I saw my first match at Old Trafford back in September 1983.
Frank Stapleton got the winner for United in the second half at the Stretford End and the painful memory of it has lived with me ever since. The cacophonous roar that greeted the goal was ear-splitting; a noise that drilled into the soul and rattled your senses. For United fans beating Liverpool mattered.
Back then Liverpool were the dominant force; at the end of the season crowned Champions for a third consecutive year and a fourth European Cup in the bag to compare with United’s sole triumph in 1968.
The Reds’ harvesting of trophies would continue for a while yet but always in the back of our minds was the fear that we were punching above our weight, that United’s latent strength – their glitz and glamour, their nationwide support, a media that always made them big news – would one day usurp Liverpool’s monopoly on the glory.
As it turned out, decline from our halcyon days had begun before Alex Ferguson apparently knocked “Liverpool off their f*****g perch.”
However, one league title in 1993 – after a drought of 27 years – was enough to break the dam and usher in a Manchester dynasty that was our worst nightmare. Those Ferguson years were tough to take but football tends to run in cycles and although United have since won cups under Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, their mantle of invincibility has slipped.
Liverpool’s resurgence under Jurgen Klopp puts United’s clamour to revive their former glories into an even sharper focus. During the Reds’ domestic wilderness years, we’ve been prominent enough in Europe to stay in the limelight and if anything the lustre surrounding Liverpool FC has grown with each passing year without the league title. It is now Liverpool who are England’s most romantic club but one with a renewed bond between manager and supporters that promises an extended period of success.
That United fans view the prospect of another Manchester City title as the lesser of two evils says it all. As much as their neighbour’s nouveau riche status must irk, it is the notion of schmaltzy old Liverpool back on that proverbial perch that most fills them with dread. It isn’t just the idea of a sickening outpouring of sentimentality and nostalgia that chills Mancunian blood, it’s the fear that the Scousers bucking the Premier League trend could be the start of another period of Anfield rule.
With just 12 games to go, this fixture has a feel of something worth more than three points. Winning in Manchester is a statement of intent, a show of strength, a war cry that could sustain the Reds for the final push.
Our record at Old Trafford since this crackling rivalry soared in the 1980s is chequered to say the least but doesn’t fall into the hoodoo bracket. When Liverpool have been strong, we’ve won – three times resolute under Gerard Houllier, rampant under Rafa with Torres and Gerrard, riotous with Suarez to the fore when Brendan Rodgers fell just short. When we last won the title in 1990, John Barnes led United a merry dance.
Much has been made of United’s revival under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, players suddenly contented, freer spirits after Mourinho’s demise, but their defeat to a weakened Paris St Germain exposed limitations that still prevail. For Solskjaer this is the acid test, a key audition for the job long term, something which underlines the enduring importance to United of putting one over on Liverpool.
For the Reds though the stakes are much higher. This is the toughest obstacle we face between now and the end of the season. A draw puts us top but a win would be glorious and such a giant step towards the title we crave so much. Liverpool have all this in their own hands; the opportunity to make history, the chance to become heroes, to vanquish the bitterest foe along the way.
*Odds are subject to change