One tough lesson I learned from 1995/96 – when Liverpool were irresistibly exciting going forward but sometimes all at sea at the back – is that you can win the battles and then lose the war.
Too much is always read into the latest result, with recency bias, and too little focus given to the bigger picture.
But now, Liverpool are winning the battles with United, as well as the war overall.
Liverpool stuffed Man United 5-0 at their place, and stopped playing after 55 minutes to save energy, and perhaps avoid more injuries (after two up to that point, to an injury-hit midfield). Liverpool, without Fabinho, Joel Matip, Sadio Mané, Thiago and Harvey Elliott, amongst others, looked like a crack unit; United a unit full of cracks, perhaps having smoked some crack. (Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire looked more like they’d just taken sleeping pills.)
That season, 26 years ago, I felt sure, in my naivety, that Liverpool were better than Manchester United, especially after the 2-0 win at Anfield when Robbie Fowler twisted the blood of United defenders for the second game running (to bag his 4th goal against them in those two games), and thus I was stupidly certain that the Reds would win the FA Cup final, at a time when the FA Cup still felt incredibly important. United won the cup, having already won the league.
Back then, Liverpool had a loyal, mild-mannered club stalwart in charge, who, as the exact opposite to his predecessor, overturned a negative atmosphere. He got to a few cup semi-finals, and a couple of finals, but never quite mounted a sustained title challenge. (Though he did at least win a trophy, and the Reds were in the title mix in 1997, before somehow finishing 4th.)
This was following the scorched-earth era of a fierce taskmaster, who spent a lot of money only for the club to dissolve into chaos. Sound familiar? (I enjoy Graeme Souness’ punditry these days more than I did his management. He later admitted that he tore things up too quickly.)
United in 1995 were managed by a boss with the special experience, a decade earlier, of winning titles with an underdog in another country, on a limited budget, and unexpectedly reaching a European final; and then ended his club’s near 30-year wait for an English title.
Liverpool included in their side a maverick talent who broke the British transfer record, but who would blow hot and cold. There were also Liverpool players caught up in the fashion world.
Again, sound familiar?
(Let’s be clear: players can do what they want in their private lives, including launching vegan or kangaroo-skinned boots for all I care, but if they spend time promoting fashion or business interests in the buildup to a huge game – in which they have an absolute shocker by being at fault for a goal and making a horror red-card tackle in less than 15 minutes – then you have to ask questions. It doesn’t mean the two are connected, but equally, it doesn’t mean there cannot be a connection. During a crisis at a club, you don’t want key players out and about, touting their commercial wares. Ditto in inviting the criticism if you then appear to do zero running on the football pitch. Anyway, I digress.)
Sometimes Liverpool would win the battle, and I’d get over-excited; but United won all the wars.
Liverpool would be brilliant one month, streaky the next, chaotic the month after. For four years, Roy Evans did just enough to keep the job, without ever quite finding the next gear when required; albeit he took things further than his predecessor in terms of league position and optimism. But whenever Liverpool would be touted for big things, when on a good run, the wheels would come off (and the cream suits would come on). There was a softness at the core.
Of course, back then both Liverpool and Manchester United had a lot of money to spend. Indeed, 1995 was the last time the Reds held the British transfer record. In the years after, United pulled away financially, as their success bred more success; adding commercial nous to cash in, as Liverpool cashed out.
Liverpool spent what would be roughly £40m-70m or more per player (in 2021 money) on various signings between 1991 and 1995 – Michael Thomas, Stan Collymore, Dean Saunders, Mark Wright, Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough, John Scales, Phil Babb, Neil Ruddock and Julian Dicks – and yet at best made smallish losses when offloading three of them (Collymore, Saunders and Scales) but lost fortunes on the rest.
As such, there was less and less money to reinvest, and less and less commercial nous.
If your transfers flop, then you need resale value. If your transfers flop and you get no resale money, you’re screwed. If you buy a house you cannot live in, perhaps because you change jobs and have to move to another area, you sell the house; if you lose 5% from a rush sale, so be it. But if you buy a house that’s on a crumbling cliff-face and is rendered unliveable, uninsurable and unsellable, you lose everything.
In 1997, Barcelona offered what would now be over £100m for Steve McManaman, but they were just playing games in the bid to sign Rivaldo, which they of course did; and McManaman, upset at being told that he would be sold by the club he’d been at since childhood (only to find he’d been stitched up by the Catalans), allowed his contract to run down and left Liverpool for free in 1999. Another one gone, and more were to follow. By the end of 1999, the team needed a total rebuild.
You also had the super-cheap, world-class Rob Jones, but his career was derailed by injuries, just like the ultimate wunderkind, Robbie Fowler. Fowler played on, at half-strength, but Jones was done by 1998.
The brightest sparks of that mid-’90s side – all free or cheap, to highlight how badly the transfer money was spent – were gone or largely washed up by 1999. Jamie Redknapp, a much finer passer than pundit, played just 11 league games for the club after November 1999, eight years after he arrived aged 18. By 2001 he was gone.
These days, Liverpool’s wage bill is comparable to United’s due to the bonus clauses in the Reds’ contracts that were triggered by winning the Champions League and the Premier League, but the £XIs (the cost of the starting XIs, adjusted for inflation) see United at around £300m more than Liverpool’s (roughly £700m vs £400m, with Man City also around the £700m mark), while the net spends have been massively higher by United.
However, it’s the £XI that reflects league performance. United’s team is on a par with City’s in that sense, with Liverpool just behind Chelsea, but costing just above half of what the Manchester clubs field when adjusted to 2021 prices.