52 4-4-1988 Manchester United(h)

IT’S a strange thing to have one of your favourite games of all time be a draw, stranger still perhaps to choose a draw from a season where your side has hammered the entire division into oblivion in 10 months of mouth-watering high octane football, but this is one which will live with me forever.

I was tempted to say ‘these 90 minutes’ rather than ‘the game’ but this covers a longer period than that. This had been on the horizon for weeks and, as the season went on, the more likely it was that years of revenge had been meted out in one sun-drenched afternoon.

Liverpool had travelled to the City Ground, Nottingham just two days earlier and lost their first league game of the campaign to a strong Forest side. It had little impact on the league as we were still 16 points clear of them and 11 ahead of Manchester United with two games in hand, but it was a blow as we would face Forest in the FA Cup semi at Hillsborough and it would have been nice to go there with a psychological edge. No matter.

The narrative around the United game was altogether different. We hadn’t beaten them in the league for years – they’d lost once in eight seasons – and now they were coming to our place to face arguably our greatest ever side. The teams drew 1-1 at Old Trafford the previous November but this was Anfield on a Bank Holiday Monday and these were finally getting it.

The atmosphere between the two clubs, though not quite at 1985 levels, was toxic and plans were afoot to do something to lighten the tension.

George Sephton welcomed United with the words ‘our friends from the other side of the M62,’ leading to furious catcalls from The Kop. I’ve always felt bad about that. It was obviously scripted and he knew full well no one in the ground was buying this new age Scouse-Manc tree hugging nonsense, but had to go along with it.

To destroy the barriers between us it was agreed that our lads would warm up at the Annie Road end of the ground while United would run out to The Kop. Well, you can imagine.

The Kop screamed itself hoarse the second a boot crossed the halfway line. Bryan Robson applauded us in a ‘you’re not getting to me’ fashion which I would have quite admired had I not been joining in with a song about his susceptibility to venereal disease.

Side note: I met Bryan Robson once. It was on the night of the first 1990 FA Cup final game. United had a party on the floor below us as my Polytechnic was having its May Ball in Lancaster Gate. We had to share the same toilets on their floor as ours were out of order. I weaved over to him, waggled my finger at him a lot and drunkenly told him of my allegiances before reminding him about their 20-plus years without a league title. And you know what he did? This’ll sicken you.

He was nice to me.

Bastard.

He took and shook my hand, as I didn’t offer it, patted me on the shoulder and told me that ‘Liverpool are a great side’ before getting back to the bar. He was an absolute gent. The sneaky bastard. That was a low trick.

In a further gesture of combined Northern unity they kicked their training balls into The Kop in an act of friendship.

Every single one came back.

Every. Single. One.

I’d never felt prouder.

Oh, then a game happened.

United had a decent enough side, but it had too much deadwood to seriously challenge for the title. You wouldn’t see many kids walking around with Chris Turner scarves or Colin Gibson badges, but they could still hurt us. Robson may have been a perma-injured wreck but he had a habit of doing well in these fixtures. They also had Gordon Strachan and Norman Whiteside, one impish the other thuggish, but we had a fair bit of steel in the middle of the park and the clash between the latter and Steve McMahon was one to be relished. More of that to come.

Anyway, The Kop bobbed and swayed and I swear the ground shook during a combination of You’ll Never Walk Alone and the hissing coming from the away end. At one point The Kop fell quiet to listen to something unusual. Heads shook in disbelief but a gradual realisation came over our faces and melted into grins. It was true. There were rumours of it happening before but they’d be put down to urban myths. But there it was in front of us.

The Main Stand was singing.

We would talk about it for years to come.

Walking sticks and tartan blankets were waved from the moaning sods to our left. Even they wanted to vent spleen at Alex Ferguson and his men. These were definitely getting it now. Planets could shift from their orbits and mountains were capable of movement if the Main Stand was singing. Here we go then…

We went a goal down in three minutes. Great.

Robson again, this time unmarked on the six-yard line when Colin Gibson broke into the area. Not again. Not them.

No! Peter Beardsley then Gary Gillespie made it 2-1. This was our day. We went in at half-time ahead with the promise to come. We just needed to start the second half as they did the first.

And we did. McMahon from 25 yards, 3-1 up against United. This could be four or five. We could destroy them forever.

United changed tack and decided to switch to a more brutal approach. They kicked us instead. Gibson brought down McMahon and was shown a second yellow – an incident of which The Times said ‘Gibson could count himself unlucky’, though Lord knows how.

Three-one up and against 10 men. Surely now. Surely.

Whiteside came on and elbowed John Barnes in the face. This set the tone for the remainder of the game. He then smashed into McMahon. Net result for these two challenges. A single yellow card. It looked like Ferguson had told him to just injure as many of our lads as possible and it turned the tide once more. Robson scored a second thanks to a deflection and Strachan equalised to make it 3-3. He celebrated by lighting an imaginary cigar in front of The Kop. He said later that he was shitting himself at the time, but felt he had to do it.

Honours even, then. After the game Ferguson ranted on about the referee decisions, having conveniently forgotten that there were bit of Barnes’s skin lying around the pitch and he could hardly moan about McMahon when Whiteside came on with assault on his mind. He told reporters that it was no surprise managers “have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth.” Kenny Dalglish was feeding his baby daughter, Lauren, nearby and told the press “You’ll get more sense out of her,” and thus, a rivalry was born, or at least darkened further.

An odd choice for a favourite game then, but the atmosphere in that ground was electric. Standing in a stadium for nearly three hours with every second meaning something made us feel alive and even though the points and another red card would have made it perfect, it was still a hell of a day.

Liverpool-United games are more pleasant affairs these days and some would say that’s a good thing, but I was 19 at the time of that match and loved every second of the anger and passion that reverberated around the ground.

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