Liverpool are champions, don’t you know?! Steven Scragg takes a look at how the Reds arrived back at this point, 30 years later.
On April 28, 1990, Liverpool secured their 18th league title.
Common consensus for those who were around back then, tends to be that it was greeted with a polite round of applause and nothing more than a pint before heading home.
A historical downplaying of the situation, while Liverpool supporters had become serenely accustomed to such success—this being an 11th league title in 18 seasons—there was renewed eagerness to reclaim the trophy that had slipped from our grasp, so painfully and dramatically, at Anfield, against Arsenal, just over 11 months earlier.
Stars and starters
Arguably a title won on autopilot, although not a one-man mission by any means, the hypnotic John Barnes had been the chief generator of Liverpool rising to the top once more.
Kenny Dalglish’s side had had other consistent performers. Individually, Alan Hansen had been majestic, in a collective defence that had struggled at times with an aerial approach, as so devastatingly demonstrated by Crystal Palace in the FA Cup semi-finals.
Glen Hysen had slotted in alongside Hansen effortlessly, but both full-back roles had been more unstable. Steve Nicol had both periods out injured and prolonged spells covering on the right-hand side of midfield for the regularly missing Ray Houghton, with Barry Venison filling in at right-back and Gary Gillespie even playing out of position at times.
Over on the left, David Burrows had duelled with Steve Staunton for the position once again, while both Gary Ablett and Nicol had covered here and there.
It all made for a second successive season of an unfamiliar sense of defensive vulnerability, when pressured enough.
Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan had been perpetual motion in the centre of midfield, Jan Molby as backup, when required.
Ian Rush had scored goals but was unsettlingly disjointed in a Liverpool team that played a different style of football, compared to how they played prior to his departure to Juventus.
Nor did he link with Peter Beardsley as well as John Aldridge had. Ronny Rosenthal had arrived on loan, to help us over the finish line.
Unable, or unwilling to see it at the time, this was an ageing Liverpool side that had forgotten the art of footballing evolution.
After the construction of Bill Shankly’s second great Liverpool side, Bob Paisley perfected the concept of subtle, almost imperceptible rolling regeneration.
During the latter years of Shankly’s reign and throughout Paisley’s time in charge, Liverpool never stood still. Joe Fagan adhered to this mantra and so did Dalglish, in his first three seasons at the helm.
On the night that Liverpool destroyed Nottingham Forest 5-0 at Anfield, the club had unwittingly reached its zenith. The title long since secured in realistic, yet not mathematical terms, Dalglish’s side clinched the 1987/88 title 10 days later, at home to Tottenham Hotspur, with four games to spare.
A formative example of squad rotation during those four games yielded one win, three draws and a damaging clash of heads between Gillespie and Nigel Spackman. Liverpool subsequently sleepwalked to an FA Cup final defeat against Wimbledon and suddenly the immortal reds had a mendable hairline fracture.
The summer of 1988 saw Rush return from Juventus. A transfer that Liverpool weren’t brave enough to say no to.
With the most devastating forward line in English football already at our disposal, we weren’t in need of a new striker. What we required was a new centre-back to replace Mark Lawrenson, who we had permanently lost to an Achilles injury; what we needed was a left-back, to replace Jim Beglin.
Added to this, no long-term successor for Hansen had been recruited, while John Wark, Craig Johnston and Paul Walsh had all departed the club without being replaced. Soon, Spackman would be another to vanish, as part of this squad shrinking process.
In the name of bringing Rush home, Liverpool had exchanged natural evolution. On the day the Welshman was unveiled to a shocked press conference, the assembled members of the media had expected Gary Pallister to emerge through the doors, rather than Rush.
It probably would have been better for the long-term future of Liverpool if it had been Pallister. Legend has it, that the return of Rush also cost the club the services of a receptive Paul Gascoigne.
The unravelling of Liverpool began from its position of ultimate strength and it was this turn of events, the sliding doors moments of the summer of 1988, that put the club on to its path toward that 30-year odyssey to reclaim the league title.
What came next
By February 1991, Dalglish was gone.
Liverpool had made a bright start to the 1990/91 season, before the wheels began to wobble.
Hillsborough had taken years off Dalglish, having carried not only the club, but the entire city through one of its darkest hours.
Graeme Souness seemed the perfect successor, after five trophy-laden years at Rangers, but he came at the job from the wrong angle.
Souness recognised that Liverpool’s ageing squad needed to be revamped, but he opted for revolution, rather than evolution, basically telling the senior players that if they didn’t like it, they knew where the door was.
McMahon was sold to Manchester City, Gillespie to Celtic and unfathomably, Beardsley to Everton and Staunton to Aston Villa. Within a year, Staunton was joined at Villa Park by Houghton and Dean Saunders, the man who had arrived at Anfield at huge cost, only to prove to be half the player Beardsley was.
Other expensive transfer mistakes were made. Julian Dicks, Neil Ruddock and Paul Stewart were never Liverpool-centric footballers. Damagingly, Souness also passed up on the opportunities to sign both Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona.
Souness was also unfortunate at times too though. Nigel Clough should have fitted the club like a glove, yet we rarely saw the best of him.
He struck gold on youth, however. Rob Jones was an inspired signing and he nurtured and encouraged the likes of Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Don Hutchison, Dominic Matteo and Robbie Fowler.
Haunted by his deal with a publication of disrepute upon Merseyside, Souness was given no scope to make mistakes. He was expected to be relieved of his duties in the summer of 1993 but remained until the following January.
In a bid to go back to the future, Liverpool appointed Roy Evans as Souness’ replacement. A reassuring presence, it was hoped that Evans would turn back the clock and he did in many respects, with a brand of football that was grounded in the old pass and move currency.
A new breed of footballer, however, the Spice Boys era was marked by just one League Cup, from a team that was as passionate to party as it was to win: More naturally gifted, but nowhere near as focused, as a Manchester United side that had finally shaken off their generation-long role of the unfulfilled pretenders.
When we were psyched out of the run-in to the 1996/97 league title, 12 months after losing to Alex Ferguson’s side in the FA Cup final, the roles had well and truly been reversed.
It is here, where the psychological damage was done and any hope that we could return to be the Liverpool of old, was blown out of the water.
A new way forward was eventually mapped out by Gerard Houllier and, having isolated and then eventually eradicated the Spice Boys clique, Liverpool came close to reaching the promised land. A cup treble was followed by a tilt at the title, in 01/02.
Then came misjudgement.
Nicolas Anelka’s successful loan spell wasn’t transformed into a permanent deal. Instead, in came El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou.
When taking on not only Ferguson at Old Trafford, but Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, it was a risk that backfired dramatically, all of which came after Houllier had survived a life-threatening dissected aorta.
Conversely, while these successes came at a time when Benitez’s Liverpool were still a work in progress, the version that was much closer to the finished article fell agonisingly short in the seasons that followed. A second Champions League final was lost in 2007, a semi-final in 2008, as was another shot at the title, in 08/09.
In this respect, the Benitez era was back-to-front, an era where Jose Mourinho and the riches of Roman Abramovic supplanted Wenger and Arsenal in the Premier League footballing food chain, one where Ferguson’s United were still a few seasons away from their own moment of zenith.
The mourning of the lost 08/09 title was undertaken just as the true horrors of the Hicks and Gillett saga unfolded. Division in the corridors of power at Anfield; division amongst the fanbase, almost brought the club to its knees, a battle that went all the way to the highest court in the land, a battle that was turned with the help of the Chelsea-supporting Martin Broughton.
Out went Benitez, in came Roy Hodgson. Administration narrowly avoided, FSG opportunistically swooped and Hodgson was soon gone, replaced, initially on a temporary basis by King Kenny.
People tend to forget, that in the second half of the 10/11 season the football was excellent at times. FSG were reticent to appoint him on a permanent deal, but the feelgood factor and the wave of nostalgia was too compelling to ignore.
In the lack of a title-winning collective, Liverpool supporters had increasingly bought into individual heroes since the mid-1990s, in a manner they hadn’t really done before.
Fowler, McManaman, Owen, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez were all feted as footballing deities. It was a mirror image of United’s way of coping with their 26-year, 1967-1993 title drought, when they paid weekly homage to the likes of Best, McIlroy, Macari, Robson and Hughes, in the absence of a title-winning team to call their own.
Yes, we had our favourites or heroes in the 70s and 80s too, but they were generally revered as part of the wider collective. Something that arguably seems to be creeping back into the Liverpool of today.
The biggest of these heroes of the past was, of course, Dalglish. In 11/12 he won the League Cup, to complete the sweep of domestic honours as both a player and manager of Liverpool, but the league form slipped, the FA Cup final was lost and there was much rancour that was badly dealt with during the Suarez and Patrice Evra scandal.
FSG brought an end to Dalglish’s second spell in charge and implemented their intended plan of hiring a young coach that was armed with a futuristic vision.
Brendan Rodgers’ dossier won him the job and after an eye-opening first season at the helm, he so very nearly guided us to the title.
Part-coaching genius, part-PT Barnum, Rodgers span a magical shot at the title that roughly centred on eight very good players and five exceptional ones. Up against the solid-gold cheque book of Man City, we should never have come as close as we did, in a challenge that was a once-in-a-lifetime roll of the roulette wheel when it came to Rodgers.
Three full seasons in charge of the club, the two either side of the 13/14 title-chasing one, didn’t speak of a wider plan. If 12/13 had been ‘experimental’, then 2014/15 was largely abject.
Rodgers’ crime was feeding us hope, making us believe, then narrowly failing to reach the most promised of promised lands.
To compound the loss, Suarez was soon gone, too. The spirit of the players and the support was drained and a year later, Raheem Sterling had departed too, along with Gerrard to Los Angeles.
13/14 was mourned like no other and the weight of the loss eventually cost Rodgers his job, as a ruthless FSG decided that only one man was capable of what was now feeling like the impossible.
Jurgen Norbert Klopp arrived, with the promise to turn us from doubters to believers.
It was an incredulous appointment. Klopp had turned Borussia Dortmund into the most hypnotic force on the continent and his personality was infectious.
With Liverpool wounded, tired and wary of being led to hope once again, however, it took Klopp time to shift the clouds hovering above the club. The loss of a League Cup final and the Europa League final had been yet more instances of hope leading to pain.
Rather than lament these losses, Klopp promised that they would be used as a positive. For a fanbase that had been hurt too often while being implored to hope was a big ask, the one thing that was very easy to give Klopp, was trust.
For two-and-a-half decades Liverpool supporters had been required to deal in a hope and a prayer, but now they were able to deal in trust instead.
Klopp’s touchline reactions in games connected us to him. He felt as we felt, and the trust became an unequivocal one.
Champions League final lost in Kyiv, Klopp sang with supporters the next day and said that we would return. Sat on a coach, on the long journey home, I believed him.
There was no longer any need for hope. Hope turned to certainty. I walked into Anfield for that Barcelona game, not in hope, but with a sense of certainty not that we would prevail, but that there was no reason why we couldn’t.
It proved to be the night that Liverpool reclaimed the world.
The Premier League title eluded us again, in ridiculous circumstances, but it really did feel like a mere delay of the inevitable to me.
We did another road trip, this time to Madrid and we came back with the big one. Our sixth.
Champions of Europe, to champions of the world, to champions of England in the most unique of circumstances, with a team of heroes, rather than a team led by one defined superhero.
There have, of course, been others too, some making vital cameo roles, others who have underachieved in an individual sense and a cluster of the next generation, sat waiting and watching, eager to make their contributions.
Believers in themselves, believers in their manager, believers in their supporters.
And therefore, the title drought came to an end in the most impressive one-horse race ever. Not through hope, but through hard work, belief and trust.
We’ll never now know, but I don’t think any other man on the face of the planet than Klopp could have broken that 30-year curse.
He has not only laid the foundations for more of his own successes, Klopp has also paved the way for others to emulate him at Anfield.
For a club that for so long took solace in its past as means of a comfort blanket against an unpalatable present, a new history book can now be written upon a horizon that can be anything Liverpool wants it to be.