When it comes to the subject of the United-Liverpool rivalry, I am often reminded of the phrase "the narcissism of small differences". What must we look like to outsiders?
Discussing this many years ago with a representative of what both Scousers and Mancs might call ‘the southern ponce community’, I was struck aghast by his shrugging summation: “you’re all the same to me. You both talk weird, walk weird, love to drink and fight, and are obsessed with the European Cup.”
Add the fact we both come from places marked by centuries of immigration, and cordially loathe England’s London establishment, then perhaps it’s a fair cop.
Yet here we were again yesterday, continuing the never-ending saga that is football’s equivalent of the Hundred Years War. Or, to switch martial analogies, it’s an eternal War of the Rose; two ends of what was once Lancashire, fighting over the scraps of the mere thirty-odd miles that separate us.
That physical aspect is often overlooked, so used are we all to the national and even global attention paid to our twice-yearly squabbles. But this is also about actual territory, with a battlefront that ranges over the wide open spaces of West Lancashire and Cheshire. Every 10 years or so, you can take the temperature by dipping your toe into a pub in, say, the approaches to Wigan or Chester. Listen to the accents, and count the respective clubs’ punters watching the big screens on matchdays; tally up the supporters clubs’ branch coaches as they set out on their Saturday pilgrimages to either Old Trafford or Anfield.
We all care about these things, about the balance of forces and the trophy counts and the pubs we ‘own’ — and that is either very silly or very satisfying. Possibly both, actually: after all, isn’t football both completely unimportant and yet utterly vital at the same time? As some pundit once wisely said, football means so much only because it doesn’t really matter.
That said, yesterday really did matter more than usual. The entire national media had decided last week Louis Van Gaal’s months of experiments had finally ‘clicked’ against Spurs, although some Reds remained in a well-populated cautious camp, demanding verification. That is the scientific method, after all: an experiment is only judged to be worthy of writing up as a success when it’s been repeated under lab conditions. Louis played the white-coated role to perfection by unprecedentedly picking the same team in the same formation, as obvious an acknowledgement that he truly thought he’d cracked it as you could ask for.
I daresay it was no less important to Liverpool, savouring the possible prize of leapfrogging into a Champs League spot. You could even make an argument for this potentially being the most significant so-called clasico at Anfield since 1993, when United’s ‘men in black’ victoriously exorcised the ghosts of April 1992, thereby placing one hand on what had come to be regarded as LFC’s default trophy.
That 1993 match also finished 2-1 to United but contained nothing as hilariously unforgettable as yesterday’s Gerrard red card, or as jaw-droppingly magnificent as Juan Mata’s wonderstrike. Or, come to that, as majestic as the Herrera-driven opener. (Having sung the praises of the oft-overlooked Spanish duo so often here that I have risked sounding like a frustrated lover, I can surely be excused for bellowing ‘told you so!’ at volume mark 11.) The LvG ‘United enigma’ is surely over: the only mystery left yesterday was why we were still having to watch our backs in those final minutes, so thoroughly had we dominated.
This column always takes the long, and wide, view — as today’s lengthy preamble has perhaps reminded you. Red folk memories run far and deep at a club that fetishes its own history, and we don’t like kneejerk reactions. But the temptation to label yesterday as a potentially historic moment in not only LvG’s career but in the greater United/Liverpool war is hard to resist. “Schmoke and a pancake?” Don’t mind if I do.
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