Liverpool v Manchester United: Mischief and meaning remain but England's bitterest rivalry isn't quite what it was
There are legendary names amongst Liverpool's local supporter base and one of them is Stephen 'Mono' Monaghan, a veteran of 106 European away games.
Monaghan is the type of person that makes friends wherever he goes, like the waiter in the hotel where he was staying when Liverpool travelled to Russia to play Spartak Moscow last month.
The waiter, from Donetsk in Ukraine, had spent the evening listening to stories about Anfield when Monaghan suggested he should attend Liverpool's game with him the following night. Since sourcing him a ticket and persuading the bar manager it was a good idea to let one of his staff to have some impromptu time off, the waiter and Monaghan have been in regular contact through WhatsApp.
It was not the only story to emerge from that particular trip. As they waited to face CSKA, the Manchester United squad were booked into the same hotel as Monaghan and his mates. Monaghan had been on a boat cruise down the Moskva River when he returned to the Radisson to find José Mourinho in the reception area wearing his tracksuit. What happened next, you might already know about, because messages were quickly sent back to Merseyside and with that, images were distributed across social media in a flash.
"I went up to Mourinho and said in my best Salford accent, 'José, can I have a photo please," Monaghan recalls. "Before he knew it, the camera phones were out and I managed to place a Spirit of Shankly badge near his shoulder, whipping it off before he saw it. So, there was the Manchester United manager: an SOS member…
"It was only a bit of a laugh amongst our mates but inevitably, it found its way onto Twitter. Later that night I received a text off someone at home. It said: 'You've broken in the Internet'."
At breakfast the next morning, Monaghan sat on a table near Paddy Crerand and Mickey Thomas, United legends. Then Mourinho walked in. "He looked over and I knew he was thinking, ‘Is that him from last night?"
Monaghan would complete his stay in Moscow in conversation with Bryan Robson back at the hotel bar after Liverpool's frustrating 1-1 draw. "Really nice fella," Monaghan says of Robson. "He actually came over to us and we got talking about football in the 80s - about Ronnie Moran and the levels of passion in the games. Apparently, he nearly signed for Liverpool instead of United. West Brom were asking for £2.5m, Liverpool would only go to £2.2m and United paid the asking fee. He was a great player, Robson. There was no bother whatsoever. It didn't matter that he was United and we were from Liverpool."
Monaghan's meeting with Mourinho suggests mischief between the clubs is in a healthy state. When, indeed, antipathy manifests itself to what many consider unacceptable levels like it has done both audibly and visually in recent seasons, it will be concluded that the ire between Manchester and Liverpool is as rude as it has ever been.
Monaghan, though, is not the only one who thinks the fixture is not what it was: a rivalry that could involve Ron Atkinson, the United manager who was born in the Old Swan area of Liverpool, being pelted with snowballs in Anfield's old main stand car park.
Stephen Armstrong from the United We Stand fanzine speaks about United's 0-0 draw on Merseyside last October when, though there were enough players involved with the experience to understand what it all means, ultimately, there was only one Mancunian in the United side (a teenager, Marcus Rashford) and no Scousers in the Liverpool side. Three of United's four bookings were for time wasting while no Liverpool player received a yellow card. This was on a Monday night and the crowd was cold and tired after a day at work, rather than agitated because of the unscripted drama being played out in front of them. Mourinho had come for a draw.
"I can't think of a more sanitised fixture in football now," says Armstrong who details the wider contributing factors that have nibbled away at the intensity over the years. "There's a lot more crossing between the cities, with Scousers working in Manchester and Mancunians working in Liverpool, I have been one of them," he adds.
There has been a greater recognition of the social alignment that exists too, with supporters of both clubs following similar paths in terms of music, fashion and politics. Both cities voted to remain in the EU referendum.
Armstrong thinks moods have shifted mainly, though, because Alex Ferguson is no longer Manchester United's manager. "Ferguson absolutely stoked up the rivalry because he put Liverpool on a pedestal and rightly so because they used to win everything in sight."
Ferguson ended up toppling Liverpool but without him there have been no further league titles so far, although this season promises to be one that might change that. Liverpool's wait for a championship, meanwhile, looks likely to stretch into a 28th season. For Daniel Austin from the Anfield Wrap, Ferguson was a seminal figure: "the symbol of United you directed your hatred towards." Ferguson has taken with him United's sense of invincibility.
"The fixture doesn't feel as though it has an impact on the course of a league season like it used to," Austin says. "Neither team for quite a while now has been able to say it is the best team in the country and performances in the Champions League have been poor or non-existent. Since 2006/07 when it would have been a Liverpool-United European Cup final had United beaten AC Milan in the semi, both clubs have fallen some distance. When you don't have meaningful competition it impacts upon the intensity."
Police will monitor motorway bridges for offensive banners ahead of Saturday's lunchtime kick-off but it is inside the stadium where outcomes are defined. Liverpool and United are also linked by frustrations amongst supporters that atmospheres at Anfield and Old Trafford are flatter than they've ever been.
Especially at Liverpool, this is a problem. Peter Hooton, the Farm singer, calls Anfield a "twitching corpse" and Jürgen Klopp still seems to be learning about the venue's reality; this is a place that only occasionally can stir the emotions that helps with the pursuit of the impossible but is more likely to impede progression against opponents Liverpool are expected to beat.
Kevin Sampson, the author of Away Days, speaks of myths relating to Anfield but there nevertheless has been a change, which might show itself even when United visit.
"Fans of my generation talk about The Old Days as though The Kop was this million-decibel lion's den week in, week out," he says. "We had an average attendance of about 36,000 for much of the 80s. But when it mattered – and, very often, even when it didn't – the crowd was just brilliant. I can remember an attendance of 17,000 versus Wroclaw one misty night and the Kop spent the game imitating a foghorn...
"Simple fact – the wit and passion and spontaneity that LFC sell as The Famous Kop didn't stem from a few blokes from Milton Keynes or a carload from Carlisle. That identity - the songs, chants, cruelty and humour - comes from groups of young Scousers, all together, doing their thing. It spreads out from there.
"I love the fact that we have supporters from all over the world. I love the way the new main stand has amplified the noise inside the ground. I want Liverpool to have a diverse and inclusive fanbase. But the big core value - the locality from which the club takes its name - has to be protected and encouraged."
Monaghan, of course, is one of those supporters, someone whose earliest trips abroad as a teenager were because of his love of Liverpool, when Bob Paisley's team's pre-season schedule involved a tournament in Germany. On arrival at a youth hostel in Dusseldorf, Monaghan and the rest of the gang were greeted by men with suspicious eyes, their accents identifying them as being from the English north-west.
"They were Mancunians, United were playing in the same area, maybe the same competition," Monaghan recalls. "There was an assumption that an influx would follow an arrival of a small group of Liverpudlians and so, all but two of the United fans departed the next morning.
"They'd lost their passports and money so we looked after them for three days; fed them, watered them and clothed them," Monaghan says. "These lads are well known in United circles so I won't embarrass them here. But a sort of friendship exists until this day. It could only ever be sort of between us, I suppose."
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Independent News Service