Our Manc on the Kop: Why Liverpool vs Man United is More Than A Game
My head feels like it’s going to explode. Barely 10 yards in front of me, John O’Shea is wheeling away in celebration and the stunned Scouse silence means the joyous screams of the United’s players are audible.
We’ve beaten arch rivals Liverpool in dramatic and, many will say, undeserved circumstances: 1-0, at Anfield, with a killer late goal after defending for much of the game. We’re now 12 points clear in the race for a title most fans considered out of reach last August.
As the players shout at lung-bursting volume and exchange frenzied hugs, I have to contain the euphoria of this perfect, body-tingling buzz, not showing the slightest sign of joy. I’m on the Kop, a lone Mancunian in a mass of 12,000 fuming Liverpool fans.
After glancing one last time at the ecstatic United players and 3,000 delirious travelling fans in the Anfield Road stand, I jog back to the car through the streets of dilapidated and boarded-up Victorian terraces which surround Anfield, past pubs, the ones closest to the ground teeming with fans from Bergen and Basingstoke, with their painted faces, jester hats and replica kits. It reminds me of Old Trafford.
Finally, in the relative safety of the car, I let my emotions go and punch the air repeatedly, before looking out to see a man staring at me from his front room window. He raises his two fingers. It’s no ‘V’ for victory and I don’t need assistance from a lip reader to know what he’s saying. It’s time to get on the East Lancs Road and back to Manchester.
My mood had been so different before the match as I queued to get onto the Kop for the first time in my life. I’d not seen a United fan all day, save for the Mancunian ticket touts working alongside their Scouse counterparts behind the Kop.
“We’re in the same game and we all know each other,” explains one. Whether you’re at the Winter Olympics in Japan or Glastonbury, the vast majority of spivs will be Mancunian or Scouse, an unholy alliance of wily, streetwise grafters.
Like me, 95% of the United fans at Anfield wore no colours, but paranoia gripped me as I reached my seat. It would take just one person to suss I wasn’t a Liverpool fan and I’d be in serious trouble. I wasn’t going to attempt to fit in by trying a Scouse accent, mutilating words like chicken to a nasal ‘shickin’ or calling people ‘la’, ‘soft lad’ or ‘wack’, but I wasn’t aiming to advertise my allegiances either.
“Alright mate,” said the lad next to me in a North Wales accent.
“Alright mate,” I replied, cagily. They were the last words I spoke all game.
When the fans sang You’ll Never Walk Alone I focused on events on the field. I did the same when they chanted, “You’ve won it two times, just like Nottingham Forest,” in reference to United’s two European Cups compared with Liverpool’s five.
I ignored the constant anti-Gary Neville abuse, was surprised that Ronaldo wasn’t booed once – “We don’t go for that ‘little Englander’ nonsense,” a Scouser explained later – and stunned that the Kop applauded Edwin van der Sar as he took to his goal. The Dutchman applauded back warmly.
All around me, Liverpool’s flags continued the European theme: ‘Paisley 3 Ferguson 1’ reads one. Liverpool are obsessed with flags. One piece of cloth even has its own website; others try hard to be examples of the famed Scouse wit.
At half time, I met Peter Hooton, former lead singer of The Farm, and lifelong Liverpool fan by the Kop’s refreshment kiosks where the Polish catering staff struggle to decipher the Scouse brogue.
“What are you going to do when we score?” he asked.
But Liverpool didn’t score.
It is commonly agreed that there is rising tension between fans of Liverpool and Manchester United. At Old Trafford last October, both clubs sought to defuse the increasingly fraught atmosphere.
During an FA Cup game at Anfield in February 2006, a Liverpool fan had hurled a cup of excrement into the 6,000 United fans on the lower tier of the Anfield Road, hitting one on the head. After the game, Liverpool fans rocked the ambulance carrying United striker Alan Smith to hospital – though Smith later received hundreds of cards from well-wishing Liverpudlians, keen to stress that this was something which made them ashamed.
At Old Trafford, greats like Denis Law, Ian Callaghan, Bobby Charlton and Roger Hunt were paraded on the pitch before the game and a penalty competition was held between rival fans. It didn’t work. Not that anyone was too surprised given the levels of animosity. Liverpool fans approaching Manchester that day had been greeted with freshly-painted ‘Hillsborough ’89’ graffiti on a bridge over the M602 in the gritty United heartland of Salford. Closer to the stadium, another sprayed message bore the legend: ‘Welcome to Old Trafford, you murdering Scouse bastards.’
The teams were led out by Gary Neville, punished for the crime of celebrating in front of Liverpool fans the previous season, and Steven Gerrard. Both understand the United-Liverpool rivalry acutely, given their lifelong affinity with the clubs they captain. Both would rather stick pins in their eyes than join the enemy. Both were subject to plenty of abuse in the songs which rang round the stadium, which also rehearsed some enduring stereotypes about the two clubs and the inhabitants of their cities.