Liverpool, having thrashed Man U at the Theatre of Hollow Myths last week, had to work a bit harder at Cardiff, going behind twice before emerging impressive 6-3 winners. It will, however, have been the easy triumph over the Pride of Devon that provided the Real Reds with the most pleasure – these are two clubs who, to say the least, aren’t exactly fond of each other. The last thing either wants to see is the other winning the league – which means that there are a lot of nervous plastics out there, sweating in their Devon armchairs right now; because Liverpool seem to mean business and they are currently rather handily-placed for a late title push.
For the neutral, things could hardly be better, with the tables so dramatically turned in this long-standing battle of Lancastrian one-upmanship. Rivalry of that depth and bitterness tends to polarise opinion – there aren’t many fence-sitters when Man U and Liverpool meet. For me, as a true white rose White, if Liverpool were to be Champions again at the end of this season, it would be an outcome second only to seeing my own beloved Leeds back on top. OK, so I’m a proud Leeds United fan – so what has this got to do with me?
Well, I’d have to start by declaring an interest – as a die-hard supporter of the One True United from the right (Yorkshire) side of the Pennines, I’m not exactly enamoured of Man U. I never had much time for them, even before that awful, whisky-nosed Govan Git came down to pour his choleric bile all over what had, until then, been a relatively civilised (give or take Brian Clough and nearly all the fans) English football scene. There was always that irritating air of spurious arrogance about them, as well as this “you’ve got to love us because of the Busby Babes” thing – which all the media seemed to lap up so eagerly, much to the disgust of real fans everywhere. So clearly, I don’t like them – never did. That’s in my Leeds United DNA. But I’m not just a Leeds fan, I’m a fan of football in its widest sense – and I mourn the game we once knew which seems to be gone forever, swept away by a grotty tide of filthy lucre
Time was when Man U were grudgingly respected, other than by determined haters like me and my fellow Whites. Since Sir Alex Taggart landed at the Theatre of Hollow Myths though, they’ve gone from “quite easy to dislike” to “impossible to stand the sight of” faster than you could say “Envious of Liverpool”. The Purple-Conked One made it clear from the off that he was determined to “knock Liverpool off their perch”. What we didn’t realise when he started his vendetta in 1988, showing no immediate sign of being any more successful than any of the other post-Busby failures, was that the whole face of football would have to change to realise Ferguson’s warped dream.
In 1967, Man U won their last ever proper League Title, making seven in total – quite respectable. Then – nothing, for 26 years, culminating in a deserved last-ever old-style Football League Championship triumph for Leeds United. But since 1993, when a greedy and ruthless Aussie bought the game and gift-wrapped it for a curmudgeonly and ruthless Scot, the title “race” has been more of a procession. The honour has ceased to be about virtuosity on the field; now it’s mainly about money and markets, and Man U have had much more of both during the whole Murdoch era. Result: thirteen plastic titles.
Football is now a tacky, merchandise-driven, unseemly drive for profit over pride, and the dominance by Man U of such a grubby era is undeniably apt. But we are still close enough in time to the pre-greed days for those of us of a certain age to remember when the game was about glory, not greed; when the aim was winning, not wonga, when the important people were supporters, not shareholders. In those days, the distribution of wealth was far more even, and the field of possible title-winners was far wider; the competition (over a grueling 42 match course, with un-manicured pitches and un-pampered pros) was far more fierce. And yet, even in this environment of white-hot combat and intense rivalry, Liverpool reigned supreme, not for months, not years, but for literally two decades. By 1992, they had compiled an honours list that seemed likely to see them at the top of the game for many years to come – unless someone sneaked in and moved the goalposts. Cue evil Uncle Rupert.
Man U fans can crow all they want about 20 titles (and, true to their loathsome nature, they will). But the evidence to confound them is there for all to see, like some geological stratum separating the dinosaurs from the mammoths. That schism dividing the game as it was up to ’92, from the showbiz shenanigans of ’93 onwards, stands out like a Tory at a Foodbank, exposing Man U as the wealth-backed, monopolising opportunists that they are. And it has all been done with such bad grace, another indictment of this new and joyless age we’ve been plodding through these last twenty-odd years. No gentle wisdom of the Bob Paisley variety – instead we had the sour bile of Ferguson and now seemingly a Fergie-Lite clone in the newly growly and grouchy, yet undeniably Gollum-esque David Moyes. No loveable old-style hard-man Desperate Dan type like Tommy Smith – we just had the manufactured machismo of Roy Keane, a supposed tough-guy with an assumed snarl and trademark glower, whose typical party trick was to sneak up behind wee Jason McAteer and fell that not-exactly-scary individual with a sly elbow.
The comparisons could go on all day, but the bottom line is that Liverpool at their peak – and it was a hell of a peak – typified all the values of football that some of us remember from a pre-Sky, pre-glitz, pre-greed age when it really was all about a ball. Now, it’s all about money, and contracts, and egos, and snide bitching to the media if you don’t get all your own way – and lo, we have generally had the champions we deserve.
Only now, when Taggart has slithered into retirement, are we seeing anything like a level playing-field – and even then, it’s just among the moneyed elite of the Premier League. Without Ferguson, we suddenly have a new Big Four, sans Man U, and all the better for that. For all of this season, it has been the thoroughbreds of Liverpool, City, Arsenal and Chelsea dominating at the top, whilst Man U desperately cling to the coat-tails of Everton and Spurs, desperate even for the dubious compensation of Europa League qualification. Clearly, then, the era of Man U domination has been much more a function of the unique personality – to put it politely – of Ferguson, than any real superiority on the pitch. In a game of fine margins, that crucial factor made such a difference. Hence, the whole record of the past 21 years would appear to have been slewed in one club’s favour, courtesy of one bile-ridden Glaswegian and a covey of co-operative referees. The records, as they appear to stand, are grossly misleading.
To apply a conversion rate which takes account of the foregoing and sums up all the anger and disgust I feel for the way our game has been degraded – I’d say each Premier League (or Premiership, or whatever else it’s been marketed as) is worth maybe half – at the very most – of each proper Football League Championship from the days when the game still belonged to us and the world was a happier and more carefree place.
At that rate, Man U are still a good long distance behind Liverpool, which – judging by the paucity of ability and bottle they have displayed under Moyes this season – is precisely where they belong. Now we’re witnessing a resurgence for the club which – under Shankly, Paisley and the other boot-room boys – dominated English football for most of my youth and early adulthood. A Liverpool title victory this season would be the closest we can now get to a return of those good old days.
Because of the Ferguson Factor, history and the record books are poor teachers for the modern student of football. So as the Reds look to challenge strongly again at the very top of the English game, while a Fergie-less Man U, shorn of their X-factor, languish in their mighty wake – what better time than now to emphasise the simple truth once and for all? Liverpool are still The Greatest.