Liverpool have had many fine teams, but like so many very successful clubs, the monotony of one-team dominance turns to resentment among other clubs. Liverpool’s golden era – from 1976 to 1990 was as frustrating for the opposition as it was joyous for the Koppites. But there is one Liverpool team that stands out for the sheer quality and excitement of its football – the team that won the Football League in 1987-88.
Liverpool’s success was built on continuity: Bill Shankly retired prematurely in 1974, passing the baton on to Bob Paisley who in turn, handed on the keys to the kingdom to Joe Fagan. These were all dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool men, products of the fabled “boot room”. Liverpool, as a club, created their own legends and myths. It was a dynasty they thought would last for ever.
When, in the aftermath of the 1985 Heysel Stadium debacle, Joe Fagan resigned from the post, the club went for a younger man who was, nevertheless, steeped in the culture of the boot room, the Kop and the poetry of the terraces initiated by Shankly. Although Kenny Dalglish never played for Shankly, he was as much part of Anfield Road as the messianic former manager.
Liverpool turned to Dalglish as player-manager, a near-unprecedented role in the modern game at its highest level. Dalglish was bought from Celtic in 1977 to fill the gap left by Kevin Keegan’s departure to Hamburg. Although both players were huge crowd favourites, Dalglish was a far more gifted player than Keegan, who made maximum use of his limited skills in his six-year career with the Reds.
An unexpected double
Dalglish took over after that Liverpool rarity – a season without silverware. Their neighbours, Everton, had emerged from a barren period in their history to win the Football League by 13 points. Manchester United had ended their FA Cup run at the semi-final stage and Juventus won the ill-fated European Cup final in Brussels. Dalglish, now 34, had ended the season with just six goals in 53 games. While many people doubted the decision made by the Anfield board, Dalglish’s first season in management would surpass some of the achievements of his predecessors. But there would be no Europe, as the events in Brussels, where Liverpool fans were involved in a disaster that killed 39 Juventus fans, would deprive English clubs of European competition until 1990.
In 1985-86, Liverpool and Everton fought neck-and-neck for the main prizes. Dalglish, not for the first time in his illustrious career, was the matchwinner as Liverpool won the Football League Championship at Chelsea, who themselves had their eyes on glory at one stage of the season. Liverpool finished two points ahead of Everton.
A week later, Everton took the lead at Wembley in the first all-Mersey FA Cup final. But two goals from Dalglish’s long-time partner in goals, Ian Rush, and a snatched effort by Australian maverick Craig Johnston gave Liverpool a 3-1 win. Unexpectedly, and with the least celebrated of their teams, Liverpool had won the double, the first club to do so since 1971 and only the fifth in history to achieve that feat.
The following season, Everton bounced back to win the title again and Liverpool ended potless. But there was something shifting at Anfield.
The chequebook opens
Much of Liverpool’s success had been built on the goals of Dalglish and Ian Rush. They formed one of the most lethal and telepathic front-line partnerships in football. Rush scored 139 goals in 224 appearances between 1980 and 1987. But Rush decided to move on in 1986 and there were no shortage of takers for his services. With English clubs banned from Europe, Rush agreed to join Juventus in 1986, but stayed a year on loan with Liverpool. The transfer fee was £ 3.2m, a record at the time. Liverpool already paved the way for Rush’s departure, signing the sought-after John Aldridge for £750,000 from Oxford United and Chelsea’s Nigel Spackman for £ 400,000. In the summer of 1987, determined to hit-back at the growing threat from the other side of Stanley Park, Liverpool waved the chequebook with gusto – something not normally associated with the club.
In June, they lured John Barnes, the most talented player in the British game at the time, to Anfield. Barnes had arguably spent too long with his club, Watford, and had become restless. He cost Liverpool £ 900,000 but it was soon evident that the Reds had secured a bargain buy. A month later, Dalglish created a national transfer record when he paid £ 1.9m for Peter Beardsley, a player who had almost single-handedly kept Newcastle up in 1986-87. Liverpool fans now faced the mouth-watering prospect of having Beardsley, Aldridge and Barnes in their forward line. And there was more to come in the form of midfielder Ray Houghton, who was picked up from Oxford in October 1987 for a mere £ 825,000.
Football like we’ve never seen
This was chequebook teambuilding, something that Liverpool had never really considered in the past. When you look at the source of some of the Liverpool giants, Keegan (£35,000 from Scunthorpe), Steve Heighway (Skelmersdale), Ray Clemence (£18,000 Scunthorpe) and Ronnie Whelan (£35,000 Home Farm), this really was a departure. There had been big-money signings, such as Dalglish, the disappointing Alun Evans (£100,000 Wolves) and John Toshack (£110,000), but never the sort of spree normally associated with pools’ winners.
But Dalglish had created a very special team. Barnes, Aldridge and Beardsley linked-up almost immediately. Goals flew into opponents’ nets – early on in the campaign, they hit four in four consecutive games – 4-1 at Newcastle (Steve Nicol hat-trick), 4-0 v Derby (Aldridge hat-trick), 4-0 v Portsmouth and 4-0 v QPR. Barnes and Beardsley’s trickery was just too much for defenders to handle, but players like Nicol, Whelan, Steve McMahon and Houghton were all potential matchwinners. There was no need for Dalglish to don the shirt anymore, although he still managed two games!
Comparisons were drawn between Dalglish’s men and some of the great teams of the past. Liverpool remained unbeaten in 29 league games and there was talk of going the entire season without a defeat. But a 1-0 defeat at Everton in game number 30 on March 20 1988 ended that discussion. Two weeks later, they also lost to Nottingham Forest by 2-1. But it was only a matter of time before the Reds would wrap up the title. They exacted some revenge on Forest with a barn-storming 5-0 win at Anfield in a performance held up as one of the finest seen that season. They won the title by nine points.
Meanwhile, in the FA Cup, Liverpool beat Stoke City, Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City and Forest to reach the final. Their opponents were Wimbledon, the self-appointed “crazy gang” and the antithesis of everything that Dalglish was building at Liverpool. The story of Wimbledon’s 1-0 win, Aldridge’s missed penalty and the defiance of the London side are all part of football folklore. But, at the same time, it denied a truly great Liverpool side the chance of immortality.
But Liverpool 1987-88 will be judged on the sheer quality of its football – the wizardry of Barnes and Beardsley, the potency of Aldridge, the versatility of Nicol, the midfield foraging and accuracy of Houghton and McMahon and the eccentricity of Bruce Grobelaar. The tragedy of it all is that this team never got tested on the European stage.
The end of an era?
Heysel was a body blow for Liverpool’s reputation, but Dalglish’s team raised the spirits and produced stunning football. A year later, Hillsborough delivered another crippling blow to the club. Liverpool won the league in 1990, but since then, they have struggled to mount a challenge. In some ways, Liverpool’s triumph in 1988 represented the end, rather than the continuation of the dynasty founded by Bill Shankly. They’re still trying to recapture it.