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The Great Liverpool, Man United Rivalry

[This story was first published on 4 August 2010 in my former blog Football Takes, which I deleted sometime back for lack of time. Since I write football stories here, anyway, I thought it best to resurrect this here for anybody interested.]

The two Premiership encounters between Liverpool and Manchester United are always hyped up by the television stations covering the matches as the “most awaited games” of the English season. And with good reason; the two clubs feature in one of the most storied club rivalries the world over.

I doubt, though, that many of the younger generation of fans – of both teams – even understand why they almost instinctively dislike the fans of the other team. The truth of the matter is – at least historically – it is in fact Liverpool which has always had a score to settle.

Let me take you back to the year 1977. In that decade, United was not even worth the haughty attention of a Liverpool fan. The Red Devils – as United is fondly called by its followers because of the devils on its crest – had suffered the ignominy of having been relegated to what was then Division II of the Football League and were only just starting to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation.

For all its meager successes in the sixties and seventies – when Liverpool and Leeds United were regarded as the biggest and most successful of the English clubs – Manchester United – or at least, its followers – continued to regard itself as the best followed and most glamorous of all the English clubs. Note that it was – then – careful not to say the most successful.

The size of its following was not at all contentious. In the fifties, United was among the first of the rather insular English clubs to venture into European competition. While Real Madrid was the most fearsome club of the continent, United made quite an impression and were even regarded – in some quarters – as capable of challenging Madrid’s domination.

That was until practically its entire team was killed in what history remembers as the Munich Air Disaster of 1958. A United team was flying home after playing a European Cup – the forerunner of the Champions’ League – tie but its plane barely got off the ground in Munich.

United’s following – at least in England – was therefore enhanced by its early successes in Europe and the inevitable sympathy it won after its patched-up team gallantly stood up to Milan in the European Cup after the disaster, but ultimately failed to live up to the reputation left behind by those who perished in the crash.

There is, too, the little matter of Manchester being – along with Birmingham – the largest of the English cities outside of London. Its citizens – who, therefore, continue to form the core of those who follow United and its cross-city rivals Man City – have always been better off economically than the “poor” working class Scousers who made their living on the docks by the River Mersey.

In fact, in the seventies, when jobs on the docks started to dry up when the City of Liverpool’s reputation as an international port began to wane, football was all the Scousers could turn to for solace. Whatever United fans thought of themselves as being followers of England’s most glamorous club, they surely did not have the silverware to back up their claims.

In fact, the closest Liverpool FC rival in terms of number of league titles won was London’s Arsenal FC. Across town, Everton were the poor relations who made their emotions felt whenever they squared up to Liverpool in the local derbies. United? Just another game of the season…

By 1977, Liverpool was really becoming the toast of not only England but also the rest of Europe. Winning the league and FA Cup double was difficult enough – only 4 clubs had actually done so since the nineteenth century – but by the spring of this year, Liverpool was closing in not only on the double but was also in the finals of the European Cup. The majority of Liverpool fans – along with many neutrals – were, naturally, excited by the prospect of an English club winning the “treble” for the first time ever!

By late April, the league title was already in the bag. Liverpool then headed off to Wembley for the FA Cup Final against – you guessed it – Manchester United. This was a rather touchy season for Liverpool. It was blazing a trail few clubs – at least, in those days – could ever hope to emulate; but fans of the club also knew this was the last season they would ever see superstar Kevin Keegan in the famous all-red of Liverpool. Everyone wanted the treble!

At the end of 90 minutes of FA Cup Final football, though, Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes was in tears after United cheekily won, 2-1. The dream of the treble was – at least, for that season – no more. If there ever was a season for Liverpool fans to start hating United, it was this one!

If it was any consolation, Liverpool shook off the disappointment from missing out on the FA Cup by beating German side Borussia Monchengladbach, 3-1, in the finals of the European Cup in Rome a few days later. By doing so, Liverpool became – ironically – only the second English club side after Manchester United to have won the most coveted of European trophies.

In the succeeding years, United continued to be no more than a minor irritant to Liverpool even after that classic FA Cup loss. In fact, Liverpool’s attention was more focused on the brewing rivalry with this little club Nottingham Forest – then managed by Brian Clough – which had the utter gall to pry the European Cup away for two successive seasons from Liverpool’s fingers.

In the eighties, despite doomsday predictions that its successes – started by the legendary Bill Shankly in the sixties – would eventually end, Liverpool continued to be the dominant force in English football. Strange as it may sound, even though Liverpool continued to collect silverware after silverware, few games against United went in Liverpool’s favor.

Liverpool fans were philosophical – if irritated – by the games lost to United. It was, like, “Let them win the games; we collect the trophies.” Each loss – or frustrating draw – made the next encounter with United all the more anticipated; if just so Liverpool could even things up between the two clubs.

The rivalry really started to turn sour when the Ferguson era – in the nineties – began to reap trophy after trophy for United. That the Manchester United era began after three decades of Liverpool preponderance and coincided with utter barrenness was too bitter a pill to swallow for many a Liverpool supporter. Not that many Liverpool fans will openly admit it; but the truth of the matter is that the rivalry is so much more bitter on the side of the Mersey.

My guess is that many Liverpool fans feel that United continues to keep its fingers firmly clasped on what they regard as something that belongs to them; and every United success fuels the already volatile frustration from waiting for the pendulum to swing back their way.

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