Over the years, the clashes between Liverpool and Manchester United have not been limited to the pitch. Or the stands. Or even the alleys. In March 1999, just weeks after the FA Cup fourth round tie in which Liverpool had come within minutes of stopping United’s treble before it was even conceived as a concept, the venue for a confrontation was neither side. planned: Manchester Airport.
His team no longer involved in the Cup, Liverpool coach Gérard Houllier took advantage of a week without meetings to organize the trip of his players to Le Touquet in France for meetings and a match against a local team. The arrangement involved flying from Manchester. Sadly, when the Liverpool team arrived they found they were flying on the very day United, not to mention hordes of their fans, headed to Inter Milan in the Champions League quarter-final second leg.
It was not a comfortable encounter: Liverpool entered a whirlwind of jubilant taunts, an experience Phil Thompson, then Houllier’s assistant, never forgot.
“It was a hell of a low point in my life,” he recalls. “It brought us back to where we were. We were running the gauntlet and some of the foreign guys were wondering what they [the United fans] were happening approx. But for me, it just pissed me off.
Not that he was hesitant to defend his affiliation as he headed to the taping.
“Maybe they targeted me more than the other guys because they knew how much I love Liverpool. Maybe I should have held back a bit more. But I didn’t. You know me. I did the opposite. I gave him full throttle. I gave him the full amount of how many league titles we had won, how many European Cups we had won. J I gave everything, everything that I could think of to demoralize them.
He stops for a moment.
“It didn’t work out – and they were on their way to the Treble as well. Dear me. In fact, it showed me the enormity of what we had to do. It was them going for a huge Champions League game and us going to do some R and R. That really got to me. My point of view was that this was where I wanted to be, where I wanted Liverpool to be. Manchester United were there and I wanted those roles reversed.
For Thompson, it got worse. As United won in Italy, Liverpool lost their friendly 2–1 to US Boulogne, an unprofessional mid-table side in one of France’s regional fourth divisions. And this despite the fact that Houllier fielded up to 12 internationals on points during the game.
“They shouldn’t have been a game for us or even for our reserve team,” he said. “We weren’t there and we managed to get beaten. That just tops it all off. It made us realize where we were and what needed to be done.
Jamie Carragher agrees that the fallout from the defeat at Old Trafford, the set up of the airport and the trip to France had a deep meaning on what was to follow in the Houllier era.