Kenny Dalglish has lived and grieved with his club's fans so he knows better than to lecture them now.
"We would not tell them how to suck eggs," he said yesterday, and his reluctance to point out how they should behave is perhaps the most striking aspect of his programme notes for a lunchtime encounter with Manchester United which takes the potential for acrimony to levels unknown even by two such inveterate foes.
The message hardly requires spelling out, though, and it brought a remarkable shift in tone yesterday from the Liverpool manager, who still harbours a deep sense of indignation about Luis Suarez being found guilty by the FA of directing the word "negro" at Patrice Evra seven times in the League match at Anfield last October. Despite the FA publishing a 115-page document on its decision, Dalglish was the individual who in the past two months questioned Evra's reliability, inferred that evidence sympathetic to Suarez's case was deliberately and conspiratorially concealed by an FA-appointed commission, and defended his right to wear a pro-Suarez T-shirt. But he ventured quietly and warily into the territory of today's match. "We will [set the right example]," he said. "The supporters will. We have got our house in order." There was not a national TV camera in sight at this briefing, their absence obviating the prospect of Dalglish's face popping up on TV screens every half-hour for the next 24 hours, in response to a question on Evra or Suarez – or United, for that matter.
Amid such diffidence, the single casual reminder of how little affection Dalglish actually has for Sir Alex Ferguson was so briefly manifest in a side room at Melwood that before you could blink it had gone. Had Dalglish spoken to Ferguson ahead of this game, the Liverpool manager was asked. "He's not phoned me. No," Dalglish shot back. If this Glaswegian feels he is owed a call, then Ferguson's response earlier this month to Dalglish's suggestion that the two clubs might work together to ease tensions revealed his position on the subject. "I do not see why there is any need for it," said Ferguson. "I have nothing to say about it."
However Liverpool dress it – and the initiative they have taken in seeking to prevent some kind of reprisal for Suarez's conviction suggests that they have emerged a wiser club from this saga – there will never be any love lost between today's sides, nor their current managers.
Ferguson did make a telephone call to Dalglish – and it was a very early one – after the Hillsborough disaster 23 years ago, before dispatching a group of United supporters to pay their respects at Anfield – a gesture which Dalglish has never forgotten. But the truce was only brief. Dalglish reflected years later on how he felt Hillsborough might actually establish a bond between two sets of supporters who normally loathe each other. "But people have short memories. They soon went back to their self-same ways," he said. "The hating continued."
The same realism underpins the eloquence Steven Gerrard has displayed in ensuring that his club is confined to the back pages of the Sunday newspapers. "Growing up in Huyton I was taught to loathe Manchester United," the Liverpool captain related in his biography, and the vicious reception his side got at Old Trafford in 2000 has always remained with him. "Everton fans have grown to despise me... but respect me as a player," he once said. "Old Trafford is different. Everyone there hates me because I'm Liverpool."
It took Dalglish a little while to appreciate this tribalism. His memory of making his debut against United in 1978 – "an exciting 0-0 in the Charity Shield," as he remembered it yesterday – was Roy Evans telling him to wave to his own fans. He was so caught up in the occasion he'd not heard them singing his name at Wembley. But it didn't take long before he felt the full force of United fixtures. So disfigured was his face the day after United's Kevin Moran broke his cheekbone in January 1983, that Mark Lawrenson had to be taken into a side room for a cup of tea when he visited him in hospital. It was nothing compared with the last time the sides met in the FA Cup at Anfield, when the ambulance carrying the injured Alan Smith away from the stadium was chased.
In the six years since that last ugly episode, the channels for hate have grown exponentially. The Suarez affair has done no great favours, for instance, to Twitter – a place for some fans to indulge their hatred behind the cloak of anonymity. There are other outlets. The comment option for many website articles on the Suarez topic were removed, such was the vitriol. Ferguson has said he thinks time is better spent at the library than on Twitter and, as a shipyard man, is also fascinated by how this rivalry between the cities has its roots in Manchester building the Ship Canal which bypassed the Mersey's ocean-going trade in the 1890s. Rivalry has now given way to something more grim and visceral. Ferguson actually questions the use of the word "hate". "Hate is an easy word to say; easier to dislike. Maybe it is not the right word," he said a few years ago when Wayne Rooney described growing up as "an Everton fan, hating Liverpool" – words subsequently removed from United's website.
Dalglish said yesterday that he had actually sensed these hostilities diminishing slightly. "On the previous evidence, the two sets of fans are becoming more respectful for each other. They won't be sending Christmas cards to each other, but they are becoming more respectful," he said, an intriguing observation on which, sadly, he would not expand. "The games have proved that. I don't need to elaborate, do I?" he said. Curiously, he also hinted that there were lessons for Liverpool in United's development. "While we have our own way of doing things, if there's something else out there that can help us then we'll try our best to look at it."
Dalglish was right to say that those chronicling today's football match must share the responsibility "not to run away from what has happened" between the clubs in the past three months because, in the daily pantomime which this sport has become, it is so easy to salivate at moments like this. But his own challenge is to lower the temperature of the occasion without taking the sting out of it. Liverpool's season has been the story of a side who excel when fired up for the big contests – United, Chelsea and Manchester City (three times) – but otherwise don't tend to ignite. Even within the 115 pages of the independent regulatory commission Suarez report, there is evidence of the intensity Dalglish imbued his players with when they met United on that fateful October Sunday. "Stand up, stand up!" Dirk Kuyt screams at Evra after a foul by Suarez which the Dutchman thought he was making too much of. The manager wants no less intensity today. "We don't want anyone to lose sight of what this [game] is," he said. "We certainly don't want the players to lose sight – and I don't think they will – of the competitiveness in the game. They have to stand up for themselves."
Another danger for Liverpool is that their progress to a Carling Cup final against Cardiff City will remove the intent they require this lunchtime. They stand on the threshold of finally ticking the box marked "silverware" again and, with a top-four place the other huge priority, don't require an FA Cup run. "If they lose to United, they can always cite a hangover from Wednesday night," said Jason McAteer, the club's former player who is now an analyst for LFCTV and Sky. "Kenny knows that the priority lies elsewhere."
Of course Dalglish, who will have Jay Spearing back available in midfield and was assessing if Craig Bellamy could make another huge game so soon after his role as match-winner against Manchester City, was having none of this. He knows the symbolism of a win after a three-month saga which has drained Liverpool so deeply. But he also knows how much his club need mature supporters today. "If something goes off, then it goes off. If it's bad news, then there is not much anyone else could have done about it," he reflected. The groundwork is done. Now he can only hold his breath.
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique, Kuyt, Gerrard, Bellamy, Henderson, Downing, Carroll
Manchester United: De Gea, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Scholes, Park, Rooney, Valencia, Hernandez
Kick-off: 12.45pm today (ITV 1; Highlights, 10.45pm)
Ref: M Halsey (Herts) Odds Home 6-4; Draw 23-10, Away 7-4.
Last FA Cup meeting: 2011 Third round, Manchester United 1 Liverpool 0.
Team news: Midfielder Jay Spearing (hamstring) could return for Liverpool but Luis Suarez remains suspended, serving the seventh of his eight-game ban. For United, Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones (both ankle) and Rio Ferdinand (back) will undergo late tests, while midfielder Nani is expected to miss out with a foot injury.