It was the 26th of April, 1992. Manchester United had just been handed a pasting in front of a delirious Anfield crowd – the 2-0 scoreline only flattering the visitors. Losing that day had stretched United’s wretched run without a title to a quarter of a century.
It wasn't just the win that Anfield loved, it was the fact that they had denied the title. Sure they hadn't won it either – that honour went to Leeds – but there is something especially sweet about schadenfreude.
You see in that span of 25 years since United's last title, Liverpool had cemented their place in the Football Hall of Fame with 4 European Cups and 11 English Crowns – a domination of epic proportions.
The total title count read 18 - 6 in England, and 4-1 in Europe.
As the devastated United team trudged on back to the team bus – memories of the “f*** you” chants emanating from the home dressing room fresh in their ears - a young Liverpudlian approached the PFA Young Player of the Year, Ryan Giggs, for an autograph. Giggs, ever the gentleman, scribbled his signature on the proffered piece of paper.
The kid tore it up in front of the Welshman’s face.
Hatred - and the wicked smile that only schadenfreude can bring out - was etched all over the young Scouser's face.
It was the kind of hatred that had defined the Manchester – Liverpool rivalry for more than a century and a half.
A Tale of Two cities, and a Canal
“The people of Liverpool smart under a sense of Manchester’s superiority, writhe under the impression that Manchester is ahead” - Ashton and Stalybridge Reporter, dated 7 April, 1860.
Back during the heydey of the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, the cities of Manchester and Liverpool engaged in the sort of primal rivalry that only two neighbours competing for power, prestige and wealth can produce.
Cotton mills swung it first in Manchester’s favour, before Liverpool’s mighty shipping docks swung it right back. And then, the city of Manchester convinced the government to build them a Shipping Canal – creatively named the Manchester Shipping Canal.
It was the Canal then that gave proper context to the first ever meeting between the two sides that would go on to dominate the English footballing scene – the simmering tensions between Liverpool’s traders, dock workers and politicians and Manchester’s businessmen, labourers and… well, politicians (they’re always involved aren’t they?) were now going to find an outlet –the football field.
This game, in 1894, truly signified the moment that two sports clubs had started to represent their communities, and mirror their hopes, desires, fears and most of all, hate.
That first game ended 2-0 in Liverpool’s favour, and a rivalry the likes of which England has never seen before, or since, was born.
A tale of Hate, Envy and Loathing
"I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool’s people, I can’t stand anything to do with them. When I was growing up there was certainly a large amount of jealousy involved. The truth is, I envied them for all the success their team was having."
Gary Neville grew up at a time when Liverpool were almighty, and none of his schoolmates (most of whom supported Liverpool, even though their town was closer to Manchester) ever let him forget it. The tales of Shankly, Paisley, and Dalglish and their never-ending triumphs rung in the young Mancunians’ ears day in and day out - and he hated them for it.
But success and envy were just a part of it. Despite not having won anything of note for so very long, United remained hated in Merseyside. As Steven Gerrard vividly remembers -
“A mate owned a Bryan Robson top. We were kicking about, and I asked if I could be Robbo for a while. My dad looked out and went ballistic. He wasn’t having his kid dragging the Gerrard name through the gutter. I thought we’d have to move!"
To this day the Scouser is proud of the fact that he hasn’t ever swapped shirts with a United player. As he said, no United jersey was ever going to enter the Gerrard household.
The two former captains perhaps exemplify the rivalry like no one else.
Two local lads who grew up supporting the clubs they later played for, who grew up listening to the glories of their former days Whether it be the utter joy that each took in beating the other – regardless of the larger picture – or the utter despair of losing this encounter, nobody showed the emotion that went behind the game quite like those two.
Neville once wrote – “If you beat Liverpool, it’s going to be the best day of the season. If you lose, it’s going to be the absolute worst.” You can so easily see Gerrard saying much the same thing about United.
A tale of grudging Respect, and Tragedy
“How would you like to manage the best club in the country?" - asked the Liverpool chairman Tom Williams to the then manager of Huddersfield Town, Bill Shankly.
"Why?" Shankly replied. "Is Matt Busby packing it in?"
It is a hatred, though, that has been accentuated by respect from both parties – respect for each others' success, and respect of each others' tragedy. When the former Liverpool captain Matt Busby set about building a Manchester United team full of promising young British footballers – known as the Busby Babes – he started wowing the love and affection of Englishman all over, and that included a certain Mr Bill Shankly.
And then, tragedy struck. February the 6th, 1958 – an icy Munich, a crashed plane, 23 lost lives and 19 seriously wounded souls. From the embers of the ashes rose a fairytale story, a tale that remains the greatest romance in the history of football.
Liverpool were one of the first teams to come to United's aid and loaned them five players – including two who were first team regulars – so that they could compete manfully while they went on with the slow process of rebuilding.
Ten years later, as United readied themselves for the ultimate aim – for the living the dream that had so cruelly crashed and burned in Munich – as they prepared for the European Cup final against Benfica, they got support from unexpected quarters - “British football can be proud of the United team who gave their all to give Matt Busby the cup he cherishes above all else,” the Liverpool Echo – usually one of Merseyside's most vitriolic outlets - proclaimed. “It’s been a long, long drive for United to reach the top in Europe, no one will begrudge them being the first English club to make it”
United would, of course, famously go on to win it. The first team from England to conquer. Ten years too late, perhaps, but a triumph that was made all the sweeter because of it.
Nine years later, United returned the favour. Having denied the Liverpool the chance for a unique treble by beating them in the FA Cup final (Liverpool had sealed the League title, and were playing in the European Cup final four days later), the United fans seranaded their counterparts, and the players, with a fairly unimiginative, but to-the-point rendition of “Good Luck Liverpool”
It would be the first of four wins (in a span of seven years) that would cement their place in footballing folklore as Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish sat in the Anfield Boot Room and created history.
Matt Busby, whose records were eclipsed and obliterated in those years, never held a grudge.
“Liverpool deserved their success because they treated everyone on the staff as a human being should be treated, with kindness, consideration and understanding.”
In between all this, there was an episode of friendliness that has long been buried in the annals of histroy. On August 20, 1971, the Kop was filled with United supporters supporting the home team. Anfield had opened it's gates to welcome Manchester United after the Mancunians had been banned from playing at Old Trafford for two games due to hooliganism.
Then, at the absolute zenith of Liverpool's power tragedy would strike, twice – at Heysel on the 29th of May, 1985 (where 39 poor souls lost their lives) and Hillsborough on the 15th of April, 1989 (96 passed away, and 766 people got injuries).
Both the disasters hit home hard - fans come to football games to forget the mundanity of regular life, to enjoy and revel in victory and to share the emotions in loss. People aren't supposed to lose their lives.
When the Grim Reaper comes visiting, everything else seems too petty to argue about.
"A lot is written about the fierce rivalry between the two clubs - and it is a great rivalry - but people forget to mention that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Alex Ferguson was one of the first to phone Kenny (Dalglish). He asked if there was anything Manchester United could do to help and even arranged for a group of their fans to come and lay scarves and flowers at Anfield as a mark of respect” - Ian Ayre in the Liverpool Echo
After the probe into Hillsborough acquited Liverpool and its supports of any wrongdoing, the Merseyside club held a ceremony to honour the 96 victims. The team to visit? Manchester United. Alex Ferguson on his programme asked his fans to show just how great they were by respecting their great neighbours. They did. Players, fans, coaching staff, everyone stood as one to pay their respects to the 96. Just as they had to pay tribute to the victims of Munich '58.
(Yes, there are people who chant offensive songs about Munich, Heysel and Hillsborough – but those are the unavoidable scum of the earth. The majority on both sides stood by, and stand by, each other)
Post Script – the modern era and a tale of tale of kingdoms lost
“My greatest challenge is not what's happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f*****g perch. And you can print that” – Alex Ferguson, September 2002.
Ten years and some five months after that Giggs incident, with Manchester United languishing way behind the Invincibles of Arsenal and desperately seeking some hope in the title race, Alex Ferguson was asked whether this was his greatest challenge.
His response defined the rivalry between the two in a way that little else has.
After the retirement of the great man, neither side has ever really challenged for the title – not in the way it was back in the good ol' days. The record now stands 18 – 20 in Manchester United’s favour in England and 5-3 in Liverpool's favour in Europe.
Jurgen Klopp, and Jose Mourinho, though, are men of fierce ambition and seem to be superb fits at their respective clubs. You can so easily imagine Klopp humming You'll never walk alone as he oversees a training session, and Mourinho's alarm is probably set to Glory Glory Man United. The two old clubs are on the rise again, rebelling against the new order, marching in an effort to reclaim the throne to the kingdoms they have lost, thrones they feel are rightfully theirs.
It's heartening to see.
Yes they will hate each other, yes the winners will give the losers stick till the next fixture comes around and yes there will be vitriol, but underlining it all will be a thread of respect that is as strong as the hate that surrounds it.
Out of the red mist of hate, that sliver of respect will always stand out.