Having been lucky enough to play in plenty of Liverpool/Man United fixtures, I imagine it must be a great thrill and an honour when you find out you have been selected to referee one.
There must be the temptation, what with the inevitable nerves and anticipation thanks to the build-up, to put a little extra into your preparation. That was certainly the case for me, at least, but then, when you review the way these games have gone in the modern era, I can’t help concluding it’s actually an easier occasion to control than most others.
Does that make sense? My reasoning is based on how elite players have it in their nature to control themselves in the first place, and there are usually a disproportionate number of elite players involved when it comes to this game.
It is rarely decided by a lack of discipline, and although red cards are not exactly rare, they tend not to be straight red cards. The exception to that rule, obviously, came when my mate Steven Gerrard lost his head two years ago because he hadn’t started the game and had to be dismissed after his very first challenge by this Saturday’s ref, Martin Atkinson.
I myself once suspected a referee had got it badly wrong and that he had been unable to separate his ego from the unique demands of handling this clash, but with hindsight I’ll hold my hands up, I was out of order!
I thought, in the heat of the moment, that the game had been needlessly wrecked and that the blame for the fact that it was over as a contest so soon could be dumped on him. I went mental at Mike Riley for awarding an early pen and sending off Sami Hyypia in a game we lost 4-0, but he was probably right, and I have mentioned here before the time I was sent off myself by Graham Poll for a late tackle on Denis Irwin with us 2-0 up at Anfield against United.
There I was, thinking I might get away without an earful because we saw the game out holding on to our lead, but I was sorely mistaken and Gerard Houllier tore into me afterwards for breaking all his rules about remaining calm and keeping it eleven against eleven.
Even so, the point holds good that most dismissals are the result of second yellows and that the referee’s task is made easier because of the sheer quality out there on the pitch. Alex Ferguson must have placed just as much a premium on self control as Gerard did, because all those results don’t lie.
If you want ruthlessness and unbridled aggression, the Merseyside derby is the place for cheap shots, not the game that has now been dubbed England’s derby.
It tends to be decided by good football, and I have sensed from referees that they have been able largely to let us just get on with it, allowing themselves the luxury of enjoying being such a central part of a spectacle that has the eyes of the world trained on it.
The vast majority have dealt with the hype and the game itself really well, and I really can’t point to an example of a Liverpool versus United game ever getting completely out of control. Let’s hope we are all still agreed on that point after the weekend!