For over 40 summers now, I have had one constant priority question on the day the league fixtures are published: “When do we go to Anfield?”
Once you’ve got the date, you scrutinise its chronological environment. Who will we have just played? What is likely to be the title race context?
Will my hubcap insurance still be in force?
And finally, as the day itself looms into view, there’s the sense of anticipation that’s only matched by the build-up to the Manchester derby, with a unique flavour that mixes excitement, bloodlust, and a soupçon of dread.
For the whole of my life, it has been the away game you want to win more than any other, and the one you cannot bear to lose.
Yet here we are, on the eve of what some eejits have started calling the clasico, and you could easily argue that this one matters less than almost any of its predecessors you care to nominate.
After all, neither side possesses any significant chance of winning the title, which is something you have rarely been able to say of this fixture since the early 1960s.
Nor will anyone be able to draw any sensible conclusions from what may transpire, given that both clubs are clearly in the throes of lengthy transitions, about which judgment must be suspended.
Yes, you could easily argue all that. But it’s not what many Reds will be feeling in their bones tomorrow.
Even for those of us who despair of the modern concentration on the ‘star managers’ and all the accompanying hoopla, it will be hard to resist looking at those benches and playing compare ‘n’ contrast.
Klopp versus Van Gaal is, to many Reds, ‘what we could have won’ versus ‘what we were left with’.
In gameshow terms, Klopp is the car we had dreamt of, whereas Van Gaal is the Dusty Bin, or Blankety-Blank chequebook and pen. (“Blankety-blank!” also being how a family newspaper such as this would transcribe our comments after most recent United performances.)
Jealous, us? Just a wee bit.
Despite the obvious fact that Klopp has been no instant messiah for LFC, and arguably faces just as tough a rebuilding job as Van Gaal, it has proved hard to turn a deaf ear to the German’s charm, or a blind eye to the winning gleam of his confident demeanour. (Poor Brendan: even his greatest attributes — expensive glow-in-the-dark teeth — have been outshone by his successor’s.)
Moreover, if you listen hard, you might be able to detect what the French call la petite musique behind all the cacophonous MUFC bluster about LVG supposedly now being safe.
Almost every day, I hear some insinuating melody coming out of Carrington or Old Trafford which hums otherwise.
For example, as I write these lines, I am looking at emailed intel gleaned from David Gill’s circle, which paints a very different picture, one in which an allegedly flustered and all-but-overwhelmed Ed Woodward is being consumed by ongoing internal aggro about the manager.
Some Manchester hacks also continue to mutter that a bad setback tomorrow would put LVG’s neck back into the noose it last felt on that ropey St Stephen’s Day.
One might also cast one’s mind back to another Liverpool match, under a faltering David Moyes, when we were so badly beaten, even ultra-loyalists began to waver.
Admittedly, it took an equally bad defeat within the week against our other great foes, City, to truly get the foundations rocking, but still: tomorrow remains a potentially dangerous day for Louis.
Losing to Liverpool is not like losing to Stoke. Anfield is the last place at which you would choose to be humiliated.
The corollary to all that doom, however, is that there’s a huge prize within Louis’ grasp too.
Liverpool’s inexplicable and madcap inconsistency means we have no real idea who will be emerging from that famous tunnel to face us tomorrow. This could quite conceivably finish 3-0 to either side, depending on Liverpool’s behavioural whims, which is something I doubt we have ever been able to say about any of this fixture’s predecessors.
Thus if you are the kind of optimist who decided to draw some encouragement from last Tuesday’s madness up at Newcastle, you might be thinking along these lines: that Rooney is at least scoring, if not moving, again; that United haven’t wholly forgotten how to show some adventurous intent; and that Liverpool’s defensive glass jaw might easily shatter under a couple of Martial’s lightning jabs.
And what if you’re a pessimist, of the kind who saw nothing at St James’ Park but the footballing equivalent of a hobo fight video, featuring two useless sides who won’t trouble any trophy-engravers but who could still put on a ‘show’ for the rubes?
Then I suppose you’ll be peering into a potential abyss, created by an aged hidebound LVG getting his comeuppance from the dazzling young pretender, plunging O.T. into another Christmas-style crisis.
And perhaps you’ll also be asking, very very quietly: that might just be for the best, in the long run?”
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