14 May 1988, Wembley Stadium
The final whistle blows. Bobby Gould and Don Howe leap from the bench and embrace. Wimbledon, against all reasonable expectations, have won the FA Cup.
In fact it’s a false start (or finish), referee Brian Hill having actually whistled for an offside against John Fashanu. As the celebrations subside, Ronnie Moran shoots the Wimbledon staff a glance which combines both ruefulness and a kind of certainty.
It’s a look that says ‘as if this is over’.
Seconds later the whistle goes for real, but that look from Moran reflects both the immense confidence around Liverpool FC at this point in its history and the sheer unlikeness of this side stumbling against such unfancied opposition. Even with moments remaining, Liverpool were unbowed and expectant, confident a goal would come.
It’s not hard to see why. 1988 represents a zenith to many fans, the point where the control required to build title-winning sides gave way to a more carefree approach. The champagne football flowed, while the defence remained as watertight as ever.
Liverpool went 29 games unbeaten, lost only twice in the league all season and were generally imperious, taking the title by a deceptive nine points after cantering down the home straight with a series of draws.
As Jimmy Hill’s introduction to the Match of the Day cup final special stated, this version of the Reds was “arguably the most powerful and talented league team ever.”
Anyone casting a cursory glance at the squad list for the season would be forgiven for thinking Jan Molby was at the heart of the team’s expansive approach.
Molby, as gifted and fluent a passer as the English game has seen, was in fact rarely used. An injury in early season meant the Great Dane never really got going, and incredibly failed to start a single match in the whole campaign.
In fact it was Ronnie Whelan and Steve McMahon who powered that early season form, with Whelan being replaced by Nigel Spackman after falling foul of injury himself.
All three had much to commend them. Spackman, certainly the most limited of the trio, was nevertheless a solid enough option when required.
Steve McMahon sure could rap, while on the pitch he was an aggressive, suffocating presence capable of pressing opponents in to mistakes through an irrepressible urge to compete.
Let’s go back to that Hill description – powerful and talented. Note the order in which the adjectives appear. That Liverpool side were admired as much for the steel in their game as the silk.
While McMahon was an asset higher up the pitch, often at key times, his 29 goals in more than 200 appearances reflect a player whose biggest contribution was as a controlling influence in midfield. Meanwhile Spackman would never score for the club.
This pairing began the cup final, and legend has it that they were overrun by the agricultural approach of Wimbledon’s Vinnie Jones and Laurie Sanchez.
Not quite. Much has been made of the reducer Jones applied to McMahon early in the game, but in truth it did little to stem the tide of Liverpool attacks.
Watching the final back it’s striking how for 36 minutes Liverpool played controlled, creative football, Peter Beardsley drifting to the right to expose a young Terry Phelan time and time again.
In the middle Spackman performed something close to the ‘pivote’ role Sergio Busquets was to perfect at Barcelona a generation later, while McMahon got forward more but focused mainly on recycling possession and distributing the ball to Beardsley, Houghton, Barnes and Aldridge.
Liverpool matched Wimbledon for physical strength and knowledge of the darker arts of defending, seemingly targeting Wimbledon’s most creative player, Dennis Wise, for some rough treatment.
Were it not for a ludicrous refusal to play advantage on the part of the referee, Beardsley would have put Liverpool ahead.
Man of the match Dave Beasant somehow contrived to deny Barnes at close range, and several other chances came and went.
The game plan was working. Liverpool’s midfield solidity showed respect to Wimbledon while allowing the more advanced players to show their superiority.
We all know what happened next, but what of the wider lessons and impact of that match, particularly on Kenny Dalglish’s managerial philosophy?
I reflected on the 88 final after the Cardiff match. Once again the Reds were at Wembley, and once again they faced a side they were expected to beat and once again they struggled.
Except this time the football didn’t quite flow at any point, with Liverpool creating chances but never cutting Cardiff open in the same way as Beardsley and co sliced through Wimbledon in the early stages back in 88.
Of course there are a number of factors at play here, not least the gulf in quality and experience between Barnes/Beardsley/Houghton/Aldridge and Downing/Suarez/Henderson Carroll.
Perhaps the key comparison, though, is between the midfields. As in 88, Liverpool picked two in the centre. Unlike back then, neither player is particularly well-suited to a solely defensive brief. While McMahon was a primarily combative player who could perform well in a more progressive role, Steven Gerrard is almost the reverse – a great attacking midfielder who can adapt to defensive duties as required.
Meanwhile Charlie Adam compares to neither Spackman nor McMahon, lacking the mobility, positional acumen and decision-making skills both in and out of possession to act as a controlling influence in midfield.
To what extent did Dalglish look back to 88, when Liverpool purred at times in possession but could not break Wimbledon’s spirit, when picking his midfield two against Cardiff?
Was the lesson Kenny took that a midfield might bring control in such a situation, but that control could in itself render a team sterile and inert against an opposition unwilling to come out and play?
Certainly the week before Cardiff, Liverpool’s performance against Brighton was the polar opposite of the Wimbledon game. A shaky start was followed by a riotous display of attacking football, the Championship side’s spirit clearly broken as they were pulled in all directions by the Reds’ quick passing and eagerness to turn a convincing win into a rout.
It’s understandable if this seemed the perfect recipe for the following Sunday, but Liverpool found Cardiff a tougher nut to crack. Organised and determined, if a little less direct than Gould’s infamous side, they found pockets of space vacated by the uneasy coalition in the Liverpool midfield.
In the end the match was won without Liverpool ever looking capable of killing it off, particularly once they edged into a 2-1 lead.
A midfield two with few defensive inclinations can create chances, but at the expense of having a platform on which to build the long passing moves and sustained pressure which forces mistakes from opponents and opens up better, clear-cut opportunities.
Against Wimbledon, Liverpool eschewed a more open central midfield and found they could control large parts of a final against a weaker side yet fail to win. A game plan could do everything it was meant to, and still not yield goals.
Against Cardiff, they found the opposite. As John Motson told millions of BBC viewers back in May 1988, ‘it’s a weird and wonderful world’.
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