Tomorrow afternoon at Anfield, Liverpool and Manchester United will take the pitch for their first meeting of the season. When broadcasters talk in cliché about the passion and suchlike of the game in this country, it is for these matches that the volume levels reach their apotheosis and for the two clubs to be meeting this early in the season will show a global audience a visceral edge to the Premier League that we haven’t yet seen this season. But over the last couple of decades this rivalry has at times become something more poisonous. A swivel-eyed minority with a tendency to shout the loudest have frequently come to hijack the narrative of a fixture which carries a subtext that reaches far beyond the mere watching of a sport.
Liverpool versus Manchester United is a story of two different cultures that grew both together and apart out of the crucible that was the industrial revolution, but it’s also a story of two football clubs that have as much in common as they have differences. These are two of the great institutions of English football, with stories stretching back to the nineteenth century which touch upon both triumph and tragedy, at different parts in the history of our game, they have dominated the landscape like behemoths, breaking records and holding their own amongst the very best in the world. And they have created a narrative entirely of their own, with Liverpool’s then-unprecedented success for two decades from the beginning of the 1970s having almost – and the extent to which you agree with this depends on which side of this divide you stand – been eclipsed by the last twenty years of Manchester United’s history. Manchester United have been the English champions the most time, but Liverpool’s record in Europe is still superior, and it has been this jousting which had added an edge to the battle between these two particular clubs.
As with most fraternal arguments of this nature, most on the outside tend to see the similarities between the two clubs rather than the differences between them. We regard these red-shirted monoliths of the game as being cast from the same mould, two clubs whose very identities have been forged by a combination of the Scottish managers who shaped them and by the tragedies of Munich in 1958 and Hillsborough in 1989. And those of us on the outside also have a tendency to believe, whether true or not, that underneath the layers of vituperation that underpins the rivalry between these two clubs there may even be a level of mutual respect which dare not speak its name.
When the poison does spew forth, however, it does so at a level that can be breathtaking, and the recent history of this fixture is littered with the questionable behaviour and language. With the media on high alert for public displays of idiocy, therefore, it was somewhat surprising – to say the least – to see the official Liverpool FC Twitter feed getting itself in hot water again at the end of last week for retweeting messages which made clear reference to the Munich disaster. To its credit, however, the club was quick to apologise for this and confirm that it was to launch an internal investigation into the incident. Following on from the circumstances which led to the sacking of Jen Chang from his position as the club’s commercial director in November of last year, it is to be hoped that the club will find a way of negotiating the shark-invested world of public relations and social media with greater success in the future. What, we might ask, was the best that person running that account thought would happen as a result of retweeting such material?
This, however, is not an exercise in chastising one club and, by implication, praising the other, because there are supporters from both sides of this divide who see a need for greater moderation in terms of defining the rivalry between the two clubs. Those of you who are familiar with this site through Twitter will already be aware of this magnificent article from the Manchester-based magazine A Fine Lung about the nature of this rivalry and the fact that the two clubs’ supporters have more in common than either realise, whilst Peter Hooton, of The Farm and now a committee member of Spirit of Shankly, had this to say on the nature of the rivalry:
When it comes down to Man Utd v Liverpool it is one of the biggest rivalries, but if both sets of supporters took a step back and looked at it, it is because both clubs are mirror images of themselves. Both have been built up by Scottish managers, both had incredible success and I think that’s when the bitterness crept in. I don’t think the rivalry used to be as intense, I think it got worse in the 70s. It’s been said that the two are like a budgie pecking at itself in a mirror. I think the positives should be concentrated upon.
So two afternoon, these two will lock horns again. Things will be said. Songs will be sung. And there will doubtlessly be some on both sides of this most intractable of divides who will say things ill-befitting of the human race, whilst there will be others who will be keen to jump upon anything that they read, anything that they overhear and repeat any ill-founded rumour in a bid to try and prove the subhumanity of those from the other end of the M62, whichever end that may be. They will shout the loudest and they may well be listened to the most. But they are representative of neither the support of either club, and this is something that will be worth bearing in mind amid the doubtess hysteria of tomorrow afternoon’s match.
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