James Lawton: High noon at Anfield is latest chapter of history in the making

As Liverpool and Manchester United resume hostilities in the FA Cup, James Lawton celebrates a great rivalry while (opposite) two players from the 1977 final recall a pulsating encounter
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Or, perhaps, when you think of the past and then what the future might bring, is it brimming with the kind of quality claret Sir Alex Ferguson hoards away in the cellar of his Cheshire mansion or the fine Rioja Rafa Benitez has been known to savour in moments of triumph?

Such a perspective is not so easy in an age when money, always important, has never counted for so much - when Real Madrid can be proud of becoming the richest club in the world at one of the bleakest points in their competitive history and United and Liverpool struggle to compete with the new power of Chelsea.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to take a step back and see a broader picture.

Today, at Anfield, is such a day. Even though Jose Mourinho speaks of himself, with dubious irony, as the "Special One", and Chelsea contemplate a dynasty founded on the wealth of Roman Abramovich, the collision of Liverpool and United does surely offer a truth that flies, no, soars, beyond the current distribution of points in the Premiership.

In this week of the 10th anniversary of the death of Bob Paisley, winner of three European Cups and six titles and who would no more have announced himself special as he would have pushed to succeed his friend Bill Shankly, it is a body of fact that roars out of football history. Not ancient history. Living, vibrant history; the history of magnificent players and extraordinary deeds; the history of yesterday, sure, but also perhaps tomorrow.

Liverpool, after all, are reigning champions of Europe and rebuilding some of their old aura, and if a chill wind has blown through Old Trafford in the last year or so, it just happens that they won their last game against Chelsea and in Wayne Rooney, alone, they have announced their belief that in ambition they remain the club of clubs.

While Chelsea paid £24m for Michael Essien and £21m for Shaun Wright-Phillips, United invested, relatively speaking, a little more for Rooney. Why? Because he was there, a young, great player and so where else would he go? For United, Rooney was simply a natural dimension, a talent to embrace and place alongside the great ones of the past.

Nobody is saying that Liverpool and Manchester United do not currently occupy the shadows of Chelsea, that the cycle of football has not brought an ultimate challenge in the wealth of Abramovich and the skill of Mourinho, but as they play against each other today it is impossible not to acknowledge the weight of their achievements, to wonder how many years it will take the empire of Stamford Bridge even to begin to brush against their stature.

What we have at Anfield is more than a round of an FA Cup which has become a moveable feast, a trophy of convenience. We have a celebration of that which has most distinguished English football in and around the 50 years book-ended by Chelsea's title wins.

The roll call of glory is stunning and almost perfectly balanced. United: 13 titles, five under Sir Matt Busby, 11 FA Cups and two European Cups - and the Munich crash, the one that wiped out a young team that some still swear was the best ever assembled in Europe. Liverpool: 13 titles, six FA Cups, five European Cups. This is more than the itemisation of success. It is the essential story of post-war English football. It transcends the barricades of partisan support. It laps over brilliant teams like the Spurs of Nicholson, the Leeds of Revie, the Nottingham Forest of Clough.

Paisley's biographer John Keith, in his Manager of the Millennium, quotes Clough on the meaning of the man who as a boy scuffled on colliery tips to make fuel out of coaldust and water, and had some of his best meals in a local soup kitchen, "How did he follow Shankly? I once asked the late Eric Morecambe how he followed the likes of George Burns and Bob Hope. He replied, 'With difficulty'. Bob Paisley conquered the same problem."

Paisley's genius was continuity; when Kevin Keegan moved to Germany, Kenny Dalglish was installed, along with Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen. When Busby lost his Munich team, he nurtured Bobby Charlton, signed Denis Law, and found George Best. When Ferguson saw that Bryan Robson was dwindling, he signed Roy Keane, the warrior soul of his team. He saw something in Eric Cantona that others didn't. He had the option of youth, and he took it, against the contention of many, led by the superpundit Hansen, who declared that you don't win titles with kids. And then, after the European Cup had been gathered in and there were fears that the cycle was broken, he insisted on having Rooney. It was his statement that United would retain some hold on greatness.

Benitez is not so many strides down the road, but his own portfolio is already touched with more than a little grandeur: two Spanish titles, the Uefa Cup, the Champions' League and a Liverpool re-formed and awaiting only, perhaps, the kind of uplifting scoring edge that Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy promise United.

The invitation to both sets of fans, who will be tightly policed on the grounds that just as their teams tend to bring the best out of each other it is often the opposite on the terraces, is to rise up in pride. If you support either Liverpool or United, surely you can afford to take the position of the great baseball slugger Joe Di Maggio when he welcomed home his wife Marilyn Monroe from a triumphant tour of American bases in the Far East.

"Oh, Joe," she said, "you never heard such cheers." And Di Maggio, quietly, said, "Yes, I did."

Did, when we think about it, any ground know cheers like the ones that thundered at Anfield less than a year ago, when Liverpool set their sights on a fifth European Cup? Ian St John, one of the founders of the Shankly tradition, was there and he said, "It was an extraordinary feeling. It was like reaching back into the past, feeling again all those things that you thought had gone forever. You just felt so proud that down all the years, something you had helped to create, was still alive. You saw a lad like Jamie Carragher playing out of his skin, and you thought, 'That's a real Liverpool player - he knows what he is representing'."

We also know what Rooney represents today as he goes back to his roots. It is a pride in performance, and his shirt, that in his own rough way is as fierce as any of that displayed by great predecessors like Charlton, Law and Best.

John Anderson, aged 84, one of only three survivors from the great United FA Cup-winning team of 1948 says of Rooney, "To be honest, I don't enjoy all the football I see on the television, I hate the holding and the diving, but I always love to see that lad play. He is brilliant in his talent and his attitude, he wants to succeed so much. When you have a player like that, you always believe you can do anything."

At 20 Rooney has rather a pressing obligation. It is to shake off that great weight of United history and win a first trophy of his own.

One certainty today is the level of passion; no need here for the committee to generate atmosphere recently proposed at Stamford Bridge by Abramovich. United's captain, Gary Neville, displayed it to a fault three weeks ago when his team-mate headed a late winner at Old Trafford. His triumphant breast-beating struck a thin note when set against the glories of the past and, though Ferguson inevitably defended his captain, such provocations are likely to be discouraged before kick- off.

There is little need to stoke motivation. Bill Shankly, always a man to hurry along history, put up the sign above the players' tunnel which proclaims: 'This is Anfield'. It was intended as a small piece of workaday intimidation. Now it is poignantly irrelevant. At high noon you just wouldn't be able to mistake the ground for anywhere else on the football planet. It is what happens when certain football men have the force to make history live.

Cup collisions Man Utd v Liverpool

* FA CUP RECORD

Man United Wins 8

Liverpool Wins 2

Draws 4

* 12 Feb 1898 Second Round

Man Utd 0-0 Liverpool

* 16 Feb 1898 Replay

Liverpool 2-1 Man Utd

* 7 Feb 1903 First Round

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

* 8 Jan 1921 First Round

Liverpool 1-1 Man Utd

* 12 Jan 1921 Replay

Man Utd 1-2 Liverpool

* 24 Jan 1948 Fourth Round

Man Utd 3-0 Liverpool

* 30 Jan 1960 Fourth Round

Liverpool 1-3 Man Utd

* 21 May 1977 Final

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

* 31 March 1979 Semi-final

Man Utd 2-2 Liverpool

* 4 April 1979 Replay

Man Utd 1-0 Liverpool

* 13 April 1985 Semi-final

Man Utd 2-2 Liverpool

* 17 April 1985 Replay

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

* 11 May 1996 Final

Man Utd 1-0 Liverpool

* 24 Jan 1999 Fourth Round

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

* LEAGUE CUP RECORD

Man Utd Wins 1

Liverpool Wins 3

* 26 March 1983 Final

Liverpool 2-1 Man Utd

* 26 Nov 1985 Fourth Round

Liverpool 2-1 Man Utd

* 31 Oct 1990 Third Round

Man Utd 3-1 Liverpool

* 2 March 2003 Final

Liverpool 2-0 Man Utd

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