The biggest soccer derbies usually take place between teams from the same city. Inter versus Milan, River Plate versus Boca Juniors, América versus Pumas, Betis versus Sevilla, Real versus Atlético, Partizan versus Red Star, the list goes on.
The rivalry with a next-door neighbor competing for the same honors as well as local bragging rights, is natural. They can be bitter, tribal, unpleasant, and aggressive. At their best they are passionate, and for 90 minutes entire cities can come to a standstill while the most important game in the world takes place.
Liverpool’s city rivals are Everton, while Manchester United compete with Manchester City for local pride, but neither of these games has quite the same feeling about them as the meetings between Liverpool and Manchester United.
In many ways, Liverpool and Manchester are the same city. They are connected by industry, trade; by the River Mersey, and eventually by the Manchester Ship Canal.
They are connected by music, fashion, and politics. The cities are as similar as they are different.
The industrial revolution brought competition between the two long before soccer did. Liverpool was the port city, a gateway for trade and raw materials that powered this production. Manchester was the most important part of Lancashire’s cotton industry, dubbed Cottonopolis.
The Bridgewater Canal, the railway system, the rivers Mersey and Irwell, and the Ship Canal, meant Liverpool was also the gateway to Manchester. The connections between the two brought immigrants as well as trade which shaped these working-class northern cities.
In a recent documentary broadcast on Liverpool’s club channel, LFCTV, former Stone Roses bass player, Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield commented that Manchester is: “like a pirate ship full of scurvy dogs, vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells, and a couple of half-decent football teams every now and again, and a couple of half-decent bands. Much the same as Liverpool really.”
When the game of association football took off at a professional level in the north of England in 1888, it was only a matter of time before these two powerhouses joined the party.
United themselves were originally the team of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway company, Newton Heath LYR, formed in 1878 before changing to their current name in 1902. Liverpool was formed by brewer and politician John Houlding in 1892, and the two clubs joined the Football League in 1892 and 1893 respectively.
The two clubs alternated league title wins for four seasons between 1964 and 1967, and United’s win in ’67 saw them level on seven league titles apiece.
A period of dominance from Liverpool followed in the late 1970s and 80s. It was spearheaded by Bill Shankly, who laid the foundations, and Bob Paisley who became one of the most successful managers in the history of the game, also winning three of the club’s six European Cups – as many as United have in total to this day.
This was the beginning of a rivalry based on domestic dominance which one had but the other wanted, and a craving for European Cups to really raise the bar among English sides.
By the time Liverpool won their last league title in 1990, they had 18 titles to their name. United was still stuck on seven.
Enter Alex Ferguson, and enter a rebranded first division named the Premier League. This was United’s league, and from winning their first in 1993 to their last in 2013 they managed to take their league title tally to 20, all 13 of them won by Ferguson.
The Scotsman played a key part in creating this rivalry. He was envious of what Liverpool had and made “knocking them off their perch,” his main aim.
This filtered through to fans and players at both clubs, and as Liverpool endured a barren period without a league title, their rivals were enjoying the most successful period in their history, also winning two European Cups under Ferguson.
There is now a possibility that the tables will turn again, only this time, Liverpool’s attempts to catch United are thwarted by new money and a new force in Manchester, Pep Guardiola’s City.
Jürgen Klopp’s side finished just one point behind City last season, though they did win the Champions League, giving them a sixth European Cup and making them one of the most successful sides in the history of the competition.
Manchester United versus Liverpool has become a game where the overriding emotion from both sets of fans is a fear of losing, and with United struggling under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a loss for Liverpool would hurt their title challenge and their pride.
Both cities are now modern metropoles, building upward, redeveloping outward. They retain remnants of those industrial days, and the workers that came during them who became football fans.
These fans and the rivalry between them will remind us what Manchester United and Liverpool once were, and what they still aspire to be.