Manchester United and Liverpool – England’s two biggest clubs by a distance are no longer England’s two dominant clubs.
No teams have come close to the north west giants from neighbouring cities in terms of titles, no English team has the ability to sell out a friendly game in Michigan or Melbourne to crowds of 100,000 and none has come close to their haul of European Cups (5-3 in Liverpool’s favour).
But they’ve both been eclipsed by the money from a Russian oligarch and a sovereign state wealth fund. Liverpool lost their best young player to Manchester City this summer, United shed half their team in another summer of intense transfer activity as they seek to re-establish their hegemony back at the top and add to those 20 titles.
United fans are backing Louis van Gaal and they’ll be patient. But they’re not impressed by the standard of football and lack of goals from the team ahead of a fixture that runs deep in the psyche of both sets of supporters.
But performances have so far underwhelmed – and that sets the mood in the stands.
Just two seasons ago I witnessed one of the most bizarre scenes in Manchester United’s history.
Losing 0-2 at home to Liverpool in March 2013, United fans began to rise and sing ‘20 times’ louder and louder. If it wasn’t bad enough, Steven Gerrard had scored the first two Liverpool goals. It got even worse when Luis Suarez, the most despised opposition player, scored Liverpool’s third after 86 minutes.
United were being humiliated by their biggest rivals, yet chose the moment to celebrate their recent historical hegemony over them in the most vociferous manner possible. The then manager, David Moyes, couldn’t believe it, yet he also felt terrible for his team not being able to deliver on the pitch.
United fans’ memories stretch back long before the Moyes’ era. They remembered the ‘Have you ever seen United win the league?’ banner baiting them from Anfield’s Kemlyn Road in April 1992 as United’s title challenge collapsed.
They didn’t win it in 1992, but after a 26-year wait they won it in 1993 (above). And 1994. And 1996. Plus ’97, ’99, ’00, ’01, ’03, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’11 and 2013. In doing so they surged past Liverpool’s seemingly insurmountable 18-title haul. ‘Come back when you’ve won 18!’ taunted another flag in 1994. A couple of United fans did just that, sneaking a ‘MUFC 19 Times’ flag into Anfield and unfurling it from the home end. Two years later, it was 20 times.
Liverpool on the other hand, have not won the league title since 1990. That sentence brings as much joy to United fans as it does pain to Liverpool’s. The Merseysiders had their great chance in 2013/14 but blew it and are unlikely to win the Premier League any time soon.
As Reds’ legend Jamie Carragher told me a few months ago:
I don’t look at Liverpool and think, ‘There’s a title team coming in the next two or three years. I think Liverpool will be in regular battles to get in the top four.
It was a missed opportunity rued. We had the best player in the league by a mile and he was one of the best players in the world. Still is. We had no European football that year either. United had Moyes; it was Mourinho’s first year. So many opportunities there for Liverpool and we missed it.
Liverpool failed, but United hardly surged back from their struggles – despite doing the double over their bitterest rivals in Van Gaal’s first season in charge last term. And the faithful have reason to be optimistic ahead of Saturday’s home tie.
Goalkeeper David de Gea, (below) who maintains that he was always ready and willing to play for United, is expected to return to United’s first XI after his move to Real Madrid fell through. He can now focus on the season ahead with United and the remaining 34 league games which they are due to play and was fit enough to play in Spain’s win in Macedonia on Tuesday.
New singing Anthony Martial, the most expensive teenager in football history in a transfer which could cost £58 million, will be available and will benefit from the surge in enthusiasm which greets every new signing. Even Ralph Milne, who sadly passed away earlier in the week aged 54, was welcomed and encouraged by Reds when he arrived from Bristol City in 1989, even though they were baffled why a club with title aspirations were signing a 27-year-old from a third division club for £170,000.
Fans hope that lead striker Wayne Rooney can continue the high he’s on after breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s England scoring record with goals in consecutive games for his country, by scoring his first league goal of the season for his club.
Rooney hasn’t just looked a frustrated figure on the pitch; he is a frustrated figure playing in a system about which players are yet to be convinced. Wins can change that.
Van Gaal fully intends to use Martial along with another newbie Memphis Depay. In them, United have two of the most exciting young attackers from Europe last season. They came on big money; but the players don’t decide their transfer fees.
The club firmly believe that a player will be sold for £200 million within the next five years and if both excel as United hope, one of them could be worth that astronomical amounts.
The Dutch and French attackers have been bought for the first team and will be expected to make a difference in a side which is now struggling for goals and an identity after years of being England’s best.
Van Gaal (above) is open and likes to discuss the issues which crop up among a group of 25 men competing for 11 places in a football team. There are positives and negatives every day.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, who cost just £6.5 million from Bayern Munich and not the £15 million widely reported, is training really well and is already hugely popular.
The ingredients for success are there and the nonsense of the transfer window will slip away into the background.
If United beat Liverpool on Saturday 5.30pm, the mood will be lifted considerably and LVG will be able to breathe more easily.