Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Nice to be Nasty. Liverpool Vs. Manchester United, the grudge match.

At 5.00pm on Monday 20 September, large crowds have already gathered around Old Trafford for the 8.00pm kick-off between Manchester United and Liverpool. In the Bishop Blaize pub on Chester Road, United supporters are belting out their favourite anthem: 'Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the scousers on the top, put the city in the middle and we'll burn the f***ing lot!' At another nearby hostelry, the Trafford, a sign outside the door reads, 'Sorry, no away fans'. United v Liverpool is a grudge match, the most passionately contested and eagerly anticipated in England.

Despite having no family connections in the north-west of England, United has always been my club, while Liverpool FC has always been my mortal enemy. Yes, it defies all sense and logic, but then so does the antipathy between the true local support of both teams. (NB, disregard the claims of Man City and Everton: United and Liverpool draw the vast bulk of their support locally.) As an outsider, Mancunians and Liverpudlians strike me as hospitable, good humoured people; why they view one another as some sort of subspecies, I don't know.

What I can say for certain is that standing among United's hardcore in the K Stand, trading insults with the nearby Liverpool supporters, is tremendous fun. Accusing the away fans of murder (a reference to Heysel disaster at the 1985 European Cup Final), theft and social welfare fraud, is cathartic and exciting. It's nice to be nasty. As we chant 'United!' we punch our fists into the air in unison; when our team scores, we hug one another and make obscene gestures at Liverpool fans. The outstanding sensation is that of freedom: liberations from the normal constraints of behaviour. The more repressed one is, the more one has to unleash and so, the more essential occasions like this become to one's mental health.

It isn't a uniquely English phenomenon, as Celtic v Rangers and Barcelona v Real Madrid contain far more hatred. It's much more to do with our need to belong to a tribe, and that's a global phenomenon. We all need an identity. There are many people in Ireland who would look down their noses at those of us who choose to exercise this need at English football clubs. How can we feel so passionately about sporting institutions in cities we weren't even born in? Just how sad are we?

The truth is that no other sport harnesses the latent aggression of spectators like association football. Whilst Gaelic games and rugby are entertaining in their own way, they can never provide the safety valve for emotional pressure available in such venues as Old Trafford, Ibrox or the Nou Camp. Viewed in this way, attendance at Premiership and Champions League matches amounts to a less flakey version of group therapy. If you want to question the 'identity issues' of Irish people at English football matches, you may as well take your anthropological investigation to its conclusion and ask how any sportsman anywhere can exercise such a hold on other people's emotions. Ultimately, it's all pretty abstract.

I feel a little apprehensive entering Old Trafford's K Stand. Over the past decade or so, United's success has attracted people to the club who don't connect with football as a life and death issue. They're harmless enough types who've been won over by the aggressive marketing of Sky Sports and Man Utd's plc, but they lack the personality disorders which fuel the passion of real supporters. Terms such as 'tourist' and 'day tripper' are used with loathing and contempt by the hardcore. Such people are not welcome in areas like K Stand. Which is why I felt scared: living in Ireland, never having had the income to sustain a serious support of the club, whenever I've died for United, it's been in front of a TV somewhere.

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