Tales of Liverpool’s long wait to be league champions
With two games to go, a first league title since 1990 still lies tantalisingly within reach for Liverpool – but will their story have a happy ending this time?
Being brutally honest, there are not many tales of Reds’ title challenges to tell from the past 29 years and no spoilers are needed for you to know that they all ended in tears.Since they were last crowned champions, for a then-record 18th time, Liverpool have managed serious bids in only six seasons – including this one – and been in the race on the final day only once, in 2013-14.
From mind games and meltdowns to fumbled crosses and famous slips, there are multiple reasons, theories or excuses for why they fell short each time – including a manager exit, a manager illness, and at least one manager making some extremely ill-advised claims.Their fans, some of who were singing ‘we’re going to win the league’ with three games remaining in 2014, have still had success to cheer with a Champions League victory to add to one Uefa Cup, two FA Cups, and three League Cup wins in the Premier League era.
But the league title is the one they all continue to covet and “next year is going to be our year” has been the May mantra of many an Anfield fan during the past three decades. But it has also become a way of mocking the Merseysiders because every previous title challenge has been followed immediately by a campaign where they did not even come remotely close.
BBC Sport speaks to some of the players and managers involved in those near-misses to find out what actually did go wrong, and why Jurgen Klopp’s team might be different – even if that is only in the way they respond if the title also eludes them.
1990-91: ‘The club was in shock’
Try to imagine where Liverpool would be now if Jurgen Klopp had left with three months of the season to go, and you will get an idea of what happened to their title defence when Kenny Dalglish sensationally quit as manager on 22 February 1991. The Reds were three points clear at the top of the table when, two days after a pulsating 4-4 FA Cup draw with Everton, Dalglish stunned the football world by announcing he was leaving the club he had served as player and manager for 14 trophy-laden years.
Dalglish would later explain that the stress and strain of witnessing the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath in 1989 was telling on his mind and body and led to his decision, which surprised even his closest friends.
Gary Gillespie, then a stalwart Liverpool defender and now a summariser on BBC Radio Merseyside, explained: “Along with the other players who lived in Southport, we would go out as couples after games with Kenny and his wife. Even being that close and appreciating he was under a little bit of pressure, we never had any inclination whatsoever that he was going to pack it in.
“Losing your manager like that would hurt any team but Kenny was such an iconic figure, it was a massive blow to us.”The collapse was immediate. With long-serving coach Ronnie Moran in temporary charge, Liverpool lost three games in the next eight days – 3-1 on Luton’s plastic pitch, 1-0 at Goodison Park in an FA Cup fifth-round second replay, and most damaging of all, 1-0 at home to title rivals Arsenal, who replaced them at the summit.
“We just weren’t quite as good for the rest of the season,” says Roy Evans, who at the time was a key part of the club’s famous ‘boot-room’ coaching set-up. “I don’t think our levels dropped that much, but the club was in shock and, just like today, you can lose the title very quickly.”
A brief Reds revival in the following fortnight did not last and by the time Graeme Souness was appointed manager on 16 April, their title hopes had all but disappeared. Under Souness, Liverpool lost two of their final five games, but not even five wins would have overhauled Arsenal.
Liverpool had lost only two out of 24 league games under Dalglish, but lost six of their final 14 without him. They still finished second, setting a record for finishing in the top two for 10 consecutive seasons that only Manchester United (1991-92 to 2000-01) have matched.“We should not have capitulated the way we did but we were still the top team in the country then,” remembered John Barnes, a two-time title winner with the Reds.
“The next couple of years, and particularly the following season, we should have still been challenging, but we didn’t. Whether Kenny had stayed or not, that team was getting older and needed freshening up, but it was broken up too quickly.
“What we usually did each year at Liverpool was introduce a couple of good youngsters alongside our experienced players, but a lot of our older heads left too soon. I am not saying we would have won the league the following year, or the year after, but we would not have fallen away so badly.”
1996-97 – ‘We always had to play well to win’
For the first time in the Premier League era, Liverpool were top at Christmas in 1996. Not for the last time, however, they would stumble in the second half of the season and ended up fourth – below both Newcastle and Arsenal on goal difference.
“We were unbeaten for our first 10 games in all competitions, which gave us incredible belief,” recalls Jason McAteer, who missed only one league match that campaign.“When we went top in December, I didn’t think ‘we are going to win the league’ but I did feel it was going to be very difficult to beat us.
“From February onwards, though, we were off the top and I don’t think we really knew how to get over the line. John Barnes was the only player left who had won the title, so we were in uncharted waters.“It is a bit like the situation like now really, where James Milner is the only Liverpool player to have won the league (with Manchester City in 2011-12 and 2013-14), only we did not handle it so well.”
Spring saw inconsistency creep in, and individual mistakes became more costly too. David James fumbled two corners to concede two goals in a shock home defeat by Coventry, and made another April error at Anfield that ensured Manchester United left with three points and a commanding lead in the title race.“‘Jamo’ sort of bore the the crowd’s frustration,” added McAteer. “The media got on his back too and he got the nickname ‘Calamity James’ which didn’t help.
“But what went wrong was not his fault – over the course of the season, only two teams had a better defensive record than us. In the end we probably drew too many games and we definitely dropped too many points against teams we should have beaten.”
Barnes puts that down to the team’s mentality, and an inability to grind out games the way United’s team of that era could.He explained: “When we played well, we were probably the best team in the country but, when we didn’t, we could not get a result. We would suddenly lose a game out of nowhere.
“That was our big problem, and that is the big difference with Liverpool this year. They pick up points when they are not at their best, which is how you win the league, and they have only been beaten once all season.”
2001-02 – ‘Ten games from greatness?’
Liverpool secured their first top-two finish since 1991, despite being mostly without their manager. Gerard Houllier was absent for five months of the season after he fell seriously ill in October 2001.His assistant Phil Thompson took the reins but, after having heart surgery, the Frenchman returned at the start of April to proclaim his side were ‘10 games from greatness’ as they chased glory in the Premier League and Europe, just as they do this year.It turned out they were actually seven games from finishing trophyless, after collecting three bits of silverware the previous season.
Bayer Leverkusen surprisingly eliminated the Reds from the Champions League in the quarter-finals and, despite a strong finish domestically, they could not compete with Arsenal’s surge for the line as Arsene Wenger’s side won their final 13 league games on their way to completing their second Double in four years.Liverpool spent plenty of time at the summit in spring, but only because they had played more games than the Gunners and even a run of 13 wins from their last 15 games was not enough to reel them in.
“Unlike this year, it never got to a point that season were I thought the title was in our grasp,” says BBC pundit Danny Murphy, who spent seven years at Anfield from 1997 to 2004. “I was enjoying the ride, but I never actually thought we would win it and that was probably because of how good Arsenal were.
“We were never really close enough to really worry them but I still remember being devastated on the bus home after we lost at Tottenham with two games to go, because I knew it was over. They were not going to mess up from there.“I never won the league so it was nice to challenge, without really being in a race. It is not like Liverpool’s situation now, where they and City are so close that they will feel the pressure and it has been tit-for-tat each week. We never really got to that stage.
“We probably surpassed our own expectations for maintaining a challenge and being in contention for so long, and I look back and think we gave it a hell of a good go because we could not have done much more in the run-in.“I don’t think Gerard’s absence affected us either, because ‘Tommo’ did such a wonderful job.
“There was so much trauma at the club because Gerard was so ill, but that actually gave us a freedom to play because everyone wrote us off – and maybe that freedom helped.“It was amazing when Gerard came back because the most important thing was his health and of course winning something for him would have been the icing on the cake, but I still think considering what happened that year, we did remarkably well.”
2008-09 – ‘I want to talk about facts’
Mind games have not been on the agenda for Klopp or City boss Pep Guardiola this season but, a decade ago, they were well known as being a favourite weapon of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. On this occasion, however, when the first shots were fired it was Reds boss Rafael Benitez who pulled the trigger.On 9 January 2009, with his Liverpool side seven points clear at the top of the table (albeit with United having two games in hand), Benitez pulled out a piece of A4 paper at his news conference and began listing his grievances against the United boss.
They ranged from Ferguson’s conduct regarding referees to the how the fixture list favoured Liverpool’s main title rivals.
“I want to talk about facts,” began Benitez as he launched into a five-minute rant in front of reporters – which arguably backfired.It was seen as the turning point in the title race, but Liverpool did not noticeably falter in the aftermath and lost only two league games all season.
The effect was probably more apparent on the boost it gave United. Speaking about the incident in 2017, Red Devils defender Gary Neville told Soccerbox: “I remember being at home that day watching Sky Sports News and thinking ‘what has he done!?!’
“It was reported that ‘he’s cracking up’ and then the fans start singing ‘Rafa’s cracking up’ and it did feel like the pressure was getting to him. You can imagine Sir Alex being at home being like ‘I’ve got him’.“If you’re going to call it on with another manager you’ve got to be sure to win. He was taking Sir Alex on on his own patch: mind games.
If that was Benitez’s intention, it certainly failed. Was his meltdown more myth than ‘Kevin Keegan moment’ though?
Take a closer look at Liverpool’s results that season and it seems they were actually derailed by the same problem that threatened to undo Klopp’s bid earlier this year – hardly any defeats, but too many draws. Those were the harsh facts for Benitez to digest as United chased down his side, but he was combative until the very end.
Asked just before United clinched their 18th title with a draw at Arsenal if the best team always wins the league, the Liverpool boss said: “It just means they have more points.“If United win the league it means they will have more points, clearly, but there are some very good teams in different positions in the table. To say who is the best at one moment is not easy.”
2013-14 – ‘We don’t let this slip’
Unlike Liverpool’s previous near-misses, this one is remembered as coming down to a single moment.On a fateful April day at Anfield, thousands of home fans had welcomed the Liverpool team bus before their game against Chelsea with flares, fireworks and chants of ‘we are the champions’.
Those supporters were buoyed by a run of nine straight wins that had left them needing only seven points from their final three fixtures to secure the title, and it seems the Liverpool players shared their belief that glory would finally be theirs.
“Before the game we were so confident,” said Glen Johnson, who was the Reds regular right-back that season. “I don’t know if you remember it but we absolutely battered them.”
“They did not ever look like winning the game, but we could not score. As we were pushing, obviously we left a few open holes and what happened, happened.“It was just a shock, I guess. It felt like a head in your hands moment, but it was such a freak incident. There was no danger or anything because that is why the back-four were so spread out because we had easy possession of the ball.”
Johnson is describing Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip, which allowed Demba Ba to run clear and put Chelsea ahead just before half-time. Willian sealed their victory with a breakaway goal in the final moments of the match.
Liverpool were now left level on points with City, and nine goals worse off on goal difference. They looked like doing some damage to that deficit when they went 3-0 up against Crystal Palace in their penultimate game, but a final collapse at Selhurst Park was about to finish their hopes for good.
“It was almost like it was meant to happen,” says Johnson, who again is dredging up some painful memories. “Their players were having out-of-body moments.“I can’t remember the guy’s name but the centre-half has hit a ball, and he has probably never hit a ball like that in his life – and it has gone into the top corner from 40 yards.”
The player was Damian Delaney, and that was Palace’s first goal back, with 11 minutes to go. Eagles substitute Dwight Gayle quickly added two more, and a 3-3 draw in south-east London left Luis Suarez in tears and meant Liverpool’s title dreams were left shattered once again.“I think until this year, that was probably the only time we possibly could have won the title,” says Barnes. “It didn’t feel we were close the other years, apart from when Kenny left.
“When people talk about why we have not won it for 29 years, the answer is simple – it is because there have always been better teams. This year, hopefully, it will be different.”If it isn’t, will it be the same old story of a backward step next season – or are there good times ahead regardless of how things go in the next few weeks?
“I have been watching Liverpool for BBC Radio Merseyside more or less since I retired and this is by far and away the best squad they have had since 1990,” added Gillespie.“They are a completely different animal at this moment in time to where they were in any of those failed title bids.“I am not saying this team is destined to go on and achieve great things but, whether we win the title this year or not, everything is more or less in place for Liverpool to be a threat for a long time to come.”
Additional reports by Mandeep Sanghera.
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