“My favourite Anfield memory is getting sent off,” says former Manchester United defender Wes Brown. “Because we still won. [Wayne Rooney] scored, which he enjoyed, coming from there and being an Everton fan as well as a United player.”
Brown remembers the January 2005 game against Liverpool vividly.
“I was sent off with 25 minutes left after two bookings,” he explains. “The second card came when [John Arne] Riise pushed the ball and I ran forward and tried to demolish the ball and put it out of play. I missed the ball. If I had tackled normally then I would have got there, but I really wanted to get rid of the ball and a hung back a little bit to get a better connection.”
That connection, unfortunately, was with Riise’s leg and Brown was soon walking down the tight tunnel in Anfield’s old main stand. He loved playing at Liverpool’s home ground, which United visit again on Saturday.
“They’ve got great fans and it’s always the toughest match, always the first match that I’d look for when the fixtures came out,” says Brown, who played 362 times for United and won 14 trophies between 1998-2011. “I think Sir Alex [Ferguson] knew what it meant to the local lads. He knew he’d get everything from us and that we knew that it was a massive rivalry. Our 3,000 fans stand behind the goal. You can hear them singing, but it’s hard to compete when the Kop starts because there are too many of them.”
Some injured United players have joined the United support at Anfield down the years, having tried to keep a low profile outside the ground.
“Rio [Ferdinand] and Sheasy (John O’Shea) once stood in there with the away fans,” Brown says. “I’d love to do that, but they tried to get in with hats on and hoods up so that they wouldn’t be recognised. They were told to take them off as they entered the ground. The United fans were soon singing to them. They enjoyed it.”
Brown still watches as many United games as he can and is confident about the prospects of his former team this weekend.
“Liverpool are a great club and I respect them, but if [Sadio] Mane is out then it’s a big loss,” Brown says. “He’s one of the players I really like watching. He’s quick; he and [Philippe] Coutinho make things happen for Liverpool and he’s always a threat in the attacking third. They’d really miss him.”
Brown played 16 times against Liverpool for United in all competitions, with eight of those games coming at Anfield.
“The changing rooms were quite small, then you’d walk out past that ‘This is Anfield’ sign which the Liverpool players touched,” he says. “I’d ignore it. I had no interest it, but seeing their lads touch it made me want to play better. It’s hard to explain why, but that was the type of thing that got me going.
“It’s not a nice feeling when they score because you can’t hear a thing, but I played against some great players over the years like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Steve McMananman, Robbie Fowler; lads who understood that it was Liverpool against Manchester. There was a respect from us towards them. They were only doing for their club what we were trying to do for ours.”
Now 37, Brown is preparing for life at his new club Kerala Blasters in India’s Super League. His manager will be former United coach Rene Muelensteen, who is equally nostalgic about Liverpool.
“I loved the warm-up at Anfield,” Muelensteen says. “You feel the atmosphere, even when the stadium is filling up. I knew (Liverpool assistant manager) Sammy Lee because we’d done our PRO Licence together. He’d always say hello before the game; there was never an issue. I always felt that Sir Alex really wanted to win there, yet he respected Liverpool and was adamant that he would share a glass of red wine with Liverpool’s manager after the match, regardless of the result.”
Muelensteen picks out some of his favourite moments at Liverpool’s home.
“I can remember Diego Forlan scoring twice (in 2002), John O’Shea in the last minute (2007) and Rafael scoring (2007),” he says. “Yet we also went through a spell where we struggled to win there. Liverpool were so pumped up — their fans and their players — and that helped them. They will be on Saturday, yet I’m confident that United can do well.”
As for how United approach Saturday’s game, Muelensteen expects caution.
“Jose Mourinho will have seen the condition of his internationals after they’ve returned and he won’t have had too much time to work with them. He won’t like that because he likes every detail sorted. I suspect he’ll have a pragmatic approach, with enough numbers behind the ball. He knows that Liverpool will fly out of the blocks. It’s a tight pitch, but if Jose plays with [Romelu] Lukaku, [Marcus] Rashford and [Anthony] Martial then you can counter them. You can hit Liverpool instantly and be dangerous on the counter every time.
“That could be an approach, because United have the security of Nemanja Matic in midfield, a pivot that guards the defence,” Muelensteen continues. “It’s very hard for other teams to break quickly because they’re going to run into a guy that is safeguarding United’s back two central defenders and stopping them being exposed. It’s a game to look forward to and there’s another factor: United have a world-class goalkeeper and Liverpool don’t.”
Last season’s game at Anfield was a disappointment, with United trying to avoid defeat and satisfied by a 0-0 result. But, 12 months on, his side’s winning start to the campaign might embolden Mourinho, while Liverpool’s mixed beginning means they need a win. And one against United would certainly be what they were looking for.