Thirty years! Thank the stars that’s over and I can get back to my life now!
In 1990, the year of Liverpool’s last league title success, nobody would have thought that a whole generation would have passed before the next title triumph. I certainly didn’t. However, as the years rolled by it was hard to see when (if ever) the barren run was going to be broken, as year after year Liverpool trundled on, seldom making a serious challenge.
In the 29 seasons that followed 1990, Liverpool finished second in the table five times, with some of these runners-up spots being more highly contested than others. Throw into the mix a few other campaigns in which the Reds challenged, only to ultimately finish outside the top two and it has been a long and frustrating wait.
Let us now have a look at some of the campaigns and periods in which Liverpool came close, or relatively so, to ending the drought.
1990-91: Arsenal reign supreme and Kenny hands over
This was, of course, the season following Liverpool’s 18th title success and for a while, it looked as if the Anfield juggernaut was going to simply keep rolling along. The first eight matches saw eight victories and Liverpool were still unbeaten going into December with 12 wins and two draws from 14 matches.
Next up, though, was a trip to Highbury to meet an Arsenal side also still unbeaten in the league but six points behind. With a chance to go nine points clear and perhaps kill Arsenal off before Christmas, Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, instead opted to play with six defenders and try and see out a goalless draw. Liverpool lost 3-0 and within two months the wheels had come off and Dalglish had resigned.
Liverpool spluttered after the New Year and at the end of the season finished seven points behind the Gunners who had also had two points deducted for an on-the-field fracas.
Graeme Souness came in and set about attempting to rebuild the side with little discernable success, and in 1994 he left to be replaced by his assistant, Roy Evans.
1994-98: The Spice Boys Era and Coventry City
Evans inherited some good young players from Souness (Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, Rob Jones and Steve McManaman), some ageing stars (Ian Rush, John Barnes, Ronnie Whelan and Bruce Grobbelaar) and some, erm, questionable signings (Paul Stewart, Julian Dicks, and Neil Ruddock).
Within two seasons, Evans’ side was up and running and making real progress. It was at a time that Manchester United’s famed ‘Class of ‘92’ was breaking into the first team, and for a while, there was very little to choose between the two sides in terms of ability. What differences that did exist, lay in the fields of consistency and discipline.
While the Manchester United youngsters were kept on a very short leash by Sir Alex Ferguson, his staff, and the senior players at Old Trafford, the same sadly could not be said for their Anfield counterparts.
Roy Evans was in sole charge of Liverpool for four full seasons and in that time had a solitary League Cup victory to his name. However, Liverpool were close to matching United in as much they finished fourth and third twice apiece in the league while famously losing the 1996 ‘White Suits’ FA Cup Final to United.
Liverpool had chances to win the league in 1995-96 and again a year later. What was to prove Liverpool’s undoing first time round was a terrible run in November and early December when only two points were taken from five matches. This run left Liverpool trailing behind not only Manchester United but also runaway leaders, Newcastle.
When Liverpool hit form in the New Year, it was a long way back into the title race but by April they had just about made it. The classic 4-3 victory over Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in the first week of the month took Liverpool to within five points of the summit with six games to go. With Liverpool also through to the FA Cup Final, the season was shaping up like those of the ‘eighties, but then three days later Liverpool crashed disastrously at Coventry and the game was up.
Defeat at Wembley against Manchester United was particularly hard to take as United took their second ‘Double’ in three seasons while Liverpool ended up empty-handed despite taking four points off United in the league
In 1996-97, Liverpool actually somehow contrived to finish fourth in what was effectively a two-horse race for most of the season. This season was perhaps the only real race for the title Liverpool were to be engaged in between 1991 and 2009 at least, as they and United went toe-to-toe for most of the season.
Leading the table at Christmas, Liverpool kept the pressure up on United into spring and with seven games to go had the chance to go back to the top of the table after United unexpectedly lost at home to Derby County. Unfortunately for Evans and his men, Coventry again stood in their way and another awful defeat, this time at Anfield, threw a decidedly big spanner in the works.
Still in with a reasonable chance of taking the title, Liverpool then met United at Anfield in a title-cruncher game with four matches to go and a win would have put Liverpool back on top.
In a game famous for David James’ calamitous mistakes, United prevailed by a 3-1 scoreline. Liverpool then picked up only four points from the remaining three matches and so finished a very disappointing fourth. That a poor goalkeeping performance also put paid to Liverpool’s European hopes at around the same time in the semi-final of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup was indicative of Liverpool’s malaise at the time.
2001-02: Eleven Straight Victories Are Not Enough
After Roy Evans’ tenure and the short-lived ‘double management’ experiment with Gérard Houllier, Liverpool once more fell off the pace and it wasn’t until the 2001-02 season that any sort of a challenge was made once again.
This campaign mirrored the ones of the mid-nineties in many ways in as much that one bad month derailed Liverpool’s campaign entirely and undid the progress and success of the remaining eight months of the season.
Once again, Liverpool hit the top of the table as autumn turned to winter, and once again a poor run of form proved too difficult to overcome. After fifteen games, Liverpool sat four points clear at the top of the table but then picked up only four points from the next eight matches.
A magnificent run of eleven victories and a single draw in the next twelve games was sufficient only to keep pace tucked in behind Arsenal who were themselves in the midst of a run of thirteen straight victories and the damage was done.
Ironically, it was a defeat at the hands of Arsenal’s North London rivals, Tottenham, that ultimately confirmed Liverpool’s runners-up spot.
2008-09: Draw Bores
Conventional wisdom has it that Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side nearly won the league. It didn’t. Not really.
Upon taking over from Houllier, Benitez inherited a side in poor shape that had finished 30 points behind champions Arsenal in 2004. This gap was to increase to 37 a year later as Chelsea took the mantle and Liverpool slipped to fifth place.
Of course, Champions League success arrived for Benitez and Liverpool in the form of an outright victory in 2005, a beaten finalist spot two years later, and the semi and quarter-finals being reached in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
In these years, Benitez improved Liverpool considerably and made them a very difficult side to beat. This augered well for cup competitions but was not really conducive for a sustained challenge for the title. In some quarters it seemed that Benitez was content to aim for the top four each season and then have a real bash at winning in Europe. While Liverpool fans at this stage were happy for any success that came the club’s way, there was still a longing for the Premier League to be brought home.
In 2008-09, Liverpool lost only two league games all season and beat eventual champions, Manchester United, home and away and yet still finished four points behind their Old Trafford rivals.
Why? Mainly due to a rotation process that saw Benitez once again prioritize the Champions League. Eight draws and a defeat in a run of 13 games in the middle of the season left Liverpool once again needing to play catch-up with Manchester United and ten wins and a draw in the final 11 matches of the season were not sufficient as Fergie and his men held their nerve.
2013-14: By the Seat of Their Pants!
The next few seasons were soul-destroying and dirge-like. After the relatively near-miss of 2009, Liverpool were expected to challenge in 2009-10 but instead fell away to finish seventh, a massive 23 points behind Chelsea who were champions.
Roy Hodgson came and went, as did Sir Kenny for his second spell in charge, before Brendan Rodgers was appointed in the summer of 2012. No discernable progress was made in 2012-13 with Liverpool finishing down in eighth, an eye-watering 37 points behind both Manchester clubs who could only be separated on goal difference.
This rather dismal return made the events of 2013-14 all the more remarkable and memorable!
In more than 45 years of supporting Liverpool, this season remains perhaps the most exciting of all for me.
A solid first half of the season saw Liverpool tidily tucked in around the Champions League places and, pleasing while this was, there was no real sign of what was to occur during the springtime. A truly exhilarating ride saw 14 wins and two draws in 16 games with 11 of the victories being consecutive.
This run included victories by scorelines such as; 5-3, 4-3, 6-3, 4-0, 5-1, and 3-2. It was not a time for the faint-hearted, but it was wonderful!
“Make us Dream,” said a banner on the Kop. And dream we did.
As we know, it was not to be with ‘the slip’ and ‘Crystanbul’ finally dashing all hopes, but deep down inside most Liverpool fans expected that.
We dreamt but we didn’t really believe.
Just to be back as real contenders after so long away was more than any of us had thought possible and so when the end did come, it wasn’t quite the crushing blow that some outsiders might have thought.
What was worse, much worse, was falling back in the pack the next season. Here Liverpool fans felt the time was right for a real crack at getting back to the top, but just like in 2009, the side went backwards and it wasn’t until Jürgen Klopp finally got Liverpool’s defence sorted out that the team was ready to challenge once again
2018-19: Nearly but Not Quite
The 2018-19 season was ridiculous and in any other season, as indeed the current one has shown, any side as good as Liverpool were then would have walked the league. To finish with 97 points and not win the title was an anomaly that will surely never be repeated.
As with 2013-14 (but to a lesser extent), there was a certain amount of surprise that Liverpool challenged for the title at all as Manchester City had been so supreme the season before, but early season form that saw Liverpool unbeaten until January and even open up a seven-point lead at one stage proved that Liverpool were the real deal.
Manchester City were relentless though, and there was always the feeling amongst the Liverpool faithful that they were going to have just enough about them to keep their noses in front.
So, that brings us to this season. Obviously, it’s a fantastic feeling to be a supporter of the champions again after so long even if it does come with a slight anti-climatic feeling due to the twin factors of Covid-19 and such a large winning margin.
Although wary of jinxing the whole thing, I personally didn’t subscribe to the viewpoint that Liverpool’s best chance for the title had been and passed in 2019 and I felt confident of another sustained challenge this season – although not to the extent of winning 26 and drawing one of the opening 27 league fixtures!
What was surprising was City’s sudden and sharp demise, though.
Well, all things being well Liverpool will compete in their first Community Shield as league champions for three decades in the late summer and then the whole process will start again.