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

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 has sparked fierce debate and led to the Dutchman issuing a statement on social media where he clarifies his actions.

Was it disrespectful to United? Is the outrage justified? And why does the sign matter so much?

Athletics explains why Weghorst has caused such a storm…

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

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

For many years afterwards, Liverpool players often touched the sign as they walked onto the pitch. That history 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” significance when he asked to have his picture taken under it.

Touching the sign while walking out was a long-standing Anfield tradition until the early days of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure.

After an epic 4-3 win over his former club Borussia Dortmund during his first season in charge, Klopp said: “Before the game, when we were walking down the stairs, my Dortmund friends asked me: ‘Are they all touching the sign ?” I said no. I don’t really know how it works, but I think you have to win something before.’ I didn’t ask until now, but it’s a sign of respect that you don’t. It is too big. Maybe one day these players will be allowed to do that and feel better, stronger and can use that feeling.”

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

Klopp’s players had to wait another three years until they could touch the sign, 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 touched the sign before walking out at Anfield on Sunday. So did Cody Gakpo, despite only joining in January.

Do opposing players touch the sign?

Despite Shankly wanting the sign to intimidate opponents, it is not uncommon for visiting players to touch it to celebrate the game at one of the world’s most famous football grounds.

Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright revealed last year that he would happily touch the sign when he visited Anfield as a player. “Of course (I touched it) but I didn’t touch it when I went out with the guys,” he said while appearing as a pundit on ITV Sport.

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

Unsurprisingly, his fellow pundit and former United captain Roy Keane had a different opinion. Asked if he had ever touched the sign, Keane said: “No, of course not. No point. It’s OK, it’s a tradition for the England (Liverpool) players but not for the opposition players. I don’t know, why you touched it, Wrighty. It’s silly, it’s childish.”

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

Some visitors to Anfield do not feel they should touch the sign, even if they are Liverpool fans themselves. Paul Jones, the former Southampton goalkeeper, supported Liverpool as a boy but did not touch the sign until a brief spell at Anfield as a backup goalkeeper in 2004.

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

Another Liverpool fan, Robbie Slater, was urged by his friend John Barnes to touch the sign on the day Slater and his Blackburn Rovers team-mates won the Premier League title at Anfield in 1995.

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

Plenty of players who faced Liverpool in that era would touch it, according to Don Hutchison, who came to Weghorst’s defence.

“I’ve seen loads of stuff on here saying Weghorst should have his contract terminated and be sacked for touching the Anfield sign,” Hutchison tweeted. “Dear me, millions of outfielders have touched it as a mark of respect (I’ve done it myself… not while playing for Everton tho) it’s no big deal”. Word of the sign’s history and significance has also spread beyond English football.

Carlo Ancelotti proudly posted a photo of himself and the sign on social media when he was visiting as manager of Real Madrid in 2014. Former Atalanta midfielder Josip Ilicic, meanwhile, got a tattoo of himself by touching it.

And whether you think Weghorst should have touched the sign or not, at least he showed a lot more respect for it than Dries Mertens, who couldn’t see what the fuss was about on a visit in 2010 as an Utrecht player.

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

“I came through the tunnel and I asked, ‘Where’s that thing?’. They said you missed it and I hadn’t noticed. So in the second half I look at this little thing and ask, ‘ Is this so special?'”

Then there’s Vinnie Jones, who, in a possibly apocryphal story from Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ days, is said to have walked up to the supposedly terrifying sign and sarcastically wrote the word: “Delighted”.

Does Weghorst have a history with Liverpool?

The chances of Weghorst doing the same were always slim, although he has spoken glowingly of having the opportunity to play for a club of United’s stature since ending his surprise loan move from Burnley.

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

Yet the Netherlands international has made no attempt 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’ve dreamed of it since childhood,” he said to the Dutch. the newspaper De Telegraaf. “If I continue to train with full commitment, I think that opportunity will come.”

Weghorst later said he had always found Liverpool a “very special” club. “You’ll Never Walk Alone still gives me goosebumps,” he said in 2020. “There are other big English clubs as well and I always liked Milan because so many Dutchmen played there.

“I am ambitious and want to continue. Maybe at some point play in another club, be it in Germany or in England? But at the moment it is still a long way off. I feel good and try to reach the maximum here.”

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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