PAYING tribute to the great Liverpool team of ‘87/88, the Daily Mirror journalist Brian Reade recently wrote this: “By the time I’d turned 29, in 1986, I believed I’d seen it all. By the time I turned 30, in 1987, I realised I was wrong. From the August of that year I’d been watching something I’d never seen before. Something quite extraordinary, quite sublime. Poetry in red motion. The most beautiful football a Liverpool team had ever played.”
Anyone who was around at that time is sure to share Reade’s sentiments, while all any young supporter needs to do is watch highlights of Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest in April ’88 to understand just what a fantastic side that was – Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge, Houghton and the rest steamrollering opponents in a manner which, as Reade went on to write, was the closest Liverpool had ever come to “perfection”.
The Reds, of course, won their 17th First Division title that season, and at a canter; amassing 90 points, scoring 87 goals and being named champions with four fixtures to spare. A fantastic achievement, but would it have tarnished the legacy of that team if, say, Manchester United, who finished 2nd and a whole nine points behind Kenny Dalglish’s men, had been crowned champions instead? After all, Liverpool ended the campaign by suffering the shock of losing to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final, yet when fans such as Reade reflect on the side of 25 years ago what they remember most is the football, the beautiful, beautiful football.
Which brings me onto the modern day. Liverpool currently sit in second place after 11 matches and, in this most unpredictable and uncertain of campaigns, there is a growing sense among even the most downbeat of Kopites that title No19 could at last be secured. Certainly a victory at Goodison Park on Saturday would send out a message that a team on the up has what it takes to soar further. But were Liverpool to lose at the weekend and ultimately fail to reach the Premier League’s summit, it can be argued that this team has already achieved something this season – giving their fans that thrill of watching 11 men in red play with verve and swagger. A vintage sensation which can make even the old feel young.
John Barnes, for one, is in no doubt that this is the “most pleasing-on-the-eye Liverpool side since ‘88”. Speaking to me last month, the legendary No10 also described Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez as the “best strike force in the country” and, alongside Philippe Coutinho, “the best attacking three in the country.” High praise indeed, but not without merit as anyone who has seen Liverpool perform this season can testify too. Brendan Rodgers’ men have failed to score in just three of their opening 13 matches in all competitions and in five of those, have scored three times or more. They stand as the division’s third highest scorers and, quite clearly, are in the mood for more.
It is thrilling stuff, a development of the great attacking play seen at the back end of last season, and for me personally has altered the dynamic of watching Liverpool play. I first truly felt the change ahead of the visit to Newcastle on 19th October. The team travelled to St James’ Park having won their last two matches, against Sunderland and Crystal Palace, but had not kept a clean sheet in five games and were without Lucas against a side that had won their last contest, away at Cardiff City, impressively and contained more than one attacking threat in their line-up. I won’t lie; I was worried, yet as kick-off drew closer I also felt a great surge of anticipation, and then it dawned on me – I was excited by the prospect of watching Liverpool play irrespective of what the final outcome would be. I knew that even in the process of defeat I was in store for some damn fine football. In short, it was going to be fun.
Quite frankly, this is a mindset I have not maintained since the 1995/96 season. That was the era of McManaman, Fowler and Collymore, Jones and McAteer bombing down the flanks, the cricket-collar shirt and beating Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle 4-3. Supporting Liverpool then felt fantastically wild, like watching a great funk band jam, and while it was a shame that they did not win a trophy fond memories still linger, pleasure taken from the pure joy of witnessing an attractive team in full flight.
This is something that has been lacking from Kopites’ life for some time. Sure, there were trophies galore in the eras of Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, not to mention the many, many fantastic European nights, but their respective sides had one fundamental thing in common – both were designed with the result in mind. Winning is all that really mattered, and while that was great when they achieved their aim, there was little for fans to take from the low of defeat. I for one felt a little tense prior to a Houllier or Benitez Liverpool team kicking-off and pretty empty in the aftermath of a subsequent defeat. Fortunately that was a something of a rarity for the bulk of both tenures, and I remain eternally grateful for what both achieved, not to mention for the sides they put out (the 2008/09 team remains one of my all-time favourites), but it’s fair to say that if Roy Evans’s best team were funky, those of Houllier and Benitez performed like well-rehearsed orchestras. Grand displays, but hardly rocking.
Kenny Dalglish got the hairs once again standing on the back of the neck during his second spell as manager but the flame failed to linger for a variety of reasons – most notably the dramas sparked by a certain Uruguayan. Who knows, had Luis Suarez behaved himself then Liverpool fans may now be witnessing a captivating side under the charge of their most captivating player, and the man who back in 1987 constructed what remains Anfield’s most sublime attacking outfit.
Events mean we are now in the Rodgers-era and, as things stand, that is no bad thing. The manager has taken many pragmatic steps since succeeding Dalglish in June 2012 but at heart he remains an idealist – “I want to see great attacking football with creativity and imagination,” the Northern Irishman said upon his arrival at the club – and Liverpool are reaping the benefits of that right now. Will his team win the Premier League title? Possibly. Will they remain fun to watch? Almost certainly, and that, as fans who witnessed the sides of 87-88 and 95-96 can testify to, has the power to gladden the heart and enrich the mind in the most unforgettable of ways.