Manchester United. Two words to draw concentrated bile into the mouths of Liverpool supporters and have them spitting expletives at the pavement. If you worship at Anfield, Manchester United are the footballing Antichrist. The feeling’s emphatically mutual.
It’s a searing rivalry that dates back to the late 19th century, when the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal took jobs away from Liverpool and lit a fire between two great industrial powers of the north west that took hold on the terraces. The two great footballing powers of England have oxygenated it ever since.
In the mid-to-late 1960s United stole a march. Rising out of the ashes of the Munich air disaster, Sir Matt Busby’s romantic quest was realised with a swaggering ode to attacking expression that captured hearts all over the world. Best, Law and Charlton conquered Europe in 1968 and won over the generation who had lived through their improbable decade-long ascent from snow-covered runway to the zenith of club football.
United had scaled higher than any English team before them, but there began a bloated decline that would see them spend a quarter of a century clawing at former glories. And as Old Trafford struggled in vein to find a worthy heir to Busby, so a succession of great managers reigned over the most glorious period in Liverpool’s history. With impeccable timing, Liverpool took to the throne.
The great Bill Shankly ushered in Bob Paisley, whose nine seasons brought six league titles, three European Cups, a Uefa Cup and three League Cup wins between 1974 and 1983 - as the likes of Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Ray Kennedy built a dynasty on Merseyside. Joe Fagan took over and added a fourth European triumph in 1984. Even when he retired following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, still Liverpool managed to maintain their momentum.
At the dawn of my footballing obsession, in the mid-1980s, Liverpool under player-manager Dalglish remained the preeminent force. Shirts emblazoned with Crown Paints lurked around every corner, and Liverpool fans dominated every kick-about, in every playground and playing field across the country. A Double in 1985-86; titles in 1987-88 and 1989-90. In the age before Sky Sports, where Cup Final day was an all-day television event and a rare window into the players’ lives, it was the Liverpool players we knew better than any.
As a Manchester United fan their prolific success was hard to bear. Having been raised on the exploits of Best, Charlton and Law, I arrived at the United altar at what seemed like the worst possible time. United had gone two decades with winning the league, while Liverpool were dining out on an insatiable trophy binge that showed no signs of letting up. In my first season with a United shirt on my back, Liverpool won the Double. I was eight years old and gloating Liverpool fans were already the bane of my life.
If not for the European ban that followed the Heysel disaster, Liverpool would surely have added to their haul of European Cups during that period. But as fate would have it, another stadium tragedy, this time at Hillsborough in 1989, proved a turning point in the club’s history. Ninety-six people lost their lives, and Dalglish was among those upon whom it left an indelible mark. He walked away from Anfield in 1991, citing health reasons, and with his departure so Liverpool lost their way.
In my first season with a United shirt on my back, Liverpool won the Double. I was eight years old and gloating Liverpool fans were already the bane of my life.
Just as Liverpool had taken advantage of United’s decline in the 1970s, so United would now steal in. With Alex Ferguson at the helm Old Trafford had been cleansed of the “social club” mentality that had frustrated Ron Atkinson’s reign, and United instilled with a new tenacity and hunger that would ultimately usher in two decades of glittering of success.
Ferguson famously said he wanted to "knock Liverpool off their f**king perch”, but in the end he didn’t have to – they simply moved aside. United came close in 1992, and finally ended a 26-year for a league title in 1993, inspired by the arrival of the mercurial Eric Cantona from Leeds. Ferguson had got United to the brink, but it was the Frenchman who took them over the top and leant his unerring belief to all those around him. The floodgates were well and truly open.
United were just getting started, and for Liverpool fans what lay ahead was a period in their rivalry every bit as galling as that they inflicted on their bitter enemy in the 1970s and 80s. There would be victories along the way, not least a Champions League triumph in 2005, but as we look forward to their Premier League meeting on Saturday it’s now 21 years since Liverpool reigned as English champions.
In the intervening years Ferguson had led United to 12 titles, eclipsing Liverpool’s mark of 18 to set a record that the 1,960 visiting United fans will not be shy in reminding them of at Anfield. Meanwhile, Liverpool fans have had to feed off scraps – the 2003 League Cup final win, the 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009, the come-from-behind 3-3 draw at Anfield in 1994, the Robbie Fowler-inspired 2-2 draw that marked Cantona’s return from suspension in 1995.
As we stand it's a rivalry every bit as one-sided in United's favour as it once was in Liverpool's, but looming events could yet redress the balance. As Ferguson approaches his 25th anniversary at United, the question remains as to how his successor will deal with the expectancy of following the greatest manager British football has ever known. With Busby went United's last period of dominance, and gave way to a Liverpool monopoly. Liverpool fans will be hoping history repeats itself, and who better than Dalglish back at the helm to take advantage if it does?
As a United fan, I'd obviously rather things stay at they are. That said, who wouldn't want to see these two bitter rivals engage in a genuine fight for the league title they both covet above all else. For that to happen, either Liverpool need to get better - or United come back to them. For too long they've been passing in the night - it's time for a head-on collision.
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