In late September Liverpool squared off against Manchester United at Anfield. It wasn’t just the first match of the season between the bitter rivals, but marked the first match since British Prime Minister David Cameron exonerated Liverpool fans of blame for the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster. There wasn’t a lack of bite to the match, but with the announcement earlier in the week, a touch of empathy mixed with the passion of the rivalry in honor of the 96 fans that died.
A rivalry fueled by history, tragedy and success. Liverpool-United. Separated by just 30 miles in the northwest of England, Liverpool and Manchester United have battled for dominance of both English and world football since the early 1950’s, with the Munich Air and Hillsborough Stadium disasters injecting unparalleled passion to one of the classic rivalries in world sport.
“It’s probably the most famous fixture in English Football,” claims United’s longest serving player Ryan Giggs.
While the rivalry has played out in the confines of Anfield, Old Trafford, and Wembley, ill feelings began prior to the break of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution turned Liverpool into a major seaport, with much of its imported product moving onto Manchester via train. The digging of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 changed all that, allowing ships to bypass Liverpool and transport directly to Manchester. The result was a bustling port in Manchester and unhappy Liverpudlians looking for jobs. As the 1900’s wore on, football became ingrained in English culture and exacerbated the rivalry between the cities. Liverpool-United was born.
Rivalry on the football pitch sprouted in 1945, as Matt Busby took the helm at United and built the club through the youth system. The “Busby Babes” burst on the scene by the early 50’s and United began the first stretch of dominance in the rivalry. Including the likes of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards, the Babes won consecutive league titles in 1956 and 1957, with an average age of 21 and 22 respectively.
In 1958, with United on its way to glory again, tragedy struck in Munich. They secured a second consecutive European Cup semifinal berth with victory over Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia, but United’s plane crashed off the runway on the return flight home, killing 23 people, including eight players and three club officials.
“It was a nightmare. It was just a nightmare,” said Sir Bobby Charlton years later. Just 20 years old at the time of the accident, and one of 21 survivors on the flight, he would recover and go on to become one of the best footballers England has ever seen.
Badly injured, Busby remained in the hospital for nine weeks, twice receiving his Last Rites, but eventually returned home to begin the rebuilding process at United. Dennis Law and George Best, along with Charlton, amazingly led Manchester United to an FA Cup in ’63 and League titles in ’65 and ’67. In 1968, ten years after the tragic accident that ravaged the club, Manchester United won their first European Cup.
While Busby was rebuilding a club from tragedy and winning the European Cup, just down the road Liverpool was emerging under the guidance of Bill Shankly. They won the League in ’64, their first FA Cup in ’65, and in 1972 won the League and the UEFA Cup. By this time Busby had departed and United had faded into relative mediocrity, leaving United fans pondering the success of their biggest rival.
It was now Liverpool’s turn to dominate the football world, and dominate they would. Shankly handed the reigns to Bob Paisley, who in the next nine seasons would rake in 21 trophies, including three European Cups, one UEFA Cup, six League titles, and three consecutive League Cups. Liverpool took Manchester United’s dominance of the 50’s and 60’s and trumped them, showing true supremacy in the 70’s.
Before retiring in 1983, Paisley raised every trophy aside from the FA Cup. In 1977 his best chance came, but it was United winning 2-1, stealing the FA Cup final against all odds. It wasn’t just United’s only trophy of the ‘70s, but it kept Liverpool from the elusive Treble as they went on to win the League and the European Cup.
As Liverpool established world football dominance, up the M62 United’s fan base became restless. Many believe the success of Liverpool in the 70’s and 80’s brewed the hatred in United supporters and fueled the rivalry to new levels.
“From their part there was a great deal of animosity towards us,” says Graham Souness, a Liverpool player from ’77-’84, who later managed the Reds from 1991-1994. “Because here Manchester United had been this big football club 50’s and 60’s and then really it was Liverpool late 60’s 70’s and the 80’s that had taken over and there was a fair amount of animosity amongst the supporters,”
While animosity grew amongst United supporters, Liverpool fans simultaneously became begrudged. Despite Liverpool’s incomparable success, Manchester United was still seen as the bigger of the two clubs and this didn’t sit well with the Scousers.
“Manchester United, they’ve always been the glamour club haven’t they,” said David Meek of the Manchester Evening News. “And Liverpool hated them for being glamorous.”
“Liverpool were by mile a more successful club, not just in this country, but in Europe,” said Dave Prentice of the Liverpool Daily Post. “Yet their supporters always perceived that the media focused more on Manchester United. United were believed to have a bit more charisma as a football club if you like.”
Liverpool continued its dominance into the 80’s, winning an additional two European Cups, five League titles, four League Cups, and an FA Cup in 1989. But that FA Cup run of 1989 would include the greatest football tragedy our world had seen in the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster.
On April 15th, 1989, 25,000 Liverpool fans travelled to Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield for the FA Cup Semifinal against Nottingham Forest. Overcrowding at the stadium led to a massive crush on two terraces assigned to Liverpool supporters and 96 would perish that day, with an additional 766 suffering serious injury.
“The tragedy of Hillsborough has brought Liverpool to its knees,” said Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool. “Not in defeat, but in prayer.”
While Liverpool would go onto to win the FA Cup that year, it was the beginning of their demise as world football giants, and some believe the club never fully recovered.
“It was horrible,” says former Irish international Fran O’Brien. “Liverpool has never been the same as a football club.”
As Liverpool dominated the 80’s, intensifying ill feelings from United supporters, a manager named Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986. His goal wasn’t to win European glory, an FA Cup, or even a League title.
“My target is to get ahead of Liverpool,” said Ferguson at his first press conference as United manager.
To “get ahead of Liverpool”, United turned to another group of young players- “Fergie’s Fledglings”. By the mid ‘90’s, as memory of Liverpool dominance faded, it was United that was on the rise again behind the likes of youngsters Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville.
It seemed all too familiar for Liverpool fans. United shelved five League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, and a European Cup in the ‘90’s, much as Liverpool had in the 70’s and 80’s. Adding insult to injury, United had done it with youth once again, just as Matt Busby had when he started the bitter rivalry in the 50’s and 60’s.
United put their final stamp on the 20th century by winning the treble in 1999, a run that included an improbable 4th Round FA Cup victory over Liverpool at Anfield. After stealing the treble from Liverpool in 1977, United wouldn’t relinquish the opportunity to make history in 1999. Not to Liverpool.
Down 1-0, an equalizer from Dwight Yorke just two minutes from time set up an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer winner in injury time. Liverpool fans seethed at a missed opportunity to slow down United’s dominance, something they once enjoyed. United would go onto win the European Cup in fantastic fashion weeks later, defeating Bayern Munich with another injury time winner from Solskjaer
The 2000’s have seen the rivalry continue to grow, with United dominating and Liverpool finding it difficult to re-establish themselves as a top club. Aside from a short resurgence that produced a record 5th European Cup in 2005, life at Anfield has proven frustrating, propelling this rivalry to the next generation of supporters.
Last season Liverpool’s Luis Suarez threw a new can of gas on the fire. Accused and convicted of the racial abuse of United’s Patrice Evra, in his first match back after serving an eight-match, he refused to shake Evra’s hand during pre-game introductions. Any belief that the Liverpool-United rivalry was loosing momentum disappeared.
History, tragedy, and success have outlined Liverpool-United for the past 65 years, providing supporters with enough ammunition to keep this great rivalry steaming ahead. Between them over 80 trophies, two tragedies, and decades of dominance. This is Liverpool–United.