In a country where “football” is played without helmets and the word “soccer” is associated with a lackluster Americanized version of the game, England’s national sport is more religion than hobby, more obsession than diversion.
With several talent-rich minor leagues feeding into it, the English Premier League arguably features the finest football players from around the world. During a season that runs from August through May, the league’s 20 clubs compete for a single coveted prize—the league championship, also known as the EPL Cup.
Leading the way with a combined 35 league titles and a rivalry dating back to 1895 are Liverpool FC and Manchester United. Situated less than an hour apart, the teams serve as each other’s nemesis, and both claim to be “The Greatest English Football Club.” Both boast rosters filled with high-priced stars; and their non-starters would be team captains for most other clubs. Both wear red at home. And both know the path to a league championship runs through the other’s raucous stadium.
This rivalry involves more than players and fans. The feud extends back generations, with its genesis in the landscape of the cities themselves. Liverpool, on the country’s northwestern coast, harbors key ports for British shipping. Located 34 miles inland, Manchester is known for its manufacturing. According to historians, the hostility began with the building of the Manchester Ship Canal, which allowed ships to bypass Liverpool’s ports and transport goods directly into Manchester, taking profits away from its coastal neighbor.
Two cities fighting for economic growth. Two football clubs going all out for glory. No wonder most of England tunes in when Liverpool FC and Manchester United square off, especially when both are near the top of the standings—which has been the case more often than not.
For Liverpool fans, the 1970s and ’80s were their heyday, as the Reds brought home 11 EPL Cups and a handful of European titles. As their reign ended, though, Manchester United’s was just beginning. Since 1992, Red Devil supporters have cheered their club to 10 league championships and their share of European titles, as well.
The overall trophy count still favors Liverpool, 58-54, but none of it matters when the two clubs meet on match day.
Known as the Northwest Derby, the Liverpool-Man U skirmish has showcased some of the top football players of all time. Former Liverpool greats Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush have given way to a new class of fan favorites, including Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Red Devil legends Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Sir Bobby Charlton are now watching young stars Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo take the field they once dominated.
The rivalry is so intense that the two clubs have swapped players just nine times in more than 100 years. The most recent transfer—if 45 years ago can be called “recent”—saw Man U send Phil Chrisnall to Liverpool in 1964. And it’s not about money; Liverpool FC and Manchester United are the two wealthiest sports franchises in the world.
To spin it with an All-American analogy, it’s like the Yankees and Red Sox, with some Lakers-Celtics mixed in, topped with a healthy dose of Cowboys-Redskins, and served on a piping hot layer of Ohio State-Michigan—then multiply that by 100.
By the way, after Liverpool’s 4-1 thrashing of Man U on March 14th, LFC stands just one point back of the Red Devils in the EPL standings. With eight weeks remaining in the season, things are going to heat up down the stretch.