Any rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool supporters back in the day usually necessitated extreme caution when navigating the ginnels and back streets around Maine Road and Anfield. If you were smart at least one among you could offer up a passable Manc or Scouse accent in case you ran into the natives. You would be foolhardy, to put it very mildly, to wear colours.
If all of that sounds a bit ‘Green Street’ it is nonetheless accurate but all the same, pitched battles aside during the heightened era of hooliganism, Man City and Liverpool pretty much kept each other at arm’s length until recently. There was the geographical divide of course but what ensured relations remained fairly placatory was that on the pitch, by and large, their teams were poles apart while it mattered too that they shared a common enemy in Manchester United.
Not that having a mutual antipathy made Liverpool and City fans comradely: naturally it simply doesn’t work like that and if anything it created a slight bone of contention with each fan-base claiming they hated United with greater intensity and, just as importantly, that United hated them more.
How the red half of Manchester responded to this was interesting. Indeed, it goes some way to explaining what we’re about to explore. Because the residents of Old Trafford all agreed, almost to a man, that it was Liverpool who they held in the highest disdain while City to them – in the Nineties in particular, yo-yoing through the divisions and accruing an unwelcome reputation for calamity – were an irrelevance. Some even went too far, into the realms of implausibility, and insisted they actually quite liked their city rivals; they wished them well.
Determining how much truth is sourced in this patronage is not possible, not unless we interview every Red of a certain vintage with the aid of a lie detector. But should we take a mean average, and assume United fans, generally speaking, loathed Liverpool with every fibre of their being, while not having anything like those levels of hostility towards their neighbours, that leads us to a pertinent question. That is, just how much did they enjoy telling City fans their hatred was unreciprocated?
The answer probably, is probably a lot. Because few things are more demeaning to one party and powerful to the other than to experience hate and turn the other cheek; to assert that all of the meaning and investment of emotion is one-way traffic.
In 2013/14 Manchester City and Liverpool fiercely contested a season-long title scrap that went right to the final day of the season. With a handful of games left, the Blues headed to Anfield on a date that coincided with the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough and the visiting fans were impeccable that day, respectfully mourning during the minute’s silence and holding aloft a large banner that declared solidarity with the city of Liverpool.
In return the Eccles supporter’s branch coach was vandalised with stones on route to the ground. Every touch from an away player was loudly booed throughout. A loud cheer went up when Yaya Toure went off injured.
From that afternoon some toxic seeds were sewn while it antagonised City further that the media openly celebrated their loss, delighting in the popular narrative of Liverpool possibly winning their first ever Premier League crown.
For this narrative to have maximum impact a villain was required and City – so recently minted and supposedly lacking the grandeur of Liverpool – fit the bill nicely. What’s more, it was a narrative that Liverpool supporters bought into wholesale believing their club to have the historic authenticity and moral high ground. When they regarded City, they only saw pound signs.
Five years later another sustained title bout went right to the wire but not before both sides met in the quarter-final of the Champions League a season earlier. In the first-leg, City’s team coach was subjected to a barrage of bottles, damaging it so badly that a replacement vehicle was needed to take them back to Manchester and then when Liverpool went on to lose in the final, a matter of months later, Blues mocked them for it in song. Mo Salah’s injury in that defeat to Real Madrid was referenced, as too was fans getting ‘battered in the streets’ by Ukrainian ultras. The terrace chant included the line – ‘victims of it all’ – which didn’t sit right to many at all.
Across the past four Premier League campaigns only Manchester United – on a singular occasion – have managed to break up City and Liverpool finishing in the top two spots. These magnificent sides have racked up astonishing points hauls almost as the norm and undoubtedly on the pitch we are witnessing a duopoly that matches the Manchester United and Arsenal rivalry of the Nineties. Off the pitch too, the disputes and complete absence of any respect is little short of incendiary.
Except that this is a thoroughly modern footballing rivalry and indeed it could be said to be the first spawned in the social media age. (Some may argue that Liverpool and Chelsea beat them to it in that regard but in reality, Twitter was in its infancy back in the early 2000s). And this being the case, it is no longer standard practice to openly express your contempt, in the manner say of a good kicking down a ginnel.
On Twitter – and this is true of footballing debate as it equally applies to political discourse or simply just an argument with a stranger – it is conventional to be dismissive, off-hand: to very much mimic the manufactured indifference of United supporters towards City in the Nineties only now complete with online tropes such as purposely condescending retorts. I hope this helps.
So it is that the most fractious club rivalry of modern times doesn’t officially exist, or at least it is never officially acknowledged by its participants. So it is that thousands of Reds tweet more about City than their own side and thousands of Blues tweet more about Klopp’s men, yet all claim it is the other party who are ‘obsessed’.
To paraphrase the catchphrase of the recently departed and already much-missed Jimmy Greaves, it really is a funny old game. Except here there is scant humour in the conflict at all, only outright denial.