By Chris Rowland.
The Reds team that had been good enough to win the double in 1985/6 had not been good enough to resist Everton’s challenge the following season, finishing 2nd but nine points behind, as the Merseyside domination of the league in the ‘80s continued – the title remained there for seven consecutive seasons between 1982 and 1988, with Liverpool accounting for five of them. United, in Ferguson’s first season, finished 11th.
The side had begun to show clear signs of rust.
What most Liverpool fans would pick as our all-time best striking partnership, Dalglish and Rush, was over. Kenny was finished as a player, and Ian Rush had been sold to Juventus, replaced by John Aldridge. Well at least he looked a bit like him. It gradually emerged that he could score goals a bit like him too.
Sammy Lee also departed in August 1986, with Barry Venison and Nigel Spackman arriving.
A major new injection of inspiration and creativity was urgently needed. It duly arrived in the summer of 1987 in the form of John Barnes from Watford for £900,000 and Peter Beardsley from Newcastle for £1.9m, soon followed by Ray Houghton from Oxford for £825,000. Over £3.5 million was a major investment in 1987, although we recouped over £800,000 from selling Paul Walsh and John Wark.
The result was a side which played probably the most exciting attacking football that even we’d been lucky enough to witness through our golden years. That season saw us produce probably the most exciting brand of attacking football that even we’d seen thus far, a football masterclass never equalled by any of even our magnificent forerunners – not by Shanks’ first great side in the mid 60s, not his Keegan-Toshack-Heighway side of the early 70s, not even Paisley’s league and European Cup winning sides of the late 70s and early 80s, with Dalglish, Rush, Souness, Hansen and Lawrenson in their pomp, or Fagan’s treble side of 1984. None could produce the breathtaking football, invention and sheer dominance that Kenny’s team produced that season. You could only speculate what the team might have achieved in Europe (I can just hear the cries of ‘Well whose fault was that?’ Well it wasn’t just the fault of Reds fans at Heysel but of over 20 years of English football hooliganism abroad, not least the national team. That’s why they banned everybody, not just us).
Often sublime, frequently blissful, the team garnered plaudits as fast as they picked up points. The two signings, Barnes and Beardsley, were the exciting creative hub. Beardsley, jinking this way and that, blessed with an onboard calculator of vectors that enabled him to know exactly when and at what speed and angle the football under your spell at his feet should be released. And then there was Barnes, with that intoxicating mélange of powerful physicality and balletic balance, the ball seemingly fused into his very feet, a part of him, physically attached. Houghton, Whelan and McMahon provided guile, endless energy and ammunition, and at the apex of it all, John Aldridge just kept converting a goodly percentage of the torrent of chances that kept coming his way. At the back, Hansen was still imperious, with Gillespie his very capable lieutenant. Behind them all, Bruce Grobbelaar kept himself occupied as best he could. A crossword puzzle, an imaginary fly to swat ….
There was no Big Four that season, just a Big One. The League title was not a competition in the true sense of the word. No one else was ever remotely in the title race. There wasn’t a race. There was Liverpool, and then there were some others. 20 others, oddly, as the league made its gradual staged transition from the old 22 teams to the present 20 by having 21 teams.
Neither Everton, who had swapped titles with us for the previous four seasons, nor Forest who finished a distant 3rd, 17 points behind us, nor Ferguson’s United, who finished nine points behind (Liverpool’s supremacy must have been really starting to fester inside Fergie by then) could live with Dalglish’s new sleek, turbo-charged, highly revved model. The Reds simply burned them all off, leaving them at the lights, gasping and gaping as the afterburners disappeared into the distance.
It soon became a case of the media and our fans trying to pick which game the title would be clinched at. At one point some were saying March, but it ended up going a little further than that. Not until April 20th did a goalless draw at Norwich clinch the title all but mathematically. As The Times report put it:
Liverpool are League champions again: which is as surprising, in the present circumstances, as reporting that the sun rose today. It would require Manchester United to score the 10 goals they once put past Anderlecht in the European Cup, a couple of times, and Liverpool to suffer a sudden epidemic of mumps, to deny Dalglish’s team on goal difference. On such possibilities, speculation is meaningless. To be mathematic, which last night Liverpool were not, they need one point from their last five matches to silence aimless chatter.
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