The best you could say about an occasion yesterday when the most bitter rivals in English football met on a day so heavy with significance for the people of Liverpool, was that it could have been a lot worse.
That was about as much as anyone could have hoped for.
The tension was there all day, from the Manchester United fans singing their own songs during the playing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the two-footed tackle from Jonjo Shelvey that earned him a red card and precipitated his touchline ruck with Sir Alex Ferguson. There are many elements to Liverpool v United that are utterly compelling but it would be fair to say that both sides went right up to the limits of what was decent.
Off the pitch there was a confrontation between Liverpool and United supporters at the end of the game when United aired their “ Always the victim”, “Murderers” and “Justice for Heysel” chants. They claim none refer directly to the Hillsborough disaster but these songs are undoubtedly provocative. Two Liverpool supporters were alleged to have made aeroplane gestures – a reference to the Munich disaster – to provoke them. It was unedifying and unpleasant on both sides.
The game itself was fairly low on quality but absolutely packed with incident. That it ended with the usually measured Brendan Rodgers (right) giving a withering verdict on the performance of referee Mark Halsey was a clear sign that this was no ordinary game, on no ordinary day.
As for the atmosphere between the fans during the game, it was strained but fell the right side of the line. Technically speaking no-one had specifically asked United fans not to sing through “You’l l Never Walk Alone”. It should also be noted that at least the away end was full for the pre-match tribute to the victims of Hillsborough. Around the 12th minute, the United fans also chanted “ Where’s your famous Munich song?” to the home support which was the moment that it could have descended into something much worse, but thankfully the peace held.
Once Sir Bobby Charlton had presented a bouquet of flowers to Ian Rush on the pitch, and Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard released 96 balloons in memory of the victims of Hillsborough, a football match broke out. Giggs was made United captain for the day in the absence of the injured Nemanja Vidic, instead of his usual deputy Patrice Evra whom Ferguson recognised would have been a bad choice for obvious reasons. Evra and Luis Suarez did, however, shake hands before the game, as promised.
Liverpool looked sharp; United started poorly. In the first half, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen were excellent. Gerrard and Allen controlled the game while Sterling, at 17 the youngest Liverpool player to start in the history of this fixture, looked dangerous. By contrast, Luis Nani, United’s worst performer, misplaced passes and was substituted for Paul Scholes at half-time,.
The game turned for the first time with Shelvey’s sending off which, as with much else in this match, was not as clear-cut as it might first have appeared. His lunge on 37 minutes ticked all the boxes for the red-card criteria of being reckless and using excessive force. However, Jonny Evans, with whom Shelvey made contact, also went in two-footed and when Rodgers pointed out later that Evans deserved an equal punishment it was hard to disagree. Shelvey pointed and swore at Ferguson as he left the pitch, a reaction it seemed to Ferguson having chided the home crowd for applauding the player off. Shelvey’s attempt at a Twitter apology afterwards was so laughably half-hearted he later thought better of it and deleted it.
Rio Ferdinand was United’s best player, a cool head on a stormy day, but even he could have done better for Liverpool’s goal. A cross from the substitute Jesus “Suso” Fernandez dropped to Gerrard in space, who chested it down and shot past Anders Lindegaard. Gerrard’s glance and gesture to the sky in his celebration can only have been in tribute to his cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, of the 96 to die at Hillsborough. With just 10 men, however, Liverpool were under pressure. Rafael da Silva scored a fine equaliser five minutes later, a left-footed shot which clipped the inside of Pepe Reina’s post and dropped in.
Then it was a tale of two penalties. The first, on 57 minutes, was not given by referee Halsey even though replays showed that Suarez’s heel had been clipped by Evans. The penalty that Antonio Valencia won against Glen Johnson was equally marginal, albeit the right decision. There had been contact between the two players after a collision between Johnson and Daniel Agger had allowed Valencia to run at goal. Johnson caught him up but also caught Valencia as the defender tried to get around him. It was United’s first penalty at Anfield since 1999.
Robin van Persie put the ball firmly to the left of Reina, who guessed correctly but could not keep it out and from there it was always a difficult task for Liverpool. Agger came off to be replaced by Jamie Carragher – his chat with Ferguson on the touchline was a rare outbreak of friendliness – and with all three substitutes used Liverpool finished with nine men when Martin Kelly was injured later. Fabio Borini, substituted at half-time, may also have a serious injury.
“Going down, going down” was the United chant to a club now 18th after five games and still without a win. The Kop responded by singing Rodgers’ name and he looked like he appreciated it.
The most damaging exchange between the two sets of supporters took place when both teams were off the pitch and the vast majority of the home fans had left. Neither was it broadcast live. A kind of peace had held out, although it was always best to expect the very minimum in that respect when it comes to a rivalry as toxic as this one.