By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
Manchester United versus Liverpool.
If you’ve paid nearly £2 billion for the TV rights, you can feel free to hype it up as a meeting of England’s fiercest rivals. If you haven’t, you can choose to see it as the league leaders welcoming another mid-table side to Old Trafford. It drips in history and passion, but it’s status and worth in recent seasons has been questioned, thanks in part to a slump at Anfield and the emergence of rivals closer to home for United.
The contrasting fortunes of both teams in the last couple of decades can be traced via the medium of Sir Alex Ferguson snide remarks. When the Anfield club were top of the tree or a potential threat to his team, Fergie upped the caustic and maintained frosty relations with his friends down the M62. When Liverpool where still smugly sitting atop their perch and for parts of the Benitez area, the stream of disdain emanating from Fergie was refreshing – a sign that the Reds were a genuine title rivals and the Spaniard had got under the Dark Lord’s rhinoceros-thick hide.
After a few seasons of suspect managerial appointments and even more suspect transfer signings, the threat has waned and the comments have become more conciliatory. Frustratingly so if you’re hoping that the Reds might shortly emerge from their title drought. Now each complimentary word he utters seems to come with a raspberry and the subtle implication that Liverpool are about as threatening as sleepy kitten. The Paddy Power Blog has looked at how Fergie’s anger towards Liverpool has ebbed and flowed over the years.
It began not long into Fergie’s career of angry watch-tapping on the United sideline. It’s the late 80s and things are very different. Liverpool were the dominant force in England, having 14 pints the night before an important game was still called ‘team-bonding’ and not yet ‘alcoholism’ and fathers still needed to lock up their daughters for fear of them being seduced by the rampantly heterosexual George Michael.
After United secured a 3-3 draw on Merseyside that the manager clearly could have been more had the officials been less influenced by the home support, Fergie served up an angry comment that now looks like pure ‘irony in making’
A lot of managers have to leave here [Anfield] choking on their own sick.
12 months later, the Reds appeared all set to maintain their place as top dogs. The dominance looks set to continue as all they need to do is avoid losing by two goals at home to Arsenal. The final day drama of that night went largely unchallenged until the exploits of United’s noisy neighbours last May. Having suffered the tragedy of Hillsborough only weeks before, Ferguson might be forgiven for showing a touch of sentimentality towards his rivals, but it wasn’t an issue as he later recounted his reaction to the late Michael Thomas goal that snatched the title for the Gunners.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted in my life to see someone score a goal. You have to bear in mind that I had a fear of Liverpool when I came down [from Scotland]
For Liverpool, most of the 90s was a whirl of underperformance and white suits. Rarely in the decade did the Reds look likely to challenge United towards the top of the table and despite some cracking matches between the teams, what’s at stake is rarely more than bragging rights. It’s neatly summarised by the Gerard Houllier era. Although the Frenchman – who’s greatest skill seemed to be taking credit for France’s 1998 World Cup win – put together a run of five victories in a row over United, the Anfield club don’t look capable of truly challenging arguably the strongest team Fergie had assembled during his reign. The lack of threat could be summed up by an annoyingly cordial relationship between Ferguson and Houllier, one which Houllier summed up by saying:
Alex and I always got on well. He even told me he was gutted that I didn’t get Manager of the Year the season we won all the trophies.
Houllier gets nudged out the door at the end of the 2004 season and Rafa Benitez arrives. Despite some initial cup successes, turning the Reds into title contenders is proving more difficult. That changes around 2008 when Liverpool establish a lead at the top of the table and look capable of going all the way. The turning point is Rafa’s infamous ‘facts’ rant. The questions he asks of Ferguson’s undue influence on referees are valid, but his argument is undermined by the ‘amateur conspiracy theorists’ manner in which he delivered them. Whether it’s through genuine fear or annoyance, Fergie gives it short shrift, giving a vicious critique of the Spaniard’s actions:
I think he was an angry man. He must have been disturbed for some reason. I think you have got to cut through the venom of it and hopefully he’ll reflect and understand what he said was absolutely ridiculous.
Progress under Benitez stalls not long after and Liverpool’s chances of winning that elusive league title all but disappear. Rebuilding under the good Yanks who took over from the nasty Yanks is the order of the day and the fact that he signed Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen is a clear indication Roy Hodgson isn’t cut out for the job. Kenny Dalglish is the shock choice to replace him and the immediate impact is encouraging although not threatening from an Old Trafford point of view. Despite apparently having a ‘beef’ with Dalglish dating back to the 80s, Fergie plays the diplomat and praises the appointment:
Kenny Dalglish – He is what the fans wanted and there has been an improvement
The ‘improvement’ looks to be short-lived and King Kenny is dethroned in favour of Brendan Rodgers. At this stage, the targets are spoken of as European qualification rather than league titles. For Fergie, he worries about Liverpool about as much as he worries about the coastal erosion of Alaska. He does reserve some ire for Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan refuses to shake Patrice Evra’s hand in the aftermath of the racism row that engulfed the clubs, but his criticism is carefully and deliberately targeted at the player rather than the club.
Suarez is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club. He should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. He could have caused a riot.
There’s a fear of residual animosity when the two sides meet in September of that year, but rather than needing to stoke the fire, Sir Alex heaps the praise on the Liverpool support. In the build-up, he goes against the perceived grain by saying he tends to get a bit of love on his trips to Anfield.
When I’ve been to Liverpool over the past few years to watch games they’ve been brilliant to me, the fans. They are joking and that kind of thing. I don’t get a bit of abuse. Different from when I go to Leeds!