On August 20, 1971 thousands of Manchester United fans poured off the train at Lime Street station before making the familiar walk up Scotland Road towards Anfield. But this wasn’t a clash between two of the biggest sides in the North West. In fact, Liverpool weren’t even playing. This was a “home” game for United against Arsenal which, for one night only, was to be hosted by their arch-rivals.
The early 1970s were far from a golden period for Manchester United. After the departure of the great Matt Busby the club would see a succession of managers come and go and a number of the biggest names ever to wear the famous red shirts would soon be departing Old Trafford; meanwhile, off the field things weren’t much better either.
A number of violent incidents at the turn of the decade meant the club’s fans had gained something of a reputation at home and on the road, an issue which was only made worse when a number of United fans began throwing darts and knives at visiting supporters towards the tail-end of the previous campaign.
Manchester United acted swiftly by banning a number of supporters from the ground while former boss and club legend, Matt Busby, even spoke out to criticise those who were bringing the good name of the club into disrepute; but for the football authorities this didn’t go far enough.
As a result the club was ordered to play their first two home games of the following season away from Old Trafford and while Stoke City’s Victoria Ground seemed an obvious solution for their game against West Bromwich Albion, the choice of Anfield for the match with Arsenal raised more than a few eyebrows.
To make things more interesting the game was scheduled to be played on a Friday night meaning thousands of United fans would make the relatively short journey down the East Lancs Road to watch their side play at the home of Liverpool as a number of locals turned out to “welcome” their Mancunian visitors in the narrow streets which surround the ground leading to reports of skirmishes but little more at a time when the rivalry was more grudging disrespect than all-out hatred.
Once inside Anfield United fans were determined to enjoy the experience as kick off approached. “The big question was where to stand, the Anfield Road end or the Kop?” United fan Pete Molyneux reveals in his book Ta Ra Fergie. “For me it had to be the Kop – it was too good an opportunity to miss. As we got onto the terraces a big Liverpool chant went up and we found ourselves surrounded by scousers in one corner. Some United fans spilled onto the pitch and legged it to the safety of the other end.”
Others wanted to be part of the action though and with most of the 27,649 there that night cheering on United the start of the game had to be delayed as hundreds of fans saw the opportunity of a lifetime and ran the length of the field to join their fellow supporters on Anfield’s famous old terrace while the players waited patiently on the pitch.
Another to recall this iconic fixture is current Anfield stadium announcer George Sephton who had just started working at the club that summer. “It was just the third game of my career and the third in a busy week for me,” he tells The Sportsman about a game which had been sandwiched between two Liverpool home fixtures at the start of the season. “I don’t think I played ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as the teams took the field but I couldn’t swear to it.”
When the game finally got underway there was plenty for those who had made the journey to be happy about as United’s good start to the season continued with an impressive 3-1 win over the side from North London as goals from Bobby Charlton, Alan Gowling and Brian Kidd saw the Red Devils storm to the top of the table after three games.
However, the win was about as good as it got for new manager Frank O’Farrell and his United side that season as they struggled after Christmas and only managed to finish 8th in the table following so much early season promise.
The actions of a minority of United’s fans had ultimately cost the club financially, as not only were Arsenal awarded compensation for loss of revenue but Liverpool took a 15% cut of the gate too, while neighbours Everton also received a payout due to their attendance for the following day’s game against Sheffield United being significantly lower than expected.
However, for those United fans who made the trip to Liverpool that night, the chance of seeing their team secure a convincing “home” win against the side who had won the league and FA Cup double just three months earlier at the stadium of one of their biggest rivals and being able to say “I was there,” that was priceless.