“HE’S given me more heart attacks than any player I have ever known.”
These were the slightly flippant words of Bob Paisley, describing the adventurous forays of Alan Hansen during the early part of his Liverpool career.
In the sometimes brutal, hurly-burly First Division football of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Hansen was completely unorthodox; a man almost out of his time. The prototype centre-half of the era was a big dog of a player; commanding in the air and rough in the tackle. Hansen was neither. In his own words, his virtues were his skill on the ball, positional sense and recovery pace.
When Paisley and Bill Shankly concluded, after the Reds’ exit from the European Cup in 1973 at the hands of Red Star Belgrade, that Liverpool must embrace a continental possession game, Hansen was type of player they might have had in mind.
Hansen didn’t arrive at Anfield – from Partick Thistle – until four years later and by then Paisley had already channelled the tempo and aggression of Shankly’s team into a more controlled passing method but he acknowledged later that the Alloa-born Scot’s composure had “gone some way towards shaping Liverpool’s style of play”.
The Reds’ burgeoning experience of the intricacies of European football not only demanded enhanced technical ability on the ball but also players with a superior reading of the game and Hansen fitted the bill perfectly.
If there ever was such a thing as an on-field Liverpool Way; a departure from the traditional English style, it was embedded in building play from the back. Hansen gradually succeeded the great Emlyn Hughes at the heart of the Reds’ defence, assuming the number six shirt he would wear throughout 14 years at Anfield.
He soon struck up a partnership with the equally cultured Phil Thompson (who Hansen claims was his most suited colleague) during the famed 1978-79 title season during which the Reds’ defence conceded a miserly 16 league goals.
That was the first of his eight league titles, culminating in the last of our 18 championships in 1990. Hansen’s honours go hand in hand with those of Liverpool’s most dominant epoch, further decorated by the European, League and FA Cups of the same period. Leaf through any book charting the Reds’ history and the glory years are laced with the choreographed “Jock Pictures”, featuring Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness.
Over the years, The Kop became used to watching the unruffled Hansen glide through matches without breaking sweat. He barely ever seemed to go to ground; seldom required to tackle but instead primed to use his sinewy 6ft 2in frame to jockey his opponent away from goal or anticipate passes and nip in front of his man to steal possession. Hansen was equally comfortable on either foot and, though he favoured his right, was typically stationed on the left side.
In the 1979 Charity Shield against Arsenal, a classic interception inside his own half, nicking the ball away from a flat-footed Alan Sunderland, leading to an elegant lope forward to feed Dalglish for one of Liverpool’s greatest Wembley goals was a forerunner to a catalogue of many Hansen sorties into enemy territory. Only his persistent knee troubles – and countless cortisone injections – curtailed this side of his game in the second half of his Liverpool career.
Hansen prided himself on his ability to stay on his feet. The joke in the changing room when the kit was piled up for the cleaner was that his shorts were always immaculate; a spotless pair held up ceremonially and a member of the bootroom, most probably Ronnie Moran, puffing out his cheeks with mock disdain to declare, “These must be Al’s”.
In possession, Hansen was partial to his own variant on the Cruyff turn, dragging the ball away from his opponent using the sole of his boot. In that same 1979 Charity Shield, he performed this trick, bamboozling Arsenal’s midfield maestro, Liam Brady. Hansen claimed to have been inspired by an old film of Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas scoring from exactly the same spot on the Wembley pitch in the Magical Magyars’ famous 6-3 defeat of England, albeit that ‘Jocky’ was operating on the edge of his own six-yard box!
Hansen’s most unheralded quality was his pace. Although by his own admission his height precluded him from being quick off the mark, once he got into his stride he would cover 50 yards in the blink of an eye. His elongated, slender frame and long stride gave the impression of a casual trot but he was rapid enough to track the runs of the quickest strikers.
When Liverpool rearguard made liberal use of the offside trap or when the full-backs went AWOL, Hansen’s recovery speed was the Reds’ insurance policy. Reds of a certain vintage still have an image imprinted on the mind’s eye of Hansen – at The Kop end – sprinting back diagonally to usher a hundred darting forwards into touch on the Main Stand side. Left-back Alan Kennedy, who spent an entire Anfield career liable to go on the wander, will forever be in his debt.
The remarkable – and perhaps most admirable – thing about Hansen’s career is that, despite his apparent assurance and confidence on the field, he was beset by terrible pre-match nerves and often struggled for self-belief. There are always two sides to every story and paradoxically, the supposedly cool and collected Hansen’s is laced with anxiety.
He admitted that he found the challenge of playing for Liverpool hugely stressful; a fear of failure that grew stronger with each passing season. When he assumed the captaincy under Dalglish, Hansen convinced himself he was in charge of the worst Liverpool team in his time at Anfield during the 1985-86 season. History tells us he needn’t have been so concerned.
In particular, Hansen would get worked up over the prospect of facing certain opponents; especially those who presented him with a rumbustious, physical battle. One in particular; a striker with zero finesse; all brawn and little brain was Oxford United’s stocky ruffian Billy Whitehurst. Big Al might have come across as all laid back and nonchalant on and off the field but he confesses to scouring the fixture list for the Oxford ties and losing sleep over the limited Whitehurst’s fearlessness and raw aggression.
One suspects that despite Liverpool’s eventual dominance of Everton in those mid 1980s classics, Hansen was equally nervous facing the twin physical threat of Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray.
While supporters lap up the stories of Moran casually chucking league winners medals around the dressing room, as though winning titles was the minimum expectation, Hansen admits that the pressurized environment eventually wore him down. He recognises that the Boot Room philosophy made winners of its footballers but the strain of staying at the top allowed the neuroses to stack up. Hansen declares that his proudest achievement was captaining the side to the 1990 league title because throughout the season he admits to being a nervous wreck.
Years of mounting pressure as a player and captain ruled out any prospect of Hansen seeking to further his career in the game; the idea of the additional stress making management a non-starter.
His last appearance in a red shirt was in the title-clinching home game versus QPR on April 28th 1990, though he was on hand to lift the trophy a few nights later against Derby County. The same evening, Dalglish also made his final bow as a player. When Dalglish resigned as manager the following February, Hansen’s eventual retirement as a player in the same week – after 620 games – was slightly overshadowed but having shared the same 14 glorious Liverpool FC years it was apt that two Liverpool greats exited together.