BY MARK GODFREY
Have you ever come to love someone who has hurt you badly? Maybe that’s too personal a question. Let’s set that in a sporting context. Has there ever been a player who did something so wretched to your team, let’s say as an opposition player, that any rational person would think it inconceivable that you could, one day, let them into your heart? The football equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?
If you’re either an Everton or Liverpool supporter and older than 35 then the answer to that is likely to be yes.
“It’s up for grabs now”
George Graham strolled into Highbury in 1986 to reinvigorate an Arsenal side that had slipped into a comparative malaise. There was no race for fourth in those days, saving the manager’s bacon and giving the fans something to hail as ‘success’. The grand old club needed a kick up the backside and a flea in its ear and the straight talking Scot was just the right man to instil a bit of steel to go with the subtlety fostered in the youth ranks.Embed from Getty Images
Tony Adams, although just 20 years old, was a first team regular; David Rocastle, Niall Quinn, Paul Merson and Perry Groves were all breaking through too. It was a group that would go on to do great things.
In the heart of the midfield – a tireless bundle of box-to-box energy – a young man called Michael Thomas became the team’s pulse, dictating the cadence of a game like the bass drummer in a marching band.
His undoubted zenith, like so many of his team mates, was the 1988-89 season. Arsenal may well have been the ‘grand old club’ that I alluded to earlier, but Thomas and co. were the new kids on the block; Liverpool’s closest pursuers. And it’s with the Anfield club that Thomas’ story becomes not so much entangled, but smashed together like colliding planets.
The culmination of that 88-89 campaign was overshadowed by the tragedy at Hillsborough when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and as a consequence the defining fixture of the year was put back until after the Cup final (which Liverpool won against Everton), meaning a later than planned end to the season. Arsenal had topped the table for some considerable time but Liverpool, the masters of timing a title challenge, had overhauled the less experienced Gunners in the final few weeks.Embed from Getty Images
Fate conspired to elevate the game to a one off title decider; winner takes all, but with provisos. Arsenal not only had to win to draw level on points with their opponents but had to do so with a clear two goal margin. Only this scenario would wrench the championship out of Liverpool’s grasp by way of goals scored throughout the season.
The game’s tight, nervy first half belied both teams’ qualities and emphasised the gravity of the occasion, but shortly after half time the Gunners’ front man Alan Smith glanced a header into the corner of the goal at the Anfield Road end, tipping the finely poised balance of the Championship see-saw to neutral. However, the odds – and stats – were still in Liverpool’s favour; Arsenal had not won at Anfield for 15 years and the home side had not lost by two goals at home for more than three years. Liverpool were also playing for more than just an 18th First Division title.
With time ebbing away quickly and injury time fast approaching, combative Reds midfielder Steve McMahon waved one finger determinedly in the air, gesturing to his team mates and the crowd that victory was within touching distance. Yet, there was one last opportunity for Arsenal to throw the ball forward in search of the elusive second goal that would give their supporters the night of their lives; one that books would be written about…
Right back Lee Dixon pumped a high ball up to Smith – rudimentary but effective – whose deft chipped pass fell neatly into the path of the raiding Thomas. The ball ricocheted back favourably off the shins of Steve Nicol who failed to intercept leaving Thomas to bear down ominously on the penalty area and the advancing keeper, Bruce Grobbelaar. The English champions would be crowned on the outcome of this duel. Legs pumping, Thomas galloped forward. Time itself seemed to slow with the collective intake of breath and widening of 40,000 gazes in the stadium and millions at home watching live on TV.Embed from Getty Images
ITV commentator Brian Moore barely had time to bellow his immortal words “it’s up for grabs now!” when Thomas swiped the outside of his right boot at the ball, Grobbelaar’s split second hesitation in deciding whether to advance or retreat cost him dearly as the net behind him bulged. It was a dagger through Liverpool’s heart at the conclusion of the most dramatic of season finales. Thomas’ delight was evident; he squirmed with delight in the six-yard box as the travelling Arsenal fans went berserk in the far corner of the ground. Liverpool were shell-shocked – the League and FA Cup double was not just blown, it was smashed to smithereens.
Thomas’ late, late intervention not only inserted him firmly into Arsenal – and Liverpool – folklore, but also into the history of football in England.
His Highbury career lasted another two years and brought another championship winners medal in 1991, however, having fallen out with the often intractable George Graham, it was time to move on. Perhaps the least likely destination was, in fact, the club upon which he had inflicted the most savage of blows.
The great Liverpool side of the late 80s was already past its best when Kenny Dalglish took the shock decision to stand down in February 1991. His permanent replacement came three months later – another former Kop hero, Graeme Souness.
The ex-Rangers manager was used to success as a player and manager; his record at Ibrox over the previous five years was impressive even accounting for the substantial financial backing he was furnished with in the transfer market. To attempt to recapture former glories, he began spending. And spending. Millions were laid out on new players, many of whom turned out to be duds, and on the list of costly recruits was one Michael Thomas – the (anti) hero of Anfield ’89.Embed from Getty Images
It should have been a move that reinvigorated a career that looked destined for big things just a couple of years earlier when his club form earned him a call up to the England squad. Initially things went to plan, with Liverpool winning the FA Cup at the end of Thomas’ first season on Merseyside. He even broke the deadlock in the 2-0 final victory over a plucky, but ultimately outclassed Sunderland. However, things for the club as a whole and Thomas gradually began to slide. The rule of the great Liverpool dynasty was over, and rather like the post-war British empire’s struggles to remain relevant in the face of greater emerging superpowers, the Reds ceded their long held supremacy – primarily to their most hated of rivals, Manchester United.
Injury began to blight Thomas’ prospects of holding down a first team place, and when he was fit, he was often the stand-in for John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp. This coincided with Souness’ underwhelming time in charge at Anfield and his eventual removal from his position to be replaced by long serving coach, Roy Evans. As time went on and his fitness returned, he managed to hold down a regular spot in Evans’ line up for a couple of years, winning a League Cup winners medal in 1995. After falling out favour once more and a few loan spells away from the club, Thomas left Anfield for good in 1998, linking up with Graeme Souness at Benfica in Portugal – a move that turned sour.
Obviously apprehensive about the reception he expected when he first joined Liverpool, Thomas maintains that he never felt any resentment from either the fans or his team mates despite the severe blow he dealt them in 1989. He remains popular enough with the fans that he not only still resides happily in the city, but he regularly turns out for the Liverpool legends team in exhibition tournaments. Add to that the fact Evertonians offer to buy him drinks for that goal, Thomas is a member of a very exclusive club – footballers who hold a place in the hearts of those from both sides of Stanley Park.
“A goal out of nothing”
Bob Bishop had a good eye for talent; his record spoke for itself. If you were young, gifted and Irish – Northern Irish to be more specific – then you had probably been assessed by the Manchester United scout at one time or another. The Old Trafford club benefitted from his wisdom on numerous occasions from the 1950s onwards: David McCreery, Jimmy Nicholl, Jackie Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy and a certain wiry teenager called George Best all made the trip across the Irish Sea to the north west of England on the recommendation of Bishop. One of his greatest discoveries was a strapping young lad from the infamous Shankhill Road area of Belfast – Norman Whiteside.Embed from Getty Images
Injury issues surfaced early on and persisted even before Whiteside made the United first team. This failed to prevent him breaking a remarkable record which he still holds to this day – that of the youngest player to ever play in the FIFA World Cup finals. He was a mere 17 years and 41 days old when, at the 1982 tournament in Spain and after just two senior club games, he started against Yugoslavia in Northern Ireland’s group match in Zaragoza. That appearance wiped the name of Pelé from the record books. It was a breakthrough that helped launch him on the path to becoming a cult hero of the Stretford End.
Whiteside settled in quickly in the 1982-83 season alongside United stars such as Bryan Robson, Steve Coppell, Ray Wilkins and Frank Stapleton, never looking out of place whether marauding forward or getting stuck into his midfield duties.
Gregarious manager Ron Atkinson had put together a very decent side who excelled in the cup competitions but always fell short when chasing the elusive league title the club so desperately craved. By the end of that first full season, he had earned two more ‘youngest’ records; youngest FA Cup final scorer (in the 4-0 replay win over Brighton and Hove Albion) and youngest League Cup final scorer (versus Liverpool in a 2-1 defeat).Embed from Getty Images
He was the hottest youngster in English football, yet, constantly lurking were the knee problems that would plague him for what remained of his career.
By 1985, the emergence of Mark Hughes up front meant Whiteside spending more time in Manchester United’s midfield, and after another season lagging way behind champions from Merseyside in the league – this time Howard Kendall’s brilliant Everton side rather than Liverpool – the Red Devils had one last opportunity to give their somewhat beleaguered fans something to cheer about.
The FA Cup final came at the end of the greatest season in the illustrious history of Everton Football Club. They won the First Division at a canter (the title wrapped up with five games remaining) and then won the European Cup Winners’ Cup on a glorious night in Rotterdam. Then, less than 72 hours later and allegedly after a fair degree of celebrating, they faced United at Wembley with the mouthwatering prospect of securing an unprecedented treble ahead of them.
Everton had retained the same starting eleven for a huge portion of their 60-game season, and with the Rapid Vienna game still obviously in their legs, they failed to blow United away in the same manner they had at Goodison Park earlier in the campaign when they handed them a 5-0 humbling. As the game ticked by on the wide open expanses of the strength-sapping Wembley pitch, a moment of history tipped the balance in Everton’s favour – in theory, at least.Embed from Getty Images
United defender Kevin Moran took out Blues’ midfield general Peter Reid about 35 yards from goal sending him flying through the air and denying him a clear run on Gary Bailey’s goal. It would be a certain red card these days; back in 1985 no one thought for a second that referee Peter Willis would send Moran off. However, that’s exactly what he did making it the first dismissal in an FA Cup final, and far from demoralising Manchester United, it had the opposite effect when the game needed extra time to settle the destination of the FA Cup trophy.
Everton were visibly wilting; an observation not lost on Ron Atkinson. He sent his team out to be bold for the remaining 30 minutes. He was justly rewarded in the 110th minute in spectacular fashion.
United, through Jesper Olsen and Hughes, launched a swift counter attack after Everton pressure, the ball ending up out on the right wing at the feet of Whiteside. The weary Pat van den Hauwe was slow to close him down, likely expecting the Ulsterman to hold the ball up and wait for support from his midfield runners.Embed from Getty Images
In goal, the world’s best goalkeeper and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Neville Southall, stood guard at his near post checking the angle of attack. It was a momentary and uncharacteristic lapse of judgement by the big Welshman. Whiteside fainted one way with a step over and with a valuable yard of space ahead of him, utilising van den Hauwe as a shield, he curled an unstoppable shot low just inside the far post in the area Southall had left vulnerable by his miscalculation. It was the perfect finish; one that left the United bench – the dismissed Moran included – in raptures.
Everton didn’t have the resolve to hit back, and with that stunning strike by Whiteside, their treble dreams were obliterated – their already stunning season could have been, to that point in time, a unique one.
After the joy of 1985 came another failed title bid and Atkinson’s sacking in 1986. His replacement, Alex Ferguson of Aberdeen, promised to “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch”. Eventually, of course, he did but it was a hard task in those early years especially given the renowned ‘drinking culture’ that prevailed at United at the time.
Ferguson was much more of a disciplinarian than his predecessor and singled out both Whiteside and Paul McGrath as chief instigators. Perhaps both had too much time on their hands while suffering from injury problems, so as the new manager toiled to build a title challenging side, the pair were big name casualties of the new regime. They were shipped out in 1989.Embed from Getty Images
Ironically, like Michael Thomas a couple of years later, Whiteside found himself on Merseyside – the place where he’d caused the most heartache. Everton manager Colin Harvey believed in Whiteside despite his injury record and off-field reputation. It was, initially, impeccable judgement. Evertonians took to Whiteside quickly for his commitment and drive in midfield. They also witnessed what a fine ball player he was too, as confirmed by team mate Pat Nevin during a recent podcast with The Football Pink. Harvey’s Goodison rebuilding program looked on track with Whiteside at the heart of it all when, after taking a knock in a practice match early in his second season with the club, he required another operation on his right knee. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The cumulative effect of a decade worth of trouble spelled the inevitable, and in the summer of 1991 aged just 26 years old he was forced to retire from the game just as he was entering his peak years.
Whiteside’s long and distinguished service rightly places him as an Old Trafford legend. Indeed, his ties to the club are still strong, working as he does as part of the Manchester United corporate hospitality department. Yet, however briefly he wore the blue shirt of the club he’d helped to vanquish as history beckoned, Big Norman is still held in great esteem by those who saw him threaten to put Everton back at the top of the English game. All was forgiven. Just about.