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Rivals: Manchester United vs Liverpool | The feisty fixture in the North West of England

We kick off a brand new series on Outside of the Boot, with a special tribute to feisty fixture in the North West of England.

As with almost every other rivalry in football, in fact in any sport, there is a heady mixture of geographic, social, and sporting history that defines a fixture. Andrew Thomas’ job here is to summarise that in the case of Manchester United vs Liverpool. Never before have 2000 words seemed so few…

Liverpool and Manchester, as cities, are 35 miles apart and are situated in the north-west of England.   Their rivalry is peculiar, it’s borne of industrial struggles and successes and it has become a game of ‘one-upsmanship’ ever since then.  Oddly enough, the two cities were the first cities in the world to be connected by a railway back in 1830.  Surely this should have bode well for a lifelong friendship and a combined effort to compete with ‘that there south’, and the power of London.  But instead, they decided they hated each other more than they hated the south.


In years past it was considered by some that Liverpool was a more refined city than Manchester due to the international significance of the port, and so they felt more involved in matters of finance and shipping and trade, whereas Manchester was more aligned to production and textiles.  This, some say, led to a feeling of mutual resentment and started the cities on a collision course.  This was exacerbated when the tables were turned on Liverpool following the rise of Manchester as an industrial and business-focused city with vast developments taking place, while Liverpool’s port did little to develop the city at the same rate as Manchester.

So Manchester embraced business and money and became aligned to those measures of success.  Even now the terraces sing of scousers suffering economic misfortune, or ‘feeling sorry’ for themselves.  Liverpool developed a strong sense of community, political awareness and togetherness, and became very insular and protective of their city and the socialist movement, which was defined by legendary manager Bill Shankly who regularly espoused the merits of socialism.

However, Manchester’s economic turnaround was based on the Manchester Ship Canal, which was a scheme to get cheaper import/export rates for the city through bypassing Liverpool’s port and taking trade income away from them.  The grand scheme cost over a billion pounds in today’s rates and while Manchester still crow about Liverpool’s reliance on social funding, they forget that their canal nearly didn’t get built and the council had to come to their rescue to lend them enough money so they avoided bankruptcy.

To cut a very long rivalry short, and do it a huge disservice, the cities need each other.  The rivalry spurs the other on, it defines them even.  Manchester likes to think that it now has the edge over Liverpool in sporting and economic terms, but it’s never had the romance and spirit of Liverpool, but then Liverpool would never have forged that special spirit without the successes and impact of Manchester and what it meant to have a successful rival city based so close to their own.

In recent years, the rivalry has become poisoned by thugs.  These people do not represent either city as a whole, let’s get that clear from the start.  Tragedies such as the Munich air disaster in 1958, the Heysel disaster in 1985, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, and the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1996 are not appropriate subjects for hate-filled songs at football matches.

Onto the football.

Of course, all the economic history bleeds onto the football field. This was especially true of football in the early days, right up until 1970’s when the game became more professional and money was more involved. Up until that point it was a working-class game played by people who were politically aware and totally aligned to the ‘values’ of those cities.

The two teams have met 196 times since 1894 when Manchester United were known as Newton Heath.  In that course of that time it is United who have won the most games, with 79 wins compared to Liverpool’s 65.

Between the two clubs there is a combined trophy haul of 38 league titles, 8 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups, 18 FA Cups, and 12 League Cups.  I have chosen to ignore the Community Shield and UEFA Super Cups, they aren’t the same achievements a club should crow about, in my opinion!

In the interests of balance, I’m not even going to point out which club has won more of each trophy, but you should be mindful it’s quite evenly balanced.

It’s interesting to note how closely aligned the two clubs are even on the football field.  A key aspect of this is the importance of Sir Matt Busby to both sides, who was the former Liverpool captain, and yet went on to become the first iconic manager of Manchester United.

The football rivalry didn’t start in earnest until 1962, though by 1969 Manchester United had begun their decline and would not win another league trophy for 26 years.  In contrast, Liverpool were in the ascendency and would go on to enjoy 11 league titles and 7 European trophies between 1972 and 1992.

It was during this time that some claim the rivalry heated up, where United were considered the darlings of the media following the Busby Babes era and the love that people had of George Best, and the England 1966 World Cup winning legend Bobby Charlton, who scored 2 goals in the 1968 European Cup Final and in doing so making Manchester United the first English side to win it.  Liverpool fans felt that United got far too much media coverage considering their lowly status in football in the 70’s and 80’s, whereas you could make the same argument now in the other direction.

To further underline this simmering feud you should be aware that no player has transferred directly between the two sides since April 1964, so that’s 52 years now.  In 2007 Gabriel Heinze was subject of a bid from Liverpool, and it was turned down.  The club said that Heinze turned the move down, but he later went public to say the club was incorrect and that he wanted the move.  He was never forgiven for this and was sold to Real Madrid shortly afterwards!

After Liverpool’s trophy harvest between 1972 and 1992 it all came to an abrupt end and you can guess which team came along and stopped their fun…of course, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side dominated football for the next 25 years, amassing 13 league titles, 2 Champions Leagues, and a Cup Winners Cup.

Key games down the years

1977: FA Cup Final: This was interesting, and key, due to the timing of it.  United had long been the super-power in the game and were now well and truly in the doldrums.  Whereas Liverpool were in the middle of an utter domination of the football world. They would have been on course for a domestic double by winning it, and indeed a treble as the European Cup Final was days away. The game ended in a 2-1 defeat for Liverpool, but they later went onto win the European Cup, and so missed out on the fabled ‘treble’.  The win must have felt ever so sweet for United.

October, 1995: Premier League: So United were back winning things and Liverpool, by this time, were 5 years without a title but were now blessed with a Roy Evans team featuring Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, and Jamie Redknapp, whereas Ferguson had just changed his title-winning team and no longer had Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis.  The main attraction was the return to football of Eric Cantona who had been banned for 9 months following his attack on a fan at Selhurst Park.  He started the game and within 2 minutes had set-up the opener for Nicky Butt.  Liverpool then got back into the game through two wonderful strikes from the then 20-year-old Fowler, but the epic finale came when Cantona stepped up to take a penalty and make it 2-2.

 March, 2014, Premier League: This game was held at Old Trafford and was compounded by Liverpool’s attempts to win the league for the first time in almost 25 years.  At the same stage of the season 12 months earlier there was a 29 point gap between United and Liverpool, but on this occasion it was Liverpool who were 14 points ahead of United.  The game ended in a 0-3 win for Liverpool with 3 penalties awarded away from home.  Gerrard scored 2 of them, missed the other, and Suarez scored later on once Vidic had been red-carded.  The game represented a changing of the guard as David Moyes had taken over from Sir Alex Ferguson, and Brendan Rodgers was on the verge of a title-challenge.

It’s very easy to pick players from both sides who epitomise the derby based on statistics, and perhaps it’s the best way.  As you might expect, Ryan Giggs has played in the most derbies (48), but it is Steven Gerrard who is joint top-scorer with 9 goals in the fixture, and he holds that record alongside George Wall and Sandy Turnbull.

But for me, the derby is best summed-up by Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard.  Two local players who were raised to detest the other team.

“I had been taught to loathe Manchester United.”

– Steven Gerrard, 2015, following his 38 second substitute appearance versus United where he was sent off for a bad challenge on Ander Herrera.

“I suppose it came from jealousy through my childhood – jealousy, hatred, passion for your own club.”

-Gary Neville, 2010.

Both these players were integral to the clubs and to the supporters as they personified the desire and spirit needed to win at all costs.  The derby games themselves have never been of the highest quality, it’s impossible to play good football at the sort of intensity that the games are usually played at.   Instead, the game becomes a series of crunching tackles and melees interspersed by free-kicks and throw-ins.  But nobody ever leaves the ground feeling short-changed.

In the here and now, with club stalwarts like Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher all retired, there is now a slight loss of identity in both sides.

Both sides are in a transition and it remains to be seen what their place in football will be in the years to come.  Historically it was seldom that you’d see a league table that didn’t feature one of Liverpool or United in the top 2 at the end of the season.  However, there is now a growing trend where neither side can depend on getting in the top 4.

While both clubs earn lots of money through merchandising, there is not yet huge concern over the hole left by a lack of Champions League money.  And, inspiringly, the title push by Leicester would suggest that spending £200m on a new side is not the best way forward for a club in the Premier League at this point in time, so perhaps money takes on less importance now than it might have 5 years ago.

The ‘new money’ from Spurs, Man City, Chelsea, and now West Ham moving onto better things, and Everton having a new super-rich owner, and Arsenal being a perennial fixture in the Champions League, all make the hunt for a league title even harder for both clubs under their new managers.  In the case of Liverpool it seems Klopp is in town for the long-haul, whereas the future of Louis Van Gaal is less certain.

However, the league position of the sides does nothing to take away from the occasion that is Manchester United FC versus Liverpool FC.  Their recent games in the Europa League underline the vast ‘pull’ of the fixture, one which eclipsed viewer figures of many Champions League games.  But the fact remains that it was a Europa League game where the two teams met, and that says volumes about the current plight of these north-west England super clubs.

Written by Andrew Thomas

Andrew Thomas

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