IT has been a grim few weeks to be a Red.
January and February are dark, unforgiving winter months at the best of times and Liverpool’s barren run has only added to the seemingly never-ending gloom.
So to cheer us up, or should I say to offer some perspective, I’m taking you to the bottom of the barrel. I’m taking you back to the early 1990s and Chesterfield at home.
At times like these, younger supporters might cast envious glances back to the relentless title years of the 1970s and 1980s, Gerard Houllier’s days of renewal and cup trebles, or the more recent Champions League odyssey under Rafa Benitez.
There was a time, though — after Kenny Dalglish’s vintage crop of 1988 won the First Division at a canter, just missed out on valiant league and FA Cup double in 1989 and then regained the championship in 1990 – when some Anfield regulars wondered privately if it would be more fun to support a less dominant Liverpool.
We would turn up every week expecting a routine victory; nine times out of 10 it duly followed and often in some style, but it became increasingly difficult to take more than sadistic pleasure from another mauling of lesser mortals. It seems remarkable to admit that our last league title was celebrated with barely more than a whimper on The Kop. We’d seen it all before. We were bored.
Be careful what you wish for, they say.
Within a year Kenny had gone; his genius football mind scrambled by a fog of post-Hillsborough angst. The majestic former captain Graeme Souness assumed the Boot Room mantle. We sat back and predicted another decade of unchallenged supremacy.
How spectacularly wrong we were. The Reds’ fall from grace was as rapid as it was shocking. The 1991 league title, still up for grabs after an interregnum period overseen by caretaker boss Ronnie Moran, was frittered away in no time.
Souness’s first full season (1991-92) saw Liverpool scale heights of mediocrity finishing in sixth place; an FA Cup win over second division Sunderland a hollow triumph and scant consolation for a league campaign which saw only three league wins and just 12 goals away from home. The following season, we repeated the trick of registering a paltry trio of wins on our travels.
Justification for the Reds’ swift demise is well-documented. Souness’s desire for revolution over evolution; his eagerness to challenge dressing room egos, continental diets and unfamiliar training regimes, the European ban and legislation limiting numbers of foreign players.
Suddenly, almost overnight, the whole football club felt alien; ironically so as it entered its centenary year. It ran deeper than performances and the failings of expensive new recruits. The FA Premier League and a resurgent Manchester United loomed large; a twin-headed financial beast to devour a conservative, complacent Liverpool.
Even the iconic Bill Shankly-inspired all red Liverpool kit had been bastardised by white shoulder stripes. We wore exactly the same home strip as Spartak Moscow, who reminded us of such sartorial folly by whipping us 6-2 on aggregate in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The nadir, however, was reached much earlier that same 1992-93 season. On the evening of Tuesday September 22 we entertained lowly Chesterfield in the second round (first leg!) of the League Cup. The attendance of 12,533 flattered the home turn-out. With Chesterfield filling the old, single-tier Anfield Road perhaps only 7,000 hardy red souls mustered enough energy to pay for the privilege.
I’ve never seen Anfield look so desolate. This was smallest number of Liverpool fans ever to watch a home first-team fixture. A smattering huddled together in the middle blocks of the Main Stand and newly-named Centenary Stand, and a couple of thousand die-hards literally sitting on the steps of The Kop.
St Etienne it was not. The lights were on but there was no-one at home. For every Liverpudlian who has since longed for one chance to stand on the famous terrace, there was probably room that night to accommodate them all.
Just after half-time Chesterfield – in Everton blue and white — were three up. Mark Wright, who had lifted the FA Cup in May, gifted the Spireites two goals with a display of quite staggering incompetence for a man who had drawn World Cup plaudits as Bobby Robson’s cultured, ball-playing sweeper at Italia ‘90.
It was utterly humiliating. We had never known the likes; and yet it was truly fascinating to witness this horror unfolding in front of us. You couldn’t take your eyes off it, seeing 18 months of painful decline encapsulated and truly consolidated in 48 awful minutes. If we ever wanted to know how it felt supporting a truly dreadful football team, we were living it now.
The world had been turned upside down. It didn’t half stir the passions. We always knew it would.
Supporters rallied; the team responded to the chants echoing round a nigh-on empty vessel.
And then Istvan Kozma came off the bench.
Istvan is perhaps the benchmark of Souness in the transfer market. He spunked £300,000 – no small beer in those days — on a skinny Hungarian no-mark who was playing for Dunfermline. Prior to Chesterfield, we already knew from six or seven previous cameos that Istvan was bloody rubbish.
Istvan ran quite fast and had a little trick or two but make no mistake he was absolutely shite. Not only were his telegraphed step-overs and dummies likely to see him on his own arse, Istvan was also a fucking coward. For every tackle Tommy Smith made in his Liverpool career, Istvan pulled out of one – in a total of 10 games.
It hurt because, on a good day, Istvan looked a bit like me. It hurt because, on a good day, Istvan played a bit like me.
Istvan has gone down in club history – perhaps rivalled only by Big-Foot Sean Dundee – as one of the worst players to wear the red shirt. Kozma is the absolute watchword for Liverpool being shite under Souness.
But that night, in front of just a few thousand of us with bleeding eyes, Kozma ran the show as if inspired by a full house. He was unplayable down the right, as though visited by the spirit of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney. To be honest, no-one knew what the fuck had happened to him. Had he found out in the week he was the illegitimate son of Ferenc Puskas?
For half an hour he was the wizard of the dribble. His unerring crosses evoked memories of Steve Heighway and Peter Thompson, as Ronnie Rosenthal and Mark Wright converted his assists and Liverpool, despite contriving to concede again, clawed back a vestige of pride to salvage a 4-4 draw.
So, did Souness see a potential star that night? Well, not quite.
Istvan was rewarded with eight minutes off the bench the following weekend in a 3-2 home defeat to Wimbledon. Heady days indeed.
We never saw Istvan again, before he was packed off to his homeland and a stint at magically named Ujpest Dozsa.
But the “Chesterfield 7,000” will always remember him.