Last updated : 19 September 2004 By Editore

Liverpool travel to Manchester United tomorrow, and while the North-West waits to see which of its two stuttering starters emerges with more optimism, the rest of the country goes about its business pretty much as usual.

There was a time when United v Liverpool defined the English championship and directly influenced the outcome of the title race. United never quite managed to dent Liverpool's overwhelming superiority in the 1970s and 1980s, just as Liverpool could not stop the Old Trafford juggernaut once it gathered pace in the 1990s, but by God they used to try. Now those memories are all that lifts tomorrow's proceedings above a mere mid-table game. The great North-West derby will never be an irrelevance - passions run too high for that - but it has become a sideshow to the main event. The real action is all too clearly taking place in London.

As Alan Hansen has noticed, spirited Champions League fightback against Lyon notwithstanding, not much that United have produced so far this season has been in any way great. 'Four or five years ago United's midfield would frighten anybody, nowadays opponents look at the team sheet and fancy their chances,' Hansen says. 'Arsenal are beating them on the pitch and Chelsea are beating them in the transfer market.'

The former Liverpool captain thinks end-of-era type criticism might have the same galvanising effect within the Old Trafford dressing room as it once did at Anfield, but admits that during his playing days he never had to deal with anything like as strong a threat from London sides. In their pomp, Liverpool and Manchester United used to not-so-secretly relish their trips to London, but not any more. It is not just Arsenal and Chelsea: with even Tottenham looking brisk and organised the days of Three Point Lane might be over too. Hansen's heart may be on Merseyside, but his head spelled out the new reality when it appeared that Steven Gerrard would join Chelsea in the summer. He advised him to go, if he wanted an immediate change of winning major trophies. 'The harsh truth is that Chelsea can offer Gerrard more success and more money than Liverpool,' he explained.

These are still early days, though. Manchester United have yet to unleash Wayne Rooney, surely the North-West's next big thing, even if Merseyside's graffiti artists have taken to describing him as a 'Manc Twat'. Rather a lot of the London boom is down to the individual contributions of Wenger and Abramovich, and it is not yet clear whether they will leave legacies as long-lasting as a Shankly or a Busby. Oh, and one other small thing. The European Cup.

'That has to be the gauge by which these regional rivalries are measured,' says Tony Wilson, Granada Television presenter, founder of Factory Records, original 24-Hour Party Person and unofficial spokesman for the North-West. 'Even as a Mancunian I accept that Liverpool are beating us 4-2 in terms of European Cups, but if it is the North-West versus London then the score is 6-0. That's truly pathetic, London, because even Birmingham and the East Midlands have managed a couple.

'I admit Arsenal look fantastic in the league at the moment, whereas our season has been ravaged by injuries, but talk of London ascendancy is premature when they have not even had a team in a European Cup final. I might be prepared to listen to the idea when London has won as many European Cups as, say, Nottingham Forest.'

Wilson is also dismissive of the notion that footballing glamour somehow attaches to the capital. 'I think all the bollocks about the North-West being all about whippets and fish and chips is put about by southern wankers at London-based newspapers,' he says. 'Manchester United is still the brand in this country, and if you cross the Channel or the Atlantic you find Liverpool is still the brand. Because European Cups are what count.

'I am certainly not writing off the season yet because I remember 1968 when United won their first European Cup. That season a team even more horrible than Arsenal won the league. City fans got precisely three-and-a-half days to celebrate. The same could happen to Arsenal, in fact I think they should start worrying right now.'

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