Have United’s rivals changed? It seems an obvious answer at first doesn’t it? Yes it’s no longer Chelsea, it’s now Arsenal and City.
Well if this were purely about the title race then that would no doubt be the case. However it’s a little bit deeper than that. The question is about true rivalry- not the ‘who’s stopping United winning a trophy’ type contempt fans have for their opponents but the historical rivalry that makes you refuse to say a certain team by name or disown your daughter for marrying one of their fans.
Traditionally the most hated visitors to the Theatre of Dreams have been fans of Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester City, or to give them their appropriate monikers- The ‘sheep sh*ggers’, ‘bin dippers’ and ‘bitters’.
The problem with all three of these teams is that other than the occasional blip -2009 for example- all three haven’t given United much competition in the trophy stakes. United haven’t faced Leeds in the Premier League for over six seasons now- has it really been that long? Time flies eh?
As for Liverpool, they may be in the same division as United but in terms of challenging for the title it’s been a rarity. Of course this could all change with ‘King Kenny’s revolution’ but this season they will be lucky to achieve a Champion’s League place let alone surmount a title challenge.
City are the new kids on the block in terms of title challenging and while they’re doing well at the moment a win for United on Saturday could all but end their chances.
Whether or not a team is challenging for the title shouldn’t really matter in terms of rivalry, after all, since I became old enough to form hatred of certain clubs, United have had many title rivals who’ve dropped off my radar. Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal and Chelsea have been the four teams where the term ‘six-pointer’ would apply to since the Premier League began. Now while having no real fondness for any of them, are they really true rivals in the traditional sense? I’d argue not. For starters Blackburn and Newcastle were not always in United’s division when true conflicts were being started and battle lines being drawn.
There may have been fights between the red army and fans of either team in the seventies and eighties but there were fights against any team United played- so my dad tells me- so it’s hardly enough to consider them as traditional enemies. Blackburn and Newcastle may have challenged United at the top of the table back in the mid nineties but it would be a stretch to class them as real rivals.
Then there are the new contenders to the title challenging adversary status, Chelsea and Arsenal. Now while there’s certainly no love lost between either set of fans it’s not quite the same rivalry that United have with Leeds or Liverpool. For starters just when the Gooners were looking like becoming a dominant force in the English game and possibly usurping United, they faded slightly which meant the rivalry was not quite as intense as it had been. Then came Chelsea, sorry the ‘rent boys’, who’ve been United’s main title contenders for the past five years. Now while it’s easy to despise Chelsea, after all some of their fans are fat, racist d*ckheads- although there’s nothing wrong with being fat- and their players are the sort of men you’d happily use the last bullet in your Luger on, it’s difficult to class them as true rivals.
For starters, they’re newcomers to the top table of title winners, until the late nineties they’d been a lower to mid-table team if not worse for the previous two decades, then there’s the distance between the two clubs. Having rivals that live hundreds of miles away and that you only ever see on a match day means the level of disdain for each other is fairly limited. In the case of Liverpool fans for example, you can bump into one- hopefully fist first- on any night out or at work or wherever, whereas you’re hardly likely to see a Chelsea fan on a trip to the Trafford Centre.
Part of the problem when it comes to United is that everyone hates us so we tend to just hate them back, but that doesn’t make them true rivals.
A survey taken by footballfancensus in 2003 to ascertain which club fans considered their main rivals showed that United topped the charts with no less than 5 clubs seeing the reds as their nemesis. These clubs were Arsenal- really? Leeds- no surprises, Liverpool- ditto, City- shock and Bolton- wtf?!
In the case of Arsenal fans seemed more concerned with the fact that United were their chief opponents in the Premier League title race, rather than any true tradition.
Leeds and City are to be expected with Leeds there has always been a mutual contempt between their fans and United’s which is exacerbated by other factors such as, violence, and the fairly close proximity the clubs are to one another, there’s also the fact that United faded in the seventies when Leeds were successful only for the roles to be reversed in the eighties, reversed once more in the early nineties before United became dominant and Elland road went on to play host to League One football.
City fans of course pretty much check United’s team news before they’re own and consider it a successful season if they win f*ck all and United don’t win the league.
As for Bolton, I’ve never really understood this one, it’s not as though we’ve even been in the same division for that long and we’ve certainly not been chasing the same trophies. I can only imagine its down to sheer jealousy of seeing your better looking, more intelligent neighbours, winning everything in sight while your own team considers 16th place a glorious triumph.
United fans themselves chose Liverpool as their primary foe, which is no surprise as they tick nearly every box when it comes to creating a rivalry. They took over from United as the dominant force in English football in the seventies and eighties only to have the favour returned in the nineties and noughties. Both sets of fans have engaged in physical contests over the years and there is of course the cultural divide. Despite being only thirty-odd minutes away from each other, in terms of accent, fashions and tastes Mancunians and Scousers are often miles apart.
The strange thing is, more often than not when I’ve been travelling or living in London, I’ve tended to get along well with the Scousers I’ve met. Whether it’s because we’re Northerners down south or wherever, or just the fact that we still share a similar p*ss taking sense of humour, but put me in a bar with a Scouser anywhere other than Manchester and it’s usually a good laugh.
In a different survey conducted by footballfancensus in 2008 to work out which English football rivalries were the fiercest United and Liverpool’s was ranked third in the country. The census ranked the top twenty rivalries, with nine out of Liverpool fans considering United their fiercest rivals and over two thirds of the United fans feeling the same towards their opponents from down the M62. The census also took into account the respective league and cup records of both teams, impact on attendances and other things such as reaction to players who’ve played for both clubs, or been linked with them and media coverage.
United made the list again, this time at number twenty for their rivalry with Leeds.
If the survey were to be taken again would it be any different? Probably not, although for many younger United fans unless Leeds achieve promotion soon, it’s unlikely they’re going to be considered true rivals.
Just as Chelsea were looking like becoming United’s main rivals in the league, there’s a real danger that they could now be on the verge of a demise, with an aging squad and a £50 million gamble on a player who may or may not rediscover his form.
City of course are on the up and have the financial clout to challenge anyone, although whether that will translate into trophies remains to be seen.
One thing is obvious, if City were to become football rivals with United in terms of success and title challenges and Liverpool were to continue to experience a barren spell then it would only be a matter of time before the ‘bitters’ overtook the ‘dippers’ in the rivalry stakes.
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