15 December 2007

How Fergie left rivals Liverpool trailing in his wake

By IAN LADYMAN Last updated at 23:36pm on 14th December 2007

One of the most encouraging signs during Sir Alex Ferguson's difficult early years at Manchester United was a runners-up finish to Division One champions Liverpool in 1988.

Ferguson, as realistic as ever, said later: "We were nine points behind. There was still a gulf in class."

That, as much as anything, illustrates just how far into their great rivals' shadow Liverpool were to fall once Ferguson's United finally brought a league title to Old Trafford five years later.

Just last season, for example, the gap between champions United and fourth-placed Liverpool was 21 points. Back in 1994, it was an incredible 32 points while in 1999 it was 25 and a year later a similarly significant 24 points.

A gulf in class? It has been that way for many years, with Liverpool's last title coming in 1990.

"It is incredible how time goes by so quickly," reflected Ferguson yesterday. "It does not seem like all those years since Liverpool won a league title. I suppose when you are concentrating on what you are doing at your own club you don't really notice."

Ferguson made it his aim to topple Liverpool as soon as he arrived in England 21 years ago.

Famously, he said he wanted to knock them from their perch' and to say it worked is an understatement.

In terms of the League titles that English football uses as its true barometer of success, Liverpool have been dead at the bottom of their cage for quite some time.

Tomorrow at Anfield, the Kop will once more smell the whiff of a new dawn. Fresh promise. Real hope afforded them by Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and a revitalised Harry Kewell.

Ferguson, though, has seen it before. Liverpool finished second, ahead of his team, in 2002 as they threatened to breathe again under Gerard Houllier. They beat them in the Carling Cup Final a year later.

In 2005, of course, they even won the Champions League.

Still, consistency has escaped them. So can it be different this time?

Ferguson said: "All I can say is that we have had a fantastic record since the Premier League started, incredible really. Liverpool, for whatever reason, have not managed that. Our main rivals over the period have been Arsenal really.

"To be involved in a league title race through the season is far harder than to have a cup run. When it gets to March and April and every game, every goal, means the world, that's when the true test comes. To win the FA Cup you just have to win six games.

"When I look at the overall performance of Liverpool over the years, I don't really know what happened. But they are showing promise again this season.

"They have a game in hand so the gap could really just be three points. That's nothing and that shows how tight this league is.

"If this game was happening towards the end of the season I would say it could have ultimate significance. As it is, we are only halfway through. But it is still huge."

Ferguson's rhetoric was telling yesterday. Soundbites were tossed out every minute. "If we are lambs, we are dead. We need to be men," he said.

"We want 19 titles. The chase is on," he pronounced, referring to Liverpool's record of 18, two more than United.

What was absent, though, was genuine needle. When Ferguson senses a threat, the street fighter in him charges to the surface.

There was none of that yesterday.

It would appear that the Scot, like everybody else, is waiting to see if the challenge from along the M62 will prove to be real.

He offered some backing to Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez who continues to endure a difficult relationship with the club's owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

He expressed only mild irritation that Liverpool's best defender Jamie Carragher escaped a booking and a ban when conceding a penalty at Reading last Saturday and can play at Anfield.

Ferguson said: "I hear and read about the dispute between Rafa and the owners and then I look at his record and wonder where it comes from.

"There is an undercurrent of a dispute somewhere along the line and it is strange, given that he has won the FA Cup and the Champions League already.

"I have no idea about how they run things there. But there is no problem with the owners here. I leave it to chief executive David Gill to get on with and it works fine."

Tomorrow, there will be a little less concern. A handshake before kick-off and a glass of wine at full time, maybe.

The rivalry between these two clubs is unsurpassed. It is geographical and cultural more than statistical.

The clubs have only finished one-two in the league four times over the years — 1947, 1964, 1980 and 1988.

Nevertheless, the sense of need, desperation even, from both sets of supporters will be overwhelming. Occasionally it has boiled over.

Ferguson once had hot liquid thrown in his face outside Anfield.

Two years ago, when United forward Alan Smith suffered an horrific leg injury, the ambulance carrying him to hospital came under attack on a street corner.

By and large, though, it has been the football that has grabbed the attention.

As Ferguson said: "No matter what the position of the teams, this is the highlight of my season. This game encapsulates everything I love about football. The fans, the geography, the history, the passion. The atmosphere tends to lift the players. It is like nothing else."

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