I don’t have hard numbers for you, but I’m willing to be that of all the specific fixtures that feature in this Throwback Thursday series, Liverpool vs Manchester United is one of the best-represented match-ups. (Previously: here, here, here.) If it seems like I return to this particular well often, it’s only because of the lengthy— and colorful!— history between these two clubs.
This rivalry runs near its dramatic peak when both clubs are competitive in the same region of the table— especially when both are in contention for either the title or a Champions League place. Liverpool’s extended period of dominance in the 70s and 80s was lacking, perhaps, in one specific way: it correlated with a period of relative mediocrity for United. For one season, the two weren’t even in the same division.
But as the 80s drew to a close, there were signs that things were about to change.
This week we look back at the end of the 1987-88 campaign and consider the subtle shifting of sands.
For United fans, 1987-88 sticks out as the first full season with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge. Fergie was brought in in November during the previous a season to rescue a side that was lingering near the relegation places and had crashed out of the League Cup. He managed to stop the rot and guide United to an 11th place finish. The next season, his first full campaign, the Red Devils roared back into life and found themselves in contention for the title late on.
Meanwhile, Kenny Dalglish was in his third campaign as player-manager. He ended the previous season having lost the league title to Everton and his star forward, Ian Rush, to Juventus. Determined to turn things around, he brought in John Aldridge from Oxford United, whipped the team into shape, and ran into 1987-88 like gangbusters. They were top of the league for much of the campaign, and between August 1987 and February 1988 went on a 37-match unbeaten run in all competitions. This was the rampant, dominant, indisputable Liverpool of old.
Momentum and improvements notwithstanding, United came to Anfield on that sunny day in April as the underdogs. If they wanted any hope of slowing Liverpool down, they needed a win.
The visitors got off to a flying start. Bryan Robson drew first blood in the 3rd minute by finishing off a low cross from Peter Davenport.
United piled on the pressure through the rest of the first half and had more than a few chances to pad out their advantage. But they acted too slow, and Peter Beardsley equalized in the 38th minute. And just three minutes later, Gary Gillespie gave Liverpool the lead and an added bounce in their step heading into the tunnel for halftime.
Before the all the fans could get back to their spots after halftime, United plunged further down the hole when Steve McMahon hit a screamer from 25 yards.
And then just before the hour mark, Colin Gibson got himself sent off for an challenge.
The imperious Reds were up 3-1 at Anfield and United were down to 10 men. It truly seemed like it was all over.
But nobody bothered to tell United that.
Just seven minutes after Gibson’s red card, Robson scored his second goal thanks to a lucky deflection off of Gillespie to pull the visitors back to within one.
And then, eleven minutes later, some poor communication in the back inadvertently allowed Gordon Strachan to be played through and sent him 1-on-1 with Bruce Grobbelaar. Strachan didn’t waste his chance and, with time running out in regulation, United were level.
Liverpool managed to hold on to what they had but they couldn’t regain the lead. United left Anfield that day with a point and a hefty dose of schadenfreude.
The draw slowed Liverpool down but it couldn’t stop them. The Reds finished on top of the First Division table with 90 points, while United’s 81 points left them a distant second. Liverpool also lost the opportunity to win another double in one of the biggest FA Cup upsets in history.
But, of course, the tides were already starting to turn. Liverpool’s long reign as kings of English football would come to an end within a few years. As the Premier League era dawned, they were usurped by none other than Alex Ferguson’s United squad— a fact United fans are only too happy to remind people of.
Both of these clubs have proud legacies tarnished by their recent failures to reclaim or restore them. While both teams have only outside odds at the title, they’re both firmly in contention for Top 4 spots. All of this to raise the stakes on what is otherwise one of the biggest rivalries in the sport.
Their next meeting comes on Monday at Anfield, and both sides— and their players, and their superstar managers— will have a lot to prove. Kickoff is at 3pm EST on NBC Sports Network.