Why the Manchester United – Liverpool rivalry still means everything

By David Lynch

The week ahead of a clash between Liverpool and Manchester United is often dominated by talk of the historic divide between England’s two greatest clubs. Tales of yesteryear reign when discussing institutions who have shared every honour on offer since rising from humble, working class beginnings.

But on Sunday, the modern face of this storied rivalry will rear its head. The antagonism no longer sits easy on honourable foundations, as a more base emotion provides the background for contemporary editions of this fixture: jealousy.
Of course, neither side will admit to feeling envy when they take the long look down the East Lancashire Road, but their every action betrays the lie behind such a claim.

Liverpool undoubtedly wish they had exploited the Premier League cash cow as ruthlessly as Manchester United when they look at the behemoth their foe has become. It is easy to forget that the Reds were in an unrivalled position of strength before the landscape of English football changed in 1992, but they failed to modernise to their own well-documented cost.

Meanwhile, despite having enjoyed a spell of dominance which matches their rivals in terms of its length, United still cannot boast a haul of five European Cups. It is a fact which Sir Alex Ferguson will clearly lament when he reflects on his oft-quoted desire to “knock Liverpool off their ******* perch” and one which fans from Merseyside regularly revel in.

Such details dominate the discourse between two sets of fans nowadays, largely because the modern Premier League ‘customer’ has little link to the rivalry’s original roots. Despite the obvious benefits of English grounds being filled with supporters from far-flung destinations, the organic nature of the hostility has undoubtedly taken a hit.

This leads to an unsavoury situation whereby a Norwegian can decry the “Mancs” on the opposite side of the divide whilst United fans with Wayne Rooney’s name on their back can slam “Scousers” with little sense of irony. These supporters are saying all the right words, but there is little meaning behind them.

The concept of “meaning” also sums up another factor which should have dampened the enmity between these teams – in that these fixtures possess little of it given the gap which has emerged across the North West.

Liverpool have realistically challenged for the title just twice since the inception of the Premier League, whilst their great rivals have yet to finish outside of the top three. The fissure between the pair also only appears to be widening, with United 21 points ahead of the Reds prior to Sunday’s meeting at Old Trafford.

Yet, even taking all this into account, there is salvation in that somehow, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t, this game still seems to matter. And it is easy to see why.

Sunday’s encounter, for example, will feature the league’s two best strikers, Robin van Persie & Luis Suarez, whilst some of English football’s finest servants in Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard are also likely to get a run out. These players do not just hand a credibility boost to the occasion which is barely required, they are the reason for its magnitude.

Matters are also helped by the fact that the resentment which has corrupted the fixture’s protagonists is enduring, even throughout Liverpool’s recent decline. Manchester City’s title win last season may have prompted a brief reassessment of United supporters’ priorities, but it proved only a fleeting distraction for the Red Devils. Roberto Mancini’s men have a few battles to win yet if they are to take precedence over Liverpool in the eyes of those at Old Trafford.

And so Liverpool in particular must hold onto everything which makes them still relevant to the country’s greatest team by taking the latest opportunity to prove that they will soon make this battle last the season, rather than just 180 minutes each year.

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