United act to defuse big game tensions

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The Independent Football

There will be posters inside Old Trafford tomorrow that commemorate the multiple triumphs of a proud northern football club steeped in English and European success. That club is Liverpool, and the reason for the innovative decoration of the away section at Manchester United is to discourage their supporters from repeating the vandalism that occurred inside the stadium at last season's FA Cup semi-final.

Landmarks abound when the biggest clubs in the land meet for the first time this season over Sunday lunch. Paul Scholes becomes the ninth player in Manchester United history to make 500 appearances for the club, Steven Gerrard wears the Liver bird for the 350th time and Wayne Rooney reaches a century for the team he crossed a bitter parochial divide to join. But it is a joint initiative between United and Liverpool, devised by respective chief executives David Gill and Rick Parry at the stipulation of Greater Manchester and Merseyside Police, that highlights how relations between the two sets of supporters threaten to usurp this absorbing spectacle.

While the hooligan element has been rightly starved of publicity the absence of waves of fighting across the terraces does not mean it has gone away. The last two meetings of the North-west rivals generated enough incident to expose that fallacy: the ambush that awaited Liverpool fans as they exited Old Trafford cursing Rio Ferdinand's 90th-minute winner and the improper celebrations from Gary Neville that Greater Manchester Police believe inflamed tensions in January; the cups of excrement and urine that dropped on the United support during the following month's FA Cup tie; and the ambulance that came under attack as it left Anfield with a stricken Alan Smith inside.

This week Smith expressed gratitude to the medical staff, players and majority of the crowd at Liverpool for the support he received in the aftermath of the broken leg and dislocated ankle he suffered in February, but such is the current climate between supporters that both local police forces have threatened to order the clubs to ban visiting fans from future encounters unless the antagonism subsides.

In an attempt to improve relations there will therefore be an exchange of pennants and handshakes before kick-off, while posters and Liverpool stewards will adorn the visitors' section. Even that incendiary figure, Sir Alex Ferguson, has appealed for an end to the bitterness that, unlike United versus Arsenal or Rafael Benitez versus Jose Mourinho, does not spill out on to the pitch whenever Liverpool and his team meet.

"It is always a fiercely fought encounter but, considering the intensity, also one fought fairly," said the United manager. "The reason is that the players have a great deal of respect for each other, a regard that I wish was shared a little bit more by the supporters of our two clubs.

"Of course, there is a great rivalry among the fans and I understand that, but we mustn't let it run out of control and as well as the players, we want the fans to respect each other too. With this in mind, two supporters representing United and Liverpool will exchange pennants before the kick-off while old playing rivals like Sir Bobby Charlton and Tommy Smith will be introduced to the fans before the start."

The controversy has already deprived Scholes of the centre stage he deserves as he joins Charlton, Bill Foulkes and others in the United 500-club though, given his humble nature, that is how he would probably like it. Last season an eye injury raised concerns over his future. Now, along with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he is fundamental to United's impressive start.

"It's fantastic and a great credit to the boy," said Ferguson. "Doubly so for Paul because of what happened last year. He has a low-key personality and values being with his family and children, which is great. There are very few in the modern game who are happy to settle for that. We're in an era of the 'need to be seen' factor. Profile and attention is not something he needs, but there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has got the wider recognition he deserves. It's probably been unfair to both Paul and Ryan [Giggs] that there have been more high-profile players at our club over the years. They are happy with that; that has allowed them to have a certain privacy that someone that successful wouldn't usually have."

Both Ferguson and Benitez refuse to accept that defeat for Liverpool tomorrow would end their prospects of the title, both managers citing how United, Arsenal and Chelsea are all yet to travel to Anfield this season. "It is a long race and we have a lot of important games to play," said the Liverpool manager, who has yet to beat Ferguson in the Premiership. "But this can be a good opportunity for us to change things."

And not only on the pitch.