The EPL’s El Classico

13 03 2009

Biggest game of this weekend, by quite some distance is the biggest game of the season. Make no mistake, when Man United play Liverpool, the world watches. Just like Barcelona/Real, Boca Juniors/River Plate or Rangers/Celtic, this is one of the great “derby” matches. The two most successful clubs in English football, going head to head over ninety minutes.

It looked for a while like this fixture might decide the title. While that looks less and less like it could be the case, don’t be fooled into thinking this means nothing. Neither set of fans values any game quite like this one.

So I thought it would be timely to have a look at the derby, at the history, at why the two sides loathe each other so, as well as remember some classic matches from down the years. The game, FYI kicks off on Saturday, at midday, partly so it can be live on the telly, and partly to try and stop the fans getting too wasted beforehand.

The rivalry between the two cities goes back to the industrial revolution. While England led the world in technology then, it produced mass changes in the cities of the country. Manchester immediately benefited and became the leader in the textile industry. Liverpool’s position of the countries foremost port, and gateway to America meant that the two cities, despite being in relative spitting distance from one another, could both grow and grow.

Unlike the derbies in Rome, Barca/Real or indeed the River Plate/Boca Juniors rivalry, the similarities, not the differences between Manchester and Liverpool and the most striking. Both are inherently working class cities, and both have a history of strong Irish immigration. Both are only 35 miles apart, and historically have thrived on one another. In the Northwest there is a phrase “Manchester made and Liverpool trade”, referring to the histories of the cities in the industrial revolution.

Until the economic downturn of the late 1800’s, Liverpool and Manchester got on rather well. But with the downturn came worker migration, and Liverpool put the price up on the import rates in order to keep the city moving. Manchester responded by giving the city access to the sea, and cutting out the middleman.

And so the Manchester Ship Canal was built, 40miles inland, and became the third biggest port in England. Ever wondered why the Man United badge has a boat in it, despite being from a city 40 miles in land? Well that’s why.

It didn’t matter anyway in the long run. With the fall of the British Empire, the need for a port became less, and indeed the fall of the Textile industry came soon after. Both cities fell in decline, for generation after generation. It’s only recently that both have made an attempt to futures.

And yet, both cities have always done well for themselves. In art, in music, in sport. Somehow, this only fuels the rivalry between the people of both cities.

So then, why Manchester United and why Liverpool? Both cities have other teams – Manchester City and Everton, why don’t they share a massive rivalry? Indeed before the Second World War, there was no real rivalry between the two clubs, as they were both the lesser in their respective cities. A lot of fans, it should be noted, don’t believe any of the above has anything to do with the rivalry. Indeed, its curious that Everton play Man City and no-one thinks twice about it.

In the 1950s, fans would go to each other’s games. If you lived in Manchester, and United were away, you’d go and watch Liverpool, or City or Everton, whoever was home, instead. There would be a bit of banter between the fans, but no trouble, after all, at least you got to go and watch the game. In 1966, Legendary Liverpool player and even-more Legendary United Manager Matt Busby was named captain of an all-time Liverpool side. It’s unthinkable now, and not just because they’ve had so many good players since.

How then has the rivalry between two undoubtedly great clubs gone from that, to what it is today? And believe me when I say, its nasty today. Walk around either Manchester or Liverpool on North-West Derby Weekend (side note, we need a better name for it than that), and you’ll see horrendous, nasty graffiti. “Hillsborough 98″ (a reference to the 98 people who died in the horrific disaster) will be freshly painted on bridges and walls. Chants inside the stadium coming from the Liverpool end will feature lines like “Who’s that dying in the snow”, a reference to the Munich air disaster. While both these come from a minority, how did it get to that?

It kicked off with United’s success in the 1960s. After the fall of the Busby Babes, came an arguably even better side in the 1960s, winning leagues and in 1968, the Champions League, or European Cup as it was then known. United were the first English team to do it.

The 1960s also bought the last direct transfer between the clubs, Phil Chisnal in 1964. The 1970s bought a changing of the guard, as Liverpool dominated at home and in Europe. It carried on to the 80s, and by the time United had climbed back to the top, Liverpool had won four European Cups and 11 league titles. United went 26 years without a league title.

The swing went back to United in the 90s, as Sir Alex’s United dominated the 90s, and 00s, picking up two more Champions Leagues. Asked what his greatest achievement as United manager was, Fergie once replied “Knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch”. Now there’s a man who understands a rivalry. The rivalry had gotten serious sometime in the late 70s.

Ron Atkinson, United’s manager in the 1980’s and a Scouser himself, described going to Anfield as like going to Vietnam. If it sounds like he’s exaggerating, well he’s side’s coach had been tear-gassed on the way into the city. Clayton Blackmore got the worst of the fumes, and couldn’t play the match.

Liverpool fans started singing about the 1958 Munich Air disaster, as things got nastier. They stopped after Hillsborough, although a small number of United fans have taken to singing about the 1989 disaster, and so singing about Munich is back on the menu.

For every Liverpool fan who sings those songs though, there are thousands who are repulsed by it. The same goes for United fans. In the right places, away from the hooligans and nastiness, the friendly rivalry that once shone through still sits. Lets hope it sits happily at the weekend.

The game on Saturday is at Old Trafford, where United have won 36 times, Liverpool 14 times, and there have been 25 draws. At Anfield, Liverpool have won 36 times, United 22 times, and there have been 18 draws.

Here are some classics to get you into mood…….

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