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Why the Liverpool - Manchester United rivalry is still as passionate as ever

This historic fixture still stokes the flames of fans' passion, which seeps into the players as well

Carragher Neville Liverpool Manchester United
Manchester  United and Liverpool have played out some fiery encounters in the past

The 22nd of March, 2015 – Manchester United’s trip to Anfield was billed as a critical fixture in both sides’ hopes for a coveted Champions League spot.

Liverpool were undefeated since mid-December. The gap to their foes was cut to two points. A finish in the Champions League places, it seemed, was eminently achievable. But there was still some frailty in that side. There was a sense that their run of form and confidence, though well assembled, was exceedingly delicate – that it would shatter to the point of no recovery, were there to be a stumble.

This was that stumble. Manchester United won the game 2-1 and a crushed Liverpool ghosted through the rest of the season.

Winning manager Louis van Gaal and his two-goal hero Juan Mata crowed their loudest and were most pleased after this particular win. Liverpool’s half-time substitute Steven Gerrard was back in the tunnel not 40 seconds after his introduction, sent off for a ludicrous stamp on Ander Herrera, and he could do nothing but hold up his hands in guilty acknowledgement.

For the Manchester United fraternity, the celebrations were the most lavish than at any other point in the season. The peals of laughter at the manner of Gerrard’s dismissal, the mocking chants of “you nearly won the league”, the satisfaction at having secured a Champions League spot – all part of gleeful revelry in their rivals’ misfortune.

Heroes old and new, major and minor

Were one to look merely at the emphatic response of the manager and standout player, two individuals who declare home to be places not linkable to a Manchester area postcode, there would be no doubt. The Liverpool -Manchester United rivalry is as passionate as ever. Why else would the game cause Manchester United fans to cavort happily while their Liverpool counterparts hang their heads in deep despondence?

The simple truth seems to be that whether or not there has been Alex Ferguson around to fan the flames of this decades-old animosity, Liverpool and Man United’s rivalry has always been an affair of fierce, almost poisonous, pride and competition. It is a deadly serious matter that goes back a long while and the core elements of this drama haven’t changed one iota in that time, no matter how much the personnel associated with it may have.

Football is a deeply emotional sport whose ties to its community of fans run deep. A football match is, after all, the one time in a week where you can show your most sentimental colours. Fans’ imaginations run wild, and this leads to athletes, whether superlative or workaday, being painted in heroic, legendary oils when they seize their moment. The Liverpool – Manchester United encounters, by their inherently high profile and emotionally charged nature, are the guiltiest of causing this kind of hyperbole.

It is this rivalry’s ability to create minor or major heroes that is notable, and it has done this consistently and without fail. See Diego Forlan’s memorable brace in 2002, or Dirk Kuyt’s ‘easiest ever’ hat-trick in 2011, or Anthony Martial’s splendid solo goal earlier this season.

Even further back, Russell Beardsmore’s Jonathan Wilson-described “astonishing burst of activity” on New Year’s Day 1989, or Robbie Fowler’s spectacular brace on the first day of October 1995 catch the eye. Even the unlucky earn a sidebar mention: the unfortunate Massimo Taibi, remembered best for his howler against Southampton, was man of the match on his debut against Liverpool.

A moment for the ages

Paul Ince Liverpool Manchester United
Paul Ince’s goal for Liverpool at Anfield against his former side was memorable

The passion that clouds this fixture is notable for the historic memories it creates for things that don’t even happen (sample Steven Gerrard’s near hat-trick of penalties in 2013-14), and for things that have to be seen to be believed (try John O’ Shea’s late winner at Anfield in 2007). The hype is obfuscating, it’s consuming and it’s as powerful as it ever has been.

Consequently. these moments are picked out in high relief, more than in any other fixture. People remember Rio Ferdinand scoring that last minute winner at Old Trafford in early 2006 in what was, frankly, a nondescript game. Or that Paul Ince, a former Man United player himself, is remembered in Liverpool mostly for scoring a late equaliser at Anfield in 1999 and his subsequent frenzied celebration. That ensures these passions are stoked and sustained by making immortals of both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Liverpool and Man United have, throughout their history, only intermittently battled each other for the league (the entire decade of the 2000s is a perfect example), so observers don’t tie the rivalry to anything particular, unlike the exciting Arsenal-Man Utd clashes of yesteryear which were almost always about the title race.This means the fuel that feeds this particular fire is completely self generated.

The rivalry, by its very combustible nature and visceral emotional connections,will always add another layer to a drama that, quite honestly, requires none. Eric Cantona’s return from suspension in 1995 is one angle, and the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra racism row, oddly enough given the sensitive nature of the issue, is just yet another.

The scars that run deep

Both sets of supporters need no telling twice. If nothing else, the fans will always ensure that old wounds are reopened or existing ones are sprinkled with salt. Almost two years on, when even the Chelsea and Manchester City legionaries have begun to tire of it, the parody of the “Steven Gerrard, Gerrard/Pass the ball 40 yards” song is sung the loudest by the Old Trafford faithful, indulging their cruelly humorous hold over the enemy.

The “David Moyes is a football genius” banner during Liverpool’s 0-3 win at Old Trafford in March 2014, too, sticks in the memory. Sample, also, from the same game, the rank defiance of the Man Utd fans singing, metaphorically, with their fingers in their ears and Liverpool already 0-3 up on enemy territory. The roar of the crowd when Daniel Sturridge scored the winner in September 2013. The fan base is always the first to show the passion and prove that it is alive and well.

The fans are, of course, unshakeable partisans. It, instead, says much when the passion seeps through to the players. Sure, the local ex-pros who have been indoctrinated since birth are incurable.

But there are the countless moments when non-local players grasp the gravity of this occasion that remind you this passion is infectious. It permeates the fan/player divide. Though the fans may be separated from the players in tongue and culture, their gameness for this occasion is a beautiful commonality. 

An enduring memory is from October 2009, when, as a floundering Liverpool made it 2-0, Pepe Reina sprinted the length of the field to jump into the arms of goalscorer David N’Gog. Wayne Rooney’s delight in his goals against Liverpool are particularly striking, as he has nothing to prove to anyone, least of all Liverpool, but his broad grins tell the whole story. Nothing endears players to supporters more than when their heroes embrace the club’s passions and its ethos, and it forges a rock-solid bond between the two parties. 

The hype machine

It’s almost as though Manchester United’s reputation as a centre of sporting romance (despite all their success they’ve had) is built entirely on the back of their battles with Liverpool. Even the media, no matter how far they stray, always return to the two clubs’ basic dynamic. See Liverpool’s 3-6 win at Cardiff in March 2014. In the post match interview, Cardiff boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked about the possibility of Liverpool winning the league.

His response was almost comical in its dogged head-shaking, but that is incidental. That connection was brought up in a game with Man Utd absolutely nowhere in the conversation, apart from the fact that the Cardiff manager used to play for them until seven years ago.

And even today, where oversaturation is the norm for football’s narratives, the Liverpool-Man United enounters find space to squeeze in a hundred other little things in this broader template of mutual dislike. These micro-elements in recent editions of this rivalry suggest that the passions have been energised in ways both good and bad.

In the good, it fires up players to perform at their best. Juan Mata’s performance has already been mentioned, as has Anthony Martial’s wonderful individual effort. In the bad, this fervent atmosphere sometimes prompts rash decisions. For the defeat at Old Trafford in December 2014, Brendan Rodgers would likely not have responded to Simon Mignolet’s patchy form by selecting Brad Jones in goal . He certainly would not have taken such drastic action had it been a less high profile encounter.

All of this tells me that though the supporters may have aged, the managers may have come and gone and the man we call the England captain may have morphed from a London midfielder into a Scouse forward, I see the same emotions, the same passions writ large on their faces that I did twenty years ago. Any claim that the passion has diminished is highly spurious.

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