The unlikely allies: Manchester United and Liverpool face an ongoing battle for the souls of their clubs
The enmity between the two sides clashing again this weekend never seems to go away. Even last week, Jurgen Klopp tried to place Gary Neville’s destruction of the European Super League breakaway clubs in the story of Manchester United’s dislike of Liverpool.
But when it comes to existential matters – the preservation of these two great clubs – the relationship has always been much more complicated than that. It might be an exaggeration to describe what existed between them as ‘sympathy’ at certain critical moments, but there is certainly empathy and mutual understanding.
That’s why some United fan groups have made exploratory calls to Liverpool when the Super League plans became known last week, asking if they could take part in protests at Old Trafford this weekend.
Manchester United fans are still furious with the Glazer family over their ownership
Liverpool supporters have also expressed their anger at Fenway Sports Group in recent weeks
The idea of a coordinated protest was dropped when the ESL plans were dropped, but some Liverpool fans will still be able to make the 30-mile journey east along the M62 on Sunday.
This spirit of cooperation between the two is nothing new. United fans have never forgotten 2005. Their club had just been bought by the Glazers when they faced Arsenal in the FA Cup final and their opponents’ fans ruthlessly mocked them.
‘Sold To The USA’ was the Arsenal adaptation of Bruce Springsteen’s hit that day. It did not go unnoticed by those of United character that Liverpool fans in no way contributed to the spot.
United was the first of the rivals to go under American ownership by the Glazers in 2005
Shortly thereafter, Tom Hicks and George Gillett bought Liverpool, in another highly leveraged American buyout that ultimately put the club in grave danger.
“There was no point in laughing at them because we knew it could happen to us. What United has been through, we have experienced, just on a different scale, ”said Jay McKenna, former leader of the highly respected supporters union Spirit of Shankly (SoS) that led the campaign to oust Hicks and Gillett. “Arsenal fans now know that too.”
The result of the efforts of Hicks and Gillett contrasted with United’s Green and Gold 2010 campaign, which fizzled out as the team remained series winners under Sir Alex Ferguson. But it could have been a different story if Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League triumph had led to more glory.
Not long after, Liverpool came under control of American businessmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks
It also helped that manager Rafael Benitez publicly challenged the Americans in a way Sir Alex Ferguson never did at the Glazers at Old Trafford. There was respect from the United fans for what the Liverpool supporters were achieving at the time.
The unlikely fraternity between the two stretches further back – to the three and a half years after World War II when City’s Maine Road was also United’s home base – Old Trafford was bombed. For their part, City had made donations in 1902 when Newton Heath – United’s predecessor – was in trouble. The directors of the two clubs were always close by.
A month after the Munich disaster in 1958, Liverpool, then a Second Division side, offered United the services of two of their players to help them. In August 1971, when United fans’ hooliganism caused them to be banned from Old Trafford for two games and in need of temporary shelter, Liverpool left. United’s lone home game at Anfield ended with a 3-1 win over Arsenal. The other game was played at Stoke’s Victoria Ground.
Fans of United and Liverpool may gather on Sunday in protest against their owners
But now the battle for the soul of their clubs is one they share. The emails that representatives from SoS and the highly effective Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) regularly exchange as part of the Football Supporters’ Association Premier League working group are only part of the partnership.
The Liverpool contingent has arguably been more militant on a number of recent issues, for example leading the charge to scrap the Premier League’s loathed £ 14.95 pay-per-view costs while some other fan groups would settle for a compromise . But the mood this time around is much more inflammatory in Manchester than it is in Liverpool.
Liverpool’s success under the ownership of John W. Henry has a lot to do with that. Henry, along with executives Tom Werner and Michael Gordon, are also visible in a way the Glazers never were.
But while Liverpool fans have challenged FSG in a series of incidents – including 10,000 fans running out of a 2016 Sunderland home game due to maligned season ticket prices – there hasn’t been such a release valve to the mounting anger felt at United over detached, absentee owners who seem completely indifferent to them.
Liverpool’s success with John W Henry (second from left) means there has been less anger lately
The ESL bomb made their intentions crystal clear – in a way not known since Glazers’ 2009 bond document, which raised the prospect of Old Trafford being sold as the owners tried to raise £ 500 million and reduce their debt burden. As the protests at Old Trafford on Sunday will show, the lid on the resentment that had been going on for months of incarceration has been blown away. United is a club that has not contracted a regular player in the first team since Bruno Fernandes, 18 months ago.
“This is when the worst fears of all supporters about the owners have crystallized,” said a senior United End source. “Things they might have gotten away with before the ESL shouldn’t pass now.”
While both clubs’ blindness to how fans would react was astounding, Liverpool can argue far more convincingly that they and the owners are two very different entities.
United fans still use Newton Heath’s green and gold colors to protest to their owners
The furor of the season ticket brought a lot of soul search and an investigation into how the club could connect better. The arrival of former journalist Tony Barrett as club head and supporter engagement in the aftermath of the strike has made a big difference: re-establishing connections and showing an innate understanding of what matters to true fans.
Help for Sean Cox, who was attacked for a Champions League match three years ago, and more recently Mike Kearney, a fan registered blind, have shown that Liverpool are seeking a balance between global and local.
All that groundwork made the attachment to ESL all the more blatant for fans who were told ‘This Means More’. If the public were attending football matches, the protest would have been loud and long at Liverpool’s match against Newcastle United last weekend.
At the Liverpool protests, CEO Billy Hogan called an emergency meeting
United supporters, meanwhile, have dismissed Joel Glazers (right) apology to fans
Still, a letter from CEO Billy Hogan to SoS this week apologizing and agreeing to an emergency meeting has received a cautiously positive response. Compare that to MUST’s open letter to Joel Glazer on Saturday, in which they categorically refused to accept his expression of regret.
“Joel Glazer’s apology is not being accepted,” the letter stated. “Actions speak louder than words and he and his family have shown time and again that their only motivation is personal gain at the expense of our football club. We are disgusted, ashamed and angry about the owner’s actions. ‘
A widely expected consequence of the escape plans is that the owners of the six British clubs are making a splash in this summer’s transfer market to gain favor. But the supporter groups of United and Liverpool both see a much bigger picture than that. Both now want full representation and a real voice.
“We understand each other enormously,” says McKenna. “The reason there is such a rivalry between us is that we have so much in common.”