The North-West Derby: Manchester United v Liverpool Rivalry & History

Liverpool v Manchester UnitedThe Liverpool and Manchester United rivalry is not only one of the biggest and most watched match ups in the UK, but one of the most famous derby games in world football. It brings together England's two most successful sides, with 38 League titles, 9 European Cups and 19 FA Cups between them.

This game also pitches two rival cities together, both from the north-west of England, with only 35 miles separating the two along the M62 motorway.

Each club's most successful periods have often coincided with their opposite number's baron spells, which has only added to the animosity that the two sets of fans hold for each other.

Football fans from all over the globe will be tuning in to see the fireworks before, during and after this most heated of encounters.

Map of Manchester United & Liverpool Stadiums

Map of Manchester United & Liverpool Stadiums

About the Liverpool v Manchester United Rivalry

There are several matches around the world that grasp the attention of the footballing community. The likes of the Old Firm derby, the game between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the Derby della Madonnina featuring the two Milan clubs spring to mind. In England, sides such as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur might claim to be a big derby, to say nothing of Everton and Manchester City’s games against Liverpool and United respectively. Yet in reality the clash of the Reds and the Red Devils outdoes them all. It is one of the first fixtures that football fans look for, regardless of their own personal loyalties, with lovers of the game tuning in to watch the sides battle it out.

We’ll be looking at what makes the fixture so potent on this page, but it’s fair to say that it’s about more than just the football. The two teams are the most successful in the history of the English game, so it’s little wonder that every clash between them is seen as a clash of titans. Add in to that the geographical proximity between the two cities that they represent and you can begin to understand exactly why it’s one of the standout games of the footballing calendar. It’s not just the football that they’ve clashed over, either, with both cities competing on an industrial and economic scale throughout previous centuries. It isn’t just a matter of footballing pride when the two sides meet, but of superiority in every sense over one another.

The Liverpool-Manchester Industrial Rivalry

Albert Docks in Liverpool

Before we even begin to look at the footballing rivalry that is important between Manchester and Liverpool we first need to inspect the rivalry between the two cities. After all, the clubs have never liked each other much even well before they became successful, so why is that the rivalry sprouted up in the first place?

In order to successfully answer that question you need to go back as far as the industrial revolution. The cities of Liverpool and Manchester are located just thirty-five miles from each other, meaning that they have constantly been throwing envious glances to see how the other is developing. Initially it was Manchester that was the larger and more populous of the two, remaining so until towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was at that point, however, that Liverpool’s sea port began to grown in both scale and importance.

The port of Liverpool was crucial to the development of Northern cotton mills, meaning that as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth it actually began to take over from Manchester in terms of its importance to England as a whole. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century and start of the second Liverpool was often being referred to as the ‘Second City of the British Empire’.

Whilst they were loath to admit it, Manchester’s merchants were beholden to Liverpool if they wanted to bring goods in and export what they were making. The result was that it became important to transport things between the two cities and the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey and Irwell Navigation became crucial means of moving those goods. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway made it even easier to transport materials from the ships coming into the Mersey through to both Salford and Manchester.

The Manchester Ship Canal

Barton Road Swing Bridge and Aqueduct on the Manchester Ship Canal
Barton Road Swing Bridge and Aqueduct on the Manchester Ship Canal by Andrew, flickr

By the end of the nineteenth century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had become practically unusable, having fallen into a state of disrepair. That, combined with the fact that the dock and railway companies in Liverpool charged Manchester’s merchants to move goods, meant that those merchants decided it was time that the city started to find a way to ship things for themselves. They funded the building of a ship canal from the Mersey Estuary into Manchester, allowing ocean vessels to head straight into the city and therefore bypassing Liverpool.

Obviously the politicians, dockers and business-minded folk of Liverpool objected strongly to the building of the ship canal and stopped its supporters from gaining the Act of Parliament it needed to become a reality when it was first proposed in 1882. They continued to press the issue, however, and eventually construction got under way in 1887.

It took more than six years to build and cost £15 million, which is the equivalent of around £1.65 billion in today’s money. As far as those in Manchester were concerned, though, it was very much worth it, allowing the city to become the country’s third biggest port in spite of the fact that it was forty miles from the sea.

The popularity of the canal grew and grew so that by 1958 it was able to handle around eighteen million tonnes worth of freight a year. Whilst that was its peak and things went downhill from there, it still proved to be the catalyst for a rivalry between the two biggest cities in the north-west. Liverpool’s dockers felt that it was taking work away from them, whilst Manchester’s labourers still hadn’t forgiven the Merseysiders for the excessive tolls imposed on them for the use of the city’s dock and railway.

There is an argument that all of this fed into the footballing world, given that the canal’s opening in 1894 came just three months before the relatively new teams of Liverpool and Newton Heath Football Clubs went up against each other in a play-off match that resulted in the club that would later become Manchester United being relegated down to the Second Division.

Shifting Political Landscapes

Container Ships in Dock at Southampton

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there were numerous moves that meant that Liverpool began to lose out in trade to ports based in the south of the country. That the nation was no longer reliant on coal and the Asian market began to have more influence on British trade certainly didn’t help matters.

To rub salt into the wounds of the Liverpool traders, Manchester managed to maintain a large degree of its manufacturing in spite of the changes in fortune and the lack of need for merchants to use the ship canal, meaning that the city continued to develop and grow. Until March of 1974 the two cities had at least been tied together by the fact that they were both part of the county of Lancashire, but the Local Government Act of 1972 meant that Liverpool became the main city of Merseyside and Manchester part of the Greater Manchester region.

The two cities were not only pitched against each other geographically but also as representatives of their own county. They were also pitched against each other in terms of attempting to reflect the north-west region, with Manchester being awarded the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and Liverpool becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2008. The two things helped the cities to revitalise themselves, but that didn’t make the residents and the city councils any less competitive, with the off-field rivalry reflecting what had taken place on the pitch for more than a century.

The History of the Footballing Rivalry

Now that you understand the context of the way the two cities felt about each other away from the football we can look towards what has happened on the pitch over the years. Manchester United Football Club started life as Newton Heath LYR FC in 1878, though the club didn’t play its first competitive match until 1886 in the first round of that year’s FA Cup.

Liverpool Football Club, meanwhile, was formed in 1892 when the city of Liverpool’s main team Everton chose to leave Anfield because of a disagreement with the club’s then president John Houlding of the terms of rent. Everton moved to Goodison Park and Houlding created a new team that he named Liverpool.

The Early Years

1st Division Championship Trophy
1st Division Championship Trophy by Edmund Gall, flickr

If the geographical proximity of the cities of Liverpool and Manchester to each other wasn’t already enough to create tension between the football clubs that represented them, the manner of their first meeting surely was. The Merseyside club had been put into the Second Division for its first league campaign, going unbeaten and being elected to join the First Division.

Back then it wasn’t a matter of straight promotion and relegation as it is nowadays, with the bottom side from the top-flight and the winner of the second-tier going head-to-head in order to see who would be in the First Division the following year.

With Liverpool having won the Second Division, it was Newton Heath that the needed to beat in order to move up into the top-flight; something that they did with a 2-0 win. The Reds won their first Football League trophy just seven years after gaining promotion at the expense of their soon-to-be-rivals, winning another one in 1906.

That was also the year that Newton Heath, now known as Manchester United, gained promotion back to the First Division as runners-up of the Second Division. In something of a sign of what was to come, the two clubs’ fortunes flipped and Liverpool dropped to mid-table at the same time as the Red Devils won their first title.

That flipping of fortunes occurred again when on-field hostilities resumed after the off-field hostilities of the First World War had ended, with Liverpool winning back-to-back titles and United dropped back down to the Second Division. In the years that followed, United’s existence was spent bouncing between the two leagues of English football, whilst Liverpool remained resolutely in the top one but without really challenging for anything other than local trophies.

Fortunes Flip but The Munich Disaster Strikes

Clock at Old Trafford to Commemorate the Munich Air Disaster

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Liverpool won another title before struggling and being relegated down to the Second Division. In what is one of football’s great ironies, Manchester United appointed former Liverpool captain Matt Busby as their manager and saw their fortunes be completely revived as a result.

They won an FA Cup in 1948 and then, during the 1950s, three more league titles and a Charity Shield. Under Busby the club also became the first English side to compete I the relatively new competition called the European Cup.

It was during one such European adventure in 1958 that Manchester United suffered a terrible tragedy, when the plane carrying the team back from their quarter-final match against Red Star Belgrade crashed after refuelling in Munich. The 6th of February 1958 will forever be etched on the memory of anyone associated with the club, a date that saw twenty-three people lose their lives including eight member of Busby’s squad.

The manager himself was badly injured, resulting in his assistant taking over whilst he recovered. When he did so Busby went about rebuilding the squad, bringing in countless top-class players such as Denis Law and George Best, winning an FA Cup in 1963 and two league titles in 1965 and 1968.

Liverpool Recover Whilst United Struggle

Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley Mural at the Anfield Museum
Anfield Museum by Edmund Gall, flickr

In 1968 Matt Busby completed the task that he’d set out to do in 1958 when he led Manchester United to a European Cup victory. They joined Celtic in being one of only two British clubs to have won the trophy, resigning from his position the following year. His resignation was a shock to the club, who installed the club’s reserve team coach, Wilf McGuinness, as the permanent boss.

Things didn’t go well for him, finishing eighth in his first season in charge and then starting his second one poorly. Busby briefly returned to the club before being replaced by Frank O’Farrell in June of 1971, then Tommy Docherty in December of the following year. Despite initially saving the club from relegation, they went down at the end of the 1974 campaign.

Over at Anfield, meanwhile, things had gone from strength to strength. They’d appointed Bill Shankly as the manager in 1959 and in 1962 he’d seen them promoted back to the top-flight. When the Scotsman arrived at the club he said that he wanted to build the home ground into a ‘bastion of invincibility’, which he promptly went about doing.

He won the First Division in 1964, 1966 and 1973, also winning the FA Cup in 1965 and 1974 as well as the UEFA Cup in 1973. Perhaps even more importantly for the Merseyside club was the establishment of the Boot Room culture, which led to Bob Paisley taking over from Shankly, Joe Fagan becoming manager after Paisley and Kenny Dalglish leading the Reds after Fagan.

Shankly is seen by many as being the father of modern day Liverpool FC and it’s easy to see why; thanks to the culture put in place by the Scotsman the Reds would go on to win eleven league titles, nineteen cups and seven European cups over a twenty year period. Manchester United supporters had to sit in the shadows and watch as Liverpool dominated English and European football at a time when they had to make do with occasional forays in the FA Cup. That being said, they did get one over their more successful rival when they beat them in the FA Cup final of 1977.

Liverpool Suffer  Heysel and Hillsborough Tragedies

Hillsborough Tragedy Memorial in Liverpool
Hillsborough Tragedy Memorial in Liverpool by Donald Judge, flickr

It is not just their footballing success that link the two clubs. Having suffered tragedy with the Munich disaster in 1958, Manchester United knew only too well how a football club can be affected when tragedy strikes. Liverpool suffered not one but two during the 1980s, with the first occurring at Heysel Stadium in 1985. The Reds had reached the final and were due to face Juventus in the Belgian ground, despite both clubs having appealed to UEFA to move the match elsewhere as the stadium was in no fit state to host such an important game.

The ground was split up according to the two sets of supporters, with one part reserved for neutral supporters from the city. A lot of Juventus fans got tickets for that section as there was a large Italian community in the area, resulting in the two sets of supporters engaging in skirmishes. Some Liverpool fans charged at those Italian supporters, who backed away from them and towards one of the crumbling walls of the ground.

The wall itself fell, leading to people attempting to get away and being crushed in the ensuing melee. Thirty-nine people lost their lives as a result, with English clubs being banned from Europe indefinitely because of what happened. Most English sides were allowed to re-enter European competition five years later but Liverpool were banned for a further year.

Four years after Heysel and the worst sporting disaster to happen on English soil took place at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. The Reds were up against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final and, much like with Heysel, the club had appealed to the Football Association to either play the game in a more suitable venue or, at the very least, change the ends of the ground that the supporters would be housed in.

The FA refused and, because of a combination of police incompetence and a stadium that wasn’t up to scratch, ninety-six Liverpool supporters died when an exit gate was opened and too many people entered too small a space. In the wake of the disaster the police engaged in one of the biggest cover-ups ever, attempting to blame the supporters for what happened despite the evidence being clear that that wasn’t the case.

The Premier League Era

Sir Alex Ferguson During Champions League Match
Sir Alex Ferguson During Champions League Match by melis,

In another example of the fortunes of the two clubs flip-flopping, Liverpool won their final First Division title in 1990 and the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 changed the face of football. It came at a time when Manchester United had been adapting the way the club was run to prepare for the future but their Merseyside rivals took a ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach. As well as developing Old Trafford to make it one of the largest football grounds in the UK, the club installed Alex Ferguson in the managerial hotseat who arrived with the aim of ‘knocking Liverpool off their f*****g perch’.

To suggest that the Scot achieved his aim would be understating things somewhat, with the Red Devils going on to win thirteen league titles, twenty-three cups and seven European trophies before he retired. Much as the Red Devils won a few cups during Liverpool’s period of dominance, so too did the Reds pick up a number of trophies when their bitter rivals were the force in England. As well as a League Cup in 2003 and an FA Cup in 2006, for example, the Merseysiders also picked up their fifth European Cup in 2005.

That meant that they were the best British side in the top European competition, having won it five times compared to United’s three. United, meanwhile, picked up twenty titles in comparison to Liverpool’s eighteen. When you look at it in such stark terms, it’s easy to see why the two clubs supporters dislike each other so much.

In terms of success, only six times between 1972 and 2017 did neither Liverpool nor Manchester United finish in the top two positions of the English top-flight. Even when that happened it’s worth noting that one of the teams won some silverware during five of the six seasons, such as Liverpool’s Champions League win in 2005.

Success, of course, doesn’t breed friendliness so much as disdain for the side winning more often than you. That’s how it has always been for Liverpool and Manchester United, with the two teams and the people who support them adamant in their hatred for the other. Whether it be unsavoury chants between the fans when they play each other or the players of both teams refusing to be respectful of each other when they meet on international duty, there’s no question about the passion on display when they go head-to-head.

Players who Have Represented Both Sides

Speaking of players, it’s noteworthy that none have moved directly between the clubs since Phil Chisnall did so in April of 1964. He was the ninth player to do so, following in the footsteps of the likes of Ted Savage in 1938 and Thomas McNulty in 1954. That is not to say that no players have played for both teams since 1964, of course. Paul Ince moved from Old Trafford to Internazionale before heading from Milan to Anfield in 1997, later becoming the Liverpool captain.

Another player to turn out for both teams was Peter Beardsley, who moved from Old Trafford to Vancouver Whitecaps and then Newcastle United before arriving on Merseyside. Michael Owen ended up at Manchester United via Newcastle United, having left Liverpool for Real Madrid in 2004. He was considered to be one of Liverpool’s best strikers prior to his decision to head to Spain on a Bosman free transfer and then signing for Alex Ferguson’s team, resulting in a huge number of Liverpool fans considering him to be a traitor. This in spite of the fact that he later become a club ambassador for the Anfield-based team.