PL25: Liverpool and United contest the mother of all M62 derbies

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out, we revisit a momentous comeback that temporarily put an emerging empire on hold.

For the first and last time in his long managerial career Alex Ferguson had just witnessed his side concede a three goal lead and worse yet it was to the enemy, a rival who he measured all his successes against.

You can imagine his response then after the game, puce of face and spitting out criticism and complaint in the direction of all and sundry but mostly the referee. It was usually the referee.

Yet amazingly on this of all occasions the irascible Scot merely praised the opposition for their best efforts and moved on. More than anything else this illustrates just what a crazy encounter it was when Manchester United went to Liverpool on January 4th 1994 and ultimately capitulated to a 3-3 draw.

“That was incredible stuff,” Ferguson proclaimed. “The excitement, the pace of it. They ran a yard further and a yard faster. The crowd had them at fever pitch”.

So uncharacteristic is Ferguson’s magnanimity towards his hated foe that some context is required here and that context is when this particular ‘M62 derby’ took place. Seven months earlier United had been crowned Premier League champions for the first time and halfway through this campaign they boasted a 17-game unbeaten streak and were 12 points clear at the top. Liverpool meanwhile languished in eighth, mired in a sustained identity crisis three years after the ill-chosen appointment of Graeme Souness. Ferguson knew that the watching world had just seen the old fading empire move heaven and Earth merely to draw a battle with the new one. The war however was won.

The pivotal moment from this ferociously combatted fixture came 60 seconds after Denis Irwin had fired home United’s third after just 24 minutes but before we reach that moment we must first pause on the goal itself. The unassuming Irishman is rightfully regarded as one of the finest left-backs to have ever graced these shores but from seemingly a mile out, his free-kick was dispensed with power and unerring accuracy from his right boot. The man had everything and all of it superb.

But back to that moment, with Irwin’s wonder-strike adding to an early barnstorming header from Steve Bruce and intelligent floated chip from Giggs that had Grobbelaar swiping at thin air. Given United’s burgeoning superiority and a quartz spine of Schmeichel, Bruce, Keane and Cantona surely the game was now not only concluded but in danger of becoming a landslide? That certainly appeared to be the collective concern on the Kop as Anfield fell into a fretful silence and the players heads dropped in despair.

It is entirely conjecture to suggest so but had it remained 3-0 to the visitors for five minutes or more we can project all manner of scorelines onto this game. Perhaps then Souness’ resignation that came three weeks later when the Reds exited the FA Cup at the hands of Bristol City might have been moved forward? And what a coup that would have been for an externally diplomatic but internally gloating Ferguson.

Instead, a little less than a minute after the game’s resumption Nigel Clough enacted part one of the only two meaningful contributions he made in a Liverpool jersey. It came in the form of a low semi-volleyed drive from 25 yards out that zipped into the only gap that was beyond Schmeichel’s reach and suddenly there was belief again, a resurgence of resilience. Clough’s artful thwack was less a shot than the igniting of a firework.

13 minutes later and he was at it again, this time from closer in and requiring more finesse to guide it to the inner side-netting, after rare indecision from Keane spilt the ball into his path.

By the time Philip Don blew for a respite we had already witnessed a game of two halves.

We all know what followed next. We’ve been gripped by it ten, 20, 30 times since as these two behemoths discard all nuance and tactics and go toe-to-toe, slugging it out to the constant white noise of a frenzied crowd. Half an hour of this gave Liverpool the upper hand and with United on the back foot they resorted atypically to direct clearances that were swiftly returned. Schmeichel’s goal began to resemble the Alamo and the best way through was always going to be a pinpoint delivery from out wide which Stig Bjornebye duly pinged over with ten minutes left. Neil Ruddock met it in muscular fashion and one of the most enthralling contests in an always-enthralling fixture ended honours even.

This may have been the last thrashing throes of a once mighty beast but it was also a reminder that Liverpool – even when in crisis – never, ever went down without a fight. Even Fergie approved.

What happened next?

United went on to win their second of 13 Premier League titles, losing only four games along the way.

Liverpool finished the campaign in eighth, out of the reckoning and beginning a lengthy period of transition.