The League of Ireland faithful might not care to dwell on the fact but there will be huge numbers of Irish football fans feeling they have real skin in the game when Liverpool host Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.
For all that Arsenal and Man City and Chelsea and Everton and Spurs and the rest command solid support on this island, a long and enduring history of close football and family ties across the Irish Sea with the two main cities of Lancashire has ensured that this fixture is probably the closest thing there is to a kind of Premier League version of an All-Ireland final even if, on this occasion, there is no silverware at stake and only one of the two teams is certifiably bound for ultimate domestic glory this season.
That’s barring unimaginable catastrophe, of course, on which subject I have to doff my hat to the Twitter wag who, reflecting on the recent escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran, observed that it would be “absolutely peak Liverpool” if they were to be denied their long-awaited league title by the outbreak of WW3.
But, speaking as a neutral in these matters, I can attest that it won’t be only Irish Reds of both persuasions tuning in with added interest on Sunday. Of course, when I say neutral, I really mean neutral in favour of one side or another, depending on a host of factors but mainly to do with the cyclical nature of what constitutes footballing greatness, both individual and collective.
So, even when I was nailing my supporter’s colours exclusively to the Hoops mast as a kid, I still had no problem rooting for Manchester United in the 1968 European Cup Final.
I might then have been only vaguely aware of how significant that Holy Grail had become for Matt Busby in the wake of the Munich disaster but I certainly needed no further education beyond the evidence of my own eyes to recognise that, in the blessed trinity of Best, Charlton and Law — though the latter was missing through injury for the 4-1 victory against Benfica at Wembley — United possessed one of football’s most exhilarating attacking tridents.
But, at the same time, I had absolutely no difficulty in revering the great Bill Shankly — because how could you not? — or delighting in the exploits of Hunt and St John and Callaghan and Hughes, even as Liverpool came up short that same season, finishing third in the title race, two points behind United, with Manchester City crowned champions.
(Incidentally, I trust the climatologists will one day get to the root of what has caused a succession of prolonged droughts in Lancashire. After that City title, the club would have to wait 44 years before claiming their next one, courtesy of AguerOH! in 2012; it would take United another 36 years from their 1967 success to bag the gong again, in 1993; and now, of course, Liverpool are at long last closing in on a league triumph which will finally bring 30 years of hurt to a close).
Given the bitterness of the rivalry between the adjacent red empires, I don’t doubt that if their respective supporters could find agreement on one thing and one thing only, it would be that neutrality in these matters is a perverse abomination.
But, when you consider the great teams and great players both have produced down the years and, at least until recently, the succession of Irish stars who have graced Anfield and Old Trafford, I reckon it’s no bad thing to be in a position where you can feel entirely comfortable about giving credit where it’s due, even to the extent of being able to profess feelings of love for one uncontaminated by feelings of hate for the other.
Which is precisely where I, and I suspect a great many others, find ourselves in 2020. Because, for anyone with a feel for football’s potential to inspire and excite, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are an undiluted joy, as easy to love as they are easy on the eye.
Up front and centre stage there’s the tremendous triple threat of Salah, Mane and Firmino, of course, not quite a match for United’s all-time holy trinity, but not too far behind either. There’s Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, the most influential attacking defensive double-act in the business.
At the back, there’s the Baresi-like imperiousness of Van Dijk and, behind him, the no less composed and confident Allison, two signings who, between them, have done so much to transform Liverpool from wannabes into willbes.
And then there are the comparatively unsung heroes, like Henderson, Wijnaldum and, whenever he is required to answer the call, the indefatigable James Milner — not up there jostling for star billing with the marquee names, perhaps, but along with the rest of the squad, absolutely essential to that relentless, never-say-die spirit which has become the team’s default setting under Klopp and which, on those days when the champagne football isn’t exactly bubbling, has helped to ensure this remarkable side continues to get itself over the line.
If Liverpool are close to but not quite the finished article — as Graeme Souness mused in Dublin last week, imagine if they had a midfield maestro of the calibre of Kevin De Bruyne at their disposal — it’s much harder to say if Manchester United, consistent only in their inconsistency, are a work in progress or regression.
Off the pitch as well as on it, Liverpool are clearly in a far superior place — it’s impossible to imagine something akin to the Paul Pogba soap opera being allowed a full series under Klopp — and, by all objective standards, should provide further convincing evidence of that at Anfield on Sunday.
But, as we have seen already this season, United’s counter-attacking strengths mean that, on a good day at the office, they still have enough about them to suggest that, if the hosts aren’t quite at it, the visitors can at least bloody their nose and puncture their sense of invincibility.
But short-term gain is about as much as Manchester United can hope to achieve. They certainly won’t be knocking their great rivals off their perch on Sunday or, by the looks of things, any time soon. And, loving this Liverpool side as we do, us neutrals won’t have any complaints about that.