‘Welcome to Hell’ read the memorable banner as United arrived in Istanbul to be greeted by Galtasaray fanatics in 1993. The second leg of a European Cup tie saw Aslanlarsupporters arrive four hours before kick-off within the confines of the infamous Ali Sami Yen stadium, as the intensity soon resembled a war zone. ‘No way out’ they chanted, while another banner unfurled read ‘Manchester United RIP’. A cauldron was a holiday in contrast.
Such an atmosphere is unlikely at Anfield, regardless of the FA Cup’stendency to prompt a mini-revival of hooligans’ heady days. There’ll be no tear gas to greet United as they disembark and head to their dressing rooms, and the Anfield stewards will be under scrutiny to ensure that cups of excrement and urine aren’t tossed on to the visiting supporters in the Anfield Road’s first tier.But like the ardent 2006 atmosphere, it has the potential to be poisonous again.
Chants about Munich, Hillsborough, Heysel and Harold Shipman will possibly be exchanged as both supporters stress that irrespective of the on-pitch gulf, Liverpool-United is still English football’s number one rivalry. City can be as raucous as they like, but the East Lancs animosity is rooted as far back as the 19th century. That number again; 19…
It is also eerily similar to six years ago whereby a United player is at the centre of attention. Whereas Gary Neville celebrated a last-minute winner by clutching his badge in front of Liverpool supporters, Patrice Evra was racially abused by Luis Suárez. He will undoubtedly be booed, jeered and heckled by Scousers, ostensibly because he spoke about the Uruguayan’s sister’s genitals.
Evra’s display against Arsenal on Sunday was a throwback to his swashbuckling bravado between 2006 and 2010 for United. Although Wayne Rooney was banging in the goals and taking the plaudits two seasons ago, less impressionable observers identified Evra as United’s best and most consistent performer.
Cantona-lite is an endearing quality in M16 and Evra is many supporters’ favourite player, augmented by him commendingthem for protesting against the loathsome Glazer family. Quotable and eccentric, Potty Paddy’s forlorn form the past 18 months has arguably been distorted by followers’ fondness for him.
No one should doubt whether he has the mettle to withstand the Anfield crowd either. Football grounds can still be nefarious places, but many hardcore supporters have been priced out and/or become disenchanted with the game’s soul-selling exploits. Instead they are populated by so many tourists and bandwagon-jumping Johnny-come-latelys that nowadays, said nefarious environment is as rare as Kenny Dalglish blaming himself.
On his debut at Eastlands six years ago, Evra was substituted at half-time after a torrid 45 minutes, with City 2-0 ahead. That summer, after an inauspicious start, United We Stand’s website responded to rumours that Valencia – nicknamed ‘The Bats’ – would offer a bid for him with the headline ‘Are the Bats blind?’ His resilience, in spite of some ludicrous knee-jerking, was still admirable.
Comments about Arsenal being babies or his brush with a Chelsea groundsman haven’t been forgotten in either north or west London, yet he hasn’t gotten flustered on either patch. Not once has he been sent off since he arrived at Old Trafford, while at Anfield in October, he didn’t react despite proven provocation from Suárez. Instead he kissed the badge in front of the Kop.
Perhaps it is that spiky streak that has affected his performance level. It appears to be no coincidence that since he purportedly engineered the French mutiny at the 2010 World Cup that he suddenly switched from reliable to unreliable. If anything Evra relishes conflict too much, hence his recent regression.
The man of the match showing at the Emirates was a timely fillip in a week when speculation will continue to mount over whether he starts at L4 or not. Of course, he should. Ferguson didn’t withhold Paul Ince from the baying hordes at Upton Park, Cantona at Leeds or – until recently – Rooney at Goodison Park.
Gerard Houllier never started Nick Barmby at Goodison after his transfer across Stanley Park to the red side, and any similar strategy from Ferguson highlights a chink in the armour. Not only in his man-management, but the Reds’ occasionally porous defence which is, ultimately, vastly superior with Evra at left-back rather than Fabio da Silva. Welcome to Hell? It could feasibly be more like Hull.