It’s a dirty secret, scarcely uttered among the faithful fans of either side, but on Friday, August 20th, 1971, red and white scarves waved frenetically on the Kop, the home team wore red jerseys and brought with them an august history of trophy hauls and global prominence. It was an afternoon buried by football history, when Manchester United played as the home side at Anfield.
It just happened once, against Arsenal. Unlike Everton, who played at home there for a period during the 1880s, in 1971, United had seen a fair amount of hooligan trouble and were paying what some might say was the ultimate price. A number of hooligans had thrown knives into the away section at Old Trafford and the punishment dealt by the FA was that their first two home matches of that season would be played away from their traditional home ground. Instead, they’d be played at Anfield and Victoria Ground, home to Stoke.
On the day, Manchester United ran out comfortable 3-1 winners, giving them a creditable 100% record as the Anfield home team. It was the first year since Sir Matt Busby had left the club and new manager, former republic of Ireland international Frank O’Farrell. O’Farrell says there was a different relationship in those days between clubs.
At that time there was a lot of goodwill shown to United,’ O’Farrell, now 84, recalled from his Devon home this week. ‘There was only willingness to help. It was spontaneous. Most clubs had that attitude to United.
‘I had people really wanting to help and Bill Shankly and Liverpool were really helpful. They didn’t hum and haw, or say, ‘‘Can we ring you back?’’ I’d like to stress that — they said, ‘‘We’d like you to play the Arsenal game at Anfield.
‘Being at Anfield wasn’t a big issue for the players, they knew they were playing in a great stadium,’ he added. ‘We wore our home kit. Arsenal were attractive opposition.
But if you happen to ask the players, there seems to be a problem with remembering the occasion. Manchester United came from behind, with Alan Gowling netting the equaliser over Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson. Gowling struggles to recall the match today.
United played a home match at Anfield? Give over.
Alex Stepney, a much lauded name among United fans with over 400 appearances, saved from Arsenal winger George Armstrong at the Kop end but struggles to recall feeling the love given to him by the Kop that afternoon.
I vaguely recall that we had to play two games away from Old Trafford, but I can’t recall that match. I thought I’d only ever won one match at Old Trafford when we beat Liverpool 4-1 (in 1969).
Despite a lot of influential George Best play he was taken off after 71 minutes and it was Bobby Charlton who scored the second goal at the Anfield Road End with a deft free kick circumnavigating the defensive wall, and Brian Kidd went on to grab the last of the three goals just before the whistle went for full time.
The event, as you might imagine, didn’t quite go smoothly. Despite the game being the result of sanctions against United fans, hundreds of the stormed the pitch before kick off, running from end to end and even as the game was being played, United fans were being ejected from the Kop. Liverpool were given 15% cut of the gate from the 27,649 attendance and United were made pay Arsenal for the inconvenience of the bizarre atmosphere.
As it happened, it was to be George Best’s last season with Manchester United. He looked a rejuvenated player for the first part of the season and United raced 10 points clear at the top of the table. But the Northern Irishman seemed to simply lose interest as the year wore on and by the end of the second half of the season, with United’s title challenge all but over, Best decided to head for Spain and the beach life.
It’s a little known fact that O’Farrell remembers it a little more clearly than his players. Until the 1960s, the relationship between clubs in the north of England was far closer than it is today. You could be a football supporter without hating anyone else. In Manchester, fans would quite regularly go and see both United and City games, depending on who was at home and how convenient it was for them. It was during the mid 60s that the rivalries took on a new character and the game became as much about your enemies as who you supported.
When Manchester United became the first club to lift the European Cup in 1968, Liverpool released the following statement:
‘British football can be proud of the United team who gave their all to give Matt Busby the Cup he cherishes above all else. It’s been a long, long drive for United to reach the top in Europe — no one will begrudge them being the first English club to make it.’
It was a different time, but perhaps modern day rivalries have taken on a bitter element that simply needn’t be the case. What do you think?