Peter Crouch is a columnist forSportsmail
If I think about it now, I can still see him running. Right in my direction, his arms outstretched and screaming in delight.
I knew Gary Neville was theManchester UnitedplayerLiverpoolfans loved to hate and in that sickening moment – in the 94 th minute of a game at Old Trafford on Sunday, January 22, 2006 – I
Never before had an opposing player p ***** me off so much with a celebration. I had been substituted and was sitting in the dugout, and from that angle it felt like he was coming to rejoice in front of me.
Here was my proper introduction to the biggest rivalry in English football, in what was my first season as a Liverpool player.
The two sides had played each other earlier in that campaign but it was an unusually subdued match at Anfield and ended up 0-0.
Gary Neville once ran the length of the field to celebrate in front of the Liverpool supporters
Rio Ferdinand had scored a last minute winner and Mancunian Neville couldn’t contain himself
The return fixture appeared set to finish with the same score until Rio Ferdinand popped up in injury time and gave Gary the chance to break the land speed record as he flew over to revel in front of Liverpool’s supporters.
But do you know what? I’d never hold it against Gary for what he did. Not at all. John O’Shea ran the length of Anfield the following year when he came up with a late winner: this is the ultimate Premier League match, a clash in which everything matters so much more.
I played in many derbies – Birmingham, North London, South Coast – but nothing compares with the ability of Liverpool versus Manchester United to make legends. The sheer scale of the collision, the scrutiny and intensity that comes with it, makes it is like nothing else.
The defender has always been the United player who Liverpool fans loved to hate
I would never dream of calling myself a Liverpool legend but I do know what a goal against United did for me personally: five weeks after that defeat at Old Trafford, my header settled an FA Cup fifth-round tie at Anfield. It was scruffy but, to do this day, people still want to discuss it with me.
We enjoyed our own celebrations that afternoon. The walls between the dressing rooms at Anfield used to be paper-thin and when we came back in, everything was so much louder. We wanted them to hear how happy we were to have got our own back.
There was always one problem in that era, though. Every time we looked as if we were getting into a position to really challenge them, United would pull away from us and win another title. It’s easy to forget – as you see them in such a difficult position now – how dominant they were.
Once United got to the top of the table, they used to be impossible to catch but now I feel the roles are reversed. Liverpool are setting the pace going into Sunday’s game and I genuinely believe this will be the year my old club become champions.
Crouch scoring in the FA Cup win. Goals in the derby are always remembered by fans
A lot of my friends who support them won’t listen to me. They have been burnt too many times down the years with the title but, looking at it from a distance, I just don’t see Jurgen Klopp’s side dropping that many points. They are absolutely relentless.
I can’t see anything other than Liverpool winning on Sunday. It won’t be easy – it doesn’t matter where United are in the standings, they will make this the biggest possible examination – but Liverpool have so much class that I fully expect them to deliver again.
My phone has been ringing all week with people wanting to come around to our house and watch it, which gives you an idea that this is no ordinary game. It isn’t. It’s the type that makes me wish I was still playing.
Beating your bitter enemy is the greatest feeling in football – and there’s never any need to apologize for the celebrations.
Why Ronaldo’s one of the greatest ever sportsmen
The first time I came up against Cristiano Ronaldo, in an England Under – 21 match in Portugal , he made me feel really sorry for my team-mates.
To say Ronaldo bamboozled Paul Konchesky that night would be a massive understatement.
Poor Konch. He was dizzy by the end of it all, turned inside out by this cocksure 18 – year-old forward with all the tricks.
Season upon season, Cristiano Ronaldo remains at the top of his game with utmost dedication
Ronaldo was outrageous in that game. He and Ricardo Quaresma were on another level, firing crossfield passes to each other. Ronaldo was so sure of himself he stopped gathering possession the conventional way and started controlling the ball with his back.
If you had said to me then that this kid would score 700 career goals, I would have laughed and to see him hit that landmark this week was staggering. That total is just insane and I don’t see him stopping any time soon.
When we were together on England duty, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney would come in and say to us that Ronaldo, who had joined them at Manchester United, was a borderline obsessive in his pursuit of perfection.
You see the film-star looks but professionals know you only do what he has done by dedicating every second of every day to self-improvement.
Upon arrival at Manchester United Ronaldo made it clear he wanted to be the world best
Lionel Messi might have more natural gifts but Ronaldo’s determination to get to the same level is astonishing.
We talk about him being one of the greatest footballers of all time but that statement needs readdressing. Ronaldo is one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. He is an example to athletes in every field with his commitment and desire to keep getting better.
Enjoy him while you can.
My final word
In 2005, when Liverpool were in the Champions League qualifying stages, my old strike partner Djibril Cisse was racially abused in a game against CSKA Sofia at the Vasil Levski
It came as no surprise to me, then, that England’s players suffered similar bigotry at the same venue on Monday. I have played enough matches in Eastern Europe to know that this problem is always on the horizon.
Shola Ameobi was the first team-mate I saw suffer racial abuse when we were together on England Under – 21 duty.
Shola did his best to just get on with it but now it feels like this generation of players are not going to stand for it any longer. We must support them in every possible way.
Djibril Cisse was once racially abused in a game against CSKA Sofia at the Vasil Levski Stadium
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