By 1899 Liverpool Football Club was seven years old. They had won the Lancashire League in their debut season and were crowned second division champions in 1894 and 1896. However, they had never mounted a serious assault on the first division title.
That changed in the 1898/99 season under manager Tom Watson. That year Liverpool would go agonisingly close to the biggest prize of all.
Going into the season there was great optimism amongst Liverpool supporters, as reflected in a season preview in the Lancashire Evening Post, published on the 27th August, 1898:
“Liverpudlians are awaiting the forthcoming season with eagerness and confidence, and unless Tom Watson is a false prophet Liverpool will achieve fame and honour before many moons have passed. No expense, no effort, has been spared in the attempt to get a first class team together; and Mr. Watson has every reason to feel proud of his handwork.”
The paper cited the capture of Alex Raisbeck and the retention of several star players as reasons for Scousers to be cheerful. The club had also poached trainer, James Chapman, from Heart of Midlothian and apparently he “already had the men well in hand.”
The Reds performed well and raced to the top of the table. With one game left they had won 19 of their 33 games.
Going into their last game of the season, away to Aston Villa, Liverpool sat at the top of the table. They were two points clear of second placed Villa, but the side from the Midlands had a far superior goal difference. This set up a mouthwatering clash, with the winner taking the title.
The omens were not good though, as Liverpool had lost the home fixture 3-0 earlier in the season. Nonetheless, the Liverpool Mercury reported that many supporters made the journey from Liverpool to Birmingham and the attendance at Villa Park was a bumper 41,357.
There was clearly a huge sense of occasion, with the game taking on the air of cup final, rather than a league game. Both teams entered the field to tumultuous applause, with Villa coming out first. Imagine those hopeful Scousers taking up their places in the ground, hopelessly outnumbered, bellies full of ale and trying their damnedest to shout the lads to glory, over the Villa din.
However, they would have their hopes cruelly dashed. Maybe Liverpool were simply outplayed, or perhaps the occasion got to them. Whatever the reason they were out of the game by half-time. The local press were damning, stating that “the Anfielders lost heart and were outplayed”.
Two goals from Jack Davey in the first 20 minutes set Villa on their way. Then Billy Garraty and Jimmy Crabtree grabbed a goal a piece in the space of a minute and Fred Wheldon sealed the five goal rout in the 44th minute.
Liverpool mounted a fightback in the second half, but it was a case of too little too late. Those Liverpudlian supporters on their 19th century away day, would make their way home to Merseyside, heartbroken.
They would return to damning headlines in the Liverpool Echo, word that would perfectly sum up the scale of their disappointment:
FIGHT FOR THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP
AGONY FOR LIVERPOOL
ASTON VILLA MAKE NO MISTAKE
ROUT OF THE LIVERPOOL MEN
Fortunately for those poor ‘Anfielders’ they wouldn’t have to wait too long for the club’s first top flight championship. Tom Watson would lead them to the title in 1901. That team would receive an astonishing welcome on their return to the city, but that’s another story.