Liverpool and Manchester United: A feud too far

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Healthy rivalry and a now-forgotten tradition of mutual aid was destroyed by the bitter fan hatred of the 1980s

"Men's minds were very much still on the Munich tragedy and the hush which descended on this so boisterous ground when the black-armbanded players lined up for two minutes' silence was almost uncanny."

Liverpool Daily Post, Liverpool v Charlton, Anfield, 10 February 1958.

Atwo-minute period of silence, immaculately observed. How completely the world of football support has turned in the 54 years since a packed Anfield paused for what, in this era of the minute's applause, seems like an interminably long period of quiet contemplation.

Yet the silence is not the only difference between that weekend and the one which will send Manchester United travelling the 34 miles to Anfield tomorrow, holding their breath in desperate hope that the chants and the rivalry which are written in blood will cease for a day, in the memory of the 96 lives lost at Hillsborough. The impression given by Sir Alex Ferguson is that the venom and the toxicity has always been like this, ever since Manchester built the ship canal which helped see off Liverpool 's ocean-going trade. "Geographically, historically", this was meant to be, Ferguson said three years ago.

Well, it has not – by any means – always been like this and the evidence of the fact reaches well into recent history, way beyond the one indelible fact which you might say joins Liverpool and Manchester United at the hip. That fact being that, Frederick Attock, the 36-year-old carriage and wagons work superintendent who was the first president and secretary of the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Club – the original Manchester United – was born in Liverpool .

That particular gem, unearthed by Manchester football historian Gary James, belongs to a story of coexistence and healthy rivalry which runs against the easy, lazy narrative about mutual loathing and which held firm until the mid-1980s, since when there really has been no going back.

No denying it – there always has been that indisputable tension, which has ensured that Phil Chisnall, who left Old Trafford for Anfield in 1964 remains the last player to be transferred directly between the clubs. But transfer market traffic can't disguise the extraordinary force for good in Anfield history which Sir Matt Busby, one-time Liverpool captain, proved to be.

There is a historical case to be made that without Busby the whole Bill Shankly "matter of life or death" business, which propelled Liverpool to the top and defined them, might never have happened at all. It was Busby who tipped Liverpool off to Shankly's work at Huddersfield Town in the first place, when their general manager Tom Wilkinson was looking for a manager. And, as Busby told it years later, it was also he who persuaded Shankly not to quit Anfield when things were rough in the early days. "There was something he didn't like there and he wanted to go. It was as simple as that," Busby wrote in his book Soccer at the Top. "I told him he had to stay." Soon after Shankly finally took Liverpool to the First Division title and became Manager of the Year, never to look back.

You might also say Busby equipped Anfield with perhaps its greatest player – Billy Liddell. The broadcaster and journalist John Keith relates, in his excellent Liddell biography, The Legend who carried the Kop, how Busby tipped off Liverpool manager George Kay about the striker, as he dithered over a move to Hamilton Academicals.

There are other staging points on this journey of coexistence, including Second Division Liverpool offering United the services of two of their players to tide them over, a month after the Munich disaster in 1958.

And there was the evening of Friday 2 August 1971, when United supporters' hooliganism had caused them a two-game ban from Old Trafford and left them in need of a temporary new home. United's only "home" game at Anfield ended with a 3-1 win over Arsenal, though the crowd trouble – thousands stormed the pitch – provides a premonition of what lay ahead.

Almost incredibly, United's fans sang "Liverpool, Liverpool … " in magnanimity when the beaten side slumped past on their lap of honour after the 1977 FA Cup final. But it was when Liverpool soared into the ascendancy that some very specific reasons for envy and loathing grew up on both sides, all set against the backdrop of worsening hooliganism.

John Williams, Leicester University sociologist and author of the Liverpool history Red Men, argues that United's envy lay in Liverpool's supremacy, while Liverpool's lay in United's continual depiction as the nation's glamour club, even from their position in the doldrums. "Liverpool were not being talked about in the same way," Williams says. "They were not being 'rewarded' for their success."

Even in the 1983-84 season – Liverpool's treble-winning year – United's average home attendance was 42,534 to Liverpool 's 35,793 and it became Ferguson's mission – and obsession – to grind them down into the dust.

"It isn't just a job to me," he once said. "It's a mission. I am deadly serious about it – some people would say too serious... we will get there. Believe me. And when it happens life will change for Liverpool, dramatically."

By then, the on-field friendships – Bobby Charlton and Ian Callaghan's for instance – had gone. The spite was enough to see playwright Alan Bleasdale, then a regular at Anfield, stop attending because of Liverpool fans spitting at Busby.

Williams charts the rise of the terrace hate to an unprecedented level to the FA Cup semi-final between the sides at Goodison Park on 13 April 1985 which finished 2-2. Two fans were stabbed during running battles in the streets outside, a flare was fired into a terrace packed with United fans and United winger Jesper Olsen was hit by a missile when he went to take a corner.

That was also the year manager Ron Atkinson likened going to Anfield to being in the Vietnam War after United's coach was attacked with tear gas before a league game. The Heysel disaster followed only six weeks after that FA Cup semi-final and so began the process of supporters using human tragedy as a weapon.

There is circumstantial evidence that Liverpool fans' Munich chanting had already started by the time of Hillsborough. The now familiar practice of clubs being warned to calm things had certainly started at this stage, which explains the letter, revealed in last Saturday's Independent, from United chairman Martin Edwards to Liverpool general secretary Peter Robinson, thanking the Anfield club for their fans' behaviour at the Old Trafford clash of New Year's Day 1989.

Liverpool fans never knew that the letter was presented at the Lord Justice Taylor inquiry to dispel the lies spread by South Yorkshire Police about fans causing the disaster. Instead, the two clubs' tragedies became a weapon to beat the other with and the chance to take things a step further. But Heysel provided the most unspeakable taunt of all: "Murderers."

"All clubs' fans want to hurt the opposition, see how they can really get under the skin of rival supporters," says Williams. "The tragedies were the key routes. There is also something transgressive about using them; saying and singing things that you should not say and knowing that you've gone too far."

Ferguson stirred up this combustible mix, let's remember, however much he might be demanding dignity and respect tomorrow.

He's never forgotten the agonies to which Liverpool subjected him in his formative years at Old Trafford. He recalls Liverpool's power and swagger, the way referees caved in when the Kop howled for a penalty and the way, as he put it in 1988, "a lot of managers leave Anfield choking on their own sick".

Ferguson knows about decency, too. He was one of the first men on the phone to Kenny Dalglish after the events of 15 April 1989, though less well known is the story of how he asked, through Edwards, to view Anfield's Hillsborough floral tributes privately and without publicity.

This wasn't the new dawn it might have seemed. "The fans soon went back to their self-same ways. The hating continued," Dalglish has since reflected.

That hating may be too deep-set now to engender the respect which tomorrow's occasion demands, but for those who hope for something better to emanate from the stands there is a crumb of comfort, at least. The hatred is a product of its times. It hasn't always been this way.

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