Manchester United’s Wout Weghorst touched the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign – what’s the matter?

Wout Weghorst’s decision to touch the famous ‘This Is Anfield’ sign ahead of his Manchester United side’s 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool on Sunday sparked fierce debate and led to the Dutchman issuing a statement on social media clarifying his actions.

Was it disrespectful to United? Is the outrage justified? And why is the sign so important?

Athleticism explains why Weghorst caused such a storm…

What is the meaning of the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign?

Bill Shankly, who was manager of Liverpool from 1959 to 1974, wanted the sign to achieve two things: to inspire his players but also to intimidate opponents. “He’s there to remind our guys who they’re playing for and to remind the opponent who they’re playing against,” he said.

For many years, Liverpool players often touched the backboard on their way to the field. This story wasn’t always immediately apparent to the players when they first arrived – it was Luis Suarez’s father-in-law who informed him of the sign’s ‘legendary’ meaning when he asked to be photographed below.

Touching the backboard on the way out was a longstanding tradition at Anfield until the early days of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure.

After an epic 4-3 victory against his former club Borussia Dortmund in his first season in charge, Klopp said: “Before the game, when we came down the stairs, my friends from Dortmund asked me: ‘Is- do they all touch the panel?’ I said no. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I think you have to earn something first. I haven’t asked for it until now but it’s a sign of respect that you don’t. Don’t do it. It’s too big. Maybe one day these players will be allowed to do it and feel better, stronger and can use that emotion.”

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly in 1971 (Photo: Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Klopp’s players had to wait another three years before they could hit the backboard, as Georginio Wijnaldum later revealed.

Wijnaldum tweeted after Liverpool’s first home game since winning the 2019 Champions League final.

As well as United’s Weghorst, Liverpool players Virgil van Dijk, Harvey Elliott and Trent Alexander-Arnold all hit the backboard before heading out to Anfield on Sunday. Cody Gakpo did the same, despite only joining in January.

Are the opposing players touching the backboard?

Although Shankly wants the sign to intimidate opponents, it is not uncommon for visiting players to touch it to commemorate playing on one of the most famous grounds in world football.

Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright revealed last year that he would happily touch the backboard when visiting Anfield as a player. “Of course (I hit him) but I didn’t hit him when I was hanging out with the guys,” he said while appearing as a pundit on ITV Sport.

“When you came out for the warm-up and looked around, you touched it because it’s iconic. It’s amazing. I had to touch it.

Unsurprisingly, fellow pundit and former United captain Roy Keane had a different opinion. When asked if he had ever touched the backboard, Keane replied: “No, of course not. No points. It’s ok, it’s a tradition for English players (Liverpool) but not for the opposing players. I don’t know why you touched him, Wrighty. It’s silly, it’s childish.

Wright argued he simply wanted to pay homage to Liverpool’s history as a club. “I love everything that comes with Liverpool. I loved the fact that you can touch it. It’s not childish, it’s an amazing thing to be able to do. I’m one of those people who has touched that. There are a lot of fans who haven’t touched that.

Some players visiting Anfield don’t think they should touch the board even though they are Liverpool fans themselves. Paul Jones, the former Southampton goalkeeper, supported Liverpool as a boy but didn’t hit the sign until a short-lived stint at Anfield as an emergency goalkeeper in 2004.

“I had never touched the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign when I was an opposition player,” he said in 2012. “I think that tradition should be reserved for Liverpool players, so to be able to touch him and know that I was touching him as a Liverpool player meant everything.

Another childhood Liverpool fan, Robbie Slater, was chastised by his friend John Barnes for touching the backboard on the day Slater and his Blackburn Rovers team-mates won the Premier League title at Anfield in 1995.

“Barnsey said, ‘You can’t do this, you’re the opposition,'” Slater revealed to Fox Sports. “I said to him, ‘I’m a Liverpool fan, I have every right to touch it. It means something to me too.’

Many players facing Liverpool in this era would touch him according to Don Hutchison, who came to Weghorst’s defence.

“I’ve seen loads of stuff here saying Weghorst should have his contract terminated and sacked for touching the Anfield sign,” Hutchison tweeted. “Dear me, millions of away players have touched him out of respect (I did it myself…not while playing for Everton), that’s okay.” Word of the sign’s history and meaning has also spread outside of English football.

Carlo Ancelotti proudly posted a picture of himself and the sign on social media during his visit as Real Madrid manager in 2014. Former Atalanta midfielder Josip Ilicic, meanwhile, s is tattooed the touch.

And whether you think Weghorst should have touched the sign or not, he at least showed him far more respect than Dries Mertens, who didn’t see what the fuss was about during a 2010 visit as Utrecht player.

“My strongest memory is that they had a sign saying ‘This Is Anfield’ and everyone was talking about it,” Mertens said in 2018.

“I walked through the tunnel and said, ‘Where’s the thing?’ They said you missed it and I didn’t notice. So, in the second half, I look at this little thing and say, ‘Is this so special?’

Then there’s Vinnie Jones, who, in a possibly apocryphal story from Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang” days, allegedly approached the supposedly intimidating sign and sarcastically scribbled the word: “Bothered.”

Does Weghorst have a history with Liverpool?

The chances of Weghorst doing the same were still slim, although he has spoken enthusiastically about having the opportunity to play for a club of United’s stature since completing his surprise loan spell from Burnley.

“When you walk around (Carrington) and in the gym you see the big Man United logo above you, I can try to look tough and cool but no, it’s something special and I’m really proud. I’m going to give everything for this club,” he said.

Still, the Netherlands international hasn’t tried to hide his admiration for Liverpool in the past, even revealing he hoped to play for them one day shortly after joining Wolfsburg in 2018. ‘I dreamed about it since childhood’ , he told the Dutchman. De Telegraaf newspaper. “If I keep training with full commitment, I think that opportunity will come.”

Weghorst later said he had always found Liverpool to be a “very special” club. “I still get goosebumps from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’,” he said in 2020. “There are other big English clubs too, and I’ve always liked Milan because so many Dutch have played there.

“I am ambitious and I want to move forward. Maybe at some point play for another club, whether in Germany or England? But for the moment it is still far. I feel good and I try to achieve the maximum here.

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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