Liverpool might be about to end their long wait for a league title, but the last time we celebrated a championship, we also heralded the end of an era for the wrong reasons.
At the end of the 1980s the world was in ferment. Across the globe institutions and political systems we thought would last forever were in a state of collapse.
To the east, the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble and the ramifications would be profound. In China, students were fighting tanks and in Berlin the people tore down the Berlin Wall, a great symbol of oppression and division, with their bare hands. They no longer had any time for the old orders and their masters had not seen it coming.
In South Africa, Apartheid was about to be swept away and in the UK, a Prime Minister once thought be made of iron and ‘not for turning’ found her leadership corroded and her government in retreat.
The streets of London were awash with protesters and England’s citizens were in revolt over an unjust tax. This was a time of upheaval and renewal, of decline and revolution.
Almost the perfect metaphor for what was happening in English football, and in particular at Anfield.
What came before
At the dawn of the 1989/90 season, Liverpool Football Club was an empire in decline.
However, nobody could see it. Rocked by not one but two tragedies and by the fading of the boot room legacy left by Shanks and Paisley, the club was simply ill-prepared for the changing landscape of the game.
The end of the 88/89 season had left the Reds and their manager exhausted. The FA Cup had been won in a final that was as much about catharsis as it was sporting glory. Hillsborough had almost broken the team, the management and the city.
That we could unite for a one-off clash against Everton at Wembley was a source of civic pride and a signal of our strength. However, the lack of will or the necessary power to hold off Arsenal in the title race had resulted in one of the most heartbreaking championship finales in the history of the club.
Did we have anything left, could we fight back and regain our crown? Could Kenny Dalglish and his men restore pride to their shattered supporters?
It turned out we did and he could, but only just. 89/90 would prove to be a last hurrah for Liverpool Football Club; an empire whose fires had burned for the previous three decades, but whose dominance would now be placed into cold storage for the next three.
In the summer of 89, Liverpool added Glen Hysen and Steve Harkness for a combined outlay of £675,000. Yes, this was before the inflated fees ushered in by the Premier League era, but it hardly spoke of ambition.
The expenditure would be more than offset by the sale of John Aldridge to Real Sociedad for £1.25 million in September.
This was an ageing squad, with the average age of the team that faced Arsenal in the season curtain-raiser at Wembley around 28. Though he would only feature once, as a 71st-minute substitute in the penultimate game of the season, at the age of 39 Kenny Dalglish was still registered as a player.
Despite that, Liverpool would roar into the season by going on an 11-game unbeaten run. First off the mark came the settling of old scores in the Charity Shield. Just 63,000 people attended the game at Wembley and watched a Peter Beardsley penalty dispatch the Gunners.
It was scant consolation for being pipped at the final hurdle in the most painful way possible at the end of the previous season, but it was perhaps an early signal of intent.
The Reds’ run included an incredible 9-0 demolition of Crystal Palace at Anfield on 12 September, 1989. Eight different players would score in that game, with full-back Steve Nicol grabbing a brace in the 7th and 90th minutes. Sandwiched in between were goals by Steve McMahon, Ian Rush, Gary Gillespie, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Glen Hysen. However, perhaps the most poignant of them all came from substitute Aldridge.
Aldo already knew he was leaving the club, bitterly disappointed he sat on the bench and prayed for a moment when he could say a proper farewell to the fans on the Kop. His opportunity would come in the 67th minute. Liverpool, already 5-0 up, would win a penalty at the Kop end.
Dalglish recognised the moment for the golden opportunity it was, and immediately substituted Beardsley for Aldridge who ran straight to the penalty spot and scored his last ever goal for Liverpool.
The Kop greeted his strike with thunderous applause and the player would end the game by throwing his shirt, boots and socks into the crowd. He would leave the field with tears in his eyes and the adoration of every Liverpool supporter at his back.
The Reds would then smash Wigan Athletic 8-2 over two legs in the League Cup, beat Everton 3-1 at Goodison and, on a trip to Plough Lane, secured a 2-1 win over Wimbledon which confirmed their status as unbeaten league leaders by 14 October. However, only two points separated them from fourth-placed Everton and the previous season’s Champions, Arsenal were hot on their heels, just one point behind in second.
Still, all in the garden seemed rosy. No one could have anticipated the mauling the team would face against Southampton at the Dell a week later.
Defeats and despair
Liverpool made the trip full of confidence and would face a team containing past hero Jimmy Case and future Reds defender Neil Ruddock. Southampton also boasted two prolific marksmen in Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer, who would later win the title under Dalglish’s guidance at Blackburn. Team-mate Tim Flowers would join him also.
Former Everton player Paul Rideout put the Saints in the lead after 24 minutes and a brace by Rod Wallace saw them take a 3-0 lead after 55 minutes. The Reds barely knew what hit them, and even a Beardsley penalty in the 57th minute couldn’t save them. Matt Le Tissier would seal Liverpool’s fate and compound a terrible trip south for the players and supporters.
The Times newspaper was circumspect about Liverpool’s poor showing, writing:
“Once in a while the invincibility of Liverpool appears to be as substantial as a mirage. Once in a while the side which regularly maintains standards that others can touch only occasionally is reduced to the ordinary. Saturday at The Dell was one of those rare days.”
Even Saints’ manager, Chris Nichol, doubted his team could repeat the feat. However, Dalglish couldn’t find a single good word to say about his players, claiming that the supporters in the stands did a better job than those on the pitch.
Liverpool had stumbled and they would continue to stagger their way through the campaign, losing to Arsenal, Coventry, Queens Park Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday. The defeat in what was an emotional game at Hillsborough was their first at that ground since 1964.
Before the game, as the players on the pitch stood in silence, club captain Alan Hansen—who was out injured—Sheffield ‘keeper Chris Turner laid a wreath on the empty Leppings Lane Terrace. In the stand above, 4500 Liverpool supporters had thrown scarves, flowers and banners onto the stone steps. It was an atmosphere in which a football match seemed like a terrible intrusion.
The victory lifted Wednesday off the bottom of the table and as their supporters left the ground they would display a banner in solidarity with the families and supporters of the 95 fans who lost their lives just seven months earlier (Tony Bland remained in a coma at this point).
The banner, which stretched across the terraces at the home end, read:
“HILLSBOROUGH WILL ALWAYS SHARE YOUR SORROW. FOR ALL YOU REDS A NEW TOMORROW.”
The Reds would face Wednesday again on Boxing Day and won the game 2-1. Despite their stuttering form, they had returned to the summit, two points clear of Arsenal. Wednesday had given the Reds a tough test and were probably worthy of a point.
Liverpool had taken the early lead through Jan Molby but the South Yorkshire team fought back and levelled soon after the restart thanks to Dalian Atkinson. The game seemed to be heading for draw, when in the 84th minute Ian Rush grabbed the winner.
The Kop celebrated, but as Wednesday’s players left the pitch in disbelief, the Liverpool supporters afforded them generous applause. It was a mixture of gratitude for that earlier display of solidarity and perhaps a recognition that the Reds had got away with it. Arsenal had succumbed to defeat at the Dell, allowing Dalglish’s men to leapfrog them at the top.
January brought hurricane-force winds and the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. It would exonerate the fans and lay the blame for the catastrophe at the feet of police and authorities.
Despite that, the bereaved and the survivors would still face a 30-year struggle for truth and justice. It would also usher in safer all-seater stadiums. The days of the standing Kop would end just four years later.
New year, new promise
The footballing highlight of January proved to be a 8-0 thrashing of third division Swansea City in the third round of the FA Cup. The Reds had fought out a goalless draw at Vetch Field in the first game, but simply blew the Swans away in the replay. They received such a drubbing that it prompted an embarrassing pitch invasion by a section of the away support.
Ian Rush grabbed three and Barnes scored a brace. Ronnie Whelan, Peter Beardsley and Steve Nicol added the gloss. Liverpool were back in form and the Kop was jubilant.
They saw off Southampton in the fifth round and QPR in the sixth, after a replay. With the Reds sitting pretty at the top of the table and sacrificial lambs Crystal Palace in the semi-final to come, what could possibly go wrong? Surely another historic treble was on the cards.
Palace had other ideas.
The game took place at Villa Park and if Liverpool could negotiate their way past a team they had battered 9-0 earlier in the season, a final against Manchester United lay in wait. That represented a chance for revenge, after the old enemy had cost Bob Paisley’s Reds a treble in 1977. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Liverpool took the lead in the 14th minute through Ian Rush and every Red at Villa Park got ready for what they thought would be an inevitable rout. However, this was a Liverpool side prone to moments of inexplicable fragility. The cracks in the empire had been growing, they would soon turn into chasms.
The Reds took their lead into the second half, but it had become apparent that Palace manager, Scouser and former Manchester United player Steve Coppell had learned his lesson. This was going to be a far trickier assignment than anyone thought.
Mark Bright levelled for the Londoners a minute into the second half and, in the 70th minute, Gary O’Reilly stunned Liverpool by putting Palace in front. The Eagles supporters were in seventh heaven. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing and neither could the Reds. The goal seemed to stun Liverpool into action though and within 13 minutes Dalglish’s men were 3-2 in front.
Steve McMahon smashed one in and, when John Barnes stroked home an 83rd-minute penalty, it seemed as though the Twin Towers were calling Liverpool home. However, this was a game with a horrible sting in the tail.
With barely two minutes remaining, Andy Gray (no not that one) equalised for the Eagles. It seemed to have a strangely deflating, even paralysing effect. 30 minutes of extra time beckoned and the dream of another league and FA Cup double seemed to recede from view.
To say there was an air of inevitability about Alan Pardew’s 109th-minute winner may be an exaggeration. However, from the moment Palace levelled it felt like destiny had other plans for the Reds. Coppell’s men took United to a Cup Final replay after a 3-3 draw, but lost the game 1-0.
For Liverpool, the defeat was made harder to bear by the loss of Beardsley for the rest of the season due to a knee injury. With only the league to focus on, having gone out of the League Cup in the early stages to Arsenal, Dalglish would not let things slip.
In their remaining seven games, Liverpool won six and drew one. Aston Villa had replaced Arsenal as their nearest challengers. However, Liverpool clinched the title on 28 April 1990, with two games to spare.
They did so by beating QPR 2-1 at Anfield. Villa had played a game more and needed to win their clash with Norwich City to stand any chance of snatching the title from the clutches of the Reds. Instead, they stumbled to a 3-3 draw.
Liverpool had secured their 18th top-flight title. The Guardian quoted Graeme Souness, after he had captained the Reds to a league title in ’84, when he said “maybe by our standards we didn’t deserve to win the league. But, by everybody else’s we did.” His words had seemed as relevant in 1990 as they had back then.
Liverpool had stuttered and stammered their way through the season and gifted their rivals a number of opportunities to usurp them. They had all failed to do so, and this Liverpool team punished them for their shortcomings. However, it would be a trick they couldn’t repeat.
The advent of the Premier League saw Liverpool drift away, and although at that birth of the 90s none of could see the walls crumbling all around us, crumble they did.
It would take a bespectacled German called Jurgen Klopp to rebuild the fallen empire with his bare hands. With hope in our hearts, we look forward to seeing the job finished in May 2020.
Manager: Kenny Dalglish
Captain: Alan Hansen
Top Scorer: John Barnes (28 all comps)
Most Appearances: Bruce Grobbelaar (50 all comps)
Total games: 50
Games won: 30
Games drawn: 13
Games lost: 7
Clean sheets – league: 12
Clean sheets – overall: 19
Total goals: 107