Sir Alex Ferguson famously said he took on the challenge of managing Manchester United “knock Liverpool right off their f***ing perch. And you can print that”.
The perch back then was the 16, 17 and eventually 18 championship titles Liverpool had won, largely in the two decades before Ferguson came south. It was a number that seemed to be part of the whole ‘This is Anfield’ aura surrounding those Liverpool teams, part of why many teams were beaten before kick-off.
At the time Manchester United had won seven championships in their history – not too shabby considering Arsenal had nine, three of which came consecutively in the 1930s. Everton had eight titles. Manchester City had two and Chelsea had only one.
Ferguson inherited 20 years of near misses and abject failures, which had diminished United to a point where supporters pretended they were happy with the occasional FA Cup.
In chasing down and bettering the ‘perch’ of the mark Liverpool set, Sir Alex took what was already the most important tie of the United season and turned it into something mythical. Beating Liverpool could make anything all right.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has succeeded with United as interim manager largely by paying homage to what he learnt from the United teams he became part of under Sir Alex.
On Sunday Liverpool travel to Old Trafford. The season is getting down to what Sir Alex described as ‘squeaky bum’ time. Manchester City seem to have had a dip in form – results every team is going to suffer in a long premiership season – and with ten games or so left Liverpool need results from every remaining fixture to hold them off.
Solskjaer is a nice guy. He wouldn’t talk about knocking people off their perches. He was always a smiling assassin as a player, though, and one of the best. He would have been hoping for more from the Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain.
When he looked at the challenge he was taking on in accepting the interim role with United, though, maybe he saw the home tie with Liverpool, knew how the Premier League table would be looking and thought, “If you are going to begin a new legend, what better way than a victory that derails Liverpool’s best chance at a title in 30 years?”.
And with the way Solskjaer has United playing the way they should, the way they did under Sir Alex and Sir Matt before that, the game won’t be trench warfare.
You can almost imagine a late, late substitute toe-poking a winner for United in injury time with the teams locked at a pulsating 2-2.