The 2,700 Manchester United fans were the last to be allowed to leave Anfield after seeing their team defeated 2-0 in the Europa League last-16 first-leg tie.
The streets outside had been cleared, thoroughfares amid tight terraced housing and the construction site of Liverpool’s giant main stand. They had been filled with joyous Liverpool fans singing about “poetry in motion” and Manchester perhaps not being their desired holiday destination. A flag in the United end read: ‘Liverpool FC. 31 miles from Greatness.’
Manchester United were not great on Thursday night. Liverpool had triumphed after losing their previous four games to their greatest rivals and the night was theirs.
Anfield was a horrible place to be for this United fan as the suited, smiling Liverpool players spoke to journalists about wonderful Anfield atmospheres and travelling to Old Trafford confident of protecting their two-goal lead.
Two Spanish journalists, one a Barca socio, said they had never experienced an atmosphere so impressive in their lives. You’ll Never Walk Alone was so loud and went on for so long that a regular Liverpool watcher claimed it was the best he had experienced for years. It is normally much flatter, apparently. I wouldn’t know; I only visit with United.
It was special, yet in among 41,000 people hollering “Walk on”, my brain was adjusted to amplify the sound of the 2,700 singing a defiant ‘Manchester!’ It was stirring stuff and the game between England’s biggest, most successful and world renowned clubs had not even started.
United’s travelling support is superb. Loud, proud, loyal. Premier League fans in England were this week cheered to find out that away tickets will be capped to a £30 (Dh157) price limit from next season. Protesting Liverpool and United fans helped achieve that, though a more pressing issue for United fans is how to get a ticket in the first place. Fifteen thousand routinely apply for allocations of 3,000 for away matches. Most at Anfield were the ones who had been to European away games this season, to watch the dross in Moscow or Eindhoven or Wolfsburg.
They sang amusing songs taunting Liverpool for not winning the league for 26 years (United have been champions 13 times since Liverpool’s 1990 title) and teased “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” during any brief lulls. Plenty, though, did themselves or their club no favours by singing “The Sun was right, you’re murderers”.
Many Liverpool fans sang about the 1958 Munich air disaster for years. As a young supporter on the Stretford End in the late 1980s, I can remember seeing inflatable aeroplanes tossed around the packed Scoreboard Paddock where Liverpool fans would cram onto a shallow terrace two hours before kick-off.
United fans used to retort with songs about Bill Shankly, one of the greatest ever football managers, dying. They’d to sing: “Attack, attack, he had a heart attack!” or “He’s dead, he’s gone, he died in ’81! Shankly! Shankly!”
I know the words because I was part of that crowd. Stretford End, right side, though it could have been on any side of Old Trafford. I had been brought up in a household where I was indoctrinated to believe that Scousers were the enemy. My father still refuses to visit Liverpool. He has only ever been to play football games against semi-professional teams from Liverpool, though he very reluctantly concedes that Liverpool produces “decent” footballers. Of course it does, it is a great football city. Just like Manchester.
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Then I grew up and made a living writing about football. Met Scousers I liked and still like. I heard stories about Shankly’s strong connections with United. He was friends with United’s Matt Busby (himself a Liverpool great), who was from a similar Scottish mining stock. Shankly would call Paddy Crerand, still that most red-eyed United watcher, on a Sunday morning after matches to try to glean information from the Old Trafford dressing room. Crerand would do likewise from Liverpool. There was respect between people associated with two clubs in two cities which have more in common than not.
The Munich songs all but ceased after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, with Liverpool reeling from their own suffering. Among the first to pay their respects at Anfield were United manager Alex Ferguson and chairman, Martin Edwards.
The rivalry changed, but the enmity remains between fans of England’s two biggest football clubs. It can bring excitement, passion and an edge that is often lost in the overly sanitised world of Premier League football, but a brilliant rivalry is not bettered with songs relating to disasters. Not Munich, not Hillsborough, not Heysel. Innocent people lost their lives at all three, football people just like those singing.
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Yet you will find fans with warped mentalities who justify their actions. They would struggle to do it publicly. They would lose their jobs or be banned from stadiums. So they hide away behind online pseudonyms, they sing when there is power in a crowd and they can be relatively anonymous. How very brave, how commendable, of them.
They actually enjoy it, the goading, the reactions, those extreme elements on both sides who thrive on hate — at least during the games. After the game, many lead normal lives and are otherwise rational people. They are glad when they hear such songs because it allows them to call the other side ‘scum’ — when there is a minority of scum on both sides. It’s tit for tat nonsense with both sides claiming one upmanship as if they are somehow morally superior than the other. They would rather overlook their own foibles, preferring to highlight them in their foes. It is playground politics with a pathetic twist.
I have seen United fans delight in self-righteousness after viewing an online video of some Liverpool fans singing Munich songs. I have heard Liverpool fans spread false rumours about United fans urinating on the Hillsborough memorial, proof in their tiny minds that all United fans are scum. These empty vessels make a lot of noise — and they have more opportunities to with the proliferation of social media.
The majority don’t sing songs relating to any disasters, yet the chants will not be eliminated. Too many people enjoy the reactions in the warped name of rivalry. Yes, emotions rise and the games are tribal. There is provocation on both sides and some sink to the lowest common denominator. But it’s still a great shame and a persistent slur on the one of the greatest rivalries in world football.
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