TO this day, the most piercing single roar I’ve heard at a football match came when Frank Stapleton sent the Stretford End into raptures with a 52nd-minute winner against Liverpool in September 1983.
It was my first visit to Old Trafford and is a memory I always conjure up on the eve of this particular contest, which rightly claims to be English football’s “Classico” — the Premier League’s flagship fixture between the two most successful and most famous clubs in the country.
When Stapleton scored that goal 33 years ago, to my teenage ears at least, it sounded like a bomb had gone off. The acoustics generated by the cavernous 1980s Old Trafford, reverberated an incredible noise around the whole stadium. Thought it hurt at the time, it set the agenda for appreciating this contest for years to come.
The famed rivalry between the clubs escalated rapidly in the early part of the 1980s; United fans naturally jealous of Liverpool’s unchallenged reputation as the best team in the country with Liverpudlians concurrently irked by the column inches afforded to The Red Devils, the darlings of the media.
The understandable sympathy towards Manchester following the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 cemented United’s place in the hearts of a nation and when Matt Busby’s “Babes” were succeeded by a European Cup-winning team led by the celebrated triumvirate of Munich survivor Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, United soon became the best-supported side in the country.
Liverpool emerged to usurp United during the 1970s with title after title but seldom felt the same love, acclaim or coverage from the press.
Resentment on both sides, for contrasting reasons, bubbled beneath the surface and there were frequent clashes between factions of United’s Red Army and Liverpool’s crew from the Anfield Road End but the catalyst for the enmity that exists today was the arrival of Ron Atkinson in the Old Trafford hot-seat.
In their elusive search for a manager who would challenge Liverpool’s superiority United had appointed the Liverpool-born, media-friendly, former West Bromwich Albion boss in 1982.
Despite his birthplace, Atkinson was the complete antithesis to Liverpool’s quiet conservatism under Bob Paisley and later, Joe Fagan. Always ready with a quote for the press and a lover of the TV cameras, the perma-tanned Atkinson, with his penchant for outlandish gold jewellery, was a reporter’s dream, filling column inch after column inch with colourful quotes in the build-up and aftermath of every United fixture.
Atkinson’s openness and willingness to brief the newspapers, combined with Liverpool’s long-held desire to do their talking on the pitch, saw stories concerning United dominate the back pages. This came at a time when the Reds’ command of the English and European game was almost unchallenged.
When Atkinson crowned his first season at Old Trafford with FA Cup success in a replayed final at Wembley against already relegated Brighton & Hove Albion in May 1983, the media lapped it up. By contrast, Liverpool’s 14th League title went almost unnoticed.
By God, we hated “Big Ron from Old Swan”. Underlying the loathing was the worry on our part that if United could break their Championship duck, dating back to 1967, the latent support for United could suddenly catapult the Mancunians above The Reds.
History tells us that although Atkinson ultimately failed to deliver more than a couple of FA Cups, his successor would eventually deliver the title success they craved and knock “Liverpool off their fucking perch”.
Aided and abetted by the formation of the Premier League, the development of Old Trafford and our own lack of vision in terms of stadium development — plus the failure to market Liverpool FC’s enduring success — United stole a march and in the modern era we can only aspire to their wealth and standing around the world.
Roles have been reversed and in that sense the rivalry continues; Liverpool now the sleeping giant, a romanticised relic of the past.
The dreadful irony is our own very different tragedy Hillsborough, brought us the nationwide support and coverage we once envied but the flow of league titles soon dried up.
Even in the days when we could justifiably lay claim to the tag of “best in the country” and (pre-Istanbul) ultimately boasted four European Cups to Manchester’s one, our antipathy towards all things United was bolstered by their unerring ability to beat Liverpool on the big occasion.
The 1977 Wembley defeat to deny us an unparalleled treble and painful semi-final exits in 1979 and 1985 during the halcyon days of the FA Cup hurt badly. The rivalry in those days was characterised not just on the field but off it too and the 1985 match at Goodison Park and replay at Maine Road saw a scale of violence that will probably never be repeated in and around an English football ground.
In league matches, we’ve always had a dismal record at Old Trafford. After my first visit there in 1983 it wasn’t until 1990 that I witnessed Liverpool victorious there, when Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool inspired by John Barnes won 2-1 on the way to our last league title.
Another decade elapsed before Gerard Houllier’s reign brought three wins in four seasons, each one courtesy of solitary Danny Murphy goals — a remarkable statistic when you look back!
Even the memorable wins in 2009 and 2014 are tinged with sadness — that Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, the architects of stunning 4-1 and 3-0 victories were ultimately denied the championship-winning medals they probably deserved.
In between, the ghosts of Stapleton, Jesper Olsen, Norman Whiteside, Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney et al haunt our thoughts of the “trip down the M62”.
The noise that accompanies a United goal against at Old Trafford might not be quite as shocking as it once was and the “divide divvies” not be as intimidating as our old adversaries in the “United Road” paddock but it remains a sickening feeling.
Tomorrow’s game feels as massive as ever. For both managers, with critics aplenty with knives at the ready for Brendan Rodgers and Louis Van Gaal among the respective supports, perhaps more so than the players, the pressure is on.
It might be early in the season but as the modern Liverpool and Manchester United jostle for position and North West bragging rights this fixture still conjures a visceral feeling like no other.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo