Catherine Lloyd picks apart the fierce rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United.
The battle to be the king of the worth-west has been a hard-fought one. Two clubs with proud, industrial histories, two football heavyweights, two sides with double-figure title hauls, won at the expense of the other – it’s clear to see why this fixture is so explosive.
These regional rivals are the apex of football. But, Liverpool and Manchester United are more alike than different, and that – in many ways – encapsulates the root of their rivalry. You see a reflection of yourself in your closest rival, and that sentiment holds true with the Reds’ and the Red Devils’ animosity for one another. With the same fervent passion and the same desire to be England’s best, the pair have long been each other’s biggest competitor, and they remain neck and neck in the overall title race.
There’s a commonality that they share: both have had illustrious eras of dominance, both have been coached by greats of their time, both have a far-reaching global fan-base, both pride themselves upon their history, and both have taken a stranglehold on the English game.
Their footballing dynasties hold a grief-stricken past, sharing the adversity of a club disaster. Liverpool have overcome the Heysel Stadium collapse of 1985, before showing strength to withstand the Hillsborough disaster that occurred four years later, as well as the subsequent cover-up. Hillsborough and the ethos of the 96 is seared into the club’s identity. Manchester United, on the other hand, have faced the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, in which many players from the promising generation of ‘Busby Babes’ were killed. Their Merseyside competitiors even offered two of their players to support the Red Devils after the plane crash.
Matt Busby’s United of the 1950s never adopted an us-and-them approach, the manager having himself been captain of Liverpool during his playing days. Everything changed with Sir Alex Ferguson. Though the Scot’s first few years at Old Trafford were underwhelming, the team reached a turning point in April 1992. A crippling 2-0 loss at Liverpool that months ensured the Red Devils’ wait for another top-flight trophy stretched beyond a quarter of a century. Anfield rejoiced in United’s misery, an experience Ryan Giggs described as the worst of his football career. The Welshman recalls that, after a supporter asked for the his autograph outside the ground, the fan ‘tore it up in front of my face’. The hatred was now deep-rooted and vehement. With no transfers between the two sides since 1964, the rivalry had extended to its players; with the presence of homegrown talent in each squad, it was personal.
Legend states that the two cities have been embroiled in hostility since the Industrial Revolution, when Mancunian merchants bypassed Liverpool in the 1894 construction of the Manchester ship canal. The former had bred a resentment toward the dues they had to pay to import and export goods in Liverpool. In undercutting the city, those from Manchester had damaged the livelihood of Liverpudlians, souring relations. The imminent decline of British manufacturing hit Merseyside hardest, while Manchester maintained its manufacturing heritage, creating further animosity.
Anfield is built upon a legacy, a legacy every incoming manager inherits, and every newly-signed player must honour. Etched into the annals of Liverpool folklore are the managers of the famed Anfield boot room era: Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. It was Shankly who laid the groundwork for the Reds’ domination, taking the side from their second division slumber to the top of the English footballing pyramid. Before him, the club had a record eight seasons outside the first division, beginning in 1954. Paisley was his successor, and it was said that he could detect a players’ injury from simply looking at how he walked. He secured three of the club’s six European Cups, leaving Liverpool with double the number of continental crowns won by United.
Between 1974 and 1991, Liverpool found unprecedented success, holding a monopoly over the English and European games. Reaching cataclysmic heights, they won the league 11 times, the FA cup three times, the League Cup four times, four European Cups, a European Super Cup, and the UEFA Cup during this period. Their dominance would be unparalleled until United’s awakening in the early 1990s.
The Mancunians were the only team to disrupt Liverpool’s winning streak, with their victory over the Reds in the 1977 FA Cup Final depriving the Anfield side of the treble they would otherwise have completed, having already triumphed in the European Cup and the first division. Their rivalry was now more than a relic from the past – it was based on an envy of the other’s glory and a craving to fill their respective trophy cabinets.
The post-Dalglish era brought with it United’s surpassing of Liverpool, Ferguson settling into his role just as money had entered the game. Matchday revenues had soared and TV rights grew tenfold; Fergie had successfully monetised the club, a feat their foes hadn’t achieved. United’s era of success had translated into big money, while Liverpool’s peak translated into nothing more than a teeming trophy cabinet and a global name. After the Reds’ league win in 1990, their era of supremacy was at an end. It would be their last for decades, with the club yet to add to their 18 top-flight titles. A reversal of fortunes occurred when United ascended to the heights previously held by their rivals after 26 tortured years without a league title.
Ferguson’s reign brought about the class of ’92, fashioned like the Busby Babes, whose childhoods were blighted by Liverpool’s relentless trophy accumulation. Sir Alex made it a battle for the throne, and United emerged triumphant as they eclipsed the Reds’ tally of titles, winning thirteen Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, four League Cups, ten Community Shields, and two Champions Leagues. However, they are still some way behind matching Liverpool’s success in Europe.
The palpable hostility that surrounds the fixture has in part been fuelled by Ferguson, who set about usurping the Merseysiders with a relentless obsession to knock ‘Liverpool right off their f*cking perch. And you can print that.’ Even in retirement, Fergie would belittle his old enemy: ‘What’s great is our young fans growing up don’t even remember when Liverpool were successful,’ he once remarked.
Of course, United hit a plateau several seasons back, and they’re now regressing in a manner that echoes the fate of Liverpool two decades prior. These days, the rivalry operates in isolation from where both clubs sit on the table; it’s powered by old wounds re-opened. The tides has turned once again: United now languishes, with Liverpool still fresh from an English-record sixth Champions League title.