Red Devils and Reds a historic treat
This is the third piece in our season-long survey of the big games this season in European football. Check out the FoxSoccer.com archive for past installments, and stay with the Fox family all season long for in-depth introductions to the clubs, the players, and the history of the European game for American readers.
This weekend, one of the bitterest rivalries in all of sport will play out Sunday afternnon at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium (Live at 8:30 a.m. EDT, Fox Soccer +).
The Red Devils will host their arch-nemesis Liverpool in an important early-season clash that renews the North West derby, a 116-year old grudge match with no equal in American sport.
Forget about the Yankees-Red Sox. Put aside Alabama-Auburn and Michigan-Ohio State. This is a game that will divide families for the day. It will be watched worldwide, from Singapore to Abu Dhabi, from Cairo to Rio. People who have never set foot in England will be rooting for one of the two teams and, just as important, against the other.
Simply put, this may be the biggest, ugliest, nastiest, and most compelling game so far this Premier League season. It is a must-win for both teams every single year, but this one has added bite -- neither team have begun this year’s league campaign on solid footing.
Manchester United is arguably the world’s most popular club, bristling with stars like Portugal’s Nani and England’s Wayne Rooney. They are also the best-supported club in America, a legacy of their clever branding and deep ties to the English, Scottish and Irish emigrant communities.
Liverpool are the scrappy hard-chargers with a rich European history and a fierce and fearsome fan base. Featuring Spain’s World Cup-winning Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina, and England’s Steven Gerrard, Liverpool has long been one of the best clubs in the world.
Deadlocked at 58 trophies apiece, Liverpool and Manchester United share the title of being England’s most successful club. It’s an uncomfortable fit for two teams and two sets of supporters that, according to former players and fans alike, despise each other.
Steve Nicol, a legendary player with Liverpool from 1981-1995, and current head coach of the MLS New England Revolution, was succinct: “It’s hatred. That’s the reality of it. Both sets of supporters hate each other.
“You felt it when you walked on the pitch,” said Nicol.
“You felt the importance. Whether it’s Anfield or Old Trafford, you felt the tension, and it was probably lucky that we were playing — because that’s what we did — rather than sitting in the stands.
“There were a couple times I was out injured and didn’t play, and I can tell you the tension was just incredible on the bench. I was in the stands a couple of times, and even on our side, the venom was unbelievable. It was very isolating.”
Nicol puts the bitterness of the rivalry down to Manchester United’s historic attraction in England.
“It always seemed that United, no matter where they were or what division they were in, the media always seemed to have them, let’s say ‘on the back page’ all the time, while (Liverpool) were just trundling along and winning championships. I think it built and built, to where it is now, where they hate each other. But the fact is that both teams have won so many championships, too.”
Losing this match remains intolerable, according to Nicol.
“That atmosphere, as venomous as it is, it’s fantastic when you’re a player. It makes you grow a half an inch in height, and your chest puffs out, and really reminds you of why you want to play the game. You want these games. But if you lose, you’re gutted. The locker room is just quiet. Everyone sits and reflects on what they did do, didn’t, maybe should have done. The thing is at the time I was playing, we had to get over it really quickly, because we were facing big games every Saturday.”
And there’s nothing like it, according to Nicol, who now lives in Boston.
“I’ve been to some games at Fenway, and it’s huge when the Yankees are there, but it’s not the same. Yeah, you’re always going to get some nutters, but when Liverpool and United play, it’s everyone. Nothing I’ve ever seen has that intensity. Not even close.”
David Herman, an American who grew up Colorado following the Denver Broncos and the Boston Red Sox, agrees. Herman is today the media director for Manchester United’s American supporters group, and he says it’s big games like this one that converted him — and others — to the sport.
“We take groups of people over to Old Trafford all the time now, and at a big match, halfway through, every time, they ask when the next one is,” says Herman.
“The thing that shows how different it is for American fans, however, is every time we have a tour, and we’re meeting old players, seeing lockers, maybe even training — stuff people in England would kill for — the question we’re always asked is: ‘Where are our seats?’
“The difference is that in America, we always associate a big game with having ‘good seats,’ whereas for games like this, in England, it’s just being in the grounds. That doesn’t translate at all. But then when people see it, and feel it, they get it.”
Strangely, the attraction this weekend is not only the rivalry but the very real problems both franchises face.
Liverpool’s financial woes are well-chronicled and the loss of high-paid stars Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia in recent seasons has left the Reds struggling in the Premiership.
Last season was the worst with Liverpool missing a Champions League slot, but the start this time under new boss Roy Hodgson has the die-hards worried. They dropped two points last Sunday to a Birmingham side lacking any glamour, but possessing far more grit. Frankly, this side does not look like making an impact in the championship race.
Manchester United has not been its usual self, either. The Red Devils lost points at Fulham and Everton, both times to late goals in matches that should have been done and dusted. A penalty miss at Fulham let the Cottagers back, and two inexplicable lapses at the back gave Everton two stoppage time goals over the weekend.
Crisis time? Maybe not for United, but certainly for Liverpool -- even though this is just the fifth of 38 league games.
Pile that added pressure on the players, add the history and you can understand why ex-players like Nicol might spare a thought for the 22 men on the field this Sunday.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.