At the time of writing, Liverpool currently sit atop the peak of English football with 12 wins and one draw from 13 games, eight points ahead of their nearest rivals in second place. What could possibly go wrong from here?
Sound familiar? It should do, for the statistics going into Liverpool’s 14th match of the 1990-91 season were identical and yet Liverpool managed to end the season potless and a massive nine points behind champions, Arsenal.
So, what went wrong in that pivotal season nearly three decades ago, and could there be any chance of a repeat this time around?
Well, for a start, Liverpool kicked off the 1990-91 season in a similar vein to the current one, with a Wembley draw against Mancunian opposition. In 1990 they fought out a 1-1 draw with United which resulted in the sides sharing the Charity Shield, while this season an identical scoreline against the Sky Blue brethren of Manchester preceded a defeat on penalties in the Community Shield.
Liverpool’s opening league fixture in 1990 was a tricky away game at newly-promoted Sheffield United, and just like this season’s corresponding fixture, the Reds were far from being at their most convincing best. Whereas this season saw a fortuitous single goal victory, back in August 1990 John Barnes and co ambled to a somewhat flattering 3-1 scoreline, courtesy of goals from Barnes himself, Ray Houghton and Ian Rush.
Just as Liverpool opened the current season with eight straight victories, so too did they in 1990-91. However, although a maximum 24 points were garnered, Liverpool didn’t actually look to be playing at their most coherent or flowing peak. A decent 2-0 home victory over Nottingham Forest was followed by a rather scrambled 2-1 success against Aston Villa. If that too bears more than a passing resemblance to the two teams’ Premier League encounter a few weeks ago, further echos of similarity note that the winner that day also came in the dying embers of the match. Ian Rush netting an 88th-minute decider.
Further victories were achieved over Wimbledon, Manchester United, Everton, Sunderland and Derby County, but again these bare statistics only tell part of the tale. Liverpool’s 4-0 victory over Manchester United, for example, was a travesty of justice and it is not far-fetched at all to suggest that United were at least the equal of Liverpool for large portions of the game.
Every time Liverpool attacked they seemed to get the rub of the green by way of a deflection, a fortunate bounce, a dubious refereeing decision or seemingly divine intervention. A Peter Beardsley hat-trick sent Fergie and his men back to Old Trafford shaking their heads in bemusement more than anything else.
Similarly, the following week Liverpool met Everton at Goodison and triumphed 3-2, with Beardsley grabbing another two goals, and yet once more there was more to the occasion than the bare scoreline. After 70 minutes, Liverpool led 3-0 and looked to be cruising, but by the 84th minute they had conceded twice and were barely hanging on.
In 1990-91, as in 2019-20, Liverpool finally dropped points in their 9th game courtesy of a 1-1 away draw. In 1990, it was Norwich City that held Liverpool’s progress up with both goals in the game at Carrow Road being scored within the first ten minutes of the match.
Four straight victories followed the Norwich game, with Chelsea, Tottenham, Luton and Coventry put to the sword. So, with thirteen games played Liverpool had taken 37 points from twelve wins and a single draw. Just like this season. Also just like this season, they were eight points clear at the top.
Arsenal had also started the season in unbeaten fashion, but whilst Liverpool had been held just the once, the Gunners had drawn four games at this point – against Tottenham, Everton, Leeds United and Crystal Palace. This, of course, had resulted in a total of eight points being dropped to Liverpool’s two. Why then were Arsenal eight points Liverpool at this point rather than six?
The answer came as a result of events at a match with Manchester United on October 20, 1990. A 20-man brawl ensued and the Football League acted by docking Arsenal two points as it was their second such contretemps in the space of a year. United were docked a point.
On 24 November 1990, Liverpool dropped their first home points of the season when they shared four goals with Manchester City, while Arsenal defeated QPR 3-1 with all three Arsenal goals coming within the last 15 minutes.
Thus Liverpool’s lead was cut to six points in advance of the clash at Highbury played before the live TV cameras a week later. In the midweek before the game, Arsenal met Manchester United in a Highbury League Cup fourth-round clash. Remarkably for a side that would go onto concede only 18 league goals all season, Arsenal were defeated by a 6-2 scoreline.
Here was Liverpool’s chance, then, to take the bull by the horns and go for the win that would put them nine points clear in the first week in December. Instead of going for it, however, Liverpool’s manager, Kenny Dalglish decided to line up with six defenders. The combined might of Hysen, Ablett, Nicol, Burrows, Venison and Gillespie was unable to keep the Arsenal forward line at bay and Liverpool crashed to a heavy 3-0 defeat and the aura of invincibility had gone.
Dalglish was heavily criticised at the time for his perceived negative tactics, and some say he never really recovered. Peter Beardsley found himself out of the side for the trip to Highbury and that did not go down too well in some quarters.
Most notably, it has to be said, in Chez Beardsley.
The Beardsleys and the Dalglishs were neighbours and it was rumoured at the time (and since) that there had been some kind of domestic falling out between the families and that was now overspilling into the two men’s professional lives.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Liverpool now started to hit rocky waters. Four wins, four draws and a further defeat in the next nine games met that by the time Liverpool met Everton in the FA Cup in February, the lead over Arsenal was still at three points but the knives were out. Dalglish looked far from happy and criticism was rife in the media.
Arsenal, for their part, were not winning too many friends themselves at this conjecture, with their style of football being criticised in many quarters. Crystal palace lay in third place a further three points behind Arsenal.
On February 17, 1991, Liverpool and Everton played out a goalless encounter at Anfield notable only for the comical sight of Steve McMahon injuring himself while attempting to foul an Everton player and being shown the yellow card as he was stretchered off.
Four days later, the two sides met in the replay at Goodison Park and despite taking the lead four times, Liverpool could do no better than draw 4-4 with their Merseyside rivals. Beardsley once again was on the scoresheet (twice) but by now Dalglish had had enough.
In a shock to rival that which accompanied Bill Shankly’s resignation some 17 years earlier, Dalglish appeared in front of the TV cameras two days later to announce he was quitting Liverpool.
Looking ashen-faced and withdrawn, Dalglish explained that he was mentally exhausted and ‘needed a break’. Liverpool fans couldn’t believe it, and yet….there was a very slight undercurrent of feeling that maybe it was for the best all-round at the time.
Dalglish had been under a lot of pressure, and he hadn’t seemed to be coping very well. A lot of his decisions were being questioned – such as his treatment of Beardsley – but also his signings were being debated. David Speedie had been signed from Coventry and seemed to be playing alternate games with Beardsley, and Jimmy Carter had come in from Millwall. Neither signing had been the type that fans would have ordinarily expected.
Ronnie Moran was placed in caretaker charge whilst a permanent replacement was sought, and Liverpool promptly lost their next two league games. A 3-1 setback on Luton’s ridiculous plastic pitch was followed by a crucial 1-0 home defeat by Arsenal. This victory allowed Arsenal to open up a three-point lead at the top and the pendulum had truly swung their way for the first time in the campaign.
Liverpool then had a run of three successive victories over Manchester City, Sunderland, and Derby County to move back to the top of the table by a solitary point. That the win at Derby’s old Baseball Ground was by a 7-1 scoreline seemed to indicate that perhaps Liverpool had got their season back on track and were gearing up for a typically strong finish to the season.
Such hopes were misguided in the extreme, though, as only one point was taken in the next three games. An awful 3-1 home defeat to QPR while Arsenal were beating Derby saw Liverpool once again relinquish top spot, and when Southampton triumphed by the only goal of the game a couple of days later, the gig was pretty much up.
Ronnie Moran had taken on the role of Caretaker Manager on the initial understanding that he did not wish to be considered for the position permanently, and in all honesty results under his stewardship were mixed, to say the least.
However, the Liverpool board had not made an appointment in the almost two months since Dalglish had quit, and so now Moran declared an interest in a full-time appointment. To his disappointment, the board informed him that they had finally got their guy and an announcement was imminent.
When Dalglish had quit so unexpectedly, Liverpool’s board had been unsurprisingly caught unprepared. Their initial target had been long-standing captain Alan Hansen, but he had immediately ruled himself out of the running and instead retired from playing and left the club.
Next on the list had been Graeme Souness and John Toshack. Whether Toshack was ever formally approached is unclear, but Souness, then managing Glasgow Rangers very successfully, certainly was. Souness initially turned Liverpool’s overtures down twice before changing his mind at the third time of asking.
That just left Moran to take charge of one more game before handing over the reins and what a game that turned out to be. After less than half an hour of their league clash with Leeds United at Elland Road, Liverpool led 4-0 and the home crowd were going mad.
This remained the scoreline until the 68th minute when Leeds pulled a goal back through Lee Chapman. A second goal a couple of minutes later had Leeds fans starting to sit up a bit, before John Barnes seemingly made the game safe within a further two minutes.
Into the last ten minutes and Liverpool led 5-2, before Chapman rattled in two further goals to complete his hat-trick and leave Liverpool hanging on for a 5-4 victory.
If Souness was not exactly impressed by the defending on show at Elland Road, it probably accounted for the thinking behind his inaugural decision as Liverpool manager.
Marching into Anfield, the first thing the former captain of the club did was to drop the current captain. Glenn Hysen was unceremoniously given the flick as Souness arrived in time to take charge of the last five games of the season, and although the first two of these were won, Arsenal were still top and the title was theirs to lose.
Lose it they certainly did not, and after Liverpool were defeated in successive games to Chelsea and Nottingham Forest, Arsenal were crowned champions for the second time in three seasons under George Graham.
It was a desperately disappointing second half to the season for Liverpool, who eventually ended up a massive nine points behind Arsenal.
Souness complained he had been left an ageing team by Dalglish, who in turn managed to get over his ‘executive stress’ in time to accept the cheque book being waved at him by Blackburn Rovers owner and benefactor, Jack Walker, a few months later.
Liverpool have famously failed to win the title ever since, and while it would be a major shock if Jurgen Klopp and his men were to suffer a similar meltdown this season, stranger things have happened.
Or have they?