An April day, 1992. Manchester United have lost 2-0 at Liverpool and once more their title hopes have gone cold. It is a quarter of a century since the trophy last had residence at Old Trafford and Anfield is rejoicing in their misery. Sir Alex Ferguson can still remember the shouts of "fuck you" from the home dressing room. Ryan Giggs recalls it being the worst experience of his professional life. Outside the ground, a supporter asked for his autograph. "I signed it and he tore it up in front of my face."

It was the season United had seemed certain to get rid of all that pent-up frustration, only for them to disintegrate during the final, traumatic few weeks. "Maybe it was the final lesson for us, the ultimate experience in humility," Ferguson said at the start of the next season. He pinned a photograph, entitled Dante's Inferno, up in the dressing room, showing the distraught faces on the bench – and it was there to "make sure it never happens again". Yet even when United won the league the following year, Liverpool had the power to belittle the achievement. Ferguson took his side to Anfield and a banner went up on the Kop: "Come back and sing Ooh-Aah Cantona when you've won 18."

Those days can feel like a distant past – one that many Liverpool supporters will cling to – given the subsequent trajectory of the two clubs. Last season United's fans took their own banner to Anfield: "You told us to come back when we've won 18 – we are back." This season, the indignity could get even worse for Liverpool. Ferguson's team start this weekend four points clear of second-placed Arsenal and in a position of strength from which to win the title that would make them the most successful league club in English football. It would be their 19th, one more than Liverpool, when 20 years ago it was 18-7 in favour of the Merseyside club.

When Kenny Dalglish was reminded ahead of Sunday's game of the shift in power he reached for the default setting, citing Liverpool's five European Cups to United's three. "We've still got bits we can hang on to," he said. But there was a glimpse of regret, too, from the man who masterminded Liverpool's last league title. "I never considered they would catch us," he admitted. "You take greater satisfaction from when your own team is successful, and they've been more successful than Liverpool over the past 20 years."

Ferguson was not speaking to the media today but we knew what he would say about it anyway. There was no mention of equalling Liverpool's record when title No18 was won in 2009. No gloating, no reminding us of the one time when the tribal nature of this rivalry got the better of him and he famously told this newspaper that his greatest achievement was (expletive removed) "knocking them right off their perch". United's manager now swerves the question, to the point where journalists in Manchester have all but given up trying to extract his thoughts on the subject. "I'm not getting into that," has become the standard reply. "That's for the fans."

Pete Shaw, writing for United's longest-running fanzine, Red News, made those feelings abundantly clear in a recent edition: "I can't get the thought of being that close to 19 out of my head. I just want to dance with 19, caress her. I delight in 18, but you want to be ahead. I want that crown. I almost obsess about it. That number. That 19."

From inside the club, however, there has been very little on the subject. "You have to detach yourself from the emotions of it," said Giggs, United's longest-serving player. "I'm a United fan, I grew up in the 1980s when Liverpool were winning everything. But ultimately I'm just trying to concentrate on winning the league. Everything that comes after that – beating records, that sort of thing – it's great for the fans, brilliant for the fans. But I'm just trying to win the league."

There is a desire not to say anything that might come across as gloating or being overly presumptuous, particularly after the 2-1 defeat by Chelsea on Tuesday. What is not particularly well-known, too, is that Ferguson regrets that quote about Liverpool and the way it has been repeated over the years to symbolise his antipathy towards the Anfield club when, in reality, Ferguson probably has more respect for them than any of United's other rivals.

Ferguson will nod appreciatively when he talks about the history at Anfield. In his first book, A Light in the North, published in 1985 and telling the story of seven years at Aberdeen, he recalled his first visit to Liverpool, for the European Cup quarter-final against Saint-Etienne in 1977. "I didn't walk away from the ground after the game, I floated out," he wrote. "It was as if I had been given an injection of one of those stimulant drugs. Instead, all that happened was that I had been caught up in the most exciting football atmosphere I have ever experienced. These Liverpool fans support with passion!"

On Merseyside they will argue it is not strictly true that he was responsible for Liverpool's downfall. Liverpool's last league title was in 1990 and Arsenal and Leeds United succeeded them before Ferguson won the first of his 11 championships.

"Liverpool's decline began with Hillsborough in 1989, and the toll it took on Kenny Dalglish," according to Paul Tomkins, the author of several books about the Anfield club. "Roy Evans and Rafa Benítez took title races into May but once United had overtaken Liverpool in 1992 they had the formula for success: a winning mentality, managerial stability and increased riches."

Tomkins recently released Pay As You Play, which uses a Current Transfer Purchase Price Index to calculate how much past transfers would be worth in the current market. "At the time of United's first modern-era success, Liverpool had the most expensive squad in the newly formed Premier League. In today's money, Graeme Souness spent £127m on Paul Stewart, Dean Saunders, Julian Dicks, Mark Walters, Michael Thomas, Neil Ruddock, Nigel Clough et al, and roughly £100m of it was not recouped; poor signings, poor investments. Liverpool have never fully recovered."

Daniel Harris, author of On the Road, a book about his experiences of following United, can recall Liverpool's domination. "Should United win the league its principal joy will be in putting yet another one over on Liverpool," he says. "Growing up in the 1980s, my childhood was blighted by their relentless trophy accumulation; every second of revenge is a gorgeous thrill."

Tomkins believes there has been "a certain inevitability about United reaching 19 first" and admits it is a worry for Liverpool's fans. "Of course," he adds, "we can still cling to how long we held the record, and more importantly, those five European Cups to United's three."