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Dublin: 1 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019

United should learn Liverpool's lessons and avoid finding answers in their rich history

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offers his team-talk to Alex Ferguson, Manchester United should learn from their opponents about finding answers in their history.

Alex Ferguson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, pictured in 2010.
Alex Ferguson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, pictured in 2010.
Image: EMPICS Sport

OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER has said that Alex Ferguson is welcome to give the pre-match team talk ahead of Sunday’s Premier League clash with Liverpool.

“He would be welcome to have his talk to the players if he wanted to. Because we know how much it meant for him to overtake Liverpool.”

If Solskjaer is to get this job full-time, he should be wary of finding too much succour in the past.

Sunday’s opponents should serve as their warning sign.

It is a curious reality that when these two dynasties meet, they rarely do so on equal terms.

Since Liverpool were promoted to the First Division under Bill Shankly in 1962, they have spent 56 seasons in the same division as Manchester United, and only four of those seasons finished with Liverpool and United as the country’s top two sides.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Liverpool Training Bill Shankly. Source: EMPICS Sport

In 1964, Liverpool finished four points ahead of United (seven if adjusted for the three-points-for-a-win era); in 1980 Liverpool were again champions, winning by a narrow two-point gap (it would be three by today’s rewards) while in 1988 Liverpool finished nine points ahead of second-placed United.

In 2008/09, United then won a league title ahead of a second-placed Liverpool for the first time since the latter were promoted. Alex Ferguson’s side finished four points ahead of a dysfunctional Liverpool, who would soon implode under the mismanagement of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Otherwise, it has been an eddying game of thrones: more often than not, one sees in the other either what it was, or what it wants to be.

 When Liverpool were dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, United were an occasionally extravagant but often flimsy thorn in their side, achieving little other than hardening the resolve of malcontents like Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson hatched a genuine revulsion of Liverpool’s success, writing in his season diary of the 94/95 season that “there’s nothing worse than a Liverpool supporter when they are doing well.”

After a choppy few years, he and his commercially awesome United outstripped all competition in the 1990s, with Liverpool among the earliest to falter.

All his talk about knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch was a little hollow, though.

“Rather than knock Liverpool off their perch, United filled the space Liverpool left behind”, as Jamie Carragher has explained.

As United were getting busy with extending Old Trafford, moving to a new training ground at Carrington and introducing to England the idea that a store could be ‘mega’, Liverpool found themselves in a post-imperial world in which they knew about nothing but themselves.

John Scales was on the bench for Wimbledon on the day they first charged the gates of the empire in the 1988 FA Cup final, and he then joined Liverpool in 1994.

“What I quickly discovered was that Liverpool was not sophisticated and the club was stuck in the 1960s” he tells Simon Hughes, author of Men In White Suits.

The whole approach at United was more professional from top to bottom. Old Trafford was set up for the twenty-first century and forward thinking. Liverpool looked to the past for all the answers but did not apply those principles for what was happening in the present.

“Liverpool was caught in a time warp”.

The concept of a ‘Liverpool Way’ became a dominant idea; this ethos that the club would not respond to the perversities of the modern Premier League and would instead stick to tradition and give a manager time.

How else to explain the ludicrous compromise of appointing Gerard Houllier and retaining Roy Evans?

What is lost when the past becomes too comfortable a refuge is its harsher realities: the Liverpool that was successful was as ruthless as Ferguson became at United.

Hughes’ book, for example, reveals how the club dealt with contract extensions.

“Liverpool had been notoriously tight with wages and used the history and position of the club as leverage. [Club secretary Peter] Robinson would enter discussions with a lower offer than the player expected. Often it meant a pay cut.

“Robinson would then exit the room and leave the player alone with his thoughts.

“Then the manager, be it Shankly, Paisley, Fagan or Dalglish, would enter separately, informing the player he would help him by getting Robinson to raise his offer.

The process would get the player into believing the manager was on his side, immediately setting the agenda for their relationship, and leave the club paying roughly what they wanted to pay in the first place.”

Somewhere in the 1990s, Liverpool lost that ruthless edge. 

United have been knocked off their perch since Ferguson retired, although nobody connected with Liverpool has claimed any credit for it.

Understandably enough: Brendan Rodgers is nobody’s idea of an anarchist.

United too have endured a kind of post-imperial fall since Ferguson stepped away; again understandable, given the empire was housed almost entirely inside his head.

Since he stepped away, United have had too strong a fidelity to the past and have appointed a series of managerial figureheads in the hope Ferguson’s glory days might be rekindled.

David Moyes’ main selling point for the job was that, like Ferguson, he was Scottish.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v West Ham United - Old Trafford David Moyes in his former life as Manchester United manager. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Whereas Liverpool have finally got to grips with a management structure that sees Jurgen Klopp work across the hall from Sporting Director Michael Edwards – and consequently they are on an unprecedented run of successful signings – United have spent too long trying to replicate their own past, fumbling through a series of lesser men than Ferguson having given them the same level of control.

The first painful steps away from that policy were taken by Ed Woodward in the summer, when he refused to sanction moves for a series of targets identified by Jose Mourinho. He has promised further change by appointing a Director of Football.

Ferguson may give the team talk on Sunday afternoon, and United might well beat a Liverpool side who have won just three of their nine games since the turn of the year.

If they do, it will be difficult to avoid giving the job to Solskjaer on a permanent basis, but United should heed Liverpool’s lessons and resist the temptation to believe that this invigorating link to the past is all the change that’s needed.

There is glory to be found in these clubs’ pasts, but precious little long-term success.  

Premier League fixtures (kick-off 3pm unless stated) 


West Ham v Fulham (7.45pm) 

Cardiff City v Watford (7.45pm) 


Burnley v Tottenham (12.30pm) 

Bournemouth v Wolves 

Newcastle v Huddersfield 

Leicester v Crystal Palace (5.30pm) 


Arsenal v Southampton (2.05pm) 

Manchester United v Liverpool (2.05pm) 

Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland’s Six Nations meeting with Italy and discuss the week’s biggest stories in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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