• Rewind to 1989

Fears of friction prove unfounded

ESPN staff
September 20, 2012
The tension of the time was beginning to tell on Sir Alex Ferguson © PA Photos

Last week, an independent panel finally revealed the truth behind the Hillsborough Disaster, which shocked football in 1989, exonerating fans of any blame for the tragedy.

As Liverpool prepare to face Manchester United - who have their own tragedy, the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, in their history - for the first time since that news emerged, we look back at the first meeting between the two ardent rivals since the shocking events of that FA Cup semi-final.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that, when the fixture list for the 1989-90 First Division season was released, Manchester United's first meeting with Liverpool was not scheduled until basically the end of the first half of the season, deep into December.

The two teams, of course, had a long history of rivalry - some of it illustrious, some of it not so much - with the persistent feuds having occasionally strayed into unsavoury territory.

With the tragedy of Hillsborough - where 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush that, only 23 years later, they were exonerated of all blame for causing - only a few months in the past, the fear was significant that the first meeting between the two sides might spark ugly chants about a tragedy that many Reds fans were still struggling to come to terms with.

A meeting between the two sides early in the 1989-90 campaign, then, may have increased the chances of injudicious comments sparking something more serious. By waiting until December, both sides perhaps had a chance to put things in something approaching perspective, and confront the contest within appropriate limits of conduct.

By the time the game rolled around, the two clubs were experiencing markedly different league fortunes. Liverpool had started the campaign like a train but had begun to falter slightly since the onset of winter; slipping two points behind defending champions Arsenal in the First Division table.

Manchester United, meanwhile, had struggled for consistency - mixing the odd impressive result with dreary defeats against teams that hardly had a fraction of their talent. As a result they were down in 13th, with a particularly poor recent sequence meaning they were just two points above the relegation zone.

United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson had little reason to be optimistic ahead of the contest, but nevertheless insisted his side could throw the form book out of the window at Anfield and get their season back on track.

"There's always a big rivalry between the two clubs," Ferguson acknowledged. "But it's a game I look forward to and the type of challenge I enjoy."

He added, perhaps somewhat optimistically: "We are not afraid. We have lost three on the trot but that is when a side like us can be most dangerous."

Ferguson's opposite number, Kenny Dalglish, seemed less concerned by United's recent run of form - noting instead that boardroom uncertainty had perhaps played its part in ensuring a run of results that did not truly reflect the quality of the squad at the club.

Entrepreneur Michael Knighton had made a high-profile attempt to buy the Red Devils during the year that had, over a period of time, gradually fallen apart - and Dalglish sensed this was still messing with minds at Old Trafford.

"United have had their troubles and tribulations off the pitch at boardroom level, and that is something the players and staff cannot control," the Scot said. "It can affect people in many ways but I can't see how it would help anybody.

"Obviously the less distractions there are for anybody trying to do a job, the better it is for them."

The last comment proved to be somewhat apt as, with swirling fears of Hillsborough-related aggravation from United fans, a still-raw club had a significant emotional distraction of their own to deal with.

Despite - or, perhaps, because of - United's own experience with such disaster, the rivalry between the two clubs led to fears that chants about the events in Sheffield would emanate from the away end, sparking ugly scenes at Anfield.

As a result, before the game Dalglish stressed his hope that the shared history of casualty would unite the supporters, not divide them.

Kenny Dalglish was still dealing with the trauma of Hillsborough © PA Photos

"It would be another tragedy if fans goaded each other about them," Dalglish implored. "United, and their fans, were very supportive to us after Hillsborough. We sincerely hope some benefit can come from it now."

If anything, however, Liverpool fans might have been more concerned about the prospect of another defeat to the enemy. For all United's recent struggles, their record at Anfield was strong - of the last 10 matches there, they had lost just twice - coming away with the spoils on four separate occasions.

In the end, that fear proved to be better placed than those of unseemly chants. In front of terraces that, by and large, remained respectful, Liverpool had their chances during the match, but it was United who really should have broken the deadlock.

Mark Hughes, restored to the starting line-up just weeks after seeming to brazenly incite the 'Ferguson-out' brigade at Old Trafford after being left on the bench for a league game, had a couple of presentable chances - but was denied at every turn by Bruce Grobbelaar, particularly after bursting through on goal 12 minutes before half-time.

Indeed, although Liverpool's Peter Beardsley may have thought he could have done better with a couple of late openings, it was the Zimbabwean who was the key man as the game ended 0-0 - ensuring Liverpool remained behind Arsenal in the table, albeit only by a point.

United, meanwhile, left the pitch frustrated - even if they had halted their losing streak.

Afterwards, pleasingly, talk of chanting did not even warrant discussion in the national newspapers. Instead the overriding sense was that this Manchester United side - who had demolished champions Arsenal on the opening day - had a great deal of potential, but had yet to get the formula exactly right. And, whatever Hughes may have privately thought, they desperately needed a goalscorer.

"The most enigmatic side in the First Division, they have lurched like a drunken fell walker from high peaks to low points," the Times mused. "When they perform as a unit, as against Arsenal and Liverpool, they resemble genuine contenders. When United play as isolated individuals, as has been more often the case, they look like relegation candidates."

Ferguson, who was growing increasingly tired of the criticisms directed at him and his team, pleaded bad luck.

"We are still in the agony period,'' the Scot said, the media noting such a refrain was being heard 'not for the first time'. "We are just not getting the breaks."

Nevertheless, the feeling persisted that the former Aberdeen boss, who had arrived amid such fanfare, was hurtling towards a crucial series of fixtures that could come to define his tenure at the club.

"To protect his own position, Ferguson needs to produce the right formula.

Otherwise, he may not be allowed to complete a championship race which, ironically, his side has helped to make more open"

"To protect his own position, [Ferguson] needs to produce the right formula, especially for the third round tie of the FA Cup, against Nottingham Forest," the Times pressed. "Otherwise, he may not be allowed to complete a championship race which, ironically, his side has helped to make more open."

Football matters, then, were what dominated the post-match analysis, despite all the fears in the build-up.

Ferguson no doubt did not quite see it in such terms, but for some it was a relief that it was his job security that was the subject of discussion after the game - and not the antics of the fans that had been there to see it.

What happened next?: Liverpool went on to claim the league title with some ease, a victory for the resilience and fortitude of both the players and the fans.

United, meanwhile, eventually finished 13th in the table - but they beat Forest in that pinpointed tie and won the FA Cup after a replay against Crystal Palace (who beat Dalglish's side in the semi-finals), a victory that has been widely credited with turning around Ferguson's tenure at the club and giving him the time to bring success - so much success - to Old Trafford.

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