Manchester United and Liverpool don’t care a great deal for each other.
The two most successful clubs in British football are sworn enemies, who enjoy nothing more than beating their hated rivals and despise nothing more than seeing the other lifting a trophy and celebrating success.
At least, that’s how the supporters feel. But what about the players?
Do they really share such intense feelings of antagonism for their nearest rivals? Or is it, for them, essentially just a job?
Sorry if this is disillusioning but, in my experience of working with professional footballers, I’ve generally found that they rarely share the passions of fans. They care about results, of course — but they care for different reasons.
Despite the well-worn diplomatic sound bites and the badge-kissing celebrations, few players possess any genuine feelings of loyalty towards their clubs or their supporters, and are instead motivated by more selfish factors such as trophies, personal pride, win bonuses, new contracts or potential transfers.
The truth is that most players, whatever the club and whatever the nationality, simply see their profession as a job and a potential route to success and wealth. Genuine attachment and passion for their club is rare.
Indeed, it’s not entirely unusual for players to secretly hope that their team fails — if they have been dropped from the team, for example, or are seeking a transfer.
They might not admit it, but beneath the surface nearly all players are ruled by selfish intentions.
And who can blame them? After all, football clubs and their fans don’t show any loyalty to players — the moment a player has outlived his usefulness to a club, there is rarely any hesitation in moving him on.
If your face no longer fits due to a change in manager or a new signing taking your place, you’re thrown out without any regard to sentiment — just look at how lowly Carlos Tevez is regarded by Manchester United fans now, despite being their hero less than a year ago.
In such a precarious environment, it would be nothing short of foolhardy for a player to invest too much emotional involvement into an organisation that is liable to discard him without prior warning at any given moment. Players can hardly be blamed for first and foremost looking out for themselves.
However, it should be stated that there are numerous exceptions, players who really do care deeply about the progress of their clubs and share the passionate prejudices of their supporters. And I would suggest that Manchester United and Liverpool contain more exceptions than most.
Wayne Rooney, for example, sparked some tabloid outrage last season when he told Manchester United’s website that he “hates” Liverpool. (Some sections of the British media were critical of Rooney’s comment which is rather hypocritically, considering the way they try to fuel the rivalry between supporters. The comments were removed from the website and were later defended by Sir Alex Ferguson.)
Rooney was an Everton fan in his boyhood, and ‘Liverpool” would have been a dirty word in his household. As he then went on to play for Everton before joining Manchester United, those feelings of antipathy will have been given every opportunity to intensify as he grew older. So it’s no surprise that he’s one of the exceptions.
Similarly, there is no doubt about how deeply Gary Neville is committed to Manchester United, or whether Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have genuine feelings of attachment to Liverpool. These are players who grew up locally as fans of their clubs, who can still easily identify with supporters and who share many of their prejudices.
Even so, the players’ feelings of “hatred” for their opposition will be nothing compared to those of the supporters. As professionals, maintaining such a deeply intense loathing would be completely impractical.
For example: United fans, on the whole, simply cannot abide Gerrard. “Dirty cheating Scouser” would be one of their kinder assessments of Liverpool’s captain. Rooney, though, is Gerrard’s teammate at international level — how could they possibly tolerate each other’s presence at their regular England get-togethers if he despised Gerrard as much as United’s supporters do?
And the locally-reared, genuinely passionate “supporters” are still very much in the minority within their own squads. Why should Alberto Aquilani or Yossi Benayoun really share their fans’ loathing of Manchester United? On the contrary, it would be quite reasonable if they secretly wished to play for them one day.
So although meetings between United and Liverpool might excite venomous passions of mutual loathing amongst spectators, the same feelings will not generally be present amongst the combatants.
That’s not to say the players aren’t motivated — just that they generally find different reasons to the parochial rivalries that are so important to supporters.
As they entered this weekend’s meeting between the sides, pursuing another EPL title was a good starting point for Manchester United players, along with the more personal, slightly petty stimulus of wanting to set the record straight after being defeated by Liverpool on their last three occasions, while Liverpool players had the carrot of qualification for next season’s Champions’ League as ample incentive.
The commitment of the players was plain to see throughout Sunday’s 2-1 victory for United at Old Trafford, which maintained their place at the head of the English Premier League table. Fernando Torres, in particular, was a picture of frustration and emotion as he toiled against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
So there’s no doubt that the game plainly meant a great deal to Torres and the other combatants; they cared a great deal — maybe just for different reasons than their fans.