RIVALRY, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is defined as “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field”. The example it gives for the use of the word in context is “‘there always has been intense rivalry between the clubs”.
Quite fitting for the impending match between the two giants of the north west of England.
As you probably know by now, the rivalry between our great city and its close neighbour apparently dates back to the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century when Manchester was more famous for making clothes than a Frenchman kicking a cockney in the crowd for calling his mum names.
The story roughly goes that our Mancunian rivals became sick and tired of us charging them to take their gear through our thriving docks, so in 1894 constructed the largest ship canal in the world to allow them to bypass us altogether, beginning a story that seems to repeat itself to this very day of us not having enough street-smarts to stop our rivals from getting one up on us. (Our captain should have been in the ear of the local planning committee making sure that the decision went our way, but obviously a lack of ruthlessness plagued us in 1894 as much as it does it 2017.)
And so it began. They hated us, then we hated them. Wash and repeat for 123 years and you end up with a game of football between them and us, this time with them on top and us desperately trying to find a way of them preventing us from taking our pre-1894 position as the top dog in the region.
The older I become, the more historical stories about rivalries like the above fascinate me. Do we really hate Manchester United because of a rivalry that started in 1894? I’ll be honest, I first heard that story about five years ago and have to remind myself of the details every year. I don’t remember my first Manchester United game starting with my dad explaining to me about why I should dislike them because of a dispute involving cotton and canals from 100 years earlier.
I do remember going to an FA Cup final when I was 16 and being devastated after watching their hero score a late goal to win a dour game for them, then having to travel home with our family’s United supporting friends, listening to all the reasons why they were always going to beat us (my dad was far more reasonable and sensible than I turned out to be by agreeing to travel together that day).
So, while I’m sure the city rivalry began all those years ago about non-football related activities, the strange relationship between the clubs would not exist without football events having intervened during those 123 years, bearing in mind that our city rivals not only do not hate either of the Manchester clubs in the same way that we apparently hate United, but they positively love our Red Devil neighbours.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never once heard an Evertonian say “I know we should want United to batter The Red Shite™, but remember what those bastards did with the cotton and the bypassing of the docks during the Industrial Revolution…”
It feels as though we should hate each other because we’ve constantly been in heated battles for supremacy since both clubs were formed, but the truth is that we have hardly ever gone head to head for the biggest prizes during our long histories. We have, instead, somehow managed to time our periods of general supremacy so that they at no point clashed directly. Save for a season or two in which we threatened to interrupt each other’s league title dominance, all we’ve actually managed to do to each other is every now and then give the other a bloody nose when they were otherwise defeating all before them.
When we were an all-conquering red machine, they beat us in a now infamous FA Cup final to prevent us from winning a treble that has alluded us ever since.
Years later, when we had fallen off our f*cking perch (as opposed to being knocked off), we switched places and suddenly managed to consistently kick them in the balls despite not being able to match or threaten their overall dominance. I remember thoroughly enjoying that period of our rivalry despite them generally being great. In my mind, at least, we won at Old Trafford for about 10 years straight with single goals from Patrik Berger and Danny Murphy and by keeping clean sheets (remember them?).
The only time in my memory when we came close to going head to head was under Rafa Benitez when we threatened to challenge but ended up imploding spectacularly in a way the modern Liverpool FC seems to specialise.
Despite the levels of hatred that have ebbed and flowed down the generations, I’ve heard stories of our respective fans being relatively close over the years, before they started getting in our way of winning trebles and we, years later, started giving them the odd kick in the balls. Which is what led me earlier to describe this as a strange relationship.
I developed a theory a few years ago that the reported hatred between the respective clubs and supporters was almost certainly more akin to twin brothers who once loved each other deeply but suffered from an insecurity about which of them their mum loved the most, and had allowed the competition between them to drive them apart over the years.
There are occasions, however, when the love and respect between the two clubs becomes apparent. It has always brought a wry smile to my face whenever anyone dares to suggest that there might be a rivalry between two clubs in England which is more fierce than the one between us and them. Even Mr Alex Ferguson used to deny vehemently that the rivalry with any other club was as big as ours. Arsenal tried under Arsene Wenger, then Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and, finally, Manchester City under Roberto Mancini. All hoping to be recognised as the younger sibling with the love and respect of its big, meaner brother.
Each, in turn, were denied the honour of being named as the most fierce and respected of rivals, with both Liverpool and United always naming the other as the one they hate the most. It’s one of the reasons Evertonians can’t stand us. We don’t even recognise them as being our biggest rival. They’re nothing to us, like an old lover who was once important but now doesn’t even evoke hatred, let alone love.
You can see it whenever one of the other so-called big boys starts wanting to play in the major leagues. There’s a hidden respect between United and Liverpool which only reveals itself when it’s important for the real giants of the English game to remind everyone else of their historical superiority.
The fact that United have slipped from their own perch in recent years might have helped to bring their supporters onto that mutual support, more so than they might have in the preceding years when they were happy to simply defend their own position at the top of the mountain.
Nothing demonstrates my theory better in modern times than the relationship between Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. Once sworn enemies, now charming the nation with the dynamic between them which only ever appears between people who have genuine respect for each other.
As it stands, for once our respective clubs are arguably at a fairly level position in terms of the battle for superiority. While their season has started in more solid fashion than ours, this is the first time they will have been tested by one of the really big hitters. This is the first time that someone has the ability to give them a bloody nose and make them doubt their own credentials. It’s also the perfect opportunity for us to get our own season back on track and to remind everyone that we’re not a spent force already this year.
It’s about time that we put our foot on the accelerator and took a golden opportunity to maintain our position from last season as being superior to them in the league because, like it or not, being above Manchester United under Jose Mourinho will mean that we are in the mix for a league title at the end of the season.
Make no mistake, we are competing for the same objective this season and are rivals in the truest sense of the word.
It’s about time we got them back for that ship canal move.
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