AM I going a bit soft, I thought this week, as I found myself glued, gushingly sympathetic and admiring of the life of Sir Bobby Charlton as brilliantly portrayed by the BBC?
While watching, even my wife observed, “It’s a bit too United for me”, adding to her concerns I’d recently devoured a George Best biography and actually bought Jonathan Wilson’s Anatomy of Manchester United last week.
Know your enemy, I say, in my defence. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
In all seriousness, United’s history is as chocka block full of interest, romance, tragedy and triumph as Liverpool’s. We just know our story better. To really get to grips with the past helps understand the things the clubs share, why they are so alike and appreciate the purity of their respective football stories.
With two such entities dripping in the richest of sporting culture, and separated by only 35 miles, it is no wonder these two behemoths still represent the “biggest” clubs in English football. It is why this weekend’s fixture is still billed domestically and now globally as the Premier League’s flagship tie.
If my personal hatred of United – and rest assured there was a time that was the right word for it – is slightly on the wane, I’ll put it down to maturity but also to recent years and the vain efforts of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. In their own unique ways both brought us light relief comedy where once there was only despair; providing us with a welcome dose of Scouse schadenfreude.
Moyesy was a predictable joke and a hollow FA Cup failed to paint the gauche, Beavis and Butthead Dutchman as anything but as a bit of a clown. Even Jose Mourinho – in situ for over a year – a dual trophy winner already and contending again at the top of the league doesn’t appear yet the same dastardly Mourinho of Chelsea. Or, maybe we just take less notice of him.
For me at least, this of course is a far cry from the Alex Ferguson years; those two decades we spent petrified that the enemy from the other end of the M62 might one day match and overhaul our proud record of European Cups. It was bad enough seeing “the Mancs” outstrip our total of league titles, and thankfully the old tyrant retired before that nightmare became a reality.
To understand the current rivalry fully though, we also must recap the pain of Ferguson’s epic reign which for most young Liverpool fans underpins the entire notion of our ongoing antagonism towards United.
However, it wasn’t always thus. Liverpool and Manchester United haven’t hated each other forever. The loathing that many of us sense, despite Moyesy and later van Gaal’s best efforts to turn them briefly into a laughing stock; the Scouse scorn which persists towards Manchester United, can probably be traced back to an era as recent as the early 1980s. Some older stagers might say the Wembley cup final clash of 1977 was the true catalyst but United weren’t a big enough deal then – at least on the pitch – for this to be fully true.
At this juncture, to dig deeper into the history of our shared enmity, I’m calling on words I wrote previewing the Liverpool v Manchester United clash of February 1986 in On the March with Kenny’s Army.
I wrote that for much of the 20th Century the competition between the clubs, “was no more than normal geographic footballing rivalry as the two signature teams of the North West’s finest industrial centres. On the west coast was Liverpool, famed for being the world’s most preeminent port, while 35 miles inland, built on the wealth of the textile industry stood ‘Cottonopolis’ itself, Manchester.
“Before the Second World War, Liverpool’s tally of league championships was four; United’s two. When league football recommenced after the war, Liverpool immediately won a fifth league title. Matt Busby’s first season in charge at Old Trafford (having declined an Anfield coaching role while still on The Reds’ books as a player) won nothing more than gentle approval, but later, his visionary managerial qualities saw Manchester United become a dominant domestic and European force.”
Under Busby, United won titles in 1952, 1956 and 1957, while Liverpool plummeted into the second division. “Munich” of course followed in 1958 and a nation, including Liverpudlians, grieved for the “Busby Babes”. Understandable sympathy stemming from the tragedy of the air disaster which claimed the lives of eight young United lads, cemented United’s standing as England’s most popular and widely supported club.
“Busby, who cheated death to the extent he was twice given the last rites, was eventually able to rebuild United into a force in English football again, but by this time, Liverpool had begun a recovery of their own under the guidance of Busby’s lifelong friend and fellow inspirational Scot, Bill Shankly.
“Champions in 1964 and 1966 and FA Cup Winners in 1965, Shankly’s Liverpool – as well as neighbours Everton – challenged United’s North West supremacy, throughout the Merseybeat decade. The avuncular Busby had the last word however, when his side became the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968, to the delight of most of the country’s football fans.”
Busby then retired, United declined rapidly under Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell and Tommy Docherty (culminating in relegation in 1974) and over two subsequent decades, Shankly’s and later Paisley’s Liverpool swept all before them to supersede United as the nation’s most decorated club – at home and abroad. Looking back, it is hard to believe that Manchester United went from 1967 to 1992 without a league title, although similar incredulity can be attributed to Liverpool’s drought since 1990.
During the late 1970s Liverpool fans “were occupied by rivalries with those competing for honours, and as the 1980s dawned it was Ipswich, Aston Villa, and Tottenham Hotspur who carried the greatest threat. Apart from the heartbreaking defeat to United in the 1977 FA Cup final, which denied Liverpool a historic treble, the Mancunians were such a footballing irrelevance they barely registered in the average Liverpool fan’s consciousness.
“In their elusive search for a manager who would challenge Liverpool’s superiority United appointed the Liverpool-born, media-friendly, former West Bromwich Albion boss Ron Atkinson 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 buildup 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.
“Earlier that season, Liverpool managed to beat United 2-1 in the Milk Cup final, a result which Atkinson, fast becoming a hate figure on Merseyside, claimed was achieved with the help of some dubious refereeing decisions. He chose to ignore his side’s second half collapse in the face of a determined Liverpool fightback. A sense of anger at his actions and words in the city of his birth was fast growing, accompanied by United supporters’ ongoing resentment of Liverpool’s relentless annexation of the big prizes.
“When Liverpool fans travelled to Brussels for the ill-fated European Cup Final in May 1985, shortly after losing to an improving United in a replayed FA Cup semi final – which had seen numerous violent clashes between warring factions – the banners that bedecked the Liverpool end told their own story. Long before the clever, often poetic, flags that accompanied Reds supporters’ pilgrimages to Istanbul and Athens, some of the Liverpool banners that night targeted Manchester United, and Ron Atkinson in particular.
“Four years prior to Liverpool fans’ awful experiences at Hillsborough, and with a generation of supporters that scarcely remembered the ‘Busby Babes’, several home-made efforts draped over the fencing at the Heysel Stadium bore slogans cruelly referencing ‘Munich ‘58’. Similar, unthinking messages were worn on T-shirts and daubed on sun hats. For their part, United supporters retaliated by mocking the death of Liverpool’s greatest icon – Shankly.
“At Heysel, in more personal attacks on the United boss, unsophisticated messages in black paint daubed on white bed sheets proffered ‘Atkinson’s Tart is a Slut’, ‘Atkinson’s got Aids’, and a more cryptic reference to overcoats in ‘Atkinson’s Long Leather’. Probably the least offensive banner read, ‘Man United, This is the Big Cup’, in reference to United’s latest FA Cup triumph days earlier.”
That’s enough from my old book. If you want more, see the link at the foot of this article.
So, from the relative insignificance of late 1970s, subsequent renewals between the clubs escalated in meaning through to the famed semi-final clashes of 1985, by which time the relationship between the two sets of fans was at all-time low. Tension manifested itself in ugly, violent cup riots at Goodison and Maine Road and at league games at the Anfield Road end or on the concourses surrounding Old Trafford.
Although the mid 1980s saw hooliganism at its high point, the potential for trouble at this most incendiary fixture has persisted to this day, although in 2014 it’s as likely to be a Cockney Red grappling with a United supporter hailing from Belfast, as it is two protagonists from Kirkdale and Levenshulme. Such is the changing nature of the clubs’ support and the media-fuelled hype surrounding this now very global fixture.
If it had taken the controversial ways of Atkinson – Big Ron from Old Swan – and his partial recovery of the modern Manchester United to crystallise the latter day enmity between the two clubs, it was left to his successor Alex Ferguson to take the antagonism to a new level, beginning with his early, stated ambition to “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch”.
Whether we like it or not, this was something, after the uncertainty of his fledgling years in the Old Trafford post, he eventually accomplished with aplomb, catapulting the Mancs from seven English League titles to the record 20 on which they currently stand. However, coinciding with our own mismanagement, boardroom upheaval, political bickering and financial inertia off the field, it was perhaps his “treble” of league, cup and Champions League in 1999, and a second European crown in 2008 that hurt the most. Domestically, only their record-equalling 18th title in 2009, which denied our most credible challenge under Rafa Benitez during those years of seemingly everlasting agony, came close in terms of Kop torment.
Throughout this time, United’s followers lauded their supremacy over us in the most gleeful manner imaginable. A pathological hatred of all things Scouse – a convenient exception being their record goalscorer – saw no dilution whatsoever of their odium towards Liverpool despite their unrelenting success.
United’s latent jealousy of Liverpool’s glory days, achieved while they themselves plumbed the depths of the second division and suffered years of utter mediocrity, persists. If football teams are often fashioned in the image of their manager, so too can be a club’s support and United fans certainly took the lead from Ferguson over the years, as evidenced by an extensive anti-Liverpool songbook that is routinely sung at Old Trafford regardless of the opposition.
Would it have been any easier to stomach had Ferguson not for the period of his tenure resembled some kind of anti-Christ to Liverpool supporters? Maybe not, but years of bullying supine referees, watch tapping and goals in “Fergie time”, touchline histrionics, pathetic mind games, that fucking overcoat and roll-neck trackie combo, to say nothing of a media that licked his arse until its collective tongue spasmed with cramp, rivalled the perennial Old Trafford title parade in necessity for the sick bucket.
It’s hard to argue with the widely held claim that Ferguson’s 13 league titles and two European Cups make him the most successful of all time, but even the neutrals and sycophants eventually tired of his overlord mastery of the FA and the Premier League.
Without our fleeting victories – three Danny Murphy-inspired Old Trafford wins from 2000 to 2004 and the occasional victory under Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Benitez, and Kenny Dalglish – over what felt like the course of The Hundred Years’ War, I’m certain the Loony Bin would have beckoned for many of us.
Our surprise fifth European Cup in 2005, obviously, was the ultimate medication for the mentally challenged, and it felt like symmetrical karma in the immediate aftermath to see a Kop banner depicting a cocksure Liver Bird proclaiming, “Look Fergie, Back on our Fucking Perch!” Sadly, the opportunity afforded by the Miracle of Istanbul was passed up amid the strife wrought by Tom Hicks and George Gillett and familiar, agonising subservience was resumed; best embodied by Roy Hodgson tugging at Ferguson’s forelock.
Then, as if by magic, United got Moyes and they went shit. At the same time The Reds were briefly resurgent under Brendan Rodgers. It was the best dream ever until Stevie keeled over and we all fell out of bed with a bump.
Compounding our sudden misery, it was only a matter of time before the Old Trafford hierarchy saw sense and replaced Moyes, though they offered further solace appointing the awkward van Gaal.
Inevitably though, the sheer size of the football club which has caused us the most pain in the Sky TV era, plus the financial infrastructure of the modern game, ensured that United would be back before too long and in the shape of Mourinho’s gradual revival it’s now staring us in the face.
This time there will be no 26-year hiatus between championships for the Red Devils. On a positive note, if Liverpool can get their act together and Jürgen Klopp can rediscover his lost mojo to eventually end a similarly unfathomable title cycle; the two clubs could once again dominate the Premier League at some point sooner than we think.
Whatever the immediate future, starting at Anfield on Saturday, restoring this most intensely passionate footballing rivalry to its rightful place at the head of the English game is a prospect that most fans savour, even if it means Mourinho assuming his sour traits, and me burning my books and swearing at Bobby Charlton in his stupid Russian hat.
To listen to part one and two of The Rivals show, looking back on Liverpool’s rivalry with Manchester United over the years, SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…