Mickeys. Bin Dippers. Granny Stabbers. Merseyshite. Scouse Bastards. Murderers.
Bilious descriptions of the players and followers of Liverpool Football Club that can be found tripping off the tongues of Manchester United supporters every single day. I say every day because despite sometimes only competing with them on a sports field twice a season, they are never far from our thoughts.
Take Saturday afternoon. A football match against Wigan Athletic. Not a single opposition player with obvious Liverpool connections. A game that was competitive in the first half and an exhibition in the second. Yet the focus of many fans was not on the football, it was on denigrating our fiercest rivals.
Debate rages over whether ‘Always the Victim’ was intended as comment on Hillsborough or simply a typical chant directed towards Sunday’s opponents. Regardless of the specific intention; to the rational mind voicing a song aimed at a team with no connection to the sides duking it out in front of them seems bizarre.
The truth of the matter is that – despite protestations to the contrary – like me, most United fans are obsessed with Liverpool Football Club.
When I think back through my highs and lows as a Red a familiar theme is battles with our ‘enemy.’ The sheer joy of Cantona’s Cup winner contrasts with the agony of defeat ensuring the wait for a league title would extend beyond a quarter of a century. The delight at Yorke and Solskjaer’s dramatic turnaround in injury time at OT sits alongside the despair of the ‘Guvnor’ I once idolised celebrating an Anfield equaliser that plunged our treble dreams into jeopardy. More recently the ecstasy of John O’Shea’s smash and grab winner at the Kop can be footnoted by the Torres inspired demolition in front of a stunned home crowd.
So why is Liverpool so important to me? I grew up in a small town without a competitive football league club (apologies Kendal Town) meaning allegiances were divided between the nearby giants of the North West. Monday mornings at school would be heaven or hell depending on the results of the two over the weekend. Fights in the playground were an inevitability in the aftermath of a direct clash between the two. Like many young boys, teens and men we strove to define ourselves by who and what we love, versus who or what we hate. Blur or Oasis? Biggie or 2Pac? United or Liverpool? Even today the first person I contact before, during and after a United-Liverpool game is a scouse fan I have known since the age of eleven. The exchange is good-natured now – but it didn’t used to be!
As with all great rivalries at the centre of the animosity is the inescapable sense of needing one another.
The docks of Liverpool shipped the goods manufactured in the mills and factories of Manchester. One city could not thrive without the other. Both believed they were the true heart of the industrial revolution, unwilling to give even the faintest praise to the other. Fast-forward to more modern times and as industry fades, cultural rivalry takes centre stage. We’ll see your Lennon and McCartney and raise you a Squire and a Morrissey.
Football is no different. Arguments over who is the best ever English side invariably come down to skewed comparisons between the teams of Busby, Shankly, Paisley and Ferguson. In the post-Busby era, fixtures between the two were chiefly a matter of pride for the under-achieving Reds. Liverpool was our cup final. In more recent decades the opposite has been true. Our glorious two decades of success has been all the sweeter that it has coincided with a largely barren period for the other lot. Such is my own intransigent bias that still to this day I cannot refer to their dramatic victory in Istanbul without adding a caveat about why it was reliant on luck. Our own European triumphs coming emanating in no small part from mishit Giggs shot and a slippery penalty spot of course were entirely down to talent. As Stephen so ruefully observed on our latest pod, ‘they always raise their game against us.’ The games are rarely aesthetically beautiful yet boast a tangible edge that make them the standout fixtures of the English calendar.
Rivalry too often hits the headlines for the wrong reasons. Hatred is an entirely different emotion – one which has no place in a sporting context. Endless debates over who sung about Munich/Hillsborough first are as equally damning as they are equally pointless. Both clubs’ supporters have brought shame on themselves and their clubs more times than is comfortable. One group of fans celebrating Alan Smith’s freshly broken leg is abhorrent yet so is a packed Bishops’ Baize chorusing ‘murderers’ in response to our rival’s name appearing on Sky Sports news. I admit to being caught up in it. I’ve sung the ‘won it three times’ song with gusto when far too old to plead ignorance. It is true to say that insensitive chants have never killed anyone – yet to adopt a lower moral code just because it happens to be football is a dangerous line to cross.
An unwanted similarity between the two clubs is the shared experience of tragedy. This has too often been used by the fans as a further cause for division rather than an insult too far. No matter how many ‘top level summits’ occur between the clubs, or impassioned pleas from the respective managers, fans of the two clubs will never lay down their arms and embrace in brotherhood forever more. It would be superficial and anathema to the great rivalry which enriches our sport. What we can do though is respect an avoidable loss of life that there but for the grace could have been us. Had we not been knocked out by Liverpool’s opponents that day in the sixth round, it could so easily have been Reds who were caught up in the horrific events of that dark day. The expectation for Sunday isn’t that we lay aside our great rivalry, it is a far less onerous a task. It is quite simply to react as human beings, offer our respects and condolences for a tragedy that should never have happened.
Before gleefully revelling in an away win.
Check out the Football Fancast live during the match, with the help of the Can They Score team, here!