On 26th May 1989, Anfield prepared itself for one of the most climactic final day showdowns in English football history, Liverpool vs Arsenal. It was first vs second. Champions vs challengers. The hosts had to fulfil their duty and defend their domineering fortress. The visitors faced an uphill battle, as they had to defeat the reigning kings of the 1980s by at least two goals. Only Manchester United had achieved the feat during the 1988/89 season. To further show the mountainous task ahead, Luton Town and Norwich City were the only teams to keep the Reds from scoring in the league that year.
Adrenaline consumed the stadium. The home supporters bellowed their players to a call to arms as they waved their flags and held their scarves high in the sky. The stadium’s chants were the equivalent to a filled church or a mosque praying to their God.
Liverpool had been in this position all too often in the previous 16 years. They had the stature, the history, the home advantage, and the dominating swagger that ruling teams learn to exploit. Meanwhile, the forthcoming Gunners had not won a league title since 1971. The tale of two opposing teams collided for a historic day.
The first half ended in a stalemate, but soon Arsenal landed the first blow in circumstances that we could only have imagined in the VAR and Football Twitter era. Liverpool captain Ronnie Whelan gave away an indirect free kick for having a high foot outside of the box. Nigel Winterburn lifted the ball into the area and the ever so reliable Alan Smith got the faintest of touches to guide the ball into the bottom left corner. After seven minutes of fan anxiety and deliberation with players and his assistant, referee David Hutchinson pointed to the centre sport. The goal was given.
Time passed and both teams yielded to the pressure they were facing. Miss chances after miss chances, neither team could attain the comfortable position they pursued. Anfield’s flamboyant adrenaline mutated into nervous whistles. But Arsenal fans still believed as the clock ticked past the 90th minute. Lee Dixon launched the ball to the towering Alan Smith. Within two touches he had controlled the ball and put through Michael Thomas. The midfielder brought down the ball, tapped it beyond the last defender and slipped it past goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. God answered Arsenal’s prayers. The champions were crushed.
That night in Merseyside will always be hailed in Arsenal folklore and locked away in Liverpool’s vault of disappointing games to forget. Liverpool ended the 1980s as a disintegrating empire. They were the English rulers of whom everyone feared. The Reds installed the mentality in the mid-to-late 1970s with three titles in four years. They then expanded their authoritarian powers throughout the 1980s. Liverpool knew how to win and, significantly, how to do it in a conquering fashion.
Football writer Amy Lawrence described the power Liverpool held during their reign in the documentary, 89. “In that era, every football fan knew that if you want to win stuff, there is only one team in your way,” she said. “Majestic. Serial winners. Magnificent. All about Liverpool.”
This portrayal extends back to the beginning of the 1979/80 season. Manager Bob Paisley had by then established a record-breaking juggernaut. Liverpool won the First Division title by acquiring the most points (68) in the old two-point per win format (the three-point system was not introduced until 1981), achieving the best home record (40 points in 21 games), and scoring the most goals (85) and conceding the least (16) in First Division history.
Paisley joined Liverpool as a player in 1949 but retired in 1954 as a 35-year-old. He had studied to be a physiotherapist and a masseur and so took the offer to be the club’s physio. In 1971 Paisley was elevated to assistant manager, and then Bill Shankly’s successor three years later.
At first instance, the 55-year-old Paisley was reluctant. He told BBC radio in 1978 it was “tremendous pressure” to fill the ‘presence’ Shankly would leave behind. Chief Executive Peter Robinson even recounted the forceful push the club had to make for Paisley to agree to take over. “When we approached Bob, he said ‘no’” Robinson stated. “In the end, the Chairman, directors and I had to gang up on him.”
Nonetheless, in the same BBC Radio interview, Paisley understood the importance of someone within the club elevating to Shankly’s position. He recalled that “if someone new came in, and this was the first thing that crossed my mind, I thought ‘well I have to make a go of it to keep this [success]’. There was such a family spirit at Liverpool, and this was probably where the team spirit stems from. I thought I better give it a go.”
Liverpool’s insistence to push the role on Paisley worked perfectly. While his first season was without silverware, it turned into his only campaign that this happened. Liverpool leapfrogged Queens Park Rangers ten days after their rivals finished their season to win Paisley’s first title as manager. The Reds then won their second UEFA Cup five days later by beating FC Bruges.
The team from Merseyside relentlessly followed up the next year by coming one game away from achieving the treble. They won their 10th league title and defeated Borussia Mönchengladbach in the European Cup but were humbled by Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
The European Cup triumph was a poignant moment for Paisley, who had returned to Rome for the first time since being a part of the military operation which liberated the city. “This is the second time I’ve beaten the Germans here… the first time was in 1944” a delighted Paisley stated. “I drove into Rome on a tank when the city was liberated.
“If anyone had told me I’d be back here to see us win the European Cup 33 years later I’d have told them they were mad! But I want to savour every minute of it… which is why I’m not having a drink tonight. I’m just drinking in the occasion.”
The 1977 summer saw a monumental shift in Liverpool’s history. Keven Keegan departed for Hamburg and a destined Scot replaced the void he left behind. Kenny Dalglish, or later known as ‘King Kenny’, arrived from Celtic.
The prophetic spirit Dalglish brought to Liverpool was epitomised by Paisley’s reaction to his signing. “I just hoped that after the trials and tribulations of my early years in management someone up high would smile on me” he declared. “My plea was answered when we got Kenny Dalglish.”
Liverpool won the European Super Cup in December, defeating Keegan’s Hamburg in a storybook final. After missing out on the league to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, they became the first English side to retain the European Cup.
And so, this team – which was spearheaded by the Scottish triumvirate of King Kenny, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen – became the 1978/79 record-breaking autocrats. Other important figures included goalkeeper Ray Clemence, striker David Johnson and Jimmy Case. Their blend of power and skill solidified their divine right to rule England and Europe.
Brian Clough honestly recognised Liverpool’s empire when he called his rivals ‘untouchable’ and labelled Paisley as the “Bob Sinatra of football”. The Liverpool Echo writer Michael Charters also wrote, “…the whole team effort was typically Liverpool, there’s not a team in the land to touch them. They are the finest British team I have ever seen, a team of immense blend, experience, class and ability of the highest standard.”
Paisley’s Liverpool began their fateful journey into the 1980s by signing a historic shirt sponsorship deal with Hitachi for £50,000. Embryonic commercialisation was beginning to position itself within football, and the Liverpool manager knew the sport was heading in that direction. “Sponsorship and everything [like that] will take over in football,” he told BBC Radio in 1978. “I am quite convinced of this. We are not going to be able to keep the good players we do breed.”
The Reds opened their campaign to mix results. They beat Arsenal 3-1 in the Community Shield but lost to Dinamo Tbilisi in the European Cup. They won only two league games in the first two months. After a 1-0 away defeat to European champions Nottingham Forest on the last weekend of September, defender Phil Thompson declared, “we will keep our title”.
The Reds stampeded onto a 16-game unbeaten streak, which included four draws, and won an unparalleled 12th league title by two points. Thompson’s prophetic prediction was fulfilled. Midfield maestro Terry McDermott also received a crowning achievement. He became the first player to win PFA Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year. However, Paisley’s Liverpool won just the league title that season. They lost in the semi-final of the Football League Cup versus Forest and the third replay of the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal.
Paisley made a subtle but significant change to his 1980/81 squad. Future all-time top goalscorer Ian Rush was added to the team. Rush was signed for a then unmatched £300,000 transfer fee, for a teenager, from Chester. The young Welshman began his Liverpool career slowly. He did not appear in his team’s 1-0 victory in the Charity Shield against Trevor Booking’s West Ham United. In fact, in nine appearances in his first season, he did not score a goal. Rush was anxious about his future, but his chance to breakout was on the horizon.
Liverpool yet again won the European cup, this time versus Real Madrid, and overcame their League Cup hoodoo by beating West Ham in a 2-1 final’s replay. Though, a lacklustre league campaign and defeat to Merseyside rivals Everton in the league’s title race, meant a ruthless Paisley was ready to let his squad enter a new era.
Midfielders Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Case departed for Swansea and Brighton respectively, while goalkeeper Ray Clemence suddenly left for Tottenham Hotspur. This rejuvenation period established Bruce Grobbelaar, who Liverpool signed for £250,000 in March, as the number one goalkeeper; defender Phil Neal as a senior member of the squad; and Ian Rush as the new leading striker. David Johnson had still retained the number nine shirt, but Rush had secured his starting place in October. The Liverpool legend’s time at Anfield was on the verge of ending.
In the new squad framework, Grobbelaar, who tended to have moments of being a jokester, referred to Liverpool’s Scottish triumvirate as the “Scottish Mafia” and called Paisley “ruthless” in an interview with The Guardian. In one example, Paisley had held back from telling the goalkeeper that his dad had died five days previously.
“I still scratch my head as to why he kept it from me until after the game [the Intercontinental Cup final against Brazil’s Flamengo in Toyko]” Grobbelaar recounted. “‘You can go to your father’s funeral but be back by Friday.’ The funeral was on the Thursday. I flew business class from Tokyo to Paris to Johannesburg and back to Heathrow. When I got my next paycheque there was nothing left. I paid for my trip to the funeral. That’s how ruthless they were. Not much compassion.”
Nonetheless, Grobbelaar formed a chained connection with Steve Nicol and Terry McDermott. The reformed formula succeeded. Rush scored 17 league goals in 32 appearances as Liverpool retained the League Cup (now known as the Milk Cup.) The Merseyside team also returned to their rightful spot as league champions.
The sudden revolving exits of past senior players did not stop. Johnson and Ray Kennedy departed Anfield. The 1982/83 season became a farewell tour to the manager that had built Liverpool into a superpower. Paisley announced he would retire at the end of the season and become a part of the boardroom in August.
His tenure ended fittingly. Liverpool defeated Manchester United 2-1 at Wembley in the Milk Cup final and Graeme Souness urged his manager to be the first person to lift the trophy. Meanwhile, in the league, Liverpool had torpedoed themselves to a 14th league title. Between December and April, they commanded the division with an extraordinary 19-game unbeaten streak. They were afforded to lose five of their last six fixtures and still won the league by 11 points and a plus 50 goal difference. This was the pinnacle of Paisley’s Liverpool: an unrivalled beast which absorbed the life out of their opponents.
Paisley ended his remarkable career with six First Division titles, six Charity Shield’s, three European Cups, three League Cup’s, one UEFA Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. This had raised his stature to be the most decorated manager in Liverpool history. Most of all though, he saw himself as a servant to his city. Paisley declared at one time, “this club has been my life. I’d go out and sweep the street and be proud to do it for Liverpool FC if they asked me to.”
Paisley’s assistant Joe Fagan was promoted to the managerial role. Despite former Player of the Year Terry McDermott leaving, Paisley’s old empire refused to halt its momentum. Liverpool beat their local rivals Everton 1-0 in the Milk Cup final replay and swept away the league once again. Ian Rush scored 32 league goals, leading him to be recognised as Liverpool’s young superstar. He was declared PFA Young Player of the Year and PFA Player of the Year.
The Liverpool war-machine did not stop there. They won their 4th European Cup after a tense shootout against Roma. It became known as the moment when Grobbelaar used his clownish personality to his team’s benefit. His ‘spaghetti-legs dance’ seemingly put off Francesco Graziani – he missed the crucial penalty. Grobbelaar raced away celebrating, but he was set to take the possible winning fifth penalty. Fagan switched the taker to Alan Kennedy. Fagan’s judgement was proven correct. Kennedy scored and Liverpool triumphed.
The 1984/85 campaign signified the beginning of a shift at Liverpool and the whole of football. One of the three “Scottish Mafia” leaders, Graeme Souness, was sold to Sampdoria at the end of last season. In his wake, Liverpool failed to win a trophy. However, more significantly, the club, the fans and the players were scarred by the Heysel Disaster. The long hooliganism plague reached boiling point, and 39 Juventus fans died as a result. English clubs were banned for five-years from competing in European competitions by UEFA. Hooliganism caused Liverpool’s overseas empire to collapse.
Grobbelaar had experienced trauma during his conscription in Zimbabwe’s war of independence as a teenager, but he told The Guardian Heysel affected him more. “It was worse,” he said. “In the bush, you knew what could happen. At Heysel, it was innocent people. To hear the crumbling wall and the falling bodies was terrible.”
Liverpool as a club needed to bounce back. From a footballing standpoint, the only way was through trophies. Fagan resigned at the end of the season and so King Kenny assumed the position as player-manager. Though by March, Liverpool’s challenge seemed to be dead and buried. They were 11 points off Everton, who were top. In the normal painful system which operates on Merseyside, Liverpool dragged themselves back into the race and hauled themselves upon the throne. The Reds continued to haunt their local rivals, this time in the FA Cup final where they beat them 3-1.
Little transpired in 1986/87. Everton achieved their revenge by winning the league title. Ian Rush was sold to Juventus for a then British transfer record £3.2m, though Rush did return for the season on loan. A Rush-less Liverpool returned the following season and once again tormented their rivals by claiming the bragging rights to their 17th league title. This would be their only trophy of the season nevertheless, as Liverpool went on to lose the 88’ FA Cup final against the ‘Crazy Gang’ Wimbledon.
Liverpool had sought new life in these years with Dalglish adding Peter Beardsley and John Barnes. Old stalwarts like Alan Hansen, Steve Nicol and even King Kenny himself were still a part of the squad. Rush returned that summer and Liverpool would set upon the journey in which cultivated in the enthralling showdown against Arsenal.
Though, the devastating trauma experienced because of the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989 had a great long-lasting effect on Liverpool beyond the dazzling football euphoria. Liverpool gave their all to achieve a bittersweet victory in the 89’ FA Cup and to win the ’90 league title.
Hillsborough may have past, but the wounds were not healed. Dalglish resigned in 1991 because of the trauma he had experienced. This was on top of the tragedies he felt at Ibrox and Heysel. He said in the film Kenny “If I cannae make decisions, I don’t deserve to be there.” His wife was also documented, “He was falling apart after Hillsborough. He was terrible to live with.”
This was the unpredictable end to Liverpool’s empire. The former forthcoming Arsenal won the title again in 91’ and a strong Leeds United team made history as the last team to win the old First Division. The changing hands of power caught Ronnie Whelan off guard. “We thought we’d win it in ’91 and many years after that,” he recalled.
Ultimately, Liverpool’s belief had an invisible fundamental flaw as they never could have predicted the juggernaut that was rising at Manchester United. While United’s reign at the top is still lasting in memory through Premier League mediation, Liverpool’s will always be remembered as the first era in English football which a single team had a dictatorial presence over their opposition for more than 15 years. It was Liverpool golden era. Their glorious empire.