Football's Greatest Rivalries: Liverpool vs Manchester United

Liverpool vs Manchester United. Does it get any bigger than this? For over 100 years, the two powerhouses of English football have slugged it out on the hallowed turfs of Anfield and Old Trafford. It is arguably the nation's most prestigious footballing fixture and watched all over the world. However, here at The Football History Boys, we have continuously tried to look at football's history in a new light, looking beyond mere scorelines and opening up ideas of class, identity and gender alongside the stories we already know. The North-West Derby is no stranger from all of these ideals - a derby we need to discuss. 

So where do we start? With the first game between the two? Or even further back? Indeed the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester is one which transcends far beyond football. Geographically there is only 35 miles between the two cities and the industrial revolution (1750-1900) brought them closer together again. Manchester was to be driven by the cotton industry with large-scale mills being constructed to feed the growing hunger for textiles. Liverpool on the other hand had begun to develop into a major sea port importing and exporting a wealth of goods from home and abroad. Industry meant competition and the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal towards the end of the nineteenth-century exemplified this.

Indeed, in some newspaper reports from the time - the rivalry is described as the Liverpool-Manchester Shipping Rivalry. Funded and developed by Manchester merchants, the notion to construct a canal was opposed by Liverpudlian politicians leading to a tension between scouse dockers and mancunian labourers. The canal was an opportunity for those in Manchester to avoid paying town rates at Liverpool and begin to compete once more with their North-West neighbours. Newspapers from the time speak of a 'rivalry' between the two cities,

"ALARM IN LIVERPOOL. A Liverpool correspondent writes :-The merchant rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester is occupying a large share of public attention, the most prominent feature being the strongly expressing desire at Liverpool that the Mersey Dcck Board and the railway companies should reduce tolls, rates, and dues, Preliminaries are hew being arranged for a conference between representatives of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, the railwav companies, and the Liverpool Corporation to promote through traffic, and to make improvements to facilitate trade on the Mersey."

Culturally, Liverpool and Manchester can boast to be two of the most unique cities in Britain. Despite sharing a common Northern identity - a difference in music, sport and the arts highlights two contrasting identities. The Beatles, Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Cavern are all synonymous with their respective cities and represent a wider atmosphere which surrounds any sporting occasion. Of course, I can here some readers now saying, "get on with it"; "I want to know about football and not music of shipping rivalries". But what is vital to understand is just why there is a rivalry in the first place and what underlying factors make this fixture that much more feisty, fearsome and ferocious.

Prior to the Second World War, the rivalry between Liverpool and United was indeed already showing signs of uniqueness amongst other derbies in the nation. The first meeting of the two in 1895 had ended 2-0 to The Reds over what was then called Newton Heath with both sides later achieving isolated successes before 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War. Rivalries were put on hold a greater struggle became apparent in the trenches of France and Belgium with both clubs being represented in the Football Battalion which would later fight on the frontline of the Somme in 1916. One year prior to this however, both United and Liverpool players were at the centre of a match-fixing scandal following the a league match at Old Trafford, fixed in favour of the home. The realisation of war and the financial insecurity that had arisen led to the action being taken and players from both sides receiving lengthy bans.

"The Football Association yesterday issued the report of the commission which has been inquiring into the allegations that the result of the match between Liverpool and Manchester United on April 2 last was pre-arranged between the players for the purpose of betting and winning money thereby. The commission found proved that sums of money changed hands by betting on the matches, and that players profited thereby. Being satisfied that the allegations had been proved, the commission permanently suspend the following players : J. Sheldon. H. R. K. Pursell. T. Miller and T. Fairfoul (Liverpool). A. Turnnil. A. Whalley and E. J. West (Manchester United), and L. Cook (Chester) from taking part in football or football management, and they are not to be allowed to enter any football ground in future."
Daily Mirror, 1915 

Either side of WWII, the matches between the sides never lost a sense of pride and local identity. Indeed, aside from the football - press reports from the time frequently describe any meeting of the two cities as a rivalry - highlighting the importance of local pride to the individual and the wider collective."There was the rivalry between... Liverpool and Manchester. Those rivalries had their uses if every man who was jealous of another place made up his mind to do everything possible to make his town the best."*

MANCHESTER UNITED 0, LIVERPOOL 0"Liverpool Kept in the running for the F.A. Cup and Football League double by taking a hard-won and lucky point off the leaders, Manchester United. Liverpool now displace Blackpool from second place, A brilliant display by Sidlow, the Welsh international goalkeeper, earned Liverpool their point. He stood firm against all the determined assaults of the United, who In the late stages threw every player except goalkeeper Crompton Into attack."
(Liverpool vs United Newspaper story from 1950).

The 1940s and early 1950s were overshadowed by wider austerity and domestic regrowth following the devastation of war. Both cities were heavily bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe and football became a symbol of recovery and solidarity. Such recovery would of course take time, but eventually life was restored and the rivalry was about to reach new heights. The two sides over the next 60 years would become English football's true superpowers.

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Yeats vs. Law

The most pivotal moment, at least for Liverpool was the arrival of Bill Shankly in December 1959. Prior to this, United under the leadership of former Reds star Matt Busby had begun to create a domestic stranglehold, winning the league title in 1956 & 1957 and entering European competition, only for it to be tragically cut short in Munich the following year. Liverpool were languishing in the Second Division and struggling to make any headway in their quest to rejoin football's elite. Shankly's appointment however prompted a rapid turnaround in fortune, as the club began to profit from his training methods and tactical nous. By 1968, Liverpool and United were well and truly forming the initial signs of a future dynasties as they title alternated between the two from 1964-67. It was United, however, who made the first continental success - winning the European Cup in 1968 - Best, Law and Stiles just three of the new found Mancunian heroes.

Image result for shankly and busby
Busby leads the way

Nevertheless, if Shankly's arrival had sparked a Merseyside revival in the 60s, Busby's departure in 1969 could be said to have had the opposite effect. This time, fortunes slipped as United began to lose star players and status. Domestic and European dominance is difficult in football, but Liverpool achieved it over the next two decades. Bill Shankly's successor, Bob Paisley turned the side from nearly men to untouchable champions, winning 6 league titles, 3 European Cups, 1 UEFA Cup and 3 League Cups in his 9-year tenure at Anfield. Of course, the North-West rivals would meet on many occasions - most notably the 1977 FA Cup Final (which United won 2-1) and the 1983 League Cup Final (which Liverpool won 2-1 a.e.t). Liverpool with players like Dalglish, Hansen, Souness and Rush at the disposal seemed unlikely to let any champion status slip from their grasp.

"My greatest challenge is not what's happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that."

The infamous quote from Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002. Some believed his idea as fantasy when arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, so much was Liverpool's domestic dominance in the 70s and 80s, but how right he would prove to be. Writing this as a Liverpool fan is never easy - but by 2011 Man United had superseded The Reds as the most successful team in England with their 19th Premier League title. Ferguson had brought a new superiority to the English game winning 13 titles from 1992-2013, a 21 year period in which their rivals failed to register a single league. The FA Cup final win the 1996 and later the treble victory in 1999 began to highlight a dramatic shift in power with Liverpool's only consolation sporadic victories like the 2003 Worthington Cup Final and the 4-1 demolition of the Red Devils at Old Trafford in 2009.

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Liverpool have come out on top in the most recent of games
But what of today? The past 5 or so seasons have seen both sides struggle domestically and see their matches often overshadowed by off-the-field stories such as the Suarez-Evra race row and the disgusting chanting from a minority of fans over the Hillsborough and Munich tragedies. However, recently, we saw something totally new to the rivalry - European competition. In the last 16 of the Europa League, Liverpool and Man United faced off for a place in the quarter-finals. Perhaps fittingly it was The Reds who came out on top - keeping in tone with their continental stranglehold over their North-West rivals.

So what should we expect on this weekend? The stage is set, with 'super-sub' Ole Gunnar Solskjaer taking charge after the pantomime villain of José Mourinho left the club following defeat to the reds in December. Manchester United vs Liverpool is, without doubt, Britain's most illustrious, intriguing and important rivalry. It proves that football is more than just the scorelines - moreover it is a symbol of culture, passion and local identity. On Sunday, banners, songs and flags will be displayed to highlight all of this - for 90 minutes all eyes will be on Anfield - does it get better than this? No chance!
Image result for Liverpool vs manchester united fight
More of the same?

*Northern Whig, 1931

By Ben Jones (Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J or @TFHBs)


T Hopkins said…
This post was very well written and informative. As a football fan from the Caribbean, I was unaware that the rivalry between the two clubs has more to it than just football. It is very interesting how external factors affect the performance of the player on the field. The pride and passion of wanting to win for the people and the city. At the same time, it is inspiring to know that rivalries were put aside during the Great War to face a the more supreme struggle. I will admit that both football clubs have seen their highs and lows over the years, at times dominating the league. Despite the off-the-field tragedies, the derby between the two clubs will always bring a unique, diverse battle on the field. I understand more so now, how football can be more than just the end result but a symbol of pride, culture and local identity.

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