I got into a Twitter conversation the other day about where, as a fixture on the footballing calendar, Liverpool vs Manchester United now finds itself.
Stephen Tudor; Manchester City fan and the man behind the rather fantastic website The Daisy Cutter mentioned an article he was writing for FourFourTwo, which was basically designed to expound his theory that Liverpool vs Manchester United wasn’t even the second biggest game in the country now, let alone the biggest.
Take a deep breath and let me continue.
It wasn’t that he was downgrading the stature of the fixture, more that he now classed the Manchester and North London derbies as being ahead of it in the relevance stakes.
Stephen has a fair point.
Well, maybe half a fair point.
While the North London derby is debatable, given both clubs can currently be classed amongst the pursuers of riches, rather than the holders of riches, the Manchester derby is one which is played out by two of the, if not the two biggest financial powerhouses of English and perhaps even European and world football. Throw into the mix what are the two biggest coaching megaliths of the last decade, and there is a reasonable shout to say that the Manchester derby has indeed come a long way since Colin Gibson and Steve Kinsey were locked within a centre-circle battle for mid-table supremacy.
However, if Manchester United are one half of a less relevant scal Clasico, then they are surely as equally less relevant in the Manchester derby? Same club, different game. Upping the rating of the Manchester derby then comes down to the undoubted current day relevance of Manchester City? Beyond that, it remains the same parochial spat it always has been. A sort of Manchester equivalent to the mid-to-late 1980s Merseyside derby.
Those mid-to-late 1980s Merseyside derbies were massive, but beyond our neighbourhood, I’m not so sure it was a clash which was nationally seen as being ‘bigger’ than Liverpool vs Manchester United.
Football is all about context.
In a way I agree with Stephen, as current day relevance is key to current day football. Manchester City are, or at least should be the trend setters. They have the financial muscle most others would kill for, they have the coach/manager to end all coaches/managers, they have the recent track record. Since 2012, Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have won five major domestic league titles between them, with a few domestic cups to compliment.
It’s the Nottingham Forest effect however.
There are two sides of a defined line in the sand at play. Current relevance vs box office pull. Although they can, and do, collide in some cases, they are two very different classifications.
Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest used to be a massive fixture during the late 1970s and early 80s. If we were to be thrown together in this seasons FA Cup 3rd round draw, then those of us ‘of a certain age’ will smile enigmatically and head to that game with a nostalgic spring in our step. Anyone born beyond 1982 will likely shrug their shoulders and hope we take it seriously enough to progress to the 4th round draw.
In essence, Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest was the ‘Any Which Way You Can’ – to Liverpool vs Manchester United’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Both amongst the highest grossing movies of 1980, but one which echoes through eternity, while the other is very much of its time.
No matter how much time ticks along, no matter how far the participants deteriorate, people will always want to watch The Empire Strikes Back.
While the Manchester and North London derbies will always be big games and own a very real relevance, they will remain largely just that; derbies. Merseysides’ derby is no different. It’s rare that two clubs from one city are at their peak simultaneously, and you can argue that Manchester United aren’t really a match for Manchester City at this point in time.
Suggesting Liverpool vs Manchester United is no longer the biggest game in town is somewhat disingenuous. It’s sort of like saying Juventus taking on the two Milan’s are no longer the biggest games in Serie A, because the Milan’s aren’t what they were.
Between their La Liga successes of 1960 and 1985 Barcelona won the title on just one other occasion, but el Clasico was never usurped as Spain’s biggest game, despite Atletico Madrid and Valencia enjoying more trophy winning days than Barcelona during that span of time.
Trends and fashions aren’t built to last. Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest was a short-lived heavyweight coming together. Liverpool vs Arsenal during late 1980s and early 90s was pretty titanic, and there have been periods of time when Liverpool vs Leeds United was a monumental occasion, yet Liverpool vs Manchester United is a different beast. It is a rivalry which has been built on civic and cultural rivalry as much as it has a sporting one. It is a game which can’t be rated on the pitch alone. What surrounds the fixture is as integral to it as league positional statuses and the current formbook.
Both clubs have been enveloped by tragedies, tragedies which have been far too often used against one another as a blunt weapon with which to abuse. Both clubs come from northern cities which have had to fight for whatever rewards they’ve gained. Cities which fight the system. Uneasy bedfellows in many respects. Divided, but far from conquered.
This is the crux really. It’s the multi-layered nature of the rivalry which makes it the biggest game English football has to offer. No matter the current state of the clubs at any given time, the simmering resentment which exists between the two is born of sharing too many similarities. Whisper it, but when we look them square in the eye, we see a glimpse of ourselves. It’s unsettling.
You can have the biggest cheque book in the world, but some things simply aren’t for sale.