A minor skirmish – but it mattered: Liverpool and United's animosity resurfaces
22:10 GMT, 23 September 2012
It was a day of numbers: 96, 19, 12, zero and ultimately the 11 versus 10 that decided the outcome of the football match.
Anfield remembered, the visitors crowed. The ceremonies to mark the final emergence of the truth about the Hillsborough tragedy and its toll of 96 dead were impeccably observed, but once hostilities commenced it felt foolish to have ever imagined this would be anything more than the most famously bitter rivalry in English football. A watershed moment of realisation, a change of mood, of direction
Much hope was placed on this encounter and when Sir Bobby Charlton presented red roses to Ian Rush — they were later placed with the other sacred debris on the shrine to victims of official incompetence and the extremes of fate — and Luis Suarez warmly clasped the hands of Patrice Evra pre-match, it was possible to imagine, for a moment, that this was the start of a new era.
Respect: Bobby Charlton (left) hands a bouquet of 96 roses to Liverpool's Ian Rush
And then the game began. It was not especially poisonous and the reaction to it nothing exceptional: but it wasn’t a dawn of enlightenment, either.
The 19 titles won by Manchester United, overtaking Liverpool’s 18 (Ryan Giggs has won 12 to Steven Gerrard’s nil to put the modern era in sharp relief), has increased the intensity of this match like at no time in history.
We might as well organise a charity fund-raiser for Rangers at Parkhead as hope the animosity between Liverpool and Manchester United could be driven underground for long.
There was nothing too outrageous here — the worst excesses amounted to little more than 10 idiots being antagonised by 10 mugs — but nor were too many bridges left standing by the end.
Liverpool supporters did not mention Munich but United’s did, taunting them in hope of drawing an outrageous response. When the ground had emptied they mockingly chorused ‘Always the victims, it’s never your fault’, the song that had caused such embarrassment and anger at Old Trafford last week.
Well behaved: The fans of both sides were largely respectful throughout
They did so in response to another outburst of indignation fromLiverpool, a skirmish bearing scant comparison to the battle for the truth about Hillsborough, although it must be said that in both cases much of the protest was justified.
The home team thought Manchester United could have had a man sent off (which they could), they thought they should have had a penalty (which they should) and that United’s penalty winner was a harsh call (which it wasn’t). So, two out of three: and those numbers changed the game.
Even with 10 men, though, Liverpool were the better team, and had their ranks stayed even would probably not have been so stretched for United’s winner. It came from a penalty converted by Robin van Persie, but the damage was done on the break when Liverpool’s numerical disadvantage left them exposed to the counter attack.
It seems crass to speak of injustice when the last 23 years at the club has been spent fighting a system considerably more sinister than a referee’s call, but in strictly sporting terms Liverpool were hard done by here.
In the 39th minute, Jonjo Shelvey and Jonny Evans were competing for a 50-50 ball. Neither went in entirely fairly. Shelvey was late, high and second in the race, Evans was first but two-footed and out of control. Both were reckless. Evans came out worst.
Early bath: Jonjo Shelvey was sent off for Liverpool as they lost to Manchester United
Too late: Glen Johnson (right) tackles Antonio Valencia to concede a penalty
Referee Mark Halsey produced a red card and dismissed Shelvey, who went cursing Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson. Evans stayed on after treatment, unpunished. It wasn’t right. Either both players should have gone, or Halsey should have traded yellows; either he misjudged what he saw, or he reacted purely to Evans’s injury.
The result was that Liverpool played the remaining 58 minutes of the game, including added time, a man down. Unsurprisingly, against United, they lost.
The result leaves them in a poor state but a Liverpool win, not even a draw, would have been the fairest result. ‘The best team lost,’ said manager Brendan Rodgers, and he was right.
If there was poetic justice, the winning goal would have been scored by Liverpool captain Gerrard after 46 minutes. The pure abandon of his celebration suggested his young cousin Jon-Paul, who did not return alive from Hillsborough, was on his mind. And yes, it may seem perverse to equate winning a football match with a duty performed in the memory of the dead, yet what else is there for Gerrard to do These people were fans, in the days when it wasn’t easy to follow a team around the country.
Obtaining tickets, particularly those for FA Cup semi-finals, meant physically going to a ticket office and standing in line, not clicking a button on a computer, credit card at the ready. The dead were some of those who were first to the ground. They loved football. They loved Liverpool.
Looking to the heavens: Steven Gerrard (right) celebrates scoring the opening goal for Liverpool
Gerrard isn’t a lawyer, or a prosecutor. The best he can do is score a goal that wins a match that would have made the fans happy. So that is what he did. And then his fine deed was overtaken.
Rafael equalised, a cracker, but then Glen Johnson brought down Antonio Valencia with a rashly attempted challenge from the wrong side. The nudge unsettled the Manchester United man who lost his footing — as many did on a pitch that may have been overwatered — and Halsey pointed to the spot.
Underlining the sense of outrage, a very slow and detailed replay showed that Suarez had been fouled by Evans in the penalty area previously. A theatrical jerk of the head by the Uruguayan as he fell had probably convinced Halsey of simulation. Had Suarez simply fallen with natural momentum, the referee probably would have pointed to the spot.
So justice was not served. Yet, at this of all times, it is important to keep such matters in perspective.
There is the loss of a football match and the loss of life. At Anfield, they are only too aware of that painful difference, and will surely remember it when looking at the league table on Monday morning.
The management cannot rely on this raw perspective to stave off the tough questions forever, though. The football matters around these parts, too. Just as it mattered to the 96.