How Newcastle and Liverpool’s Premier League rivalry turned toxic
Historic resentments and simmering tensions are coming to a head – all with European places to play for
The bad blood had been building for months and culminated in an ugly, ill-tempered climax to Liverpool’s narrow victory over Newcastle in August, with the fallout further souring relationships and making today’s clash tantalising.
The animosity between these two clubs is a relatively new phenomenon, driven by the fact Newcastle are no longer irrelevant in Liverpool’s trophy-challenging, Champions League-competing world.
Here we take a look at what has caused the friction and tension that led to physical confrontations in the tunnel at Anfield six months ago.
Frustrating results against one another
Whatever has been said and done in press conferences, or on the touchline, it always boils down to what happens on the pitch.
It would be wrong to call Newcastle United a bogey team for Jurgen Klopp. Like most Premier League rivals, Liverpool have traditionally dominated the Magpies, frequently brushing them aside to win easily. For most of Klopp’s time in English football, Newcastle were battling relegation and Liverpool were one of the best sides in Europe.
Liverpool had heavy weapons, guns and rockets. Newcastle had bows and arrows. Klopp liked it that way.
Even so, Newcastle managed to get under the German’s skin. Liverpool were held to a 1-1 draw, at St James’ Park, when Rafa Benitez was Newcastle manager back in October in 2017. It was the third time since he took over that Klopp had failed to beat Newcastle.
Liverpool dominated the game but Newcastle still equalised. In his post-match press conference, Klopp repeatedly clashed with locally-based journalists. He would bring up the fallout in a press conference back on Merseyside the following week.
In the 2020/’21 season, under Steve Bruce, when Newcastle were a divided club led by an unpopular manager, Liverpool dropped four points against them. They were held to a goalless draw at St James’ Park in December and again at Anfield in April when Joe Willock scored an injury-time equaliser.
Liverpool lost their Premier League crown, finishing third.
In turn, Liverpool have been a pebble in the shoe of Eddie Howe since he became Newcastle manager in October 2021. There was a 3-1 defeat at Anfield in December of that year, when Newcastle felt aggrieved by a number of decisions, most notably when play was allowed to go on before Diogo Jota, played onside by two Newcastle players lying on the floor injured, scored Liverpool’s equaliser. One of them, Isaac Hayden, had an obvious head injury.
Liverpool were also the last team to win at St James’ Park, when they edged a close game 1-0 in April last year.
In both fixtures there were clashes on the touchline between coaching staff and players. Resentment was brewing.
Poaching an analyst
Analysts occupy an increasingly prominent position in a manager’s staff so when Newcastle, shortly after their takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment fund, poached analyst Mark Leyland from Klopp’s backroom team it was acutely felt. Leyland had worked with Howe at Burnley and that was key in him deciding to leave Anfield.
It seemed a largely innocuous story at the time, coming in the same month as Newcastle lost 3-1 at Anfield, but Leyland’s importance to Klopp could not be underplayed. He was annoyed by the decision to move on.
It also felt like it was a sign of things to come in terms of Newcastle’s rising ambitions and intent to challenge the big clubs for talent.
Newcastle’s feelings of inferiority
When Newcastle played Liverpool in the FA Cup final of 1974, the two clubs had won exactly the same number of trophies. Liverpool won that game at Wembley at a canter and went on to dominate English football. Newcastle went into decline and have not won a major trophy since.
Yet two of Liverpool’s most prominent managers, Tom Watson, who won their first trophy, and their most successful, Bob Paisley, were from the North East of England.
The Magpies looked on as a club they were once equal to left them behind.
When Newcastle missed out on winning the title under Kevin Keegan in 1996, it was a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield that came to symbolise their home-straight stumble.
It is decades worth of frustration that bubbles underneath. Newcastle, like most clubs, were jealous of Liverpool’s success, mocking their supposed “barren years” in which they won the Champions League under Benitez and numerous other cup competitions.
For generations, Liverpool operated in a different stratosphere to Newcastle – but the takeover changed that.
Liverpool were one of the clubs who fought to stop it going through, exerting pressure on the Premier League to block the Saudi arrival. Having felt patronised for years, Newcastle perceived they were now being actively prevented from progressing out of the self-interest of bigger rivals worried about them becoming direct competition. When Klopp started to publicly attack them after the takeover, it fanned the flames
Sportswashing and state-sponsored clubs
Klopp has been one of the most outspoken critics of state-sponsored football clubs, frequently bemoaning how unfair it is to expect others to compete financially with those owned by fossil fuel-rich states. It played well with some but annoyed others, most notably those employed by these clubs. Many had grown up in a football world where Liverpool were always one of the richest in Europe and whose historical success had been built on buying the best players from domestic and foreign rivals. Liverpool were no paupers and had once flaunted their financial dominance over English football, especially in the 1970s and ’80s.
It had already cranked up tension with Manchester City, as they traded blows as the two best sides in England. Klopp was keen to create the impression Liverpool were punching above their weight against a financially-doped rival.
When Newcastle were bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, he immediately feared another rising power with unlimited spending. He publicly bristled whenever Newcastle’s name was mentioned but also dragged their name into conversations about other clubs. In Newcastle, senior figures became annoyed by Klopp’s comments, privately arguing that he had no idea what he was talking about, suggesting his attacks on them not only ignored the fact that they were not behaving in the same way as City or Chelsea, but were designed to undermine and antagonise people on Tyneside.
When director of football, Dan Ashworth, said in an interview last year that there was “no ceiling” to Newcastle’s new-found ambition, Klopp went on the attack, wrongly claiming that this meant there was no ceiling to Newcastle’s spending power and sarcastically congratulating the people involved.
In his next press conference, Howe fired back, telling Klopp he did not know what he was talking about.
A few weeks later, when Klopp was charged by the Football Association for intimidating match officials during a game against Manchester City, Howe was asked about the incident and was highly critical of managers who behaved in an aggressive manner in their technical area.
In the background, there was a lot of ill feeling. Klopp has frequently irritated and antagonised rivals managers and coaching staff with his antics. Newcastle were not the only club relieved to see him finally get punished for it.
The Battle of Anfield
That war of words in the media came in the aftermath of a combative game at Anfield in August, which led to physical confrontations and some ugly scenes in the tunnel after the game. Rival players had to be pulled apart as scuffles broke out. So too did members of the coaching staff.
During the game, someone on the Newcastle bench had thrown a plastic bottle at Liverpool’s backroom staff. There had been regular arguments throughout, with Liverpool incensed by Newcastle’s time-wasting tactics and gamesmanship. Newcastle gave as good as they got and sources have indicated the arguments became increasingly toxic.
At the final whistle, Liverpool’s players, who were celebrating Fabio Carvalho’s controversial 98th-minute winner, were accused of goading Newcastle’s as they left the pitch. Emotions spilled over in the tunnel.
Barbs were also exchanged by both managers in their post-match press conferences. Resentment remains.
In an interview earlier this week, Newcastle defender Fabian Schar did not play things down ahead of the rematch.
“Liverpool annoyed me and I wasn’t even playing in that game at Anfield,” said the Switzerland international.
“You just do everything to try and win and sometimes there is a lot of emotion. There were a lot afterwards, stuff like this happens in football.
“People say we are nasty to play against. That is a compliment, even if they don’t mean it to be. If you are nasty to play against, you are hard to beat. That is what we try to be. Sometimes you do have to be a little nasty with that. We are streetwise.”
It was in the wake of this Liverpool defeat and the criticism of their methods that Howe came out with the line, “we are here to win, not to be liked.”
It was a line he repeated after a goalless draw against Arsenal, which also became fractious. There is a sharp edge to Newcastle’s elbows and they are annoying rivals. Newcastle know how to deploy the dark arts, but they lost to Liverpool and it stung. Howe hates losing just as much as Klopp and both are protective of their clubs when it comes to outside criticism.
What it really shows is that Newcastle is a rising power. They are a threat to Liverpool in a way they have not been for more than half a century. It is a new era rivalry – an increasingly bitter one.
Newcastle United v Liverpool, Live, Sky Sports. 5.30
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