by Charles Brody – When the two giants of English football meet, the world stands still to watch. Manchester United and Liverpool, the country’s two most successful clubs by some distance, have etched their names into history with a rivalry that has defined England’s top flight for the last six decades.
Lying a mere 30 miles apart in the Northwest of England, Liverpool and Manchester have harbored a certain animosity dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Liverpool’s proximity to the sea brought a booming economy, but Manchester dealt a blow to their neighbor’s prosperity by building what was at the time the world’s largest shipping canal. The first football match between the two came the following year, but the rivalry didn’t heat up until the two clubs began to dominate the English game.
The 1950s saw Manchester United do just that, with Matt Busby’s “Babes” winning two consecutive league titles featuring a home-grown side with an average age of just over 20. Including such greats as Sir Bobby Charlton, the team was surely destined for further greatness until the Munich air disaster in 1958 claimed the lives of eight of their players. Busby would secure legendary status by rebuilding a shattered team to become champions of Europe a decade later.
As the two clubs traded titles back and forth in the 1960s, the rivalry became firmly established, as evidenced by the fact that Phil Chisnall’s 1964 transfer would be the last bit of business ever done directly between the two clubs. Manchester United’s seven head-to-head league wins to Liverpool’s six during that decade show the parity that existed during that time, but soon fortunes would take a dramatic turn in favor of the Merseyside club. Matt Busby accomplished the impossible with United’s 1968 European title, but the club would have to wait 26 years for their next league trophy.
Liverpool were the undisputed kings at home and abroad from 1968-1990, winning 11 league titles and four European crowns, the most of any team in that period. Iconic managers Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley built a foundation that yielded trophies well into the 1980s, while successor and player-manager Kenny Dalglish continued to rake in the silverware despite the specter of two stadium disasters.
That period also featured some of the most memorable games in Liverpool – Manchester United history. United were content to play spoiler in the 1977 FA Cup Final, pulling off a 2-1 upset over a heavily favored Liverpool team destined for a famous treble. Who could forget Ronnie Whelan’s glorious curler for Liverpool to snatch the 1983 League Cup Final from Manchester? Bryan Robson’s 35-yarder in the 1985 FA Cup Semis wasn’t bad either. And Liverpool fans will never forgive Gordon Strachan’s infamous “cigar” celebration in front of the Kop after sealing United’s 1988 comeback from 3-0 at Anfield, a sign of things to come.
As hooliganism increased in the 1970s the rivalry intensified, and a tradition was born of nasty incidents between supporters and players, peaking with the tear gas attack on United’s bus by Liverpool fans in 1986. Coincidentally that was the year that Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford, which proved the turning point in the history of England’s mightiest teams.
Sir Alex’s attitude toward Liverpool is summed up by the following famous quote: “…my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool off their f*****g perch.” The Scottish manager came to the helm during the club’s greatest trophy drought in history, and the team to beat was Liverpool. Ferguson set his sights and starting in the 1990 season produced a complete reversal in the standing of the two clubs. Liverpool have yet to win a title since that year, while United have amassed 13 league wins and two European Cups, as Sir Alex established United as one of the world’s greatest clubs with a series of star-studded teams including the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo (and that’s just number 7s).
The 1990s included some of the most infamous and dramatic matches of the Northwest rivalry. Liverpool completed a shocking comeback from 3-0 in 1994, and the following year United’s always inflammatory and controversial Eric Cantona’s penalty rescued a 2-2 draw. Later that season, the 1996 FA Cup Final produced arguably the most fascinating match ever between the sides. It was Cantona again who produced the heroics late on, with a stunning 85th minute volley that flew improbably through a forest of bodies to clinch the double for United. However, the seeds of hooliganism sown in the 1970s resurfaced as Liverpool fans spat at Cantona and aimed a punch at Sir Alex as United proceeded to collect the trophy. Late comebacks cropped up again in United’s 1999 treble campaign, as Liverpool fell victim in the FA Cup to 85th and 90th minute goals that overturned a 1-0 lead to send the Reds packing.
Manchester United’s dominance meant that it was Liverpool’s turn to settle for small victories. Danny Murphy’s free-kick beat United in 2000, but Sir Alex’s side won the league. Steven Gerrard created an instant classic by kissing the camera after sending Liverpool on their way to a 4-1 win in 2009, their largest ever at Old Trafford. In 2003 fan favorites Gerrard and Michael Owen scored to beat United in the League Cup Final.
But in recent years the headlines have mostly read like this: John O’Shea nets late winner against Liverpool to send United on their way to the title in 2007. Dimitar Berbatov’s stunning overhead kick completes his hat-trick in United’s 3-2 win over Liverpool. United overtake their rivals Liverpool for most English league wins.
All in all, Liverpool still edge United on total honors, 44 to 42. Manchester United have 77 head-to-head wins, to Liverpool’s 64. And there is still no love lost between the two. In a 2006 FA Cup match at Anfield, foreign objects were thrown at Manchester United players, including excrement. In 2011, Manchester United fans were ejected for sick chants about the Hillsborough and Heysel stadium disasters. And wherever you stand on the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra fiasco of 2011-2012, there’s no doubt it added fuel to the fire of this famous rivalry.
Pele compared it to El Clasico. Ryan Giggs called it England’s “most famous fixture.” It’s the big one. And wherever you are, history suggests it’s worthwhile to take notice when the two Red greats of the English game collide.