Phil Chisnall & The Liverpool-Manchester Rivalry

by | Dec 14, 2018

When he first signed for Manchester United as an apprentice at Easter 1958, Phil Chisnall probably didn’t give a great deal of thought to Liverpool Football Club. His new club was still reeling from the shock of the Munich air disaster, which had killed eight of the players that he might have been training and playing alongside just a couple of months earlier. On top of that, Liverpool were at the time a Second Division club, labouring to get back into the top flight following relegation four years earlier. Indeed, Chisnall’s career is fairly unremarkable as the careers of top flight professional footballers go, apart from one small detail – in June 1964, he was sold by his club to Liverpool. Few would have guessed at the time, but fifty-four years on he remains the last player to transfer directly between the two clubs.

Having already played for the Lancashire and England schoolboys, it was no great surprise that a young, talented forward should have picked up by Manchester United, whose reputation for bringing through young players had been thrown into sharp focus by the Busby Babes team. Having signed for the club, however, it took him three years to break into the first team. He made his debut against Everton in December 1961, a match which resulted in a five-one defeat for United, although Chisnall’s performance was sufficiently promising for him to keep his place in the side for the following week’s three-nil win against Fulham at Old Trafford. He went on to play forty-seven games for United over the next two and a half years, scoring ten goals for the club and with the first of those coming at, of all places, Maine Road, against Manchester City.

By the 1963/64 season, however, he was starting to lose his place in the team with increasing regularity, and in April 1964 Matt Busby took him to one side and advised him that Liverpool had submitted a bid to take him to Anfield. Liverpool had finally got promotion back to the First Division in 1962 and would the 1963/64 season as the champions of England, whilst United finished as runners-up to them that season and had won the FA Cup before, although the club’s 1962/63 First Division season had ended with the club in nineteenth place in the table, just two places and three points from the relegation positions. Liverpool offered £25,000 for Chisnall, which was not an exorbitant transfer fee for the time. By way of comparison, during the same summer Tottenham Hotspur spent £72,500 to take Alan Gilzean from Dundee to White Hart Lane and £27,000 to sign a nineteen year-old Pat Jennings from Third Division Watford.

The transfer didn’t particularly make many newspaper headlines at the time. Liverpool’s decision to sign Chisnall seems to have been inspired by a strong performance for the England under-23 team in November of the previous year, when he scored two goals in a four-one win against West Germany at Anfield. Where it was discussed in the press was in the context of his replacement John Connelly, who the club signed from Burnley for £56,000 at the same time. With no poisonous rivalry between the two clubs at the time, Liverpool arguably looking like the better bet for the future, and being just about to get married at a time when the vast majority of players didn’t live the comfortable players have nowadays, he accepted the move and transferred thirty-five miles up the road to Liverpool. Chisnall himself has, in recent years, seemed almost surprised by the attention that he has come to receive. Talking to the Liverpool Echo in 2013, he told the newspaper that, “It amazes me that no player has moved since, but the rivalry was not the same then. Liverpool were champions in 1964, but they were only promoted in 1962 and United were a much bigger club.”

Once arrived at Liverpool, however, Chisnall couldn’t find himself a regular place in the team, although the ten appearances that he did make for the club included the first match to be featured on BBC2’s new Saturday night highlights show Match of the Day, against Arsenal in August 1964 (he was also the first player to touch the ball on Match of the Day), as well as Liverpool’s first ever match in European competition, a five-nil away win against KR Rekjavik in the European Cup Winners Cup First Round, in which he scored the third Liverpool goal. He couldn’t, however, maintain his place in the first team and Liverpool finished the 1964/65 season in seventh place in the table, whilst just up the road Manchester United became the champions for the first time since 1957 on goal average from Leeds United. Liverpool ended the season with the consolation of winning the FA Cup against Leeds United, but Phil Chisnall didn’t make the team in the last season before the introduction of substitutes.

By 1967 the rivalry between these two clubs was starting to grow more intense, but Chisnall wasn’t part of Bill Shankly’s plans by this point, and in the summer of that year he transferred to Southend United, who were then playing in the Fourth Division. He stayed with Southend until 1971, making one hundred and twenty-eight appearances for the club before transferring back a little closer to where he grew up, spending the last season of his playing career with Stockport County before retiring from football in 1972. At the end of his football career, he took up a job working at the Soreen malt loaf factory in Manchester, where he remained until he retired. After he suffered a serious stroke in 2014, a charity night was held for him in Urmston, at which an auction of signed memorabilia was held, a cheque for £2,000 was presented on behalf of the Association of Former Manchester United Players, and The Manchester United Foundation agreed to fit a stairlift in his home.

Such an everyday life, but one punctuated by being on the brink of two of the great English teams of the age. It couldn’t be further removed from the life of the modern professional footballer. It’s difficult to imagine, say, Charlie Adam going to work in a malt loaf factory after he retires from playing. Okay, bad example, but you take my point. And all of this is before we even get onto the whole Liverpool/Manchester United rivalry thing. That entirely unconcerned attitude would obviously be utterly unimaginable today.

The rivalry between the two cities dates back to the industrial revolution, pre-dating the formation of either club, and its intensity may be considered a conduit for this in the modern era, even though the manfacturing bases which fuelled both cities were dying off by the 1980s. By this time, though, the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United was toxic. After Liverpool won the FIrst Division in 1966, Manchester United did so in 1967 and became the first English club to win the European Cup the following year. This, however, was the beginning of the end of an era for Manchester United, whose decline towards relegation in 1974 was shadowed by Liverpool revitalising themselves to win the First Division in 1973, and Liverpool would go on grab a stranglehold over the whole of English football until the start of the 1990s before swinging back to Manchester United. Current form suggests that the balance of power may be headed back in the direction of Liverpool, but it’s really too early to tell.

This undulating balance of power, the waves of which in the past have largely been measured in years, has likely contributed towards the toxic stew that the game has become in recent years. And other players have played for both clubs over the years – Paul Ince, Michael Owen and Peter Beardsley, for example – without civilisation completely collapsing, which makes Phil Chisnall’s record all the more tantalising. He’s the last player to have transferred directly between the two clubs, all of which leads us to the fact that this record is not special particularly because of the rivalry between the fans, but because of the rivalry between the institutions. It is presumably just considered too much hassle to get involved in trying to sign each others’ players when there are so many others available without that particular albatross around their neck. But there remains an element of curiosity about the fact that these two globally-recognised brands seem to refuse to directly do transfer business with each other.

Perhaps the growth of such sourness surrounding this fixture is a reflection upon the growth of the importance of football. Some of those who mindlessly quote Bill Shankly saying “Football’s not a matter of life and death…” can have a tendency to leave off the smirk on his face as he said it, at times. There are some amongst us who take their interest in football far, far too seriously and, in the case of Liverpool and Manchester United the biggest irony is that this is in direct contradiction of the clubs’ most towering legends. Shankly and Busby were friends, as Phil Chinsall himself explained to the Daily Mail in 2013:

Shankly had great admiration for Busby and were in many respects like father and son. Shankly, who was just starting out in management, would often come to Old Trafford to seek Busby’s advice. I think the bond was struck because they were both Scottish and of mining stock. And because they were down-to-earth, I think that is what they made them such good managers. They knew how lucky they were to be well paid to be involved in football, and that gave a hunger to succeed and not have to return to their roots.

And that attitude of solidarity, of having more in common than between us, is very much missing from the world that we inhabit today.