PJ Vaughan recalls the 1990/91 season for Liverpool — thought of by many as the start of the decline of the club through the 1990s.
The 1990/91 season was a very strange season in so many ways. Liverpool won their 18th and last league title the previous May.
Liverpool started the 1990/91 season in blistering form with the media proclaiming their squad strength and tactical brilliance. However, within a few short months the same media were calling Liverpool a club in decline.
The Incredible start
The season started in lukewarm fashion with a shared Charity Shield with Manchester United at Wembley. However the league season started with eight straight wins.
One of these was a 4-0 win over Man Utd which was reported in The Times:
“The deepest fears of the first division have been realised. Whispers of Liverpool’s continuing superiority have been circulating around the country and yesterday, in the first fixture of the season to be televised live, ominously ample confirmation was provided during their biggest defeat of Manchester United, their traditional rivals, for 65 years”.
The Guardian added:
“This time it seems Liverpool are determined not to let potential rivals for their League title even dream a little. At Anfield yesterday Manchester United, needing three points to go top, played imaginative football which on other grounds might have earned them a comfortable victory. Here they lost 4-0.”
The following week, Liverpool charged to a 3-0 lead at Goodison Park but had a nervous final five minutes after Everton scored two late goals. After this win, Liverpool were odds-on to match Tottenham Hotspur’s 1960/61 record of 11 consecutive wins from the start of the season. However, a 1-1 draw at Norwich City in the ninth game put pay to this record.
Liverpool went on to win the next four matches in the league, including a very impressive 3-1 away win at White Hart Lane. The Times wrote:
“Liverpool yesterday illustrated that they have not only the strongest squad in the Football League but also the finest tacticians. A line-up excluding Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton which provoked astonishment when it was announced at White Hart Lane proved to be perfect for the occasion”.
Liverpool ended Tottenham’s unbeaten start to the season and thus turning the league into a two-horse race.
The only blip to the start of the season was a 3-1 League Cup defeat at Man Utd.
Maintaining momentum in mid-season
The first major blip in the league occurred when Liverpool drew 2-2 with Manchester City at Anfield. The following week Liverpool travelled to play Arsenal — their only rivals for the league title. Man Utd trashed Arsenal 6-2 at Highbury in the League Cup a few days before.
Liverpool went into the game with six defenders in the starting line up. Arsenal must have being delighted to see a Liverpool line-up with Gary Ablett wearing the No. 7 jersey and Barry Venison wearing No. 8.
Liverpool had started six defenders away to Tottenham a month earlier. However this time it didn’t work.
Liverpool had a six point lead over Arsenal in the league and probably played for a draw. Arsenal won 3-0. Arsenal had cut Liverpool’s lead to three points but Arsenal still had to go to Anfield later in the season.
Liverpool remained unbeaten in the next 10 league and cup games including a 1-1 draw against Man Utd at Old Trafford and a 3-1 home win against Everton in Kenny Dalglish‘s last home league game as manager.
Disastrous Run in
When Dalglish surprisingly resigned as Liverpool manager on 22nd February 1991, Liverpool held a three point advantage over Arsenal in the league (albeit Arsenal had had two points deducted for a mass brawl that occurred when they played Manchester United earlier in the season).
Even without the deduction Liverpool would have still had a one point advantage with Arsenal to still play at Anfield. The league run-in seemed fairly straight forward. Liverpool also had a second replay against Everton in the FA Cup at Anfield.
Ronnie Moran took over a club in shock. His first game was game at Luton Town on their plastic pitch. They lost 3-1. Then they lost 1-0 to Everton in the FA Cup at Anfield, followed by a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal in the league.
To Moran’s credit they won the next three matches including a 7-1 win over Derby to go back on top. However, two more defeats and a draw effectively handling Arsenal the league title.
Graeme Souness was appointed manager for the final five games he won three and lost two. Even if he had won all five, Arsenal would have still have won the league.
Arsenal won the League by seven points. Liverpool only lost two of the first 24 games but lost six of the last 14 in the league.
Liverpool fans from that era often wonder what would have happened if Dalglish had stayed (probably after a leave of absence) and what would the short term future have held.
It’s a pity that an interim could have not have being found until the end of the season someone like Joe Fagan that could have kept the ship steady until the summer.
If Dalglish had stayed on there is every chance we could have won the 19th title in 1990/1991.
Many people point at Liverpool as a club in decline by the end of the 1990/1991 season. The same was said after the 1980/81 season when Liverpool finished fifth despite winning the European Cup.
That summer Liverpool sold three first team players and bought two (Steve Nicol and Mark Lawrenson). They also promoted a couple of players from the reserves.
Had Liverpool done the same in the summer of 1991, I’m sure they could have stayed at the top of English football for a while longer — especially when the likes of Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp were close to making the step up to the first team and Robbie Fowler would make the step up the following season.
Instead, Souness disbanded a multi-title winning side too soon and replaced them with inferior players. Liverpool finished 18 points behind Leeds United in 1991/92 and were now firmly a team in decline despite winning the FA Cup.
Manager: Kenny Dalglish / Ronnie Moran / Graeme Souness
Captain: Ronnie Whelan
Top Scorer: Ian Rush (26, all comps)
Most Appearances: Ian Rush (48, all comps)
Total games: 49
Games won: 27
Games drawn: 12
Games lost: 10
Clean sheets – league: 14
Clean sheets – overall: 16
Total goals: 101