Sir Alex Ferguson: Keep rivalry but end tasteless taunts

Manchester United manager wants passion preserved but full respect shown for Hillsborough victims

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The Independent Football

When it comes to a fixture he considers more important than any other in the fabric of Manchester United's season, Sir Alex Ferguson wants the chants about Munich and Hillsborough to go but the animosity to remain.

The Manchester United manager is both passionate and a realist. Ferguson will be horrified if the chants of: "You're always the victim, it's never your fault," that drifted like poison gas from the Stretford End during last Saturday's defeat of Wigan Athletic are repeated at Anfield tomorrow. And yet there is no point Liverpool meeting Manchester United without an edge. These are cities and clubs with their tribalism, history and territory; they are not moveable sporting franchises.

Asked if the first match Liverpool stage after the extent of their supporters' betrayal in Sheffield became known could "draw a line in the sand", Ferguson said: "I don't think it will change the animosity towards each other.

"What can change are supporters going beyond the pale in the chants that refer to Munich or Hillsborough. That can be the end of that – and then they can fight as much as they like."

The "fight" was meant metaphorically. "You have to remember that it is a minority and a minority can create the headlines in order to get a voice," Ferguson said. "They have an opinion and they want to be heard – an obscene opinion but nonetheless it is there."

Their relationship has sometimes been fractious and never close, but Ferguson has known Kenny Dalglish since the days when he used to give the teenage Dalglish, who lived near him in Govan, a lift.

When the news of Hillsborough struck, he was the first to phone the then Liverpool manager and attended the memorial service at Anfield. Ferguson was, however, staggered by this month's report into the police cover-up.

"I didn't read the report, I just heard David Cameron's speech," he said. "I did read the Independent on Sunday and the coverage of all the issues was fantastic, amazing. It was horrific, absolutely horrific in this day and age. You think it could happen in some South American country but it was quite amazing."

The emotion, as 96 balloons are released and three sides of Anfield become a mosaic to remember the innocent dead, is guaranteed. What follows is not. Four years ago at Old Trafford, United and City supporters raised their scarves in unison to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster.

Except for those in the away end who saw Sven Goran Eriksson continue his habit of beating Ferguson every time the two have met, the match was a desultory anti-climax. "The place was so flat," said Ferguson. "In the dressing room beforehand, I felt it myself. We just could not perform and we were just glad to get it over with because it was such an emotional day for us. It might be that way on Sunday."

Curiously, Manchester United and Liverpool find themselves a mirror image of where they were in April 1989. United finished the traumatic season 11th, 25 points adrift of Liverpool and in Ferguson's first few years they carried out a guerrilla war of sorts, snatching victories against the grain. It is the kind of over-performance that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must hope for tomorrow.

It is a curious fact of Ferguson's life that, though he regards Liverpool as the great enemy, they have rarely gone head to head for a title during his years at Old Trafford.

Manchester United finished second in 1988 and Liverpool in 2009 and there was a close race in 1997 but since Rafa Benitez's departure the challenge from Merseyside has flickered and faded.

Arsenal, Chelsea, even Blackburn Rovers, have been more potent threats to United in the Premier League than Liverpool. Asked if he could ever see it returning, Ferguson laughed: "I hope not. I am quite happy where we are.

"It is the same for them now as at United when I came down here. We could beat Liverpool but we could never win the league. The motivation now leans on the side of Liverpool, particularly at Anfield. It is a great atmosphere, the kind you want to be involved in. It is not an issue for me but the players have to handle it."