Things can get explosive when Manchester United and Liverpool face off, and relations between England’s biggest football clubs have often been troubled on and off the pitch.
When they come together as partners, the impact has been even more sensational and far-reaching. The latest manifestation of this unholy alliance came last week with the doomed adventure of the Super League.
The teams meet at Old Trafford on Sunday in the Premier League and most of those involved in the domestic game wish they could both lose. The clubs have made a lot of enemies this month.
“The smell of the stigma cast on football will permeate the air for several days.” The words could have been written last week, but they related to another conspiracy involving United and Liverpool which the local newspaper said was “the worst blow football has ever had”.
In April 1915, club players agreed to start a game that kept United from being relegated. It was also a failed coup attempt. Money, as always, was at the dark heart of the plot.
The procedure was almost as far-fetched as the collapse of the separatist Super League group. Even the referee thought the game was over.
The bookies refused to pay and eight players were ultimately banned for life – some were later pardoned. But United remained standing, at the expense of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
The ramifications were lasting. After the season, league football was suspended until the end of the first world. When it took over in 1919, John McKenna, Liverpool’s first manager and former president, was president of the Football League. The Premier League has grown from 20 to 22 clubs meaning Chelsea have been saved.
The fate of Tottenham was less edifying.
They remained relegated. Arsenal, who had finished in fifth place in the Second Division when the sport was interrupted by the world conflict, secured a place in the top flight. The Gunners had only moved from South London to Highbury in 1913. The anger at White Hart Lane could not have been deeper and still remains.
Five of today’s so-called Big Sixes were caught in one of the game’s big convulsions. At the center of political politics was McKenna, a descendant of the Anfield boardroom whose nickname was “Honest John.”
In many ways, not much has changed. Money and power have manipulated the direction of the game. The phrase ‘athletic integrity’, so often used last week, has never had as much historical basis as everyone likes to believe.
Everton were understandably – and rightly so – outraged by the notion of the Super League. It’s easy to forget at Goodison that they were part of the clique the last time United and Liverpool teamed up to force a change in the direction of football.
When Everton was part of the ‘Big Five’ cabal that was plotting to form the Premier League in 1991, they weren’t thinking of the greater good.
Personal interest reigned then. It’s always like that.
John W Henry will never inherit the moniker “honest” given to McKenna. The main Liverpool owner is no closer to judging the mood of the fans than he was when he bought the club 11 years ago. His collusion with Joel Glazer on Project Big Picture and the Super League has raised eyebrows at both A nfield and Old Trafford. Hen ry’s relationship with Ed Woodward, who has stepped down as executive vice president of United Lastweek, has been far more productive than with the majority of the Boston-based billionaire’s executives. Maybe productive is the wrong word, given that they collaborated on two failed attempts.
Still, Henry was outspoken about his fears for the game as long as he was involved in football. His fear of seeing Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain dominate with state-backed resources has been palpable. Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg was a distillation of all of his night mares. City’s terror, in particular, pushed him into Glazer’s arms.
Henry will know the words of Rahm Emanuel. “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” said the former Chicago mayor. The pandemic provided an opportunity to reset the game and find a financially consistent way forward.
Project Big Picture was the 71-year blueprint for the future. He failed because if he was deaf to the gigs of other top clubs and when the time came for someone to advocate for the plan and suggest compromises, Henry retreated to his bunker.
Glazer also didn’t put his reputation – for what it’s worth – on the line. Both turned to the worst idea they could have come up with: the Super League.
So where does he leave United and Liverpool when they meet for what has been for so long the most anticipated game in English football? The clubs have given in huge amounts of goodwill. Research has shown – and the Premier League’s strategic review would support the studies – that viewers are tapping into this game in droves.
Will the appetite remain or will the damage to reputation inflicted by blind disregard of public opinion have a negative impact? True, United and Liverpool have ceded their position of leadership and influence within the sport.
It goes way beyond losing their seats on the Premier League and UEFA committees. It will take years, if not decades, to restore confidence.
The lack of supporters could, just for once, be a good thing on Sunday. United rekindled anti-Glazer anger. Henry and Fenway Sports Group will face the lingering suspicion of a soured fan base of American owners by the Hicks and Gillett years.
In the meantime, City – and to a lesser extent Chelsea – have been allowed to position themselves as the good guys. After the failure of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations, there must be a real debate on spending. The chances of this happening are low. It also doesn’t help that City and Chelsea play by far the best football in the Premier League – and possibly even in Europe. United and Liverpool, who after all are two of the richest clubs in the world, look like underachievers trying to assert their traditional privilege over more dynamic and successful rivals. There is an element of truth in this argument.
In theory, when United and Liverpool come together they should be an unstoppable force. They have been before. Henry and Glazer screwed this one up so much that they must wish they could become enemies again.