‘Utter joy and acrimony’: How the FA Cup came to define Man United vs Liverpool’s ultimate rivalry

The bitter rivals meet again in the fourth round with, as Miguel Delaney illustrates, history revealing the best and worst of one of English football’s most iconic fixtures

Liverpool's unforgettable 2020

In the build-up to this weekend, both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jurgen Klopp have big decisions to make. Neither are because of the size of this Sunday’s FA Cup meeting. The wonder at both clubs is whether weakened teams should be played, even against their greatest rivals, because of grander challenges elsewhere. Manchester United want to fully charge their title challenge, Liverpool badly need to recharge theirs.

That attitude is natural given the current circumstances. It may be a mistake, given history.

The fourth round might these days feel far too early to take the FA Cup seriously, but United and Liverpool have met at this stage four times in the past - 1948, 1960, 1999, 2012 - and the two most recent of those have had significant consequences.

They even helped in the making of the current circumstances, in terms of the figure Solskjaer is, and how suffocatingly tense last week’s latest 0-0 at Anfield was. Matches that could have been afterthoughts explosively set the path for so much to come.

1999, 24 January, Old Trafford

Solskjaer was understandably more reluctant to talk about 1999 ahead of this weekend, having probably overdone it early on in this United reign, but this was one occasion when it would have been much more justified. It is not just that he ended up so central to this fixture. The thing about ‘1999’ was that United didn’t come into the year as the fully-formed full-pelt side that won everything. There still felt like elements were missing, as they went into the year on stuttering form. December 1998 had only brought one league win in six games, which included a 3-2 home defeat to Middlesbrough.

The first two league games of 1999 had at least seen play - and goals - flow a bit easier as they beat West Ham United 4-1 and Leicester City 6-2. A resurgent Liverpool had themselves thrashed Southampton 7-1. It illustrated how Gerard Houllier, only a few months into the role as sole manager after Roy Evans’s departure, was starting to figure out his team as Robbie Fowler scored a hat-trick and Michael Owen claimed another. That took the English duo to a combined total 30 for the season by that point, against the 31 hit by Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. The fixture was naturally billed as a battle between the strike partnerships.

It dominated all discussion. Houllier was asked about previous comments praising Cole and Yorke as the best in England, only to snap back. “I didn’t say that. Mine are the best.”

Ferguson was meanwhile almost giddy about the game.

“After all the goals Liverpool and ourselves scored last week, the [Manchester] Evening News said that the cup game will probably end 0-0. There is no bloody chance of it being 0-0. I’ll eat my bunny if it is. There’ll be three goals - minimum.”

For all the focus on Cole, Yorke, Owen and Fowler, the striker that was to prove most decisive didn’t even start. Both sides went full strength. That was someway surprising since United had much bigger aims that season, but Ferguson admitted he couldn’t help it - the fixture just brought out something in him. By contrast, it was Houllier’s last chance of a trophy that year, as Liverpool were in danger of going half a decade without silverware.

They thereby started with urgency. Owen scored a poacher’s header after just 155 seconds by getting between Henning Berg and Gary Neville. Porousness continued to be a problem for Ferguson all season, but his solutions - trying to outscore the opposition - ensured sensation after sensation.

By the same token, this might have been the worst possible start for United, but it proved the best possible final ingredient for a crackling occasion. That also meant it was maybe the game with more ingredients that United’s treble season made famous than any other, bar Juventus away. It was as if this was the quintessential game from that campaign. Those elements were: an early opposition lead; cavalier attacking play; end-to-end football; Roy Keane at his dominant best; a siege amid a scintillating atmosphere and, well… you know what’s to come. Until then, there were 86 minutes without a goal, but that actually only enriched the occasion through the sense of suspense. Enough was happening. This game had it all, and was one meeting between the two - maybe the last meeting - when the hype was justified.

Dwight Yorke is taken out by Patrik Berger and Steve Harkness

The game had started at full pace, and never let up. Within minutes of Owen's goal, Yorke tore down the right to cross for the back post. David James touched it away, but only to tee up the oncoming Keane for a header that was going straight in. Paul Ince somehow got his body in the way from just inside the line to clear. Houllier had already been developing doubts about the midfielder’s influence on his team, but Ince had on this occasion saved Liverpool. Another player Houllier would clash with then almost put them further ahead. Fowler attempted the most imaginative first-touch finish from distance, only to see it curl narrowly over the bar.

That was so close, but United began to illustrate the true gap between the teams. Keane started to dominate, and one charging run from midfield saw a powerful drive desperately deflected from the massed Liverpool defence, to bounce just wide. Minutes later, he smashed the post with an effort that threatened to break it, as well as raise the roof. Old Trafford was as raucous as Keane was rampaging, the crowd seemingly responding to every rousing intervention from the captain. His former midfield partner on that very pitch, Ince, couldn’t keep up with him.

Ferguson had actually specifically intended to stretch Liverpool’s midfield at half-time, because he’d noted how Yorke was being smothered. He realised they needed to spread the play out. “When we applied those tactics in the second half, their central-midfield players had to do a lot of running," Ferguson said in his autobiography.

On 71 minutes, in fact, the Liverpool midfielder signalled he had to go off. Ferguson, never one to miss a chance at a barb, later wrote, “he was either injured or exhausted”. Houllier was just livid.

“We were close to knocking United out,” the former Liverpool manager told Simon Hughes in ‘Ring of Fire’. “We know how important these moments are. Paul said he had a strain. He walked off the pitch. I thought, wait – you’re captain of Liverpool. You are 1–0 up at Old Trafford against your former club. If the captain of Liverpool leaves in that sort of game, he only goes straight to hospital.”

Steve McManaman consoles Steve Harkness

Months later, Ferguson would personally praise Houllier for the decision to sell Ince. In the white heat of this game, he needed something else to turn it up further, and turn the game.

Ferguson finally went to three at the back on 81 minutes, taking off Gary Neville for Solskjaer.

“We had thrown the kitchen sink at it,” Denis Irwin said. Liverpool were throwing bodies on the line in response, a young Jamie Carragher brilliantly blocking one Ryan Giggs effort that was destined for the corner.

Andy Gray excitedly laughed on commentary, “this is Liverpool’s day”.

Yorke later admitted to thinking it was indeed going to be “one of those days”. This United didn’t yet have the defiant, irrepressible belief that was to define them. This game was to help foster it. It wasn’t one of those days. It was instead to be one of those treble-season games.

In the 88th minute, Jamie Redknapp was adjudged to have fouled Ronny Johnsen about 30 yards from goal. Liverpool players insisted to the referee it wasn’t a free-kick. Houllier later admitted it “broke our concentration” - “we were not in the right positions”. David Beckham of course put it in exactly the position he intended, right on Cole’s head for the striker to set up Yorke. Remarkably, despite the frenzy of the game, despite the desperation of Liverpool’s defending, Yorke seemed to have so much time to just tap it in.

Old Trafford erupted, but United had not yet brought the crescendo. Solskjaer hadn’t had a meaningful touch. He was to have the most meaningful touch.

In the 92nd minute, with Liverpool hanging on for a replay but United sensing blood, Jaap Stam launched the ball to Paul Scholes. The midfielder collected but couldn’t get it under control as he was forced wide by flailing bodies. Solskjaer took command with a goal that was a signature finish in so many ways. The striker took one touch to steady himself, another to tee himself up, and then a decisive third to fire the ball into the corner through Steve Harkness’ legs and also send James the wrong way. It was vintage Solskjaer.

As Liverpool players slumped to the ground, Cole windmilled his arms in utter joy, while Keane was the first body to jump on the goalscorer.

Now Old Trafford reached a crescendo. United, without even really realising it at the time, reached a new level.

The emotion from that victory was to flood Ferguson's side with belief and confidence. It was a feeling, and a situation, that was to become so familiar.

“Everything changed,” Yorke would later say. Neville went further.

“That was the game that started everything,” he told United’s official website. “From then on, everybody was right and everybody was at it.”

That’s almost an understatement. It was as if that game showed United just how far they could go, how they could take it to the absolute limit in any individual match. Prior to that game, Ferguson’s side had scored three decisive late goals that season. After it, they hit a remarkable eight. That tally included the two most famous of all in Camp Nou against Bayern Munich, in a finale that was foreshadowed by this very win.

It certainly showed what Solskjaer could do.

“I was just there to smell where the ball was going to land and that’s where I was probably better than most.”

Ferguson could meanwhile smell team spirit.

“We had witnessed a demonstration of the morale that was to be every bit as vital as rich skill in the five months that lay ahead of United,” he wrote in his first autobiography. “Tactics are important but they don’t win football matches. Men win football matches. The best teams stand out because they are teams, because the individual members have been so truly integrated that the team functions with a single spirit. The Manchester United of 1999 had talent by the bundle but there was nothing about them that I admired or valued more than their team spirit.”

Few displayed that better than the current manager.

An FA Cup tie against United’s greatest rivals played a huge part in firing their greatest moment.

Gary Neville is closed down by Michael Owen during the 1999 FA Cup tie

2012, 28 January, Anfield

If the 1999 tie displayed all that could be great about the rivalry, the 2012 match showcased some of the worst. The raucous atmosphere of the earlier game had given way to something else, something grimmer that had been growing a long time, and was now back with full emotional force. Central to that, and taking it to rancorous new levels, was Luis Suarez. The Liverpool forward had in December 2011 been found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra in the teams’ October league meeting. Suarez had publicly denied the claims, which led to his squad making a conspicuous show of defending him with ludicrous t-shirts. It only served to escalate an already emotional situation. Part of the case came down to one man’s word against the other.

This was really the first flashpoint between the clubs of the social media era, and it seemed to only make more acute a lot of the anger, and hatred.

The previous years had already seen increased focus on chants about the Hillsborough and Munich tragedies by portions of the fan bases. A nadir had been the 2006 FA Cup fifth-round game, a dismal 1-0 Liverpool win that also saw Alan Smith go off with a horrific injury.

For this match, it was as if the Suarez controversy gave full vent to full tribalism.

The Uruguayan’s sanction meant he was suspended for this game, but his presence - or, rather, the weight of the controversy - hung over everything.

Ferguson was naturally asked about it beforehand, but cut the question down straight away. “I’m not getting into that, right.”

The reality was that both clubs had been forced to get their hands around a worsening situation between supporters, to try and even suppress some of the malice. Ferguson had actually written a letter to United’s support, that was handed out before the game, asking them to be “positive, witty and loud”.

At Melwood, there was a distinctive change in tone from Kenny Dalglish’s previous indignation at the whole affair. The Liverpool manager actually decided against a broadcast press conference ahead of the game, in order to ensure that comments about the controversy would not be replayed all weekend, further riling the situation.

Dalglish wrote of the supporters in his programme notes that “we would not tell them how to suck eggs”, but the message was clear.

The strategies did have some limited effect.

The atmosphere was not quite as aggressive overall. The game itself only had one booking, for Rafael. One figure, however, felt the focus of much of the venom.

Having suffered racial abuse in October, Evra now just suffered undeserved abuse for that. The left-back’s every touch was booed, with that usually accompanied by a distinctive chant.

“There’s only one lying bastard.”

United supporters responded with: “Always the victim, it’s never your fault.”

Jordan Henderson competes with Antonio Valencia

Illustrating the real-world seriousness of it all, one Liverpool fan was given a four-year banning order after he was found guilty of racially abusing United fans and Evra during the game. Liverpool Magistrates’ Court was told he had been seen on live television doing a monkey impression.

Evra himself performed with admirable concentration throughout. Carragher, for his part, gave the full-back a consoling pat on the back of the head in the second half.

The actual game at that point - for a winner still had to actually be decided - remained in the balance.

Maxi Rodriguez and Antonio Valencia had exchanged efforts, the United winger smashing the post, before Dan Agger opened the scoring with a header from a corner.

David De Gea had been let down by his centre-halves, but wasn’t exactly quick off his feet.

It is some way remarkable to think of it now, but that goal came in what were difficult seasons for the goalkeeper to start his United career, where his very capacity to play for the club was regularly questioned. His form had actually been so poor that there was surprise Ferguson had recalled him for a game as tense as this.

There was little surprise Roy Keane was scathing as a pundit afterwards.

“Goalkeeper is the most important position at Manchester United. De Gea looked a bit nervous. When you have a nervous goalkeeper it can go through the whole team.”

Patrice Evra was targeted with abuse from Liverpool supporters

The issue for Liverpool was there wasn’t much creativity through their team to take advantage. They missed Suarez’s spark. Park Ji-Sung claimed a brilliant equaliser with a first-time finish from a Rafael ball.

The game worsened as a spectacle in the second half, but retained its dramatic qualities.

In the 88th minute, a long Pepe Reina punt was headed on for Dirk Kuyt to finish, as one United player momentarily lost his focus and his position.

That player? Evra.

It was a cruel twist on a hugely difficult afternoon for the full-back, made all the worse for the fact it was just a split second’s slip. As Evra trudged off at the final whistle, he tossed his captain’s armband onto the pitch.

It was clear he felt a lot worse about the error than the abuse, but the former should not be discounted. Evra referenced it last week when revealing a letter of apology from Peter Moores, Liverpool’s chief executive, while calling out “the Liverpool fans” for lacking that “same respect and class”.

On the day itself, as Evra walked off, Suarez was seen ostentatiously celebrating in the stands.

The whole affair would bottom out in the league game a few weeks later, when Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand. That would finally bring a full apology from Liverpool, that also served to at last calm some of the bad feeling.

The fixture has not since sunk to the same level of acrimony but it is as if a residual tension, and the emotional stakes of the game, have since served to completely inhibit it. The certainly hasn't produced anything close to a classic since. That 1999 match was probably the last truly great game in this great rivalry.

Ferguson’s assertion ahead of that fixture - that this would be the last game you’d expect to finish 0-0 - would seem ludicrous now. You only have to look at the last few matches at Anfield.

The only issue is that all of those games came in the league.

It is possible that the lesser stakes of the FA Cup, in a season where there are much greater priorities, may actually free the teams a bit. They haven’t met in the competition since 2012, after all.

The hope is that something else Ferguson said before that 1999 game may ring true.

“When you play Liverpool in a cup tie, the hackles are out, aren't they? It does something to you.”

It may yet do something for this rivalry.

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