United away is daunting but Konchesky's having a ball
After playing in less intense London derbies, Reds new boy will relish the real deal today
Paul Konchesky played for four London clubs in all manner of derby games; now, as they used to say in Monty Python, for something completely different. Manchester United against Liverpool is not Fulham versus Charlton.
Any new foreign recruits at Anfield preparing for this fixture for the first time, such as Christian Poulsen or Milan Jovanovic, may need a sharp lesson from Jamie Carragher or Steven Gerrard about the importance of it. But like Joe Cole, another Londoner who had spent all his working life in the capital before this season, Konchesky is immersed deeply enough in English football culture to understand the importance of what happens at Old Trafford from 1.30pm today.
"When you watch Man United play Liverpool you can see how big it is and I'm looking forward to being part of it," he said. "I think the derbies up north are bigger than the ones in London." Konchesky was speaking after the comfortable 4-1 victory over Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday night, having just made his home debut following a transfer from Fulham only completed on deadline day in the transfer window.
A first taste, then, of walking up the tunnel to strains of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and receiving the Kop's applause; yet the very fact that this was the Europa League on Channel Five (as United supporters will doubtless remind the visitors today) and a game being played in front of Anfield's lowest crowd for eight years, barely 25,000, emphasised the current gap between two of the great modern dynasties of the domestic game.
It is well known that when Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in Manchester from Aberdeen in 1986, his ambition was to knock Liverpool off their (expletive deleted) perch. Younger readers may need reminding of how far below that perch United were at the time and how much messy stuff from Merseyside was landing on their head. Liverpool had just won their eighth title in 11 seasons, and hoovered up four European Cups in the same period; United had not held up the First Division trophy for almost 20 years. In Ferguson's first match they lost 2-0 to Oxford and sank to 20th in the table, on the same day Liverpool assumed what was taken to be their rightful position at the head of it.
Removal from the perch took at least five years, the 1991-92 season being the first since 1968 in which United finished above the other Reds. Even then, Liverpool had the last word, denying United any chance of pipping Leeds to the championship by beating them at Anfield in the penultimate game. In the Premier League era, however, as our table (left) shows, the clubs' relative status could hardly be more clear-cut. Only once in all that time have Liverpool, seeking a first title since 1990, managed to finish higher (2001-02) and on average United's superiority has been in the region of 15 points.
Of course, there have been individual games in which Liverpudlian pride has been restored, notably in the season before last when a double success included a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford and the unlikely spectacle of Fernando Torres bullying Nemanja Vidic. The manager, a chap called Rafa Benitez, was immediately handed an improved five-year contract until 2014.
That proved an expensive piece of paper and, following the Spaniard's sacking, it is Roy Hodgson who will be in the opposite dug-out to Ferguson today. Fellow Londoners Cole and Konchesky were two of the signings he was keenest to make and they are expected to be among the few outfield players who will be retained from Thursday's much-changed side for this afternoon's encounter.
Konchesky has the advantage of having played against United already this season in a Fulham side that benefited from a late penalty save and an even later equaliser to hold them 2-2 at Craven Cottage. "They [Liverpool players] know what Man United are about," he said. "They have not really hit form yet and hopefully we won't let them hit form against us. If we start well at Old Trafford and get their fans on their back then hopefully we can go on to win the game."
Although claiming a record against United that is "not too bad, to be fair", he is aware of greater expectation at his new club. "No disrespect to Fulham but if you went to Old Trafford and came away with a draw then that's a massive bonus but going with Liverpool you expect to get a win. That's the expectation of the club and the fans. That's what comes with it."
What will not change is Konchesky's vigorously physical approach. "You know what derbies are like," he said. "I just have to go and play my game and whatever happens, happens. Hopefully the ref understands that. I play every game the same and I want to go out and win. It's a big derby and tackles will be flying about so we need a sensible ref." After Spain against Holland, Howard Webb should be well prepared.
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