We’ve arrived in the year 1990 for this week’s classic match feature. It’s January, it’s cold and the Kop is surrounded by a huge brick wall, punctuated at regular intervals by dilapidated turnstiles and topped out with barbed wire. Signs of the austere culture, in which football supporters enjoyed ‘the beautiful game’, are all around us. But these are changing times and not just in terms of football stadia.
In the east the Berlin Wall had been pulled down just a year earlier. In China’s Tiananmen Square a single student protester had faced down a column of Red Army tanks, and in doing so had etched his image into the global consciousness; as a universal symbol of defiance. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison, after a quarter of a century of injustice; and at home 96 families were about to embark on their own decades-long struggle.
The Taylor report was due later that month and it would usher in a new era for supporters like me. In just four years the standing Kop would be gone, along with much of the atmosphere and noise it has to be said. But it would be much safer and more comfortable for it. Improvements paid for with the lives of innocents.
Liverpool, as a community, had become deeply distrustful of authority and the establishment generally. The Thatcher government was reviled on Merseyside for so many reasons. However it would be her introduction of the hated ‘Poll Tax’ that would eventually prove her undoing. Millions across the country refused to pay it. In Liverpool, the city’s magistrates courts were clogged with people summonsed for non-payment and graffitied slogans screamed “can’t pay, won’t pay” on bridges and buildings throughout the town.
▼ Article continues below ▼
For supporters of Liverpool Football Club, the pain of 1988/89 lingered long and hard. Of course the bitter loss to Arsenal on the last day of the season had robbed us of the title in the most gut wrenching of circumstances. But it was the all-pervasive grief of Hillsborough that cast the heaviest shadow. Yet strangely, and in spite all of that, football remained a potent distraction.
The visitors on this occasion are Swansea City. The game is an FA Cup third-round replay. The Swans had given us a bit of a shock three days earlier at Vetch Field, holding us to a goalless draw. They wouldn’t be so lucky this time, at Anfield. I’m stood on Walton Breck Road and dressed like a refugee from a Harry Enfield sketch. No shellsuit to be fair, but I’m wearing jeans and a pair of Sambas on my feet. Underneath my Adidas jacket is a denim shirt that had seen better days. Fashionista I am not.
The attendance was just over 29,000 that night, but my memory of the Kop is that it was fairly full. King Kenny was in the dugout for the game. Gone was his beaming smile, replaced by the serious brow and haunted look that told tales on his post-traumatic stress. This was a man struggling to shoulder the weight of a city. and I had no idea of the personal toll it was taking. He’d stun us all and leave the following year. In the press conference to announce his departure, he looked like a broken man.
For the game, Liverpool’s mood was far from charitable and Swansea’s defensive solidity in the first leg would be completely blown away. The Reds still had a great side, but it was fading. 1990 would end up as a last hurrah, before a decade in the wilderness. The Premier League era was about to reshape the footballing landscape and our club seemed ill-equipped to take advantage. Still, this game would see our flame flicker brightly before it burnt itself out for a while.
The new year had got off to a hectic start. This was Liverpool’s fourth game in just 11 days and there was the small matter of a league match against Luton Town in four days. The schedule was taking its toll and after a victory over Charlton on December 30, the Reds would suffer a string of disappointing draws in January. Thankfully the cup would offer some respite.
▼ Article continues below ▼
It was a case of easy does it in the first half. John Barnes opened the scorning after 22 minutes, tapping home from close range following a Steve Staunton cross. Liverpool pushed and probed and in the 40th minute they won a corner. Peter Beardsley whipped the ball in and Ronnie Whelan blasted it home from 12 yards out.
I knew the game was over at that moment. Teams rarely, if ever, came back from two down at Anfield back then. However, just to add an air of certainty to proceeding Barnes added a third, three minutes later. This time it was Steve McMahon who provided the assist and Swansea’s defence could do nothing to resist.
The second half was no different for the hapless Welshmen as Liverpool were rampant. Barnes and Ian Rush terrorised the Swans from the off and Beardsley and McMahon could have made it five, before Rush notched the fourth, seven minutes after the restart. We’d barely finished celebrating when Beardsley scored the fifth. The ball was loose in midfield and nobody in a Swansea shirt seemed to want it. Beardsley did, though, and drove through three defenders before tucking the ball in the back of the net. This was magic.
The opposition simply vanished at this point, but not before the away end mounted an embarrassing pitch invasion. It would have been kinder had the referee just blown up and led the teams off the pitch. Sadly for them there is no such mercy in football and they were about to be thoroughly humiliated. Rush would cap another blistering performance with a hat-trick, scoring the sixth and seventh in a six-minute spell. Steve Nicol would seal the demolition job in the 86th minute—8-0 to Liverpool and all seemed right with the world.
The Kop could be arrogant back then. After all we’d seen it all. Personally, I had witnessed many a rout down the years. I’d seen the 9-0 against Palace, the 10-0 against Fulham and I’d watched us destroy Tottenham 7-0 and Forest 5-0 and so many more. In that context an 8-0 against third-division Swansea seemed a bit routine. Nothing to write home about really.
▼ Article continues below ▼
As I look back on those years I feel almost guilty for simply expecting results like that. How I would love to see a Reds side so dominant again. Thankfully, this season, there are tantalising glimpses that Jurgen’s men may be about to restore that same spirit of attacking zeal to Anfield. I promise I’ll never take it for granted again.