Will Manchester United supporters attract the ire of the nation’s press this Sunday? Perhaps, although there can be no guarantee of the cause ahead of the weekend’s clash with Liverpool at Anfield. Certainly, while the fourth estate awaits the merest glimpse of anti-Liverpool sentiment from away supporters this weekend, controversy could rear its head, whether real or augmented, for any manner of reasons.
This is, after all, the biggest game in the country, and Liverpool versus United has become the premier flashpoint of the domestic season. Last season’s clash at Anfield where Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra is a case in point.
But it is to the fans’ songs that attention will be firmly focussed on Sunday – a day that promises to be an emotional one for Liverpool supporters, and a test of nerve for those at the other end of the East Lancs Road. Indeed, such is the desire for the day to pass off without incident that United on Friday published a letter in Sir Alex Ferguson’s name calling on Manchester’s Reds to observe the ‘best traditions’ of the club.
“The great support you gave the team here last season has seen our allocation back up to near-full levels,” wrote Ferguson in a letter that will be given to United fans entering the Anfield Road turnstiles on Sunday.
“I want you to continue that progress today. But today is about much more than not blocking gangways. Today is about thinking hard about what makes United the best club in the world. Our rivalry with Liverpool is based on a determination to come out on top – a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held that honour for so long. It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred.
“Just ten days ago, we heard the terrible, damning truth about the deaths of 96 fans who went to watch their team try and reach the FA Cup final and never came back. What happened to them should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game.
“Our great club stands with our great neighbours Liverpool today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice. I know I can count on you to stand with us in the best traditions of the best fans in the game.”
Indeed, had United beaten Nottingham Forest in the 1989 FA Cup quarter-final, Ferguson’s team would have joined Liverpool in the Hillsborough semi. It could so easily have been 96 United fans who failed to return as those from Merseyside.
In truth, while Ferguson makes no direct call for United supporters to refrain from singing the ‘always the victim, it’s never your fault’ chant that caused so much media furore, any rendition of that particular song is what the United manager most fears.
With the nation’s media in no mood to hear subtleties of argument, the reproach will likely be severe should even a modicum of Mancunian animosity be heard at Anfield. Whether it relates to Hillsborough, or not.
Far more likely, however, is that United fans will direct any hatred – despite Sir Alex’ call for détente – not at Hillsborough’s victims, but Suarez – an easy target in the circumstances. On a day when Liverpool will remember those who were not only lost at Hillsborough, but betrayed by the state, even the most bone-headed among United’s support know where that Rubicon lays.
On the Kop attention will be elsewhere; certainly far enough away to distract Liverpudlians from the kind behaviour that United supporters have been accused of in the past week. However, Patrice Evra is unlikely to escape Anfield’s venom for his part in being racially abused last October. It remains hard to square media reaction to Evra’s victimisation on the grounds of race with coverage of United’s ‘chanting’ over the past week.
“We want this day to be remembered for the right reasons before the game, and the footballing reasons”, added Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
“A lot of work has been done and hopefully Sunday will pass off peacefully and we can talk about the tributes and football. It is an emotionally-charged game. I wouldn’t sit here and tell Liverpool supporters how to behave. I know how they have behaved over many years has been fantastic.
On the day captains Nemanja Vidic and Steven Gerard will release 96 red balloons over Anfield, while a mosaic along three sides of the ground will read “96, Justice and Truth”. Ferguson, alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, will lay flowers at the Kop. It is a reminder that while England’s fiercest rivalry has lost none of it’s intensity, some events transcend the game.
Then, prior to kick-off, Premier League rules demand that Evra and Suarez come together for the handshake that never was at Old Trafford last February. It is an event that may yet set the tone for the game to come.
In the stands there will be more United fans at Anfield than in previous years, with Liverpool council now content that supporters will not block exits and gangways following a high profile supporters’ group campaign last season. It means Ferguson’s side will receive full and rowdy support from the Anfield Road.
Manager and club hope that it will be support in the very best spirit. In that there is responsibility not solely on United supporters, but those in the home end too.