In 1990, 5 years after Heysel, English clubs were re-admitted to the European fold. Liverpool, however, had to wait another year before their own exile was ended. The first European tie at Anfield for over six years took place on a warm evening in the middle of September 1991 in front of a relatively small crowd. The visitors were Kuusysi Lahti from Finland. They were perhaps ideal opponents against which to compete after such a long absence.The European ban had prevented seasoned international players from playing on the European club stage and the rules in place at the time meant that only four foreigners were allowed to play in each team. UEFA seemed to change their rules frequently but this was a big disadvantage to many English clubs in particular, especially as all their British players who were not English were also classed as ‘˜foreigners’ ! Exceptions were made depending on length of service with a club, etc. but club officials had to be very knowledgeable to make sure the rules were not broken by fielding too many foreign players at the same time.
Lahti were thrashed 6-1 but the final score does not do justice to the way the game unfolded. Liverpool took an early two-goal lead but the Finns pulled a goal back before half-time with a shot which deflected in off Nicky Tanner. Midway through the second half, the Reds were still clinging on to that slender advantage and the crowd and players were getting increasingly frustrated. But then Dean Saunders scored a quick hat-trick and the scoring was finished off by Ray Houghton. The away leg was one of the poorest performances by a Liverpool side in Europe. Even with a relatively young side, they should have dome better than lose by a single goal to a team which frankly was not in the same class. But it did prove perhaps how much English clubs had fallen behind during the years when the ban was in force, although it is also true that many clubs from smaller nations were increasingly well-organised and difficult to beat.
The second round cup took Liverpool to France to play Auxerre. Again a very young and inexperienced team was selected to fit in with UEFA’s regulations but conceding a goal in each half meant that there was a real uphill battle to be faced when the teams met again on Merseyside. It turned out to be one of the great nights in Liverpool’s history. Maybe not on a par with Inter-Milan (1965) or St. Etienne (1977) because those were later rounds played in front of a full-house but considering Liverpool’s long absence from European competition and the young side they were forced to play, it was certainly just as praiseworthy. The stadium was not even half full and yet those present made as much noise as if the game had been played in front of a capacity crowd. Jan Molby’s early penalty was a big bonus and before half-time Mike Marsh had headed in the goal which levelled the aggregate score at two apiece. Bruce Grobbelaar had made a crucial save at 1-0 but had little to do in the second period as Liverpool’s players poured forward in search of the winning goal but still aware that if the French scored it would probably be decisive. As the minutes ticked away, Molby’s pass sent Mark Walters through on his own and the crowd held its breath before the shot across the ‘˜keeper finally nestled in the corner of the net. It had been a remarkable comeback.
On a freezing day in Austria, Dean Saunders scored the goals which defeated Swarovski Tirol 2-0 and he went one better when the teams met again at Anfield, Barry Venison’s long-range shot completing the scoring in a convincing 4-0 victory. There was a long wait for the quarter-final the following Spring and when the draw was made Liverpool were paired with Italian opposition in the form of Genoa. Security was not surprisingly tight for Liverpool’s first match against an Italian club since the ill-fated European cup final with Juventus in Brussels but the game passed off relatively incident-free with the most significant statistic being Genoa’s two goals. There were hopes that, as against Auxerre, this deficit could be overcome and maybe because a lot of younger supporters had not seen many European ties and so they had almost became a novelty in comparison to the domestic matches, Anfield was sold-out for the return game. The first goal was always going to be crucial but it was the Italians who grabbed it through Aguilera. Ian Rush equalised but Aguilera scored again to knock Liverpool out. There were no complaints. Reaching the quarter-final was probably about as far as the club could have expected to go but it had at least given a taste of what things used to be like before the ban.
Beating Sunderland in the 1992 F.A. cup final put Liverpool into the Cup winners’ cup and they comfortably beat the Cypriots from Apollon Limassol 8-2 on aggregate, Ian Rush scoring five of those goals. A tricky trip to Moscow followed and midway through the 2nd half everything looked good for a great result when Steve McManaman scored from a narrow angle to make the score 2-2. But then Bruce Grobbelaar made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. His error lead to Spartak taking the lead again and then he was sent off after conceding a penalty towards the end. David Burrows went in goal to face the spot-kick but was easily beaten and once again Liverpool had to overcome a two-goal deficit if they were to progress. The away goals scored in Russia meant that a 2-0 win would be enough but as Liverpool took more risks after half-time with the score on the night still goal-less they left gaps at the back, which were exploited by first Radchenko and later Piatnitski.
Although Liverpool would have qualified in one competition or another for every season between 1985 and 1991 had the ban not been in force, they were now faced with the prospect of only having domestic games to keep them occupied for the next two years. But in 1992-93 as Graeme Souness’s turbulent spell as manager continued, qualifying for Europe was the last thing on the players’ minds as they found themselves at the wrong end of the table. As late as March they were hovering in a dangerous position only just clear of the relegation zone and although they put a good run of results together in the last few weeks of the season, a place in the UEFA cup was beyond them. After Roy Evans had replaced Souness as manager, he guided the club to its 5th success in the League cup during his first full season in charge and that victory guaranteed the club a place in the following season’s UEFA cup competition.
Liverpool faced a long and arduous journey to Vladikavkaz to face Spartak and achieved a marvellous victory despite falling behind. Steve McManaman curled in a terrific equaliser from a narrow angle before half-time and after the interval Jamie Redknapp’s thunderbolt gave the team a second priceless away goal. At Anfield Liverpool seemed content to soak up the pressure without concentrating too much on attack, believing ‘“ rightly as it turned out ‘“ that the hard work had been done in the away leg. But it is a dangerous game to play because if you just sit back and let the opposition have more of the ball and then concede a goal, it means the tie is very much back in the balance. They weren’t ideal tactics but they were tactics the supporters would have to get used to in future years after a good result in the away leg. Fortunately on this occasion Spartak were unable to break through and Liverpool went through to face the Danes from Brondy. Again, they seemed to have done the hardest bit by drawing away in Copenhagen but a 0-0 score meant they had to be even more careful at home than they had been in the first round. It was a tight, tactical game but as time wore on without either side making the breakthrough, the atmosphere became very tense. When a goal did finally come, it was from the visitors, with Norwegian Dan Eggen heading in from a corner. Although the crowd lifted the players as much as they could after this setback, the team never looked likely to score the two goals they now needed in what little time remained. It had been yet another disappointing early exit.
Liverpool knew even before their F.A. cup final date with Manchester United in 1996 that they would be competing in the Cup winners’ cup again, no matter what happened at Wembley. But if losing to one of their most bitter rivals was hard to take, the manner of that defeat left an equally sour taste in the mouth. But that ‘œWhite Suit’ final was just a bad memory by the time the next season started and as the Champions’ League was also taking the League runners-up from the major European countries, it left Liverpool among the favourites for a competition which was soon to be scrapped anyway. Liverpool faced yet more Scandinavian opponents in My-Pa from Finland but Stig Inge Bjornebye’s away goal took a lot of the tension out of the home leg, which was subsequently won comfortably enough by three goals to one. Then it was on to Switzerland to face Sion and another away victory, this time secured by Fowler & Barnes after Dominic Matteo’s early error had given Bonvin an opportunity to open the scoring. The return at Anfield was a remarkable match. By half-time the visitors were leading with the same score by which Liverpool had triumphed in the first game, 2-1. Bjornebeye equalised direct from a free-kick but amazingly the Swiss scored again and this time they were ahead on the away-goals rule. Fortunately, John Barnes equalised almost at once before late strikes from Fowler (2) and Berger gave the Reds a comfortable 6-3 victory on the night but nobody would have predicted that score when the Swiss had scored their 3rd goal to shock the home fans just twenty or so minutes earlier.
Robbie Fowler scored a breathtaking goal to open the scoring in Bergen when the Reds played Brann in the quarter-final and he should have had a penalty after the Norwegians had equalised. But a score-draw was a satisfactory result, especially as Tore Andre Flo (linked at the time with Liverpool but who subsequently moved to Chelsea) had missed a glorious chance in the first minute. Two more goals from Fowler at Anfield plus one from Stan Collymore ensured a comfortable passage through to the semi-final to face the holders from Paris Saint-Germain. Expectation was high but on the night it was a miserable defensive performance and one of David James’ worst games in a Liverpool shirt. The French won 3-0 and although a big crowd roared Liverpool on a fortnight later, it was just too much to make up. Fowler’s early goal gave hope and when Mark Wright outjumped Lama to head in a corner with time running out, there was just the faint chance of a sensational comeback. But it was not to be and frankly if a team plays as poorly as the Liverpool side which took to the field in Paris, then it can neither expect nor deserve to go any further in the competition.
Returning to the UEFA cup for the 1997-98 season, the last thing Liverpool wanted was to be paired with British opposition in the very first round but that was what happened when Liverpool and Celtic were drawn together. In an eventful match at Parkhead, Michael Owen’s pace took him clear early on to give the Reds the lead but by midway through the second half the hosts were leading 2-1. With the home crowd whistling for full-time Steve McManaman scored an extraordinary goal, collecting the ball right by the touchline in his own half and embarking on a run which ended with him curling the ball in off a post for a sensational last-minute equaliser. Although he was never properly challenged during that run, it was still a fabulous goal. Back at Anfield ‘“ having secured two away goals ‘“ Liverpool seemed content to sit back and defend a lot of the time but would they have been able to recover if they had conceded a goal?
As things turned out, the home leg finished 0-0 but it been another very nervous and hardly convincing 90 minutes. But another French debacle was only weeks ago. An awful performance in Strasbourg brought the same heavy defeat that the team had experienced in Paris earlier in the year. Once again the home leg was won 2-0 but it was too little too late. The performances in some of the away ties were giving cause for concern. The great Liverpool teams of the past knew how to slow the game down and quieten the crowd but as the joint-partnership between Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier came to a close leaving the Frenchman in sole charge of first-team affairs, it was clear that there needed to be some hard thinking about why the team was being beaten so often on their travels, especially as the ‘˜four foreigners’ rule had been rescinded and left managers much more freedom to pick their teams. Another awful defensive performance at Celta Vigo effectively ended the club’s European interest in the 1998-99 UEFA cup. This was particularly frustrating because it came only weeks after a marvellous achievement in beating Valencia on away goals after seeming to have handed the Spaniards an advantage by only drawing 0-0 at Anfield. Despite going behind in Spain, terrific goals from McManaman & Berger put Liverpool ahead on the night and only a second Valencia goal deep into stoppage-time deprived the club of a famous victory.
Gerard Houllier brought numerous new players to the club. Most were effective but this especially applied to the defence with the astute purchases of Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia. The Frenchman was extremely knowledgeable about European football and European players and many of his signings, if not entirely unknown, were certainly not familiar figures to the British football-loving public. Narrowingly missing out on lucrative Champions’ League football by losing the last League match of the 2000-01 season at Bradford City, Houllier prepared for another campaign in the UEFA cup instead. It was a campaign which ‘“ against the hopes and expectations of most of the supporters ‘“ took Liverpool right through to the final itself. Considering that after the early rounds they had to compete against strong clubs which had ‘˜come down’ from the Champions’ League, it was a quite remarkable achievement but it was on based on something that had been lacking during the previous few years, a sound defence which was the main reason why they progressed to the final without losing a single one of the six away matches they faced during that run. Maybe the draw was kind to Liverpool in the early rounds ? But it certainly got a lot tougher after that. Michael Owen’s brilliant run set up Nick Barmby for the only goal in Bucharest against Rapid and both players found the net in the next away tie at Liberec. The home matches against both the Rumanians and the team from the Czech Republic were pretty awful to watch but the performances in the away legs ensured progress in the competition. A last-minute goal deprived Liverpool of a famous victory in Athens against Olympiakos, but the game should have been settled long before then as so many good chances were wasted in the second half after Steve Gerrard’s goal had quickly restored the lead on the night. At Anfield, the Greeks were beaten without too much fuss, Barmby again being one of the scorers.
In the fourth round Liverpool faced a mouth-watering clash with the Italian league-leaders, AS Roma. It was an eagerly anticipated clash against the club Liverpool had famously defeated on penalties in the 1984 European cup final. The Italians talked of revenge but I suspect there was also respect for what Liverpool were achieving under their new French coach. Sadly, the supporters who travelled to Italy were severely provoked (and appallingly ‘˜protected’), just as they had been in the previous round in Greece. But what happened on the pitch soon took away any animosity they felt at the way they had been treated inside and outside the stadium. Sound defensively but also able to counter-attack effectively, this was one of the club’s greatest-ever performances. They restricted Roma to just one decent chance in the first period and then Michael Owen took over with two terrific goals in the second half to silence the home crowd. But for all the conviction of this wonderful away victory, there was always the worry that Liverpool would approach the second game in a more defensive frame of mind. They did have the upper hand but knew that the Italians still possessed enough players of quality to give them problems at Anfield. Despite the tenseness of the occasion, if Owen had put away the penalty-kick Liverpool were awarded in the second-half, this tie would surely have been settled there and then. But his poor kick was saved ‘“ and instead of being 3-0 up on aggregate it was soon 2-1. Liverpool were hanging on now to the two precious goals they had scored in Rome but when the Spanish referee pointed to the spot after Markus Babbel had inadvertently handled a cross, it looked as if extra-time and/or penalties would be needed to decide the outcome. Amazingly, the referee then pointed to the corner-flag instead, a decision which incensed the Italians but which came as a great relief to the Liverpool players and supporters. Somehow, the home team held out without any further scares but it had been a mighty close thing. The Italians half-heartedly appealed against the result but there was never any doubt of UEFA reversing the decision that one of their officials had made. European ties are won over TWO legs and although there had been many uncomfortable moments at Anfield after Roma scored, there is no doubt that this tie was won in Rome.
Against Porto (in the quarter-final) and Barcelona (in the semi-final), Liverpool were criticised for their negative approach. But seen in the context of a two-legged affair, these were great results based on disciplined defending even if they weren’t great attacking performances. Other English clubs Chelsea & Leeds had been demolished in the Nou Camp in the last year. Why should Liverpool go there and ‘˜invite’ the same thing to happen to them ? After drawing 0-0 in Portugal, most fans expected a home win ‘“ and so it proved with first-half goals from Danny Murphy and Michael Owen. The 0-0 in Barcelona might not have been pretty to watch but it was certainly effective. The Spaniards added spice to the Anfield return by allegedly making some uncomplimentary comments about the way Liverpool had performed in the first leg. But everyone knew this tie wasn’t over; Barca’s side was littered with some of football’s biggest names and they were quite capable of getting the score-draw they needed or even winning the game outright. Liverpool approached the game in exactly the right manner. They knew they would have to score but they didn’t take many risks and even though they were now at home they knew that being strong and disciplined at the back could be crucial because if they were patient the chances ought to come at the other end of the pitch. When the goal did come, it was something of a surprise as Kluivert needlessly handled a corner just before the interval and Gary McAllister stepped up with confidence to convert the spot-kick. Barcelona played well as they tried to even things up but Liverpool’s defence held firm. The tension in the last few minutes was almost unbearable but finally the referee’s whistle sounded to signal the end of the game and Liverpool were through to their first European final for 16 years, where they would face the unknowns of Alaves from Vitoria, the capital of the Spanish Basque region ‘“ and a club that was remarkably playing in a European competition for the first time in its history and yet which had reached the final on merit with some great performances, particularly away at Rosenborg, Inter-Milan and Kaiserslautern. Liverpool would be firm favourites to lift the UEFA trophy for a third time but they would certainly not underestimate their opponents, whose players included Jordi Cruyff (son of the famous ex-Ajax and Barcelona legend who started to make unkind comments about Liverpool’s method of play as soon as the finalists were known) and Dan Eggen, whose header had ended Liverpool’s hopes in the same competition when he was a Brondby player.
May 16th 2001 in Dortmund was the day when Liverpool’s European destiny would be decided, just four days after they had beaten Arsenal in the F.A. cup final at Cardiff. It turned out to be one of the most remarkable club finals played anywhere in the world. Liverpool can look at the goals they conceded, that having been so defensively sound earlier in the tournament they should not have let slip their 2-0 and 3-1 leads. But it takes two teams to make a great match and Alaves certainly played their part. The dream start everyone craved came true with Babbel’s early header from McAllister’s immaculate cross and when Gerrard powered through to take Owen’s pass in his stride it looked as if the Reds would go on to win comfortably. The two goals Moreno scored early in the second period that levelled the score at 3-3 were hard to take but Robbie Fowler came off the bench to regain the lead only for Jordi Cruyff’s header to tie things up again and take the final into extra-time. With the ‘˜Golden Goal’ rule coming into effect in a European club final for the first time, there was no margin for error.
Both sides had chances ‘“ and disallowed goals ‘“ before Spanish indiscipline cost them their dream only minutes before a penalty shoot-out would have settled the outcome. Man of the Match McAllister’s cross from the free-kick which followed the second dismissal of an Alaves player skimmed off the head of a defender and into the far corner of the goal to bring extraordinary scenes of relief and jubilation on and off the field. The watching world saw Robbie Fowler and Sami Hyypia step proudly forward to receive the UEFA cup. After 16 long years, Liverpool were finally in possession of another European trophy, their seventh. The incredible journey which had started in Budapest several months before was over and Liverpool could once more claim their place amongst the continent’s elite with great pride in their achievement. The players who had worked so hard to reach the final no longer had to live in the shadow of their illustrious predecessors. They had made history of their own. Whether this would be the start of a new golden era for the club in Europe nobody could say. In the dark days which followed Heysel ‘“ and in the subsequent turbulent years of the 1990’s when success was so limited domestically never mind abroad ‘“ this sort of triumph would have been unthinkable. Gerard Houllier’s knowledge of the European game and his tactical awareness had helped mould a team-spirit and self-belief which were crucial when the going got tough against teams with much more experience of the continental game. His men had to grow up quickly and learn fast ‘“ and they did ! In Dortmund they got their reward ‘“ and with it the hope and expectation that it could be the start of another glorious chapter in the club’s history.