History of the Manchester United – Liverpool rivalry
The Manchester United – Liverpool rivalry is the biggest rivalry in English football. They are England’s two most successful clubs by a distance. It’s not counted as a local derby because the clubs aren’t from the same city, but a distance of just 30 miles separates the clubs.
The rivalry goes beyond football, as the cities have a rivalry between themselves. This has added to the rivalry between the football clubs. When the Manchester Ship Canal was built in 1894, workers in Liverpool lost their jobs. This was because Liverpool was a major sea port, but they suffered when ships could bypass the city and go directly to Manchester. There was anger in Liverpool because of this, and tension began between Liverpool and Manchester.
Just three months later, Manchester United and Liverpool met for their first ever competitive match.
The First Meeting – 1894
Newton Heath – Manchester United’s original name before it was changed in 1902 – finished bottom of the First Division in the 1893/94 season. Liverpool, who were undefeated all season, won the Second Division, which would mean a play-off game between the two clubs for the right to play in the First Division the following season. Liverpool won the game 2-0 and replaced Newton Heath in the First Division. The Man United – Liverpool rivalry was born.
Liverpool won their first league title in 1901. They added a second in 1906, which was the same season Man United were promoted back to the First Division. A couple of years later, in 1908, Man United won their first league title. They then won the first ever Charity Shield in the same year, and won the FA Cup the year after. United won the league and Charity Shield again in 1911.
League football took a break following the outbreak of World War I, before returning in 1919. Liverpool won league titles in 1922 and 1923, as Man United declined. United were relegated in 1923. Between 1923 and 1947, neither club won a trophy, until Liverpool won another First Division title. But once again, both clubs’ fortunes changed.
Man United began to see some stability in 1945 when the legendary Matt Busby was appointed as manager. Busby had previously been a player for United’s two biggest rivals: Manchester City and Liverpool. He played 204 games for Man City and 115 for Liverpool, and was even Liverpool’s captain.
When Busby retired from football, he was offered a job as Liverpool’s assistant manager. But Busby’s ideas differed to theirs, so they allowed him to pursue another job. He met with Man United about taking over as their manager. He demanded that he would be involved with training, be able to pick the team and run the club’s transfer activity because he believed he knew the game better than the club’s officials. A move like this was unprecedented at the time, but the club agreed to the deal. He was initially offered a three-year contract, but convinced the club to give him a five-year deal, as he said that’s how long it would take him to sort things out.
United’s Rise Under Busby
While Busby didn’t bring immediate success to Man United, he brought stability. The club finished as First Division runners-up in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. Just one point separated Man United and Liverpool in the 1946/47 season, as Liverpool narrowly won the league. Busby’s first honour as United manager came in 1948, as they won the FA Cup.
Even though Liverpool won the league in 1947, they weren’t particularly successful during this period. That was their first title since 1923, and they had to wait until 1964 for their next one. While Liverpool were declining, United were ascending.
Busby brought the club their first league title in over 40 years when they won the league in 1952. United were a lot more dominant than Liverpool in the years that followed. They won the First Division in 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965 and 1967: all under Busby. They added an FA Cup in 1963, and became the first English club to win the European Cup when they beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley in 1968.
But in the 1960s, Liverpool also rose. Bill Shankly got them promoted back to the First Division in 1962. Man United and Liverpool found themselves in direct competition for the first time as they battled it out for titles. Liverpool won the First Division in 1964 and 1966, which meant the clubs shared the title for four straight years.
Busby was doing such a good job at United that Real Madrid approached him and asked him to take over as manager. Real Madrid’s president, Santiago Bernabeu Yeste, told Busby it’s “like managing paradise”. But Busby refused, saying “Manchester is my heaven”.
But, after Man United won the league title in 1967 and the European Cup in 1968, they went on a long run without winning the title.
Liverpool became the far more dominant club once again. In 1973, with Bill Shankly still the Liverpool manager, they won the league. This began an era of unbelievable Liverpool dominance that hadn’t been seen before. That was Shankly’s third, and last, title at Liverpool, as he would leave the club the following season, in 1974, after winning the FA Cup.
Between 1974 and 1991, Liverpool had three more managers. Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish all had an unbelievable amount of success. In total, including Shankly’s title win in 1974, the club won the league 11 times. They won it in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990. They won the FA Cup in 1974, 1986 and 1989 and won the League Cup in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Liverpool also won four European Cups during this time: in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984. They also added the European Super Cup in 1977 and the Uefa Cup in 1973 and 1978.
Liverpool were by far the most successful English club after this amazing run of success. Nobody could come close to them. Man United had one thing to latch onto during this time. They beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final in 1977, which denied Liverpool from winning the treble as they won the league and European Cup. United managed some FA Cups during these years – in 1977, 1983, 1985 and 1990 – but there was no comparison.
But after Liverpool won the league in 1990, things changed once again.
Liverpool Decline and Early Alex Ferguson Days
Nobody would have foreseen that Liverpool’s league win in 1990 would be their last for decades. To this day, they’re still without a title. And from then, Man United rose and have been much the better team.
Alex Ferguson took over as manager in 1986. It took him some time to get going, though. They were 21st in the table when he took over, but he led them to 11th. In 1988, United finished second: nine points behind Liverpool. But, after some early promise, things didn’t really improve. During the 1989/90 season, there were calls from fans and the press for Ferguson to be sacked. A banner at Old Trafford read: “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap… ta ra Fergie”.
During that season, United were drawn to play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. Forest were a good side and on a good run of form, while United were not. It was expected that Forest would win the game and Ferguson would be sacked afterwards. But United surprisingly won the game 1-0 and he kept his job. It has since been said that his job was never in danger, but of course they would say that! United went on to win the FA Cup that season, which was Ferguson’s first trophy at the club.
The following season, 1990/91, United finished sixth but won the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
1991/92 was a disappointing season for them. They did win the League Cup and the Uefa Super Cup, but lost out on the league title to Leeds. That was particularly disappointing because Man United were top of the table for quite a while but let it slip away. Leeds also being their rivals didn’t help either, of course.
Man United’s Dominance Begins
The 1992/93 season didn’t start off great, but when United signed Eric Cantona from Leeds, things changed. United went on to win the league title that season, which was their first win since 1967. A late comeback against Sheffield Wednesday, when they scored in injury time, or “Fergie-time”, put them top of the league, and was seen as the game that would push them along their way to winning the title.
That league win kicked off an unbelievable amount of success for United, which was similar to Liverpool’s run in the 1970s and 1980s. Man United absolutely dominated English football for 20 years. They would go on to win the league (now known as Premier League) 13 times during those 20 years: in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013. They won four FA Cups: in 1994, 1996, 1999 and 2004. United won the European Cup (now known as Champions League) on two occasions: in 1999 and 2008. There was the famous treble in 1999, when United won the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.
During this time, Liverpool had a small amount of success, but nothing that was anywhere near the level United had. They won the FA Cup in 1992, 2001 and 2006, and the League Cup in 1995, 2001, 2003 and 2012. They added the Uefa Cup in 2001, which saw them win a treble, but this isn’t seen as a big an achievement as United’s treble for obvious reasons. Liverpool did add another Champions League though, as Rafa Benitez guided them to their fifth success in the competition in Istanbul in 2005. The win meant that they could keep the actual trophy and wouldn’t receive a replica, as Uefa allow that when you’ve won it five times.
Liverpool led the pack when it came to league trophies for a long time after they had so much success in the 1970s and 1980s. But Man United really closed that gap in the 1990s and 2000s when Ferguson’s teams couldn’t stop winning silverware. When Man United won the Premier League in 2009, they equalled Liverpool’s haul of 18 league titles. They won it again in 2011 to overtake them, and added a 20th championship in 2013. The two clubs were involved in a title race in 2009, but Man United emerged victorious; winning the title by four points.
In February 2017, Man United equalled Liverpool’s record of 41 major trophies won when they won the League Cup. Just a few months later, they won the Europa League and surpassed their biggest rivals.
Man United’s Decline
In recent years, things have swung again. Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after winning the Premier League. United are still without a title since then and have encountered struggles. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have all tried, and failed, to bring United back to the top.
Liverpool have improved hugely under Jurgen Klopp and won their first trophy under the German’s guidance in 2019 when they beat Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid. It was their sixth European Cup win, and the trophy brought Liverpool back level on major trophies with Manchester United. With the position the clubs are in at the moment, the Reds will be confident of overtaking them again soon.
As with any big rivalry between clubs, there is genuine hatred from each; from both sets of fans and players. Often when they play, there are arguments on and off the pitch.
Some go too far and cross the line, while others add some real spice to the occasion. Some Man United fans have sung about the Hillsborough disaster and Heysel before, while some Liverpool fans have been guilty of singing about the Munich air disaster. It doesn’t have to be said that this is absolutely disgusting behaviour that should never happen and should not be tolerated. It is just a minority of people that cross the line and sing about stuff like that, though.
But there have been plenty of instances of players, fans and managers clearly showing their hate for each other.
Gary Neville chose to celebrate in front of the Liverpool fans before. He was fined and banned for two matches for the celebration, but has said he never regretted it.
When Liverpool defender Neil Ruddock broke both of Andy Cole’s legs in a reserve match, he said: “I didn’t meant to break both legs, I only meant to break one… I absolutely destroyed him… I know it’s not big and it’s not clever but it was great.”
When Steven Gerrard was showing a film crew around his house, he brought them to a room where he had opposition shirts that he swapped for his own after games. But there were no Man United shirts, because he would never have one in his house.
Gary Neville once said: “I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand the people, I can’t stand anything to do with them.”
And one of the most famous quotes of all time came from Alex Ferguson. “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”
There was also a huge incident between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, when Suarez racially abused United’s French defender. Suarez was banned for eight games after the incident.
Every time the clubs play, there is a huge police operation in place. This is because there is regularly trouble between the two sets of fans. Even with hooliganism declining in English football, fans between the clubs would fight if they got a chance to. There have been numerous incidents of trouble between them in the past, which is far too much to get into in this article.
United fans will say they’re the top club because they’ve done more in recent years and have won more leagues. But Liverpool fans will point to their six European Cups as evidence that they’re the number one club in England. You could argue both sides of it, but regardless of who’s on top, these are the two clubs with the most history and trophies in English football, and it looks like it’ll remain that way for many years to come.
At the moment, Liverpool look the more likely club to challenge at the top of the Premier League and in Europe. But with Man United being such a big club, with huge resources, they never seem like they’re too far away from challenging either. The two could be involved in direct competition once more in the coming years, even if United do look a bit off the pace at the moment.
“History of the Manchester United – Liverpool rivalry” is part of our in-depth series.