We continue our series of iconic games that are impossible to forget, this time with an infamous encounter between the Premier League’s most bitter rivals.
As a player, there’s a shortcut to writing yourself into the folklore of Liverpool or Man United and that’s by scoring a winner against them. Job done, feet up and bask in the glory because you’re due a fat pension of unconditional love. No player could testify to this more than Diego Forlan, who defined his otherwise forgettable Man United career with a famous brace at Anfield in 2003. For Liverpool, it will be remembered for an infamous brain-fart from their goalkeeper.
Whether at Anfield or Old Trafford, early 00’s Liverpool v United games were uniformly tight. Growing up we didn’t have Sky in our house, meaning I was shielded from the sordid hi-jinks of Andy Gray and Richard Keys but had to rely on friends or the few unsafe, smoke-filled, child-tolerating pubs in my town to get my Premier League fix. I don’t miss those days, but the effort required to simply watch a game back then added something. I used to get unreasonably nervous - to the point of shaking - before a big game, something I’ve long since tamed with age and access. There is perhaps one exception: United v Liverpool games.
How to describe Liverpool c. 2002? Under the late Gerard Houlier it was arguably the most successful Liverpool side of the 21st century until very recently, claiming the oft-patronised but legitimately impressive ‘treble’ of cups in 2001. The following season they amassed 80 points in the league to finish second behind Arsenal, with United navigating their first ‘crisis’ since they had won the actual Treble by finishing third. How time skews what it means to be in a ‘crisis’, at least for a club like Man United.
Yet despite the silverware and growing momentum in the league, their squad was a slightly odd jumble of talents and misfits. There was Stephan Henchoz and Djimi Traore in defence and Milan Baros and Vladmir Smicer in attack. Michael Owen’s injuries had just started to flare up, while a young Steven Gerrard was far from the peak Roy-of-the-Rovers talisman he would soon become. But thanks to the intelligence and experience of Houllier they were collectively quite good, and certainly good enough to pile misery onto a United side that was at best caught in something of an awkward transitional period.
A glance at that United team and it’s difficult to fathom why it was so awkward. Ferdinand, Keane, Scholes, Veron, Giggs, van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer… Not a bad spine, is it? But scratch beneath the surface and there were problems. Ferdinand hadn’t yet bedded in after his £30m move from Leeds. Keane’s injuries had caught up with him. Giggs was in perhaps the most difficult patch of his 20 year career at the club. But there was no shortage of character and bottle, to use two of football’s favourite cliches, and that can go a long way at Anfield on a wintery Sunday lunchtime.
As a United fan, you can feel the pressure, the intensity, at Anfield in this game even from the distant comfort of being in front of a TV screen. The rabidly hateful breath of forty-odd thousand Scousers on the necks of the United players every time they get near the ball. Remember, This Means More to them. But for the majority of this game there was nothing between the two sides on the pitch. Liverpool probed; United toiled, but all in the congested, unruly middle third with neither side carving out anything interesting beyond it. If there was going to be an opening it felt like it would come from something impulsive and surprising.
Not like this though. To this day nearly twenty years later, I still haven’t figured out Jerzy Dudek’s howler that allowed Forlan to poach the opener deep into the second half. In the commentary box Andy Gray put it down to “a total lack of concentration” but that doesn’t explain the physical mechanics of the mistake. Carragher makes a routine header back to his goalkeeper, who crouches to collect but proceeds to let it squirm through his legs and onto free grass. Sort of like he had given birth to a football.
“Forlon gits an absoloot gehft” bellowed Graysie, and he wasn’t wrong. Forlan didn’t look that proverbial horse in the mouth and rolled into an empty net right in front of the away fans. Cue delirium in that stand not seen again until Steven Gerrard got himself sent off within a minute of his final ever United v Liverpool game 15 years later.
With Liverpool cranking up the pressure in a frenetic effort to equalise, the game became stretched and United pounced. Scholes and Giggs roved forward with trademark efficiency and fed Forlan on the right side of the penalty area. A couple of touches edged him closer before he rifled in a ferocious strike past Dudek, who might have done more to keep it out. 2-0 and Forlan had all but cemented his place in United history.
There was time for two more key moments though, both of which could have altered that history. First was Sami Hyypia’s quickfire reply, “sucked in” by The Kop, as they say. It was a handsome finish for a big centre back: crisply vollying into the bottom corner after a bit of head tennis in the United box. Fabien Barthez had no chance.
He grasped the only remote chance of denying a certain equaliser right at the death. My memories of Barthez are mixed at best, but this was arguably his single finest moment in a United shirt. As Dietmar Hamann coiled back to strike a loose, inviting ball 30 years out, it felt destined to crash into the top bins. Barthez had other ideas, springing from his spot to flick the piledriver onto the crossbar and out to safety. Anfield exhaled.
In a game that can make or break a player’s legacy, there were several candidates in this memorable encounter.
Words by Dom Kocur