Former stars not giving ground in clash of age-old rivals

Former Manchester United winger Lee Sharpe (left) and former Liverpool midfielder Patrik Berger in a jolly mood before the duel. They will both be in the thick of the action in the Castlewood Group Battle of the Reds at the National Stadium this even
Former Manchester United winger Lee Sharpe (left) and former Liverpool midfielder Patrik Berger in a jolly mood before the duel. They will both be in the thick of the action in the Castlewood Group Battle of the Reds at the National Stadium this evening, featuring former players from United and Liverpool.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Former Manchester United winger Lee Sharpe, he of the party-going nature, had his fair share of run-ins with Alex Ferguson during his eight years at Old Trafford - but one dressing down stood out in particular.

It was 1992, during half-time at arch-rival Liverpool's Anfield ground, and Sharpe, who admitted he "never played well there", was having another stinker. He trudged back to the dressing room with his head down, and then it happened.

"The manager came in and said I have to move out of my house and move back into digs (the club's living quarters), my (then) girlfriend has to move back to Birmingham, I have to sell my car, my dog, my drums, my everything, and get back into (digs)," recalls Sharpe, who is in town for today's Castlewood Group Battle of the Reds, a match which will see former players from United and Liverpool duel at the National Stadium.

"It was the worst telling-off of my life, and mind you that was at half-time. I still had to go out and play the second half."

The shelling barely worked - for United went on to lose 0-2. But the ferocity of Ferguson's tirade summed up the animosity between two teams who hated losing to each other.

BEAT 'EM ALL

It's Man United versus Liverpool. There's going to be a bit of feistiness. Whether it's football, golf, tiddlywinks, it doesn't matter - we want to beat Liverpool.

LEE SHARPE, ex-United winger

HERE FOR THE WIN

It will be competitive. We came here to win and it's the same for them.

PATRIK BERGER, former Liverpool midfielder

Sharpe, who joined United from Torquay in 1988, recalls how an "eerie silence" descended on the United dressing room before every match against Liverpool.

The jocular Sharpe said: "Everyone sort of goes quiet. They are zoned in and focused. There's a sort of eerie silence which was always a bit uneasy for me."

Yes, both United and Liverpool have their own city rivals, Manchester City and Everton, and matches against them are fiery in their own right. The Merseyside derby has the most red cards in the history of the Premier League, while the Manchester derby has added intensity with City's emergence as a powerhouse following a cash injection from new oil-rich owners.

But the United-Liverpool collision is a match which not only grips fans but also neutrals; in March, British newspaper The Telegraph ranked it as the most intense in English football.

To understand the feud is to look at the history between two north- west cities which are 35 miles (56 km) apart but inextricably linked.

The hatred between both transcends the pitch, and stems from a deep-seated rivalry which has its roots in the 19th century - in particular, the 1894 opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, an inland waterway which allowed ships to bypass Liverpool's docks and head straight to Manchester.

It was conceived by Mancunian merchants unhappy with paying dues to the Port of Liverpool. In fact, so proud are they of their trading roots that ships can still be found on the badges of both Manchester clubs today.

The rivalry also boils over to the world of music. Liverpool will say they gave the world The Beatles, but Manchester can point to Oasis' resounding success in the Brit-pop era as a worthy riposte. As Sharpe said, "there's a sort of underlying bitterness" and "it's always more tense and hostile".

Patrik Berger, the Czech who spent seven years at Anfield, said "if you can beat Everton and Man United then it's a great season for the fans".

Of course, for players and fans of both clubs, what matters most is the action on the pitch, and both teams took turns to lay claim to being England's best football team.

United, under Matt Busby, dominated the 1950s and 60s with five league titles, a feat all the more impressive considering it coincided with the Munich air disaster.

Liverpool ascended in the 1970s and 80s, under managers Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, who delivered nine league titles and three European Cups between them.

The balance of power shifted back to the Red Devils under Ferguson, whose 13 Premier League titles meant United have the most league titles (20), two more than the Reds.

Today, fans can soak up the rivalry as former players from both sides clash. It is a masters match, meaning players must be 35 and above, but Berger, 42, said: "It will be competitive. We came here to win and it's the same for them."

Sharpe, 44, added: "It's Man United versus Liverpool. There's going to be a bit of feistiness. Whether it's football, golf, tiddlywinks, it doesn't matter - we want to beat Liverpool."

After the hairdryer treatment from Ferguson, few would doubt him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Former stars not giving ground in clash of age-old rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe