IN 1987-88 domestic season football briefly stopped becoming competitive.
Liverpool were so dominant at this point that, thanks to the signings of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and, a year earlier, John Aldridge, the league was a foregone conclusion come Christmas. Football Focus were at a loss for discussion points and had to run features on the relegation places and the race for second place as it would be a futile to discuss any other option than Kenny Dalglish’s league leaders.
Come the middle of January, The Reds were still unbeaten in the league and had negotiated two games against Stoke to make it into the fourth round of the FA Cup. Everton were the only team to have bloodied our noses with an Anfield win in the League Cup thanks to a deflected Gary Stevens goal – our only defeat in 28 league and cup games.
Arsenal arrived at Anfield a respectable fourth spot. At this point they were not quite the title botherers they would become, but a spine was developing. Liverpool had faced two future Gunner stalwarts in Lee Dixon and Steve Bould at Stoke City four days earlier so their famous defence wasn’t quite in position at that point, but they were still dangerous. Gus Caesar and Kevin Richardson were a strong combination in the middle of the park and Martin Hayes was in his element on the wing. On the other side David Rocastle – a magnificent player – was easily their biggest threat.
Many felt that this would be the day that the unbeaten record would go. True, The Reds had won on the opening day of the season at Highbury but that was a tight affair settled by Steve Nicol’s most famous goal. If we were to lose at some point there would be no shame in it being on that cold January afternoon. Arsenal were a coming side.
That said, the only problem with that was that to beat Liverpool you first had to score against them. The Reds were fervently against that policy. On the morning of the Arsenal game we’d conceded just 11 in 22 games and none at all over the four game Christmas programme – a period in which we slotted home 12 times.
Basically, Liverpool were pretty good.
As for the game, well, you’ve seen the goals. Both are astonishing and the only disappointment is that the first overshadows the second despite being equally incredible in its own way.
The record books will tell you that Aldridge scored the opener in the last minute of the half but it was much, much more than that. It wasn’t Aldridge’s goal really. No. It wasn’t Beardsley’s even though he had the original shot which John Lukic parried into Aldo’s path. Sorry Peter. The goal belonged to Steve McMahon.
Digression. There’s a scene in Porno, the Irvine Welsh follow up to Trainspotting where Spud gives up the ghost on his sorry life and decides to commit ‘suicide by Begbie’ as it were. He provokes him to the point where he kicks the shit out of him. Finally, a rare light of understanding comes on in his mind and he sees through Spud’s plan. The psycho is disgusted at the duplicity and weakness of his bullied mate and tells him (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘We don’t give up! We never give in! We’re Hibs! We’re Souness!’ He had a vague (and erroneous) notion that the former Liverpool captain played for Hibs in his early career and underneath that perm and ‘tache was the very personification of indefatigability. Granite in midfield, granite in life. Never yielding, never porous. The man didn’t give up and nor should his friend.
If this had been set in Liverpool in the latter part of the 1980s he could have swapped number 11 shirts. McMahon never wilted or was found wanting and it’s this game that is the first clip on his showreel. When Martin Hayes limply pushed the ball out of the box towards the Main Stand byline many would have given it up, but not only did Macca keep it in with a back heel, he pushed himself off the advertising hoarding on the Paddock where his momentum had carried him, turned around, avoided the lunge (straight red there if it had connected), beat a few players and gave it to Beardsley and eventually Aldo via the keeper’s right hand. ‘That’s the poacher’s position!’
It’s a wonderful goal and is the perfect example of the skill and determination of that side. Sure they had the wizardry of Barnes and Aldridge but that midfield worked their arses off to make all of that possible.
The second goal is Beardsley taking the piss. Simply that.
That season Match Of The Day ran their Goal of the Season contenders. Aldo’s goal in the cup semi won the award, but both the goals on this day were in the running. In fact, every contender that season was a Liverpool goal. No other club qualified.
I can think of a few they missed out. Barnes at home to Watford for a starter.
As for the game, we left the ground shaking at the prospect of what that team could become. We were also aware that the best football in the world was a 50p bus ride away. As Spud said in happier times: “Cool times, compadres. Cool times.”
Liverpool: Hooper, Lawrenson (Spackman), Gillespie, Hansen, Nicol, Houghton, McMahon, Whelan, Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge.
Arsenal: Lukic, Sansom, Adams (Groves), Williams, Winterburn, Rocastle, Caesar (Thomas), Richardson, Hayes, Smith, Quinn.