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A history of Liverpool and Manchester United in 10 matches

Ahead of today’s meeting, reflect on each of the clubs’ histories through the prism of some of their most famous clashes.
Jan 17th 2021, 7:15 AM 7,643 12

1) Manchester United 3-0 Liverpool, First Division, April 1965

george-best-1968 George Best, pictured in 1968. Source: PA

Liverpool and United’s rivalry has been a kind of eddying game of thrones; while they have dominated the last half-century of English football, their peaks have rarely coincided. In fact, the only time when either succeeded the other as league champions was in a four-year streak between 1963 and 1967, when each won two titles. 

Liverpool were defending champions when they went to Old Trafford at the end of the 64/65 season, but their title defence had faltered badly and they were torn asunder by United. Denis Law scored twice with John Connelly scoring a third. It might have been even more embarrassing for Liverpool – they blocked two shots off the line and saw another two United efforts hit the post. 

Liverpool ultimately finished seventh while United won the title on Goal Average, having finished level on points with Leeds United, their goalscoring stats considerably boosted by the emergence of a lithe and gifted teenager called George Best.  

It was United’s first title since the Munich air disaster, with the apogee of Matt Busby’s remarkable rebuilding job coming with the European Cup triumph three years later. 

Had things worked out differently, Busby might have been in charge of Liverpool. Having played more than a hundred times for Liverpool, he was appointed the club’s assistant manager in 1944. His visions jarred with those of Liverpool’s board, however, and Busby left after 10 months to become manager of Manchester United. 

2) Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United, First Division, December 1973

soccer-football-league-division-one-liverpool-v-leicester-city-anfield Bill Shankly. Source: PA

The two great rivals never trended in such extreme directions as they did after this game, as Liverpool proved more adept at managing a succession from the successes of the 1960s. 

Liverpool were the reigning champions, and though they would go on to finish second to Leeds United, they won the FA Cup in what was Bill Shankly’s final game in charge.  

Shankly’s side had gone six seasons without winning the title prior to 72/73, and he later admitted he had been too loyal to the aging players who served him so well, like Ian St John, Roger Hunt, and Ron Yeats. He eventually got ruthless, selling them and replacing them with younger players like Kevin Keegan and Steve Heighway, both of whom scored in this win. 

Shankly himself would leave at the end of that season, ushering in Bob Paisley and an astonishing era of success which saw Liverpool win four European Cups and finish outside the top two just once in 17 seasons. 

United, shockingly, were relegated at the end of the season, just six years after winning the European Cup. They floundered following Busby’s retirement: Tommy Docherty had replaced Busby’s replacement, Frank O’Farrell, but he didn’t handle the refreshing of United nearly as adroitly as Liverpool. 

This was a young United side – only goalkeeper Alex Stepney was over 30 – and they struggled desperately for goals throughout a wretched season. This was also to be George Best’s final trip to Anfield for United: he played his last game for the club 12 days later

3) Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United, FA Cup final, May 1977

soccer-fa-cup-final-liverpool-v-manchester-united-wembley-stadium Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty (centre) celebrates with the FA Cup, with Lou Macari (third right) and Gordon Hill (second right). Source: EMPICS Sport

To emphasise how these sides usually kept their dominant periods separate, this was the first time Liverpool and United met in a Cup final. 

United kept faith in Docherty and stayed just a season in the Second Division, returning to the top flight with an admirable third-placed finish behind champions…Liverpool. This was emphatically Liverpool’s era, but Bob Paisley’s side had a curiously poor record in the FA Cup, and United ensured Paisley would never win it. 

Goals from Stuart Pearson and a very fortunate deflection off James Greenhoff secured United’s only major silverware of the 1970s, and although Liverpool won their first European Cup days later having already won the league, they were denied the chance to become the first English team to win the treble. That honour would, of course, go to Manchester United. 

4) Liverpool 2-1 Manchester (AET), League Cup final, March 1983

soccer-milk-cup-final-liverpool-v-manchester-united Liverpool celebrate the 1983 League Cup win. Source: PA

Liverpool’s record in the League Cup under Paisley was far better, and this was their third of a remarkable four-straight victories in the competition. 

Norman Whiteside mortified Alan Hansen to give United the lead, but Alan Kennedy equalised with 15 minutes to go. The final was settled in extra-time by an exquisite, curling Ronnie Whelan goal from the edge of the box. 

United were hobbled by an injury to Gordon McQueen, effectively playing with 10 men and Frank Stapeleton at centre-back after Bruce Grobbellar Schumachered McQueen in the final minutes of normal time. 

They consoled themselves by winning the FA Cup a few months later, but Liverpool again won the league. Bob Paisley climbed the Wembley steps to collect the Cup in what was his final season, though Liverpool’s dominance had a few more years to run yet…

 5) Liverpool 3-3 Manchester United, First Division, April 1988

soccer-first-division-liverpool-v-manchester-united-anfield Bryan Robson celebrates his goal. Source: PA

Liverpool’s record against Manchester United is one of the curious parts of their dominance across the 1980s. They won just two of their 20 league games against United across the decade, and even at their best, they couldn’t quite shake their rivals. 

The Liverpool team of 87/88 was arguably their greatest, in spite of the infamous FA Cup loss to Wimbledon. They again showcased their genius for succession in selling Ian Rush and replacing him with John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and, eh, Mike Marsh. (Three out of four isn’t bad.)

They were on the cusp of the league title when United came to Anfield at the start of April – 11 points clear of second-placed United having played two games fewer – so it was a matter of when, rather than if, Liverpool would win their 17th league title. 

United, under a relatively new manager called Alex Ferguson, were their customarily inconvenient selves. Losing 3-1 and with Colin Gibson sent off with half an hour to go they nonetheless rescued a point, with Gordon Strachan equalising and puffing on an imaginary cigar in front of Liverpool fans in celebration. 

The result emboldened Ferguson to cry havoc and let slip the character that would come to dominate English football and haunt Liverpool like no other, complaining afterwards, “ I can now understand why teams come away from here choking on their own vomit and biting their tongues knowing they have been done by the referee. I’m not getting at this referee. The whole intimidating atmosphere and the monopoly Liverpool have enjoyed for years gets to them eventually.”

Kenny Dalglish responded by telling the media they would hear more sense from his infant daughter, and from henceforth, the only Liverpool managers Ferguson praised were the bad ones. 

6) Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United, FA Cup final, May 1996

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fa-cup-final-manchester-united-v-liverpool Jamie Redknapp in the infamous white suit. Source: EMPICS Sport

Eight years later, Liverpool were off their perch and United’s only remaining anxiety was Europe. This game is, of course, remembered for Liverpool’s white suits, which became emblematic of the decadence and wrong-headed celebrity absorption that took hold at Liverpool in their post-imperial days. 

The suits inspired a book by Simon Hughes on Liverpool in the ‘90s – Men in White Suits – in which Jamie Redknapp argued Liverpool would have gone on to dominate English football if only they had beaten United that day, saying in losing Liverpool had created a monster in giving the ‘Class of ‘92 their first taste of success. 

More significant than the suits, however, was the scorer: Eric Cantona, whose signing Graeme Souness turned down in 1991, saying he was fighting too many fires in the dressing room and couldn’t afford another controversial figure. Souness was mired in the kind of awkward transition that Frank O’Farrell and Docherty struggled so desperately with at United.

Ferguson would have no such issue with Cantona. One of Ferguson’s two greatest skills was in his reverence for pure talent, and there was no principle too inflexible to prevent it from being accommodated. 

His other great skill was knowing when to stop accommodating it.

7) Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool, FA Cup fourth round, January 1999

soccer-axa-fa-cup-fourth-round-manchester-united-v-liverpool United celebrate Solskjaer's winner against Liverpool in 1999. Source: EMPICS Sport

United’s treble of 1999 is arguably the signature single-season achievement in the history of English professional football, but it’s remarkable to think of how often it came so close to not happening. 

One of the closest shaves came at Old Trafford, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led a kind of larceny on a spot in the fifth round of the FA Cup. 

Michael Owen scored after two minutes and it remained that way until the 88th minute, when Dwight Yorke equalised to presumably send the game to a replay. But no, Solskjaer popped up in stoppage time to snatch the game for United. 

Liverpool, as it would happen, would win their own treble – the League, FA, and Uefa Cups – two years later, thieving the FA Cup final from Arsenal in similar circumstances. 

8) Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United, Premier League, September 2005

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-liverpool-v-manchester-united-anfield Roy Keane, during what proved to be his final appearance for Manchester United. Source: EMPICS Sport

Liverpool and United have both struggled with transition in their histories, but it was never an issue for Ferguson. When the sides met at Anfield in September 2005, Liverpool were, improbably, European champions while United but domestically both had been overwhelmed by the Abramovich/Mourinho axis at Chelsea. 

Neither Liverpool nor United finished in the top two in either of the previous seasons, and you had to go back to 1980/81 for the previous season that neither side were among the top two.   

This drab game is notable for one reason: it was Roy Keane’s final game for Manchester United. He left with an injured foot following a challenge with Luis Garcia (though he later clarified he was injured in a tackle with Steven Gerrard, rather than the diminutive Garcia.) 

Two months later, Keane was gone entirely. Criticisms of younger players like Rio Ferdinand were too much for Ferguson; the last grain that outweighed Keane’s remaining usefulness to the manager. It was a typically ruthless act by Ferguson, but one that Keane has never reconciled. 

Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick subsequently arrived while Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo blossomed as United toppled Chelsea in winning the league in 2007, the rebuild that ranks among Ferguson’s finest achievements. 

Liverpool, meanwhile, never quite built on their European Cup triumph: they won the FA Cup in 2006 and returned to the Champions League final in 2007, but they could never make that final step.

9) Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United, Premier League, March 2015

soccer-barclays-premier-league-liverpool-v-manchester-united-anfield Gerrard is sent off on his final appearance against United. Source: PA

Post-Ferguson, Liverpool came mightily close to finally winning the Premier League in 2013/14, but lost out in absurdly melodramatic circumstances: Steven Gerrard’s slip in a 2-0 loss to Chelsea. Had they won that game, they would have won the league. 

The follow-up season was fraught, with Luis Suarez sold and Liverpool desperately misfiring with Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert poor replacements and Daniel Sturridge usually injured. 

Brendan Rodgers struck upon a formula that might salvage a Champions League place ahead of the visit of United in March, however; a three-man defence that was much trumpeted in well-sourced newspaper articles the morning of this game. 

The ploy went awry. Louis Van Gaal’s United – inspired by the clever use of Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata – were utterly dominant and led at half-time. A declining Gerrard was brought off the bench at the break…and sent-off 38 seconds later for a brainless stamp on Ander Herrera. 

It was Gerrard’s final game against United and it neatly encapsulated their nearly-man league status during his career at Anfield: they were too often reliant on him, and he too often took on too much responsibility. The reaction to the slip against Chelsea was a prime example: he reacted to the slip by taking a series of ambitious but hopeless shots from distance in a single-minded effort to equalise. 

10) Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United, Premier League, December 2018

liverpool-v-manchester-united-premier-league-anfield Mourinho on the touchline as United manager for the final time. Source: Peter Byrne

United managed transition superbly under Ferguson, but they mangled it in his absence. After Moyes and Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho convinced United he should be given the job, in spite of the fact he was consciously overlooked for the gig by Ferguson in 2013. 

Mourinho’s United were a good side at their peak – that were unfortunate that it coincided with the astonishing best of Guardiola’s Manchester City – and dreary and miserable either side of it. Roy Keane speculated the job was too big for him, and it seemed so when Mourinho tried to lower expectations in an absurd rant about United lacking “football heritage” after a European defeat to Sevilla. 

Ultimately, his final stand came at Anfield, where late goals by Xherdan Shaqiri were condemned United to defeat and Mourinho to the sack. 

After the more individualised years of Gerrard along with Torres or Suarez, Liverpool were an outstanding collective and clearly going places under Jurgen Klopp. It would take another season before they finally won the league, as they too found Guardiola’s City just too good. United, meanwhile, sought balm in the past and appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a temporary basis.  

He now goes to Anfield with the chance to tip the ancient scales back in United’s favour. 

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Gavin Cooney


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