“It’s just a match. It’s three points. When you are in a big club, when you are a big player, when you are a big manager, every game is important. Every match is a cup final.” – José Mourinho.
It is an interesting theory, one fitting with Mourinho’s detached managerial demeanour. Yet, when it comes to Liverpool versus United, the Portuguese coach could not be further off base. Mourinho’s assessment may be empirically true – Saturday’s game is worth just three points – but it is as emotionally distant as possible, and an argument with which supporters cannot relate. After all, United’s clash with Liverpool is always more than just a match. It remains England’s greatest game.
“It happened this season, an opposition player told me: ‘This match for us is like a cup final and I thought: ‘Pfft, why?’ Mourinho added. “You cannot look at some matches as cup finals and other matches differently. It’s three points not four. If we are at a moment in a season where the duel between the two teams ensures the result will mean more than three points, than yes. Sometimes a draw or even to lose by a certain goal difference is important. In this case, it is not important. It’s just a three-point match. That’s the way I approach it.”
Steeped in more than a century of inter-city competition, United versus Liverpool represents more than just competition on the pitch. Perhaps ignited by the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, which allowed Manchester’s merchants to avoid paying tolls in Liverpool, football’s great rivalry mirrors competition between two great cities.
"Do I like to go to Anfield? Yes, I love it. Do I like to play against Liverpool? Yes. I like amazing stadiums, the best opponents but the preparation is not different. It’s just a match."José Mourinho.
Indeed, United and Liverpool have exchanged championships since the early 1900s. Formed as Newton Heath in 1878, United was founded 14 years before Liverpool emerged in 1892. In the early years, cordiality spilled over into corruption, with four Liverpool players and three from Manchester banned for life after conspiring to fix a 1915 match. In 1958 Liverpool even offer United players after the Munich air disaster.
During the ’70s friendly competition turned to violence off the pitch, with rival firms fighting several infamous battles. In 1986 the United side was sprayed with tear gas by a Liverpool fan when the players stepped off the coach before a match at Anfield, and in 2006 Liverpool supporters allegedly rocked Alan Smith’s ambulance after the former Leeds United player had broken his leg – a claim the player denies. Then, in 2011, Luis Suarez was suspended for eight games after racially abusing Patrice Evra. To add yet more perspective to the rivalry, there hasn’t even been a transfer between the clubs since Phil Chisnall moved from United to Liverpool in 1964, although Gabriel Heinze tried to force a move to Anfield in the late-2000s.
On the pitch the rivalry intensified through the ’70s and ’80s, and with it the desire to beat the opposition from either end of the East Lancs Road. The two clubs were on a roughly equal footing in terms of league wins up to the ’70s, before Liverpool’s period of domestic and European domination took hold. The Merseysiders scored 11 First Division titles between United’s 1967 win and that of 1993, leaving the Manchester club to languish in relative domestic obscurity. Decline set in at Anfield during the ’90s and United has now romped to 13 Premier League titles without reply. Steven Gerrard finished his career without the trophy he so desperately desired, much to the delight of many at Old Trafford.
Yet, the two clubs are by far the most successful in England, between them winning 38 league titles, eight European Cups, 19 FA Cups, 13 League Cups, four UEFA Cups, four UEFA Super Cups, one FIFA Club World Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and 36 FA Community Shields.
The clubs are also unmatched for global reach, despite the spending at Manchester City and Chelsea over the past decade. The new rivals have leveraged the vast sovereign and personal wealth of Abu Dhabi and Roman Abramovich to build new overseas fanbases, but decades of glory ensures that it is George Best and Kenny Dalglish, Bobby Charlton and Ian Rush that remain global household names.
While the toxicity of the competition has eased over the past 20 years, especially as match-going audiences gentrified, it remains the game each supporter group is most desperate to win. The game has lost some intensity in terms of competitive rivalry, with Liverpool only rarely challenging United for the Premier League title, but none of its meaning.
“It’s the most important match of the domestic season to me,” says United We Stand editor Andy Mitten. “Plenty of United fans will say City are now our main rivals, especially since they have finally got their act together on the pitch, but only Liverpool come close to United’s global appeal.
“I used to be scared going to Anfield and nervous of speaking with a Manchester accent. We walked from the away coaches across Stanley Park and it felt exposed, a walk through no-man’s land waiting for an attack. In truth, it had calmed even by the ’90s. Now, there’s no issue.”
On Saturday, United will be favourites to take the points having started the new season so well, while Jurgen Klopp’s side continues to flounder two years after the German’s appointment.
“It’s good to do it without any added pressure or emotion,” adds Mourinho. “I have to do it always in a professional way. It’s the right example for my players to prepare for the Liverpool game. Do I like to go to Anfield? Yes, I love it. Do I like to play against Liverpool? Yes. I like amazing stadiums, the best opponents but the preparation is not different. It’s just a match.”
50,000 supporters on either side know something different.
In a league of their own. United 20 – 18 Liverpool, a pictorial history
United 0 – 2 Liverpool, 1901 and 1906
Liverpool’s rise from the second division culminated in a first Football League championship in the club’s history. Liverpool earned a second title in five years despite losing the opening four games of the season. The Merseysiders won the league impressively with two games to spare.
United 1 – 2 Liverpool, 1908
Led by the irrepressible Welshman Billy Meredith, who had earlier been signed from Manchester City, United secure a first Football League championship in 1908.
United 2 – 2 Liverpool, 1911
This was a second Football League championship for manager Ernest Mangnall, who would defect to neighbours City a year later. He is the only man to have managed both City and United.
United 2 – 4 Liverpool, 1922 and 1923
Two championships in succession for Liverpool, with the Merseyside club winning in 1922 by six points. United finished last in the first division and suffered relegation. Liverpool romped to a fourth English crown in 1923, winning the first division by six points. Meanwhile United failed to earn promotion from the second division.
United 2 – 5 Liverpool, 1947
Led by Scottish inside-forward Billy Liddell, Liverpool won the club’s first postwar championship by a single point from United. Liddel went on to score more than 200 goals for the Anfield club.
United 3 – 5 Liverpool, 1952
This was Matt Busby’s first championship, with giant defender Bill Foulkes leading United to triumph. The Englishman played more than 600 games for the club and would later survive Munich.
United 5 -5 Liverpool, 1956, 1957
Busby’s second championship came as the ‘Babes’ flourished, with Tommy Taylor leading the strikeforce. United also ventured into Europe, a decision that would shape a club and spawn a dream. In 1957 the side secured back-to-back title wins. Dublin-born inside forward Billy Whelan scored the goals to secure title. ‘Liam’ would die at Munich aged just 22 having scored more than 50 goals for the club.
United 5 – 6 Liverpool, 1964
Bill Shankley’s Liverpool beat United to the title by four points in 1964. In an open race, the Merseysiders lost 11 games to United’s 12. Shankley would win two further championships as one of the club’s longest-serving managers.
United 6 – 6 Liverpool, 1965
Denis Law scored the goals to take the title back to Old Trafford. Law scored 237 goals in 404 games for United before joining City in 1973.
United 6 – 7 Liverpool, 1966
Liverpool took the First Division trophy back down the East Lancs Road the following year, with United 10 points behind the Merseysiders. Remarkably, Liverpool won the title with only 14 squad players.
United 7 – 7 Liverpool, 1967
Law scored 25 goals as United return the title to its rightful home at Old Trafford. It would be United’s last English championship for 26 years as Liverpool came to dominate the domestic and European game.
United 7 – 18 Liverpool, 1973 to 1991
Shankley’s last title in ’73 was the first of 11 Liverpool titles before United returned to the top of the English game. The ’76 title proved a first major trophy under Bob Paisley, with Liverpool narrowly beating Queens Park Rangers to the title. Paisley won the first of what would prove to be three European cups in ’77. Meanwhile, United sacked Tommy Docherty in ’77 for having an illicit affair with the club doctor’s wife. Liverpool regained the trophy in 1979 as United lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final.
The ’80s were a period of Liverpool dominance. The Anfield club won six First Division titles and two European cups. United enjoyed a good record in the domestic cups, but second best was always hard to take. The first season of the ’90s brought last of Liverpool’s championships before decline set in. The Merseysiders, still led by Kenny Dalglish, beat Aston Villa into second place, with United engaged in a relegation battle for much of the season.
United 8 – 18 Liverpool, 1993
Hallelujah! United reached the promised land once again after 26 long years. Ferguson’s side won the title without kicking a ball, but in truth Steve Bruce’s two injury-time goals to beat Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in April 1993 proved the catalyst.
United 9 – 18 Liverpool, 1994
This was one of United’s toughest ever sides, led by the irrepressible Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes strike pairing. The side won the first double in the club’s history, beating Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final.
United 12 – 18 Liverpool, 1996-99
United’s domestic dominance in the mid-to-late 1990s was broken only by Cantona’s suspension in ’95, which enabled Blackburn Rovers to win the Premier League, and ’98 when Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford. Liverpool, meanwhile, hired and fired Graeme Souness and Roy Evans. The decade ended with United winning an historic League, FA Cup and European Cup treble; a feat Liverpool has never achieved.
United 15 – 18 Liverpool, 2000-03
United’s dominance of the English game continued unabated into the new decade, with Ferguson’s side winning by huge margins in 2000 and 2001. Under Gerard Houlier the Merseysiders achieved something of a renaissance in the cup competitions, although Arsenal provided United’s main domestic competition.
United 18 – 18 Liverpool, 2007-09
Mourinho’s introduction at Chelsea, together with Abramovich’s petro-billions, wrested control of the Premier League to London. But led by a new wave of attacking talent – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez – United won three Premier League titles back-to-back and then the European Cup in 2008.
United 19 – 18 Liverpool, 2011
Liverpool, knocked off their fucking perch at long, long last. For the first time in the history of these two great clubs, United moved ahead on league titles won.
United 20 – 18 Liverpool, 2013
Fergie’s last hurrah. Led by the irrepressible Robin van Persie, United stormed to a 20th league title – it would be the last for some time.