldn’t beat. The party’s over, Gerald? Back then United weren’t even invited. You wouldn’t think it though. Lengthy discourses of Peter Barnes and Dennis Tueart ate into valuable Liverpool time each week.
City were never that annoying. They still aren’t in a way and if any such rivalry springs from their current success it will be on a par with Forest, Leeds and Chelsea. Passing only. If United were relegated four times and were managed by Terry Christian we’d still bemoan and pick at them. It’s an enmity that never withers.
What makes this stranger is that both cities get along in most worlds other than football. On a personal level my musical tastes draw heavily on Mancunian influences. The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, Inspiral Carpets, The Stone Roses etc are integral to me probably as much as The Beatles and the whole Eric’s scene are to the most rabid Stretford Ender. Morrissey even has a song called ‘Roy’s Keen’. It’s reassuringly awful but United are only a sideshow in that case. Both cities let this pass. Music is more of an inclusive thing and it’s rare that you look at birthplaces before deciding if a band is any good. Scousers go to Manchester for gigs and vice versa.
There are also similarities between the fans, similarities that often make us uncomfortable. We both, for the main part, avoid support or interest in the national side. We both look down our noses at Southern clubs (more of a phenomenon in the seventies and eighties) and both had a general left wing bias to our fanbase before Sky made everything global and fragmented. We also argue about the ‘wool’ nature of some of our fans. Paul Heaton from The Housemartins once referred to the Sky generation of new fans as ‘Joe 1990s’ and it’s fair to say that United have more of these since 1993. I’ll argue about football with anyone of Mancunian persuasion but if they don’t know who their manager was two before Ferguson it tends to be a short conversation. It’s a wonderful barometer to use should you find yourself in that situation. We too had a sudden influx of similar fans post Istanbul. I’m not saying that new fans aren’t welcome, who could frown at people wanting to support Liverpool after all although their sanity may be questioned, but there’s a local v global schism at both clubs – or at least there is with the United fans I know. Fan sniffiness and local v out of town support is always there.
It’s hard to write about the rivalry without mentioning the massive authoritian blind eye to some of their songs. You can’t stop fans singing the most horrific bile to provoke the maximum amount of outrage and anger from the other end of the ground. That’s always going to happen and you can’t ban people for singing, more’s the pity, but you should at least have a media who aren’t afraid to point out that it was going on. Walking anuses like Ollie Holt can hear a single comment from a single Kopite without even being in the ground and write pages on it (and he was even wrong about that) but entire blocks singing ‘Always the victim…’ and ‘Murderers’ seem to have passed beyond their ken. Strange that. Maybe those songs are no longer deemed offensive. I’ll ask David Baddiel.
If the media love-in, fear-in with Ferguson is now at end it will be interesting to see how far Moyes can last before the nation’s press can point out that Emperor is naked. His comments about being allowed to buy Everton players, his applauding their Anfield performance, which was eerily Hodgsonian, and his absolute beauty about looking for a win at Chelsea instead of holding out for a draw have passed with a smirk rather than full-on pasting but how long can that last? How long can they ‘do what they want’? It’s a new era for both clubs. Neither are particularly dominant and it’s been a long time since that’s been the case. Bragging rights will always be there regardless of league position but now the points mean as much rather than empty Pyrrhic victories against a side miles ahead in the League. That’ll be interesting.
Some enjoy the rivalry more than the hatred. I do. In some communities and some ages it’s religion versus religion or those who have and have not who take up cudgels for the need of a good shout and shouting at a club and entire city is therapeutic. It’s like George Orwell’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ except it’s directed of the Scouse/Mancunian equivalent of you and your mates across pitches, fora and social media. Sometimes I do wonder what makes a 44 year old man frown at anyone wearing a United shirt in the gym and walk large circles around them so there’s no chance of conversation but, after all, most hatred is irrational. Hating the fact that we’re similar in some ways and that some of them are alright and that they too are Northern and can produce great music and books as we can is also irrational but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s cartoon hatred and it’s better than venting spleen against people who can be harmed by it.
I just hope we batter them now.