When former Liverpool chairman Tom Williams approached the then Huddersfield Town manager Bill Shankly to take the reins of his struggling second division club in 1959, he enquired: “How would you like to manage the best team in the country?”
Shankly replied: "Why? Is Matt Busby packing it in at Manchester United?”
This comment, tongue-in-cheek though it was, reflects the fact that while Liverpool and Manchester United were founded in the 19th century, it wasn’t until Shankly’s appointment and the Reds’ subsequent promotion to the top flight that the rivalry really began to intensify. Back in 1959, the clubs had won ten league titles between them. Shankly roused Liverpool from their second-tier slumber in 1962 and within two years had claimed the championship. Busby's United responded to the challenge from the other end of the East Lancashire Road, and retook the title the following season.
Fast forward to 2012 and, between them, Liverpool and Manchester United have won 37 league titles. That is a remarkable achievement, particularly considering that the various London clubs boast a combined tally of just 19.
To put it simply, Liverpool and Manchester United are two of the world’s biggest and most successful clubs, both jostling for position to be identified as England’s greatest. Liverpool dominated English football during the 1970s and '80s, while United took over their mantle in the two decades that followed. While Liverpool fans point to their five European Cups, United supporters celebrate the fact that, with last season’s conquest, they have now overtaken Liverpool in terms of league crowns won, with 19 to the Merseysiders’ 18.
However, it is far too simple to suggest that the background of their rivalry began with post-war footballing successes. It is a tale of two cities, just over 30 miles apart, but with marked differences. As former United and England midfielder Lee Sharpe said: "It’s not just about two clubs, it’s about two cities, two unbelievable histories, two clubs that both think they are the biggest in the world, so there is a lot of ego at stake."
A fight for supremacy in the cotton trade in the 18th century started the competition. Liverpool, thanks to its creation of the United Kingdom’s first dock, had become one of the world's leading ports. Meanwhile, sparked by the Industrial Revolution, Manchester mills were capturing the trade in cotton, becoming an industrial heartland where manufacturing reigned supreme.
Manchester was a leading centre of production, but the material had to come from Liverpool. The Port of Liverpool set high charges on the importation of the raw materials destined for Manchester's mills, and this provoked Manchester into action.
The city decided to simply bypass Liverpool and, in building the Manchester Ship Canal, was able to bring goods direct to Salford, avoiding the import charges. When the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894, the rivalry between these two cities was sealed.
Tales of derbies past
A year after the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal on 12 October 1895, Liverpool and Newton Heath, as Manchester United were then known, met for the first time at Anfield. Liverpool ran out 7-1 winners, the biggest win for either side in the 117 years that have followed.
In 1977, the two clubs faced each other in a cup final for the first time when Bob Paisley’s Liverpool and Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United met in the FA Cup at Wembley. On that occasion, United ran out 2-1 winners thanks to goals from Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff, with a Jimmy Case consolation sandwiched in between. Liverpool and United also met in the 1996 FA Cup final, with Eric Cantona’s goal winning it for the Red Devils. However, Liverpool won the two League Cup deciders between the sides in 1983 and 2003.
In March 2009, the two sides met at Old Trafford in the Premier League, with both battling it out for the title. United took the lead through a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, but Fernando Torres equalised for Liverpool and a Steven Gerrard spot-kick just before half-time put the Reds in the lead. Late goals from Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena ensured a memorable 4-1 victory for Liverpool and condemned Sir Alex Ferguson to what was, up until that point, the heaviest defeat at Old Trafford during his stewardship. United were to have the last laugh though, as they won the title for the third season in succession.
The rivalry today
With the success of the two sides, the relationship between them has deteriorated over the past 50 years, a fact all the more lamentable given the great respect Busby and Shankly had for one another. Shankly described Busby as “the greatest manager that ever lived,” while Busby was so upset when he heard the news of Shankly's death in 1981 that he refused to take any telephone calls from journalists seeking a reaction.
Indeed, the last direct transfer between the two clubs occurred when Busby and Shankly were in charge. When Phil Chisnall left Old Trafford for Anfield in 1964, he recalled: “Nobody really said anything about the transfer and I got a good reception when I went back to United with Liverpool."
That was in stark contrast to Gabriel Heinze’s proposed move to Liverpool in 2007, when United refused to allow him to sign for their biggest rivals. After Heinze spoke publically of his desire to join Liverpool, lawyers were drafted in on both sides, and he eventually left for Real Madrid.
In recent years, there have also been problems on the pitch and on the terraces. In 2006, Gary Neville was fined by the FA for running 60 yards to celebrate a United win in front of Liverpool supporters, while Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra when the two sides met at Anfield in October 2011.
The success that Manchester United have enjoyed since the appointment of Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986 may have been the catalyst for the current antagonism. He once said that his “greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their perch”, and that line in the sand widened the division between the two clubs.
“To me Liverpool will always be the derby game,” continued Ferguson. “It is just because of the history. When I came down here they were the king-pins of England. They had won four European Cups and quite a few league titles. My aim was to do well against them and to try and turn that round. It is hard for me to go against history.”
Yet, in the right spirit, the matches between Liverpool and Manchester United are what football is all about: pride, passion and the will to win. Two current stalwarts on either side of the divide, Jamie Carragher and Ryan Giggs, sum up the fact that intense rivalry need not detract from mutual esteem.
"I’ve always had respect for them,” said Carragher. “They’re a proper club, like us, and they should have respect for us too. They aren’t blasé or big-headed. At United, there isn’t a player who you think, ‘God, I hate him.’”
Giggs responded: "I think I’ve always shown the right respect to Liverpool, the history they have and great team they are. But I also know that it’s the team I get the most pleasure out of beating."