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Reliving the 1980s: Did Liverpool and Dalglish get it wrong?

by Steve Graves // 5 August 2011 // 1 Comment

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AS a very young child I was surprised to discover that the past, contrary to what visual records seemed to suggest, did not occur in black and white. My nan, born in 1917, first disabused me of the notion and – now I’m old enough to have memories worthy of the name – I can confirm that despite my lingering suspicion, most are in colour.

Mallett

Memory is subjective though, and some incidents feel more vivid than others. Timmy Mallett, Italia 90, Kick Off 2 – these I recall in the brightest of hues (even if the latter was briefly played on an old black and white set). Others seem greyer, faded, more distant, as if seen through patchy fog.

My first Liverpool game falls into the latter category.

March 3, 1990, Main Stand, towards the Anny Road end. That much I know. Liverpool 1 Milwall 0 definitely happened.

Apparently Beardsley missed a penalty. I don’t remember.

Rush scored one – disallowed. I didn’t properly understand the offside rule and couldn’t see anyway but shouted myself hoarse at the injustice.

Then Steve Nicol, second half, jinked through seemingly hundreds of tackles around the edge of the box before slotting home in front of us. Disallowed again – to this day I have no idea why.

Finally, late on, Gary Gillespie started a run of three vital goals in the 12-game title run-in with a back-header from what at the time I estimated was 60 yards.

Those are, probably, the facts. But while I just about remember the major incidents (small matters like penalty misses aside), they’re shrouded in an unnatural pallor, not quite ‘there’ to access immediately like several far less consequential matches.

Perhaps that’s to do with the weather, bitterly cold even for Anfield in March.

There very probably was an actual fog that day. The Kop felt miles away, a seething, formless mass I could hear more than see.

The ground seemed hulking, even before the Kemlyn Road stand acquired its second tier and Centenary re-branding. Most of all, in my mind’s eye everything is grey, as obscured and drained of colour to me as I imagined my grandparents’ childhoods must have been to them.

Why does that day seem so very far away? Perhaps because it was.

Twenty one years, in football terms, is several lifetimes.

The careers of the players we saw that day are long since over (although Steve Torpey, in the Milwall squad but unused on the day, was registered for York City last season).

Since 1990 English football at its highest level has changed dramatically in its structure, aesthetics and personnel. Most importantly from a Liverpool point of view, the game’s hierarchy has shifted to almost tectonic proportions.

My seven-year-old self would never have believed I wouldn’t see a Liverpool title win again before I was 30. Nor, I suspect, would anyone in the ground that day.

Downfall

That first game was as much an end as a beginning. The team, shaking off early-season lethargy to claim an 18th league title with a leap and a bound across the line, was nevertheless running on empty.

Manager, fans and players were exhausted in the widest possible sense.

The emotional impact of Hillsborough, an underlying hurt beneath the initial outpouring of shock and grief, was gripping the club from top to bottom. It was nearly a year before the full extent of the effect of the tragedy on Kenny Dalglish was to become clear, but its role in Liverpool’s slide from conquerors of the bloody world, or at least the Barclays League Division One, to intermittent title challengers and unwilling members of the chasing pack, cannot be questioned.

The horrors of Hillsborough are only part of the story in explaining the club’s slide. The misjudged appointment of Graeme Souness to replace Dalglish and the succession of mediocre signings and PR misjudgements that followed would be cited by most, but perhaps they were an effect as much as a cause.

Liverpool were on the brink of burnout before Souness waltzed back through the gates of Melwood

With hindsight we can easily lay the blame at Souness’s door, and much of it belongs right there. But in truth Liverpool were on the brink of burnout before the ex-Rangers boss waltzed back through the gates of Melwood.

In the three seasons leading up to 1990/91, the beginning of Liverpool’s league title Ice Age, the club signed nine senior players, at a total cost of £5.99m. Manchester United spent almost double that amount to acquire 20 new faces.

Dalglish, having excelled himself with the acquisitions of Beardsley, Barnes, Aldridge and Houghton in 1987, made sins both of omission and commission.

From 1988 onwards, Brian Reade has argued, Dalglish failed to sign a player of ‘genuine class’. That’s a bit unfair on Glenn Hysen (let’s leave aside the re-signing of Ian Rush), but uncomfortably close to the truth.

Was the die cast here? Persuaded by lingering success that no major changes were needed, Liverpool sleepwalked towards relative mediocrity while United began to wake from their own title-free nightmare.

Who, then, should we have signed in the closing seasons of the first Dalglish reign?

This piece is counter-factual, and as such we should avoid hindsight wherever possible. If we’re saying what Kenny Dalglish and the Anfield board ‘should’ have done we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves by ignoring the importance of ‘could’.

I’ve tried to look at key signings which would have made sense from a late-1980s perspective, bearing in mind the situation both at Liverpool and externally at the time – players who either moved during the period or might have been expected to had the will and the money been there.

We know what we did in those three summers, but how might we have done it differently?

It’s tempting to simply trawl the list of players who were successful in the early 1990s and reel them off. If only we could send a time-travelling team of scouts to Cobh Ramblers to snap up Roy Keane, or offer Leo Messi YTS terms on his first birthday, we’d have it made.

Of course it doesn’t work like that, and so much about discovering young talent relies on accidents of birth and coincidence.

We can’t allow for random chance, nor can we cast the net too wide in terms of foreign talent.

While it would be tempting to suggest a few million quid spent on Ruud Gullit or Diego Maradona would have seen us right, it’s unrealistic to imagine they were attainable. Back then Serie A ruled supreme in terms of money and prestige, aided by the post-Heysel European ban imposed on English teams.

As painful as it may be, it is instructive to look at the approach taken by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and contrast it to the string of missed opportunities and unlikely decisions taken at Anfield.

1988/89

Looking back it’s clear that Ferguson was building for sustainable success at Old Trafford. At the time, it might not have been so obvious.

In the first of the three seasons under examination here, Ferguson took a squad-strengthening/refreshing approach, allowing peripheral figures such as Arthur Albiston and Peter Davenport to leave and be replaced by the promising Lee Sharpe and Jules Maiorana.

Mal Donaghy, the wrong side of 30 and hardly a leading light in the game, looks hideously overpriced at £650,000, while Ralph Milne was to become a running joke among United fans.

Aside from recruiting the reliable Jim Leighton to solve the club’s goalkeeping problem, the one standout purchase is that of Mark Hughes, rescued from a disastrous spell at Barcelona for £1.8m. The outfield core of the team which Ferguson had guided to second place in 1987/88 was retained.

At Anfield, Liverpool were in a similar state of transfer paralysis, stung by the FA Cup final defeat to Wimbledon not into action but seeming lethargy.

Spackman

Fringe midfielder Nigel Spackman and John Durnin, who was some way outside even the fringes, were offloaded.

Young left-back David Burrows was signed to provide competition to Steve Staunton, while Nicky Tanner came in for loose change from Bristol City.

Like their Manchester rivals, Liverpool’s marquee signing was a returning hero. Ian Rush, fresh from a move to Juventus which proved moderately successful professionally if not personally, came home.

Was this Dalglish’s first mistake? Could that cash have been better spent elsewhere? Beardsley, Barnes and Aldridge had formed a deadly triumvirate unmatched in English football.

Sharp, creative and hungry for success, the three had been a delight to watch all season. Liverpool were not just playing great football, but winning games, and ultimately the title, at a canter.

That summer £2.8m was spent on Rush. Weeks earlier Tottenham had snatched Paul Gascoigne from under the noses of Manchester United for £2m.

The midfielder had reportedly preferred a move to Liverpool, but a bid from Dalglish never came.

The idea that Gascoigne could have been Liverpool’s missing link, part of a solid platform on which to build years of further success, is easy to mock from a 2011 viewpoint.

We know now about the talent, but also about the self-destructive tendencies, the coterie of hangers-on and the demons that were to plague him. But in the summer of 1988 he was the most brilliant young footballer the English game had to offer, with a smile on his face and the ball at his feet.

Was Gascoigne a better option than Rush?

This may be regarded as heresy by some, but I would argue he was. Given the right support and coaching he could have matured into a great player rather than a great talent.

Avoiding the distractions of London life might have been good for Gascoigne, while it’s not hard to picture him as a darling of the Kop.

Rush was more clinical than Aldridge, had a better pedigree and was a consummate professional. Against this, Aldridge’s natural ebullience, desire and knack for making things happen had made him a worthy replacement while Rush was exploring the cultural high points of Turin.

For a British transfer record fee perhaps the club should have been looking for someone to offer qualities not already present within the squad. Gascoigne represented a gamble at the time, but not so much of a gamble as we might be tempted to conclude based on his subsequent career.

He became a monster, but that was not pre-ordained. In 1988, there was no reckless Wembley lunge and no dentist’s chair, no Raoul Moat or attempts to have us all call him G8.

Gascoigne and Liverpool might not now be looking back at 1990 as the pinnacle of their achievements, but as an early stage of something very special indeed.

1989/90

1988/89 was about one major signing (Rush in reality, Gascoigne in a parallel universe), but the following season major rebuilding was in order. Liverpool needed to strengthen in several areas.

The previous season, Bruce Grobbelaar had suffered from meningitis and been replaced by the dependable Mike Hooper for 24 games.

Even after Bruce had recovered Dalglish persisted with Hooper, suggesting his faith in his first-choice goalkeeper was not as strong as it might have been.

Grobbelaar was a fabulously talented goalkeeper prone to occasional errors.

In a team playing as well as Liverpool at their most fluid, he was a brilliant adornment as exciting to watch as many attacking players.

In the face of adversity he was often at his best, but adversity was relative in a side capable of the kind of ‘sterile domination’ of which Arsene Wenger would semi-accuse Barcelona a generation later.

Grobbelaar

Concerns over Grobbelaar were blown away by his form at the end of 1988/89, but in 1989/90 the mistakes returned and doubts crept in to the minds of many fans. It’s fair to say Bruce, off-field distractions notwithstanding, was never quite the same again.

He would be first choice long into the Souness era, but a more ruthless approach at this juncture could have saved Liverpool years of difficulties which arguably went unresolved until the signing of Pepe Reina.

At the time, the hottest names in English goalkeeping were Nigel Martyn, Chris Woods, John Lukic and David Seaman. At the time most observers would have opted for Woods, then playing under Souness at Ibrox.

He was to return to England in 1991 and endure a difficult time, but might that have been the case if he was playing for Dalglish/Souness’s Liverpool rather than a Sheffield Wednesday side heading for the buffers under Trevor Francis?

Martyn moved to Crystal Palace in November 1989, becoming the first £1million keeper. He would manage to look superb even when conceding three goals as Palace beat us in the cup semi final later that season.

In the butterfly-effect spirit of exploring how all in the game is connected, it’s interesting to wonder whether he might have been signed quite so urgently had Liverpool not stuck nine past Perry Suckling in September.

Had Suckling been in goal in the cup semi-final, would Liverpool have faced United in the final instead of Palace? Could a defeat in that game have sealed Alex Ferguson’s fate at Old Trafford?

Elsewhere, some variety and depth up front might have been nice, while a new central defender (ideally offering youth and pace) was a priority. Both full-back positions looked to be emerging as problems, and the recruitment of a young Steve Harkness did little to address the immediate issue there.

Looking at the summer of 1989/90 it is completely understandable that Liverpool would not have been punching their weight in the transfer market.

The trauma of Hillsborough had a pragmatic as well as emotional effect. Weeks spent dealing with the horrific aftermath were weeks when plans for a new season were firmly pushed to one side. Just getting back out on the pitch to finish off 1988/89 took everything the club had.

Bearing that in mind, the recruitment of Glenn Hysen looked like a fine bit of business. Despite distractions, the Reds brought in the Swedish international for whom the adjective ‘classy’ could have been invented.

Unfortunately other adjectives, like ‘slow’ and ‘statuesque’, would be applied as Glenn’s Anfield career progressed.

Hysen was a good signing and a good capture, snatched from under the noses of Manchester United. He performed beautifully in 1989/90, but could never have been a long-term answer to Liverpool’s problems at the back.

Already in his thirtieth year, he was a premium quality stopgap.

United, in perhaps the most important summer of Ferguson’s rebuilding, switched their attention to Gary Pallister. Signed for £2.3m, Pallister was much more expensive than Hysen but five years younger.

He would play more than 300 games for United and win four league titles. A better long-term signing than Hysen? Unquestionably. Was the price too rich for Liverpool’s blood at the time? Perhaps.

Pallister might have been the ideal, but other players who moved that summer offered cheaper alternatives and might have given more long-term value than Hysen. Perhaps the pick, Martin Keown, joined Everton for £750,000.

United’s other key acquisition that year had been the bane of Liverpool fans’ lives before, and would be again. Paul Ince of West Ham had announced his prodigious talent with two goals against us in a 4-1 League Cup thumping.

Alex Ferguson snapped up Ince for £1 million, a brilliant deal facilitated in part by West Ham’s slide out of the top division (some things in football never change).

Meanwhile a similar fee was offered by Nottingham Forest in an abortive attempt to sign Gary McAllister from Leicester City. Aside from showing late-period Brian Clough could sometimes still pick a player, those discussions suggest a deal could have been done to bring Gary Mac to Anfield long before his short but magnificent spell 10 years later.

He would eventually join Leeds, still for £1 million, in 1990. His role in their title success in 1992 should not be underestimated.

Both Ince and McAllister would come to Anfield eventually, with mixed results. Both could have been key parts of an orderly transition from the Molby, McMahon and Whelan era had they been pursued in 1989/90.

Stewart

We might never have spent more than their combined transfer fees on Paul Stewart, for a start.

1990/91

The fruits of Ferguson’s significant player turnover between 1988 and 1990 had not been immediately apparent.

1989/90 was in many respects a disaster at Old Trafford, and the side’s 13th-place finish might well have been enough to have ended Ferguson’s reign had they not scrapped their way to an FA Cup final replay victory over Palace.

Hughes scored a decent enough 13 league goals, and the side had the quality to hit six past Arsenal at Highbury but others were taking time to settle.

Ferguson had taken a gamble in 1989/90 by moving on three of his most gifted and experienced stars. Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside and Gordon Strachan were terrific players, but they represented an era when United were forced to settle for the role of fallen giants, fitfully entertaining but never a serious title prospect.

Ferguson was determined to renovate the squad and got rid. He rode his luck, and Strachan may well have been allowed to go too soon. But that FA Cup win bought him another season, and in 1990/91 the planning would begin to pay off.

United finished an unremarkable sixth, but were again trophy winners, this time in the Cup Winners’ Cup. More pertinently, Hughes won the PFA Player of the Year award and Sharpe its junior equivalent. Andrei Kanchelskis and Denis Irwin were notable additions this season, while in March Ferguson would give a debut to a young winger formerly known as Ryan Wilson.

Anfield, meanwhile, was not a happy place. Alan Hansen and Dalglish himself had retired, Aldridge had been packed off to Spain and nobody of substance had come in to replace them. In truth, Liverpool needed more fundamental reform but even the basics were being allowed to slide.

In some ways the summer of 1990’s acquisitions don’t look unreasonable.

Don Hutchison and Jamie Redknapp were talented youngsters; Ronny Rosenthal had done enough in his loan spell to suggest he was worth a £1million permanent deal.

Tony Cousins would ultimately never play for the club but at £70,000 he looked worth taking a chance on. None of these players were bad signings per se, but as reinforcements for the top club in the land they were woefully inadequate.

This season, Teddy Sheringham would score 38 goals in the Second Division for Millwall. The following summer he would join Nottingham Forest for a very reasonable £2million. The rest we know.

It’s tantalising to imagine what might have been had Liverpool recognised the quality of a player who many good judges had been tipping to make it at the highest level.

By now the entire spine of the team was riddled with problems. Liverpool could have added a central defender, striker, central midfielder and a full-back or two without being over-staffed.

Most observers agree Dalglish was not backed sufficiently by the board at the time, a state of affairs rendered all the more baffling by their subsequent largesse in the Souness era.

We can point the finger of blame at the board, but the truth is that when Dalglish did spend on the first team in this period he spent badly. A woefully inadequate summer was followed by the mid-season purchases of David Speedie and Jimmy Carter.

Carter

Speedie was briefly an Anfield folk hero, scoring at Old Trafford and twice in the derby. However the Scotsman, already 30 and never more than a journeyman pro, was hardly likely to go down as one of the club’s all-time greats.

To be fair, compared to Carter, Speedie begins to look like Ian Callaghan.

Carter, signed from Millwall for £800,000, can claim a small but significant role in the downfall of the two powerhouses of turn-of-the-nineties English football.

Signed by Dalglish in January 1991, he had been pursued by George Graham at Arsenal. Having turned out to be useless at Anfield, he was sold to Arsenal before eventually moving onwards and downwards in 1995.

One can only imagine what Dennis Bergkamp, arriving at Highbury that year, made of him.

Carter and Speedie were clearly signings made under pressure and they did not pay off.

By now the pressure had told on Dalglish and the writing was on the wall for his future at the club.

From this point on the blame for turning Liverpool’s stumble into a fall, for accelerating a downturn into a slump, can be levelled at Souness, the board and some of the players they had too much faith in.

It is worth considering, though, whether, had Liverpool been lining up in 1990/91 with Gascoigne, Pallister, McAllister and Sheringham in the ranks, for example, it might ever have come to that.

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One Comment

  1. Evening.
    Its not all the bad. You cannot look back, but yes I do believe Kenny should probably have not returned. Roy would have done a very good job had he been backed.
    Nice read, and nice for me to replay some of those key players and I, there has been an element of luck when it comes to signings. You omitted Eric Cantona, which I feel was a catalyst and of course Steve Bruce and Peter Schmeichel.
    Regards,
    Alex

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