There is an old story about Tony Wilson that probably sums up just how far some of the people who are locked into the Manchester-Liverpool enmity will go in the name of one-upmanship and, more than anything, the importance that is placed on having the last word.
Wilson certainly had a way of revving it up when the man behind Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub – music mogul, broadcaster, impresario and professional Salfordian – earned his crust presenting Granada Reports, staring into the cameras with a level of self-adoration not often witnessed on regional news programmes and clearly loving the fact his opinions went straight into people’s living rooms.
For every on-air story about Liverpool, there would be a dry little aside, perhaps a roll of the eyes for added effect, or a sigh if it was his duty, as it often was, to report good news from Anfield. Wilson was simply incapable of hiding his allegiance to Manchester United. "He must have alienated potentially half the audience," his co-presenter, Bob Greaves, once said. "A lot of people thought he was the bees' knees. But everybody in Liverpool hated him. He would demean Liverpool with every word … every gesture he could. The favourite phrase I used to get whenever I went to Liverpool – as soon as I got off a train or out of my car – was: 'Hey, Bob, tell that Tony Wilson he's a wanker.' I must have had that delivered to me thousands of times. How he got away with it for so long before he was bollocked by the hierarchy I will never know."
Wilson presented one programme on the eve of Liverpool’s 1978 European Cup final wearing a Club Brugge rosette. It didn’t bring the Belgians any luck and the next day he had to deliver the news that Bob Paisley’s team were the kings of Europe, again. But it is the follow-up story, from 1983, that probably sums up the way the two cities make it their business to score points off one another.
Greaves used to tell it best, starting with the telephone call he received in Granada’s newsroom from a Merseyside police sergeant informing him Wilson’s brand new Jaguar had been found, stolen, in Liverpool. “Tony came in and I said: ‘I’ve had the police on – your car’s in Liverpool.’ So he got the train over to Liverpool, found his car, and three hours later the car was back outside Granada. Then, later that afternoon, I got another call. ‘Sergeant Carruthers here again. Can you tell Mr Wilson his car is still here in Eccersley Avenue?’ The scallies had watched him pick it up, followed him back, stolen it again, driven it back to Liverpool and parked it in exactly the same place. They never damaged it, they just played the game. They inconvenienced him. He’d obviously slagged off Liverpool one too many times. They followed him, they took it back and he had to get it twice in one day. He gave them begrudging respect: ‘Gotta say, man, good scam.’”
More than 30 years on, the dynamics are such now it is not entirely easy to know how much respect will be evident when the two clubs, sixth and seventh in the Premier League, lock horns in the Europa League on Thursday, remembering better times and driven more by the fear of failure, perhaps, than real affection for the competition.
The antipathy is always there. It is unshakeable, tribalistic and so deep-rooted it must feel like a trick of the mind for older generations that there was once a time when some United players would go to watch Liverpool if they did not have a game of their own. “We’d stand on the Kop,” Paddy Crerand recalls. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Liverpool behind that goal. The Scousers would have a word with us but it was good humoured.”
Crerand was so close to Bill Shankly he would often be late for Mass because the Liverpool manager used to ring, without fail, at 9am every Sunday, in a way that would never happen between employees of the two clubs now. Crerand played in the United side who won the European Cup in 1968 and the Liverpool Echo toasted the occasion with an enthusiasm that would never be seen on today’s pages. “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 newspaper 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.”
Even then, there are reminders how, in football, nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the good old days. Nobby Stiles, Crerand’s team-mate, tells one story in his autobiography about being hit by a dart. “I went to the touchline and had it removed and at half-time I was given an injection. I can only speculate how bad it would have been if the dart had landed in my eye and not my arm.” He does not name the ground where it happened, explaining that Busby did not want to draw attention to it, but when you turn to Liverpool in the index it gives it away. The first line says: “dart thrown at NS”.
Crerand can remember Paisley offering to bring Liverpool to Old Trafford for his 1975 testimonial, free of charge. The police put a stop to that one – but Crerand speaks of an era that younger fans presumably find alien. “When Liverpool played Leeds in the 1965 FA Cup final, I watched it with Noel Cantwell, Denis Law and Maurice Setters and afterwards we sent a telegram to Bill Shankly congratulating him. That could never happen today.” Liverpool’s players were regulars on the Manchester night scene. “We’d all go out together,” Crerand says. “I couldn’t tell you how many times Ian St John and his wife stayed at my house.”
That would never happen today, either. Ron Atkinson described one trip to Anfield as like going into the Vietnam War and, if that sounds melodramatic all these years on, his team had just been attacked with tear gas. It was 1954 when Phil Chisnall became the last player to transfer between the two clubs and nobody can be sure when, or if, that line of traffic will reopen.
But there has been cooperation in the past. Did you know English football’s two most successful teams once conspired to fix a match so that United were not relegated? Four players from Liverpool, and three from Manchester, were banned because of the scandal, on Good Friday 1915, a 2-0 victory for United that left the Manchester Football Chronicle correspondent “surprised and disgusted” by the suspicious way a team one point off the bottom had won.
The match-fixing commission found that players from both teams had placed substantial sums on the result. Chelsea were relegated as a direct consequence (though they were eventually allowed back, on appeal, in an extended league) and, incredibly, United were allowed to keep the two points that meant them staying up.
Liverpool and United were also close enough, in their formative years, to put together a joint motion that every team should wear a red home strip and a white away one and, leaping forward to 1971, it tends to be forgotten that Frank O’Farrell’s first “home” match as Busby’s successor took place at Anfield. United had been banned from Old Trafford for two matches because of hooliganism and when they needed an alternative venue the two clubs who offered help were Liverpool and Stoke City.
The history can be confusing for anyone who has swallowed the narrative that the two clubs have detested each other since the year dot but, equally, it is tempting to wonder how many of the current players understand the significance of this fixture in the way some of their predecessors might have.
Between them, there was only one Liverpudlian (Jon Flanagan) and one Mancunian (Marcus Rashford) in their last starting XIs. Steven Gerrard's involvement in these fixtures juddered to an end when he embedded his studs in Ander Herrera's ankle last March. Gary Neville is no longer there to crank up hostilities. Both teams have had a makeover since Luis Suárez's racial abuse of Patrice Evra brought a new wave of toxicity and bad feeling. And the identity of the men in the dugouts makes a difference, too.
Jürgen Klopp already leaves the firm impression he might have You’ll Never Walk Alone as his ringtone and it was a neatly clipped response from the German when he was asked how he would prepare for this match. “I won’t talk about tactics here,” Liverpool’s manager said. “Even in Manchester they have televisions.”
Yet the potential for conflict has significantly been reduced now that Sir Alex Ferguson is out of the equation, with his ability to stir up a combustible mix, regardless of the letter he sent to supporters before one Anfield trip or the compassion he showed after the Hillsborough tragedy. Ferguson seldom missed a trick to chop down the old enemy, even in retirement judging by one tour night at the Lowry in Salford. "What's great," he announced, "is our young fans growing up don't even remember when Liverpool were successful."
Ferguson studied the geographical and historical antagonism and used to be a great believer that the hate and loathing had its origins in Manchester building the ship canal that threatened Liverpool’s ocean-going trade. Yet it is not that straightforward in football terms. Not many people realise that Liverpool, then in the Second Division, offered two of their players to help tide United over after the Munich disaster in 1958. Incredibly, United fans also sang “good luck Liverpool”, to the tune of Nice One Cyril, at the end of the 1977 FA Cup final, showing their appreciation as the losing side, with a European Cup final to come four days later, went past on the lap of honour.
And yet, there is evidence that the tensions between the two cities go back more than 150 years. One newspaper clipping unearthed by the football historian and author Gary James comes from the Ashton and Stalybridge Reporter, dated 7 April 1860. The people of Liverpool, it says, “smart under a sense of Manchester’s superiority, they writhe under the impression that Manchester is ahead”, Liverpool is described in the feminine form, with little affection. “She loves no one and no one loves her,” is one line.
One certainty is that Ferguson never forgot the shouts of "fuck you" emanating from the home team's dressing room after a particularly galling defeat at Anfield in April 1992. Losing that day stretched United's harrowing run without a title to a quarter of a century and a Liverpool supporter approached the young Ryan Giggs outside for his autograph. Giggs wrote his name on a piece of paper – and the fan tore it up in front of his face.
The following season, Ferguson pinned a photograph – Dante's Inferno, he called it – on the dressing-room wall, showing the distraught faces on the bench, and told his players it was there to "make sure it never happens again". United finally won the league, but Liverpool still led 18-7 in titles and a banner on the Kop set a challenge: "Come back and sing 'Ooh-Aah Cantona' when you've won 18." In 2009, United's fans returned with their own banner: "You told us to come back when we won 18 – we are back." This contest, you come to learn, is a war of schadenfreude, hence Robbie Fowler and Gerrard holding up five fingers to signify Liverpool's superior record, 5-3, in the European Cup and the warped belief of some that it is part of the culture to mock each other's tragedies.
“It doesn’t matter if we are playing tiddlywinks,” Ferguson once said, “when we get together you expect sparks to fly.” Nobody, however, could have imagined the first European tie between these two old superpowers would take place in an unloved competition on the Thursday-night-Sunday-afternoon cycle. That, if nothing else, gives these mighty rivals some common ground.