AGED around eight years old, the word crudely daubed in white paint and the dripping number that followed it meant nothing — a foreign city and two digits which carried no significance in a personal world that had Liverpool FC battling for attention with comics, toys and telly.

The graffiti though remained there for years, jumping out from a drab wall in Huyton’s St John’s Estate on bus journeys and walks. It was elsewhere, too. Written in marker pen on subway walls, etched into school desks with compasses.

It was a defacing born of ‘hate’. But when you’re a kid, you don’t ‘hate’ anything. It’s learned behaviour, passed on from friends, family, peers and parents.

With age comes knowledge and experience, and soon the significance of the all-too-familiar slogan was clear.

Munich 58; the Munich air crash of February 6, 1958, when a plane carrying players and backroom staff of Manchester United, plus a number of journalists and supporters, crashed in a blizzard on its third attempt to take off.

Twenty-three of the 44 passengers on board the aircraft lost their lives, including eight players and three members of Manchester United’s staff.

When the bare facts are laid out, it appears to be exactly what it was: a tragic loss of life. Talent cut off in its prime. A desperately sad moment.

Yet — buoyed by bravado, fuelled by ‘hatred’ — at some point it became something else for many Liverpool fans: a method to madden Manchester United supporters. A way to wind up the enemy. Currency in the competition to aggravate, upset and taunt.

It also was — and is — a way to prove identity. Why else scrawl something relating to a football tragedy affecting Manchester in Merseyside?

References continue to this day. Less so now. Macho nods to “those Munich bastards” are fewer and further between but remain nevertheless.

I’m sure it’s similar in many Manchester United circles. Of the contorted faces in the Anfield Road away section singing about eating rats and signing on, how many must stop and wonder about the poverty and unemployment on their own doorsteps?

But back to the Munich references. It’s probably lost on some that Matt Busby — the manager of Manchester United in 1958 — was a former Liverpool captain.

Before he was a Munich survivor and later a European Cup-winning manager at Old Trafford, Busby played more than 120 games for the Reds.

When Liverpool played Charlton at Anfield in the aftermath of the Munich disaster in February ‘58, the Liverpool Daily Post reported: “Men’s minds were very much still on the Munich tragedy and the hush which descended on this so boisterous ground when the black-armbanded players lined up for two minutes’ silence was almost uncanny.”

Liverpool — then in the Second Division — even offered Manchester United two of their players just a month after the runway accident as the club began to consider fulfilling fixtures with their squad decimated by death.

Tales of respect continue into the 1960s, with the closeness of Busby and Bill Shankly repeatedly referenced in the history books.

Yet somewhere, as hooliganism and violence took a stronger hold of the game in the 70s and 80s, competitiveness and oneupmanship — offering two fingers to the next big city along — became something darker and more bitter.

Now any match between Liverpool and Manchester United carries an edge to it; we’re in too deep, it’s gone too far.

Both are big clubs. Both have a proud history and both have dominated the game in different periods of time, allowing the opportunity to boast of who’s bigger, better and has more trophies.

Outside of football, the cities have competed for hundreds of years: economically, musically, on fashion, on culture.

And yet for all the tales of Manchester Ship Canal hangovers, media bias and shipping port and building envy, and the rest, there lies something else between The Reds of Merseyside and The Red Devils of Manchester that isn’t there when Liverpool play Manchester City or when Everton play Manchester United.

The visceral nature of the games makes it special, the atmosphere different. It used to hang there. You could almost reach out and touch it. The extra police. Fans being walked to the ground. No colours. Being kept in after. The away fan was clearly on enemy territory and was treated that way — by fans, by police…by everyone. You could feel the eyes on you. And the stares were far from friendly.

In the modern age; in a time when football tourists will stand on The Kop or The Stretford End happily sporting a scarf half dedicated to the opposition, the ill-feeling has been diluted. Some will get it at either end of the ground. And others will be ticking off a bucket list as a sporting voyeur.

Extreme views and behaviour have become less prevalent but there’s still too much water down the ship canal for a return to the Corinthian days, if indeed they ever truly existed.

For many — me included — Michael Owen has been scrubbed from Liverpool history for an end-of-career cameo in the wrong sort of red. It’s just not done. Childish, unreasonable…a bit mad? Maybe to someone who hasn’t been raised to not even go near something sponsoring Manchester United, never mind the club itself (yep, I was one of those dickheads who cancelled his Vodafone contract…).

That though, seems perfectly reasonable when held up to the true extremes of the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry. Extremes, when detailed on a page, that are hard to explain or justify.

For those extremes, take your pick. Manchester United fans charging Liverpool fans at Old Trafford in 1973. A United fan pictured with a dart in his nose at Anfield in 1978. Flags and chants relating to Bill Shankly’s death in 1981. And that was just for starters.

In 1985, things were really ramped up in the name of rivalry.

An FA Cup semi-final between the clubs at Goodison in April of that year saw two fans stabbed during running battles in the streets. Golf balls embedded with nails — dubbed “Missiles of Hate” by the tabloids — were flung from one end to another while a flare was fired into a terrace housing Manchester United supporters.

The following year then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson described going to Anfield like “being in the Vietnam War” after the team coach was attacked with tear gas.

Heysel followed the 1985 semi in May, with “Munich 58” present on Liverpool flags photographed in the European Cup final versus Juventus.

Since that final, when a group of Liverpool fans repeatedly charged towards supporters in section Z of the Heysel stadium leading to 39 deaths, supporters from the red half of Merseyside, no matter their age, have been dubbed “murderers” in and around Manchester United matches (and of course on the internet).

Manchester United, meanwhile, as their fans have sang on so many occasions, “won it three times without killing anyone”. One fan even briefly sold baby grows over the internet with this as a printed motto.

Additional songs include: “You killed your own fans” and: “Always the victims, it’s never your fault.”

Others have chosen Hillsborough as a tragedy to toy with. Again easy enough to find online if reading sick abuse is your thing, while at matches between Liverpool and Manchester United hands crushing faces has often been the go-to visual wind-up for some Mancs as has Scousers pretending to fly planes to mock Munich.

Liverpool fans travelling to Manchester in 2005 were greeted by freshly-painted “Hillsborough 89” graffiti on a motorway bridge, while on a warehouse near the ground a further daubing read: “Welcome you murdering Scouse bastards.”

Liverpool FC admitted in 2006 that some fans had thrown human shit into the United end at Anfield, while toilets were smashed up and vandalised in 2006 when the Reds played Chelsea at Old Trafford with graffiti referencing Harold Shipman, Munich and the death of George Best.

Everyone will have their own tales of the extremes that surround the fixtures, with many stories tailored to suit depending on your allegiance. We’re “scum”, they’re “scum” and the teams are “scum” too.

All of it is played out in the context of a football match. None of it plays out on a visit to the Trafford Centre. Or a walk around the Albert Dock. Fans will travel both ways every day to go to work; back to life, back to reality.

Would those directly affected by Munich, Heysel or Hillsborough be considered fair game for behaviour too often tolerated in the bubble of football just because of so-called “hatred”?

Of course not. It would be seen as a step too far. Because it is. Even at a football match.

Like it or not, the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry is now ingrained. It will be passed on. Behaviour will continue to be imitated. But it can also be challenged. Manchester United fans donating to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and boycotting The Sun doesn’t fit the script does it? But it happens.

Liverpool fans won’t talk about Heysel honestly, will they? But they have.

Despite the sequence of scare stories, there is so much of the rivalry that is a force of good; that makes football so much more than just 22 fellas kicking a ball around.

The tribal nature of the fixtures is joy when it doesn’t venture into behaviour that prompts a wince. It’s why we get a faster pace, a louder crowd and a better spectacle. There’s more riding on it. It matters. It’s no ordinary game. They know it, we know it.

The rivalry can be enjoyed without the terrace tragedy tennis played across an expanse of grass in Liverpool or Manchester.

Who won what when and why, which team is the best, who is cooler, harder and who got there first. Which club sold out and which stayed true to its roots, the perceived media bias (on both sides), who is more establishment…

Wanting your team to smash their team, wanting to enjoy the schadenfreude and rub their noses in it (without literally rubbing their noses in it)…

The bands, the haircuts, the buildings, the history, the accent; take your pick…

The teams of today, the atmosphere your crowd can generate and the one theirs can’t, the hostility you can foist upon the opposition…

All that’s the good. All that’s why the first meeting in Europe of these two sides is so eagerly anticipated on the pitch and off it. Who can put on the best show — The Kop or The Stretford End? Whose ground has been lost to modern football’s selfie snappers?

More than any other time this season, Liverpool must win. The Reds must take the blueprint of the victory over Manchester City at Anfield and improve on it: be angrier, be better, be driven, be first. They don’t come here and boss it.

I don’t want to taste what I tasted when Liverpool lost the 1996 cup final. I imagine it was the same for those at the ’77 match. This isn’t a final but it feels like one in a season that could quickly become forgettable for the loser.

Alex Ferguson is hated — rightly — by Liverpool fans for wanting to knock us off our “fucking perch”.

As tough as it is to take, he did it. And he did it fuelled by anger. Fuelled by ‘hate’ but the right kind of ‘hate’.

It’s about time getting back on the “fucking perch” was the sole aim of Liverpool Football Club — fans, players, manager, owners. What better way to start than this?

Let it be nasty, let it be spiteful but in a sporting sense. Make the needle work for the good of the club and the football.

I hate Ferguson as much as the next Red. But he was one of the first to phone Kenny Dalglish after Hillsborough. He also asked to view the floral tributes at Anfield privately and without publicity.

Again, it doesn’t fit the script. So perhaps that particular part of the script needs a re-write.

Ferguson was angry about Liverpool the football team holding the upper hand. We should be angry about Manchester United the football team holding the upper hand.

He changed it. We should change it. Liverpool 19. Liverpool 20. Liverpool 21. They are the city and numbers combinations that should be graffitied on the walls of Merseyside.

Liverpool need to emerge victorious from this; need to break Manchester United’s winning streak. And need to show that our famous atmosphere is still here. We can still do it. The Kop can still be special. And if it fails for this; if it fails for them, then we really have lost what we once had.