One of the beauties of football is that there are so many sub-plots to every game. They may be a part of a general trend of results or performances or of great importance in their own right. Cup games are often cited as the most obvious example of the latter. It doesn’t really matter how you get to a cup-final or how you win it and after each stage of progression the last victory becomes largely irrelevant or forgotten. There are, of course, always exceptions. As a person of a certain vintage I remember the 1989/90 FA Cup semi-final replay with Oldham Athletic and its winning goal by youth graduate Mark Robins with more clarity and fondness than the final itself. I was 14, United hadn’t been to the Cup final for five years, which is a bloody long time when you’re that age, and hadn’t played particularly well in that replay, but Robins’ goal, the full time pitch invasion and players being carried off on the shoulders of the fans felt amazing to me. So much of that season had been desperately poor, but it all felt worth it for this. Every season, even the most wretched, has one or two games or results where, for a week at least, we can all strut around with pride at our team. Last year it was that delightful sequence of results and performances which included wins over Spurs, Liverpool and City.
Games against Liverpool have always produced a lot of memories for United fans. In the seventies and eighties, with the Scousers dominating English and European football, United would regularly pop up, play out of their skins and bloody their nose. Given the long history between the cities it must have annoyed them no end. For those at the east end of the East Lancs Road it was a source of pride at a time of abject mediocrity. And then came Fergie and, after a period of acclimatisation, the beginning of a 20 year stranglehold on the English game and an equally barren period for the Reds from Anfield. Amusingly, whilst there were isolated victories, Liverpool appeared to be no better at beating a dominant United than a significantly inferior one. In 2013, with Ferguson finally gone, his club quickly returned to the real world. His successor, David Moyes, gave Liverpool a short period in the sun, losing at Anfield and, most distressingly, 3-0 at home in a game which could and should have been far more embarrassing for the hosts. It was, however, short lived. Louis Van Gaal has done few things right at Old Trafford, but he clearly has the Indian sign over the Scouse. Two home wins, scoring three goals each time, provided relief from football tedium and the 2-1 victory at Anfield earlier this year remains United’s best performance there for nearly fifteen years. There had been plenty of wins at the venue in that time, but none with any style. Steven Gerrard’s sending off after 40 seconds in his final appearance in England’s Classico will long live fondly in the memory. It’s hard to deny that that boy had a stunning sense of timing.
But, before describing this season’s game, I must return to the idea of sub-plots. The narratives around football results are so often about context. Is this game a continuation of good form, a signal of it declining, a positive ‘turning point’? Does it provide hope for the future or fear? The context of yesterday’s match was an entirely negative one. Both clubs are struggling. United have been in relegation form since October and performances seemed to be getting worse, despite a slight upturn in results. The context of those two most recent wins is that both were at home against absolutely terrible teams (Swansea and Sheffield United) and were narrowly won. Liverpool, equally poor, were in a slump of their own. This would be an epic sh*t off.
And an epic sh*t-off it certainly was. In the first half Liverpool were poor but creating half-chances. United were just a shambles. Defending, passing, creativity, composure, quality. Everything was missing. The decline into despair continued. After the break things were very slightly better. De Gea saved United and Martial made a decent chance for himself, but dragged wide. The standard of football was appalling. Then, on 78 minutes, a short corner was taken to Mata, unmarked, who crossed for Fellaini. The useless lumbering oaf beat four men in the air to head against the crossbar. Mignolet, hapless as ever, could only watch at the ball bounced down to Rooney, who half-volleyed home. Bedlam. From that point United, to their credit, saw the game out and victory was achieved at the home of our greatest enemies once again. It was a vital three points in the context of the Premier League table and for a team lacking in confidence in themselves and belief in the system. It was a continuation of recent dreadful performances, at least as bad as the Sheffield United victory and won in the same undeserved fashion. It felt embarrassing to have beaten The Blades like that.
Not so the Scouse, because for once context should be set aside for a week. The victory may provide momentum, boost sagging confidence or just be a blip in a season of tedium, but for now that is largely inconsequential. Fellaini and Rooney have been truly appalling for most of this campaign, but this weekend they combined to produce the best single-match warm feeling of this season. A win at Anfield is the Holy Grail and it matters not how it is achieved. Somehow a late winner after an anaemic, hapless performance is more satisfying than a comfortable victory. It was a genuine smash and grab, blind robbery and must have hurt the natives to their cores. They caught us at our weakest and still came up short.
One could argue that the standard of the football showed just how far these two great football clubs have fallen, and that would be a fair assessment. It will be a long way back for both. For United, LVG is still, surely, on borrowed time. It is a win, as undeserved as it was, that will possibly buy the Dutchman a short-term reprieve, but this is one game in which established agendas must be set to one side. To maintain his position he must now take advantage of home games against Southampton and Stoke. Lose those and the axe may once more be hovering. But for now he can enjoy a week of peace. For the fans it is a chance to reacquaint themselves with Match of the Day, to start buying newspapers again and to trawl the RAWK message board once more. I did all three.
Last year I ended the post-Anfield blog with a quote from that fine Internet forum. I feel obliged to do so once again. Liverpool fans love to search for injustice to explain their misfortune. Often it is the referee, or cheating United players or what they had for breakfast, or the weather, or (when all other avenues are exhausted) their own players. With an adequate refereeing performance, Klopp on a honeymoon pass (which is lucky when you’re Plan B is Steven Caulker at centre-forward), no Lord Ferg to libel and an unwillingness to go in too hard on their own players only one target was left: The Gods.
“Games like this remind me why my love/hate relationship with football is more hate than love these days.
Those jammy bastards did NOTHING and score a spawny goal from their only attack. The way the ball falls perfectly to c*** Rooney’s feet typifies their luckiness.
When was the last time we won a game against them and were lucky to do so? ”
Yes, it’s the Gods and their unfair distribution of luck. United, it seems, get it all. Back in the olden days, when men were men and women did the housework and all was fair in the world the universal balance meant that only the talent of the respective teams contributed towards sporting outcomes. But the Gods have changed and become vindictive. Angered by the behaviour of the human race they decided to spite their creations by making Manchester United beat Liverpool at football every year, when they really really didn’t deserve to. And indeed it worked. We may hear them guffawing from the heavens as they conspired for an Evertonian to break the Premier League one-club scoring record with a ‘spawny’ goal whilst the hapless visitors repelled every attack. Interestingly, back in the day, United used to regularly beat Liverpool despite having inferior players. As those were days of equality of good fortune and cosmic fairness, I wonder how yer man explains that.
“I used to love football, before our overseers decided to sabotage it, even though similar results and game outcomes used to happen when I was going through puberty too.”
Or maybe you hate it now because your team is terrible, mate. Like mine, but worse. Although, for me, this week that hate is suspended. No matter the context or the sub-plots involved, or just how poor United were, a win at Anfield should just be enjoyed in isolation. It wasn’t quite as good as seeing Gerrard sabotage his final chance to beat his greatest enemy, but a Rooney late winner in a game we scarcely deserved a draw from is right up there. I’m off to enjoy a week of gloating and watching shaky fan-cam vines of the goal on repeat, removed from the poverty of the rest of United’s season. I reserve the right to stay in this state until half time next weekend, with the score locked at 0-0. Then I’ll start moaning again. Until then, huzzah!