Liverpool of the 80s vs Man United of the 90s – Who was the greatest?

Comparing teams from different decades and generations is a thankless task but one that I’ve been assigned ahead of this weekend’s big game between the two giants of English football. Liverpool excelled at home and abroad throughout the 1980s, while Manchester United have since established a dominance over the Premier League that has yet to be matched since and they more than replicated the successes of the Merseyside outfit. Nevertheless, it provokes a bit of healthy, interesting debate between two clubs and their sets of fans at a time of reconcilliation, so let’s get this ball rolling.

Firstly, we need to establish some ground rules. The first category will of course be domestic form, the second European form and the third and final one being legacy, for nothing spells true greatness than the safe passing on of the baton to the next side, otherwise you merely have a spell of success as opposed to a dynasty.

It’s important when looking at Manchester United to understand that Sir Alex Ferguson during the 1990s created at least two great teams. The first, as misty-eyed romantics will tell you, around 1993-4 which included the likes of Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce was the finest, although the majority will realise the 1999 vintage was far superior simply by virtue of their triumph in Europe.

During the 1990s, Manchester United won seven league titles (six if you don’t count the season which started in 1999 but ended in 2000) and four FA Cups. Contrast this with Liverpool during the 1980s and they also won seven league titles (if you include the 1979-80 season) and two FA Cups. So far, it’s pretty even with perhapsĀ  Liverpool just about edging ahead when you also factor in that they managed to win four League Cups while Manchester United didn’t win any.

The strength of the competition also has to be taken into account. At the start of the 1980s, money didn’t play anywhere near as big a part as it does nowadays and it didn’t distort the league as much. While it would be misleading to say that Liverpool didn’t flex their financial muscles at the time when they had to, they won the 79-80 title from Manchester United by just two points, the 81-82 league title from Ipswich by four points, the 83-84 league ahead of Southampton by three points and the 85-86 title ahead of Everton by just two points, which would indicate the sort of strength in depth that we simply don’t have these days and the fact that more good teams emerged out of the blue.

It was easier back then to come out of nowhere, have one great season and win something than it is now and Everton were a truly superb side during the mid to late 80s, certainly as good as the 1990s had to offer. The other three league wins were by significant margins, which if anything, highlights the quality of the side more.

Manchester United by comparison have had to face off against Arsenal, Blackburn and Newcastle for variously spells in length, with only Arsene Wenger’s side providing a sustained challenge, much in the same way that Everton did to Liverpool in the 80s. Only in 1995-6 with Newcastle by four points and 1998-9 with Arsenal by one point were they genuinely challenged for the league crown in the years that they won it. The average points tally between them and the team in second place in the years that they won the title was 6.8 points, while for Liverpool it was 5.7 points.

It all really depends on how you look at it – one person’s strength in depth can be seen by another person as a sign that there wasn’t one truly great team around, much like there is now. However, what we can all agree on, is with the introduction of the Premier League, once you got good, with the rewards the money brought and most importantly, what they bought, it was a lot easier to stay good.

Personally, I’d mark Liverpool fractionally ahead in terms of domestic success by virtue that money played a slightly less significant role so the playing field was more level than it is these days and that they won more silverware, even if they are tipped ahead by the number of League Cups they won. Of course, that a lot of Ferguson’s side during the late 1990s were academy graduates such as Scholes, Giggs, Beckham, Neville and Butt counters this, but they still spent significantly on the likes of Andy Cole, Dwight Yoke, Roy Keane and Jaap Stam, figures that when you compare to Liverpool’s expenditure in the 80s, even when you factor in inflation, is still a lot more.

Moving on to European success and the clear winner here is of course Liverpool. There’s not really any great need to go into it. Winning the 1981 and 1984 European Cups and making the final again in 1985 before being beaten by Juventus far outweighs the solitary appearance by Manchester United in 1999, where a good degree of fortune saw them win in dramatic fashion in the last few minutes against Bayern Munich in a match that they were out-played in for prolonged spells.

Much in the same way that the 1999 victory wasn’t as good as the manner in which they triumphed in 2007-8, Liverpool’s victory in 2005 could be said to be far more fortunate than their 1970s and 80s successes. There’s a big difference between winning a tournament as the best team and turning up and stealing a match, just ask Chelsea fans, although the strength in depth across the continent is a lot more stronger in the 90s than it was in the 80s, so it’s all about perspectives when comparing the two eras yet again.

Which leaves us with legacy and this is where Manchester United truly come into their own. Liverpool are in the midst of a 22-year league drought, while Manchester United have won the title six times since the turn of the century. Liverpool have won a decent, if unspectacular tally for a club of their size, two FA Cups, three League Cups and a Champions League. Ferguson’s charges have matched that on top of their league dominance with one Champions League final triumph, two further final appearances against quite possibly the greatest club side in history, Barcelona and one FA Cup trophy and the League Cup in its various incarnations a further three times.

It’s been well documented how Liverpool failed to see the potential of emerging global markets to the same extent that their rivals did and they’ve suffered financially as a result, while they also struggled to replace crucial players at key times while Manchester United are an ever-evolving, well-oiled machine. It could be argued that Liverpool’s legacy was the 1980s built on the solid platforms of gradual but continued success of the 1960s and 70S, so again, it’s all about context and how you approach it.

It’s a no contest on this category, but Liverpool do have the edge on the other two and it may have been completely different had Kenny Dalglish decided to stay on longer in charge during his first spell, for there was always a suspicion that he had Ferguson’s number to an extent and that Liverpool wouldn’t have rolled over to quite the same extent had he remained in charge, but we shall never know.

Often, tribalism gets in the way when analysing matters such as this, but both are quite simply extraordinary teams and Kenny Dalglish, Joe Fagan, Bob Paisley and Sir Alex Ferguson were and still are all quite extraordinary managers when put in the context of history. It’s nye on impossible to present a case without being accused of inherent bias and there may well be other factors that I have missed or simply glossed over for the sake of brevity. Liverpool of the 1980s is my choice by a nose and I’m sticking to it, at the risk of being abused by a generation of Premier League supporters.

Which generation of team would your choice be – cast your vote below

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