Sorry, Manchester United, You Haven’t Overtaken Liverpool Yet
May 22, 2011
by Martin Odoni
Before I begin properly, I’m going to admit with unashamed cheeriness that I’m a lifelong Liverpool supporter, and so my motivation for writing this essay is hardly impartial. But after a week of the predictable, insecure, insufferable, jeering gloats from across Greater Manchester, I feel a polite retort is overdue.
To those of you who don’t understand what I’m talking about, it’s that game played on grass, with a round ball roughly the size of a human head. And you can’t use your hands to control it. You with me, yeah? Good. More specifically, on May 14th 2011, the game of Professional Association Football in England supposedly reached a major turning point in its history. From 1973 to 1992, Liverpool Football Club had a period of unprecedented domination of the English game. During that spell they were the Champions eleven times (bringing their grand total of Championships in its then-one hundred year history to, putatively, eighteen), the FA Cup four times (bringing their total at the time to five), the League Cup four times, the UEFA Cup twice, and the greatest prize of all, the European Champions’ Cup, four times. This era established Liverpool as by far the most successful club in English football, at the time.
But heading into the mid-1990’s, Liverpool’s team went into a steep decline, and success became much more sporadic, at exactly the time that one of its most hated rivals, Manchester United Football Club (less than forty miles away) rose to pre-eminence. From 1993 to 2011, Manchester United won the Championship twelve times, bringing the club’s grand total of Championships in its even longer history to nineteen. It has also won the FA Cup eleven times (Liverpool’s modern total is seven), the League Cup three times, (again, Liverpool’s present total has reached seven), the European Champions’ Cup three times (Liverpool have won it five times in all), one European Cup Winners’ Cup (Liverpool never won that, but they have won the UEFA Cup three times, which United have never won at all), and one World Club Championship (again, Liverpool have never won that, although it’s highly debatable whether it’s really an important trophy).
All-in-all, the gap between the two clubs’ success rates has narrowed away completely over the last twenty years, and with United now holding more Championships of England, they have claim to be the most successful club in League football.
Having given them a week to get the utterly predictable insufferable taunts out of their insecure little central nervous systems, I now have some bad news for United fans. Their heroes have not surpassed Liverpool’s total number of League titles yet. I strongly suspect they will do so next year, as the current standard of competition against them is pretty low, but nonetheless they haven’t done it yet. They have merely drawn level. This is because the Championship Liverpool won in 1990 was not the club’s eighteenth, as is generally believed. It was in fact, the club’s nineteenth Championship.
To explain; –
Most football fans in England are aware of how the history of Liverpool Football Club began. In 1878, Merseyside’s oldest surviving professional football club was founded as St. Domingo’s FC, named after its local parish in the Liverpool district of Everton. A year later, sure enough, the club was renamed Everton Football Club. After playing its home games at Priory Road for the first five years of its existence, Everton eventually re-settled at a large ground on Anfield Road, on the south-east corner of Stanley Park, in 1884. The ground was let to the club by a landowner called John Orrell.
The President of the board at Everton Football Club was a local merchant by the name of John Houlding. (He was sometimes nicknamed locally as ‘King John Of Everton’, which seems an amazing irony in hindsight.) Houlding eventually purchased Anfield from Orrell for £6,000, and, somewhat perversely, in effect started renting the ground out to himself on behalf of the club. This meant that Everton was now renting the ground from its own chairman, and so a disproportionate share of the club’s gate receipts was being allocated to Houlding rather than to the club as a whole. Worse, Houlding kept increasing the rent at the start of each season. By 1889, the club was paying double what it had been paying when it first moved to Anfield just five years earlier. The rest of the board, unsurprisingly, were very unhappy about this. They were also getting concerned about Houlding’s insistence on selling and promoting ales from his own brewery at the ground; many on the board were Methodists and objected to what they called ‘intemperance’.
Over the next several years, the rift behind the scenes at Everton became more entrenched and bitter. In 1892, matters came to a head when most of the staff at the club, including all the players and most of the board-members, broke away. They moved across Stanley Park to a new ground called Goodison Park, and set up shop there, and it has been Everton’s home ever since. This left Houlding and his handful of remaining colleagues with an empty stadium. Houlding’s response was simply to build a new team to play at Anfield. This team played under the new banner of Liverpool Football Club.
That, at least, is the official story, and it’s accurate as far as it goes. But what it leads people to assume is that Everton is the original club established in 1878 (as is even proclaimed on Everton’s own club badge), and that Liverpool is the newer club established in 1892. It makes sense. The team playing at Anfield before the split was called Everton, the team playing at Goodison after the split was called Everton, and was composed of almost exactly the same players and staff.
The truth however is not nearly as straightforward as that. What’s not entirely clear is exactly which club did set up shop at Goodison Park in 1892, and which one resumed activities at Anfield. Which one was the new club, and which was the original? As I say, at first glance it appears very obvious, but look closely at the details of what happened, and suddenly the picture changes.
What needs to be kept in mind was that John Houlding was the President of the club before the split. And the split occurred in protest against him, so, as stands to reason, he was one of the few who didn’t leave. The breakaway group, despite being far greater in number and having the players on its side, did not ever have control of the club, Houlding himself had that. Realising that the split was imminent and that there was little he could to prevent it, Houlding even went as far, in March 1892, as to make his ownership of Everton official in law, registering the name Everton Football Club & Athletic Grounds Ltd with the Board Of Trade. At that point, he had assumed the breakaway group would be forced to get a new name, and possibly even have to join the Lancashire League for their first season, while Houlding’s own faction would, as the de facto club, retain membership of the Football League.
When the ‘rebel Evertonians’ did move to Goodison Park a few weeks later, in order to sell tickets legally to the public for their games, they had to set up a formal new company, with a new board and officials, and register with the Board Of Trade. Yes, they expected to retain the name of the club they had just left, but so did Houlding’s faction back at Anfield. For some weeks, it was very uncertain which club was Everton, and which was going to have to find a new name.
The Football Association eventually intervened. Correctly judging that the status of Everton Football Club was achieved on the field of play, they ruled that the club that had the players on its side should retain the name, and also should retain the position they had earned in the Football League. Therefore, although it was the newer company, the breakaway faction took up the heritage and name of Everton Football Club, and also were allowed to continue playing in the Football League. But just because they held the old name and privileges, it didn’t mean the Goodison Park organisation was the same club. Even retaining the same players wasn’t enough for that.
Houlding was understandably disappointed to lose that part of the argument, but decided to press ahead with creating his new team. In the summer that year, he applied to the Board Of Trade, not to establish a new club, but to change the licensed name of the club he already had. The new name he gave it was Liverpool Football Club & Athletic Grounds Ltd. In law therefore, Liverpool FC was not born in 1892, it was simply rebranded, and the old brand it had possessed since 1879 was passed to a new club that had just started trading on the other side of Stanley Park. Liverpool was accepted into the Lancashire League that year, as it began the job of working its way towards re-entering the Football League. Meanwhile, the newly-established Everton Football Club, now in residence at Goodison Park, took up football at a national level.
The added complication in all this is that Merseyside saw its first Football League Championship in 1891, when Everton won the title. This was fully a year before the split at the club became permanent. The position of the Football League and the Football Association ever since has always been that the Everton Football Club who now play their home games at Goodison Park is the club that won that Championship. But that club didn’t exist back then; they weren’t registered as a company until a year later. The Everton team that won the Championship were playing at Anfield Road, and more importantly, they won it while playing under the administration of John Houlding. He never relinquished control of the club established at Anfield. There was never a time during his ownership of Anfield that there wasn’t a football club there. Most of the board might have left, and the team might have moved with them, but the club remained where it was, and it retained the license that Houlding had registered beforehand. The breakaway faction, within the law, had recognisably set up a new club instead. Houlding’s faction was the club that the Everton team had been playing for when they won the Championship (and had ‘King John’ had his way, his club would even have retained its identity as Everton – unthinkable though that may seem today).
So the question this raises is, which of the modern clubs, Everton or Liverpool, holds that original title for 1891? The team was undoubtedly Everton. But the club was what became Liverpool. And so, although it’s never done so, even in Houlding’s own time, Liverpool Football Club has a very strong claim over the 1891 title. And the thing is, that title is not usually counted when assessing Liverpool’s record of success. When counting it as well, Liverpool Football Club’s revised total of Championships is not eighteen, but nineteen. And so that means that last week, Manchester United merely caught up with Liverpool, they did not overtake them.
But I’m not being vindictive when I say that (well, not very). That United have taken less than twenty years to wipe out the enormous gulf there had been in Liverpool’s favour is some achievement, and, even with the advantage it has always had in resources, even during Liverpool’s heyday, Manchester United deserves enormous congratulation for that. And I say again, I have little doubt that United will move ahead for real very soon, as the only teams in the Premier League who can challenge them are Chelsea (too old and tired), Arsenal (too soft), and Manchester City (too raw). But it is worth setting the record straight.
Oh, and don’t forget the small matter of eight European trophies…