As a shell-shocked Nottingham Forest team trudged off the Anfield pitch that heady April night in 1988, they knew they had been beaten by a special side. Liverpool’s new attacking trio of Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and John Barnes had inspired a team performance that amounted to a football lesson.
Forest, although not the equal of Clough’s double European Cup-winning vintage, were still brimming with talent: City Ground legends Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Neil Webb and Nigel Clough were all in the team that night, but Liverpool’s pace, power and skill had blown them away.
“The whole country was enthralled by that – it left many good judges speechless,” said BBC commentator John Motson of the display. One who attempted to put Liverpool’s performance into words was the English icon Tom Finney. “One of the finest exhibitions of football I’ve ever seen in my life,” was how the 76-times-capped former Preston North End winger described it. Liverpool fans in the pubs around Anfield after the game wondered if they’d ever seen a better display from their favourites.
If it seemed like football from another planet, it might as well have been. English football had been operating in a different orbit to the rest of Europe following UEFA’s draconian decision to ban all English clubs from European competition for “an indefinite period” following the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster. Thirty-nine people lost their lives after rioting between Liverpool and Juventus supporters before the European Cup final. The extent of the impact of that tragic night in Brussels on Liverpool and English football is still being debated today.
I. The legacy of Heysel
Despite an 18-month inquiry in Belgium concluding that the police and football authorities were equally responsible for the disaster, ESPN’s Jon Carter recalls that “anti-English sentiment was rife” in the aftermath of the game. As Italian fans bayed for revenge, UEFA observer Gunter Schneider concluded that “only the English fans were responsible”.
In the aftermath, it was in fact the English authorities that acted first, the FA banning its own clubs from European competition before UEFA followed suit. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher weighed in, saying that the game had to be “cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again”.
The ban cast a pall over Liverpool. Phil Neal, Liverpool’s captain in Brussels, called Heysel “the worst thing imaginable. It felt as if Liverpool had let English football down, when for 20 years they had been its finest ambassador. That’s what really turned our stomachs.”
Aside from fuelling negative, animalistic attitudes towards football fans that would play a huge part in causing the other great Liverpool tragedy of the 1980s, the Hillsborough disaster, the ban would have both immediate and long-term ramifications for English football. Liverpool’s city rivals Everton, having just completed an annus mirabilis in which they had won the league and Cup-Winners’ Cup, would be denied a shot at the European Cup; resentment at this lost opportunity simmers to this day on the blue half of Merseyside.
English clubs, who had won seven out of the last nine European Cups, would be forced into European exile, unable to test and develop their skills against the best teams in foreign environments. The ban on English clubs would eventually last five years – six for Liverpool – and mean that any claim to genuine greatness by an English team would always carry the caveat: but how would they have fared against the cream of Europe?
II. Liverpool 1987-88
Having rallied to win the league in 1986, Liverpool trailed in a distant second behind Everton the following season. Moustachioed goal machine Ian Rush had now departed to sample life in a foreign country with Juventus, and manager Kenny Dalglish knew that he had to act quickly to fill the void left up front by the Welshman. Rush doppelgänger John Aldridge had been recruited the previous season from Oxford United, and Dalglish further bolstered his squad with the pre-season signings of John Barnes from Watford for £900,000, and Peter Beardsley from Newcastle United, for a club-record fee of £1.9 million.
The signings would eventually prove a masterstroke, though Beardsley did not hit the ground running in the same way as Barnes and Aldridge. Initially, he had struggled to fit in; he had always struggled to fit in. With his lisping Geordie accent, that’ll-do haircut and shuffling gait, there was always an element of the comedic about him. The fact that he was teetotal in an era when footballers regularly enjoyed a few pints of tongue-loosener after training made him even more of a curiosity.
“He was different from everyone else in that he didn’t drink,” said Barnes. “He’d collect the bibs, cones and balls after training had finished. Initially, there might have been a feeling that Peter was sucking up to the manager… there were a few snide remarks.”
The snide remarks would begin to disappear as Beardsley slowly found his feet. A goal against Everton in the league’s first Merseyside derby that season went a long way to winning over the supporters; by the turn of the year, the attacking triumvirate he formed with Aldridge and Barnes had delivered 28 goals and was turning into a mutual appreciation society.
“That was the genius of Liverpool: recognising how a group of players that hadn’t been in the same side could come together and gel instantly,” said Barnes. “Peter was crucial to my success. Of everyone I played with, Peter was the one I enjoyed playing with most.”
Aldridge was more succinct when asked to sum up Beardsley: “Genius.”
The trio contributed to a brand of football that was breathtakingly fast, laced with sublime skill and, curiously, quite un-English. Barnes compares his experience with Liverpool to that with the national team:
“When I played for Liverpool, I would receive the ball 20 or 30 times a game. For England, I would receive possession maybe five or 10 times a match. There was a lot of long ball. During all my time in international football, I can’t remember a run of games where we passed a team off the park … like we did at Liverpool.”
Currently in their third year of exile from Europe, Liverpool were playing a brand of football so foreign that the English national team itself could not, or would not, reproduce it. With their trio of forwards augmented by the finesse of Alan Hansen in defence and the pace and power of crisp-fuelled running machine Steve Nicol on the flanks, Liverpool battered their way through the First Division. One particular purple patch in the September-October period saw them score four goals in consecutive league games, Nicol chipping in with a stunning hat-trick from full-back against Newcastle.
By mid-March, Liverpool were already champions-elect, but a 1-1 draw at Derby followed by a first league defeat of the season to Everton heralded a sticky run of one win in five, including a 2-1 defeat to Forest in a rearranged game at the City Ground on April 2. Two days after the Forest game, Liverpool were held at home by Manchester United, allowing themselves to be pegged back to 3-3 having been 3-1 up and cruising.
The mini-slump hardly seemed worrying; Liverpool were still 11 points clear of second-placed United, and had two games in hand. On top of that, they had just knocked Forest out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage, with a final against the footballing yeomen of Wimbledon surely guaranteeing a trophy. Nevertheless, questions were beginning to be asked: were the wheels falling off this new-look Liverpool side? Did the recent recruits from Watford, Newcastle and Oxford have the big-club mentality necessary to see them to the finishing line?
All doubts were removed in the most emphatic fashion that April night at Anfield, as Liverpool and Forest played out the last of their three-game mini-series.
III. Pass Remarkable
The first goal, after 18 minutes, is a gem: Hansen nicks the ball off the toe of Forest’s Lee Glover before advancing and feeding Ray Houghton, who had followed his Irish international teammate Aldridge to Liverpool from Oxford in October. Houghton drives forward and a quick-fire exchange with Barnes puts him through on goal, his delayed finish an eerie precursor to Michael Thomas’s last-gasp league-winning strike for Arsenal a year later at the same end of the ground.
Beardsley himself had shown all the signs of having a stinker in the first ten minutes, constantly giving the ball away, but by the time Forest won a throw-in deep in Liverpool’s half in the 37th minute, he had grown into the game with some trademark turns and touches.
When you watch the clip back, it seems scarcely plausible that, 11 seconds after the ball leaves Forest right-back Steve Chettle’s hands, the ball will be nestling in his team’s net. A feature of that Liverpool team was the eagerness of Barnes, Houghton and even Aldridge to get back and help out their defence. As Forest winger Gary Crosby goes to control Chettle’s throw, Barnes, in the left-back position, sticks out a toe and knocks the ball to Beardsley, who has his back to goal. Chettle and Terry Wilson immediately sense a victim and move towards Beardsley in a pincer movement.
A less gifted player would have taken the safe option and returned the ball to Barnes. Beardsley, however, revelled in tight situations like this. A product of the famous Wallsend Boys Club, alma mater to a remarkable tranche of footballers over the years including Steve Bruce, Alan Shearer and Michael Carrick, Beardsley had learnt his trade as a kid playing small-sided games in a terrifyingly named football cage.
“I used to play five-a-side in what we called the Sweatbox, four or five nights a week in confined surroundings. You learned how to think more quickly on your feet. The tackles would come flying in and if you were kicked it was probably because you’d held the ball too long.”
Chettle and Wilson never even have a chance to get their tackles in. With one quick feint, Beardsley is away from both of them and, the Wallsend Sweatbox in the back of his mind, he knows his next job is to find a teammate as quickly as possible. Looking up, he spots Aldridge galloping through the middle. Beardsley’s through-ball, hit with bend and dip from just inside the Liverpool half, is just enough ahead of Aldridge that Forest keeper Steve Sutton thinks he has half a chance, and commits himself. Aldridge’s delicate, chipped finish pays Beardsley’s pass the compliment it deserves: cue manly handshakes all round, as was the style at the time.
Possessing as it does a uniquely Merseyside beauty, Aldridge’s goal is the football equivalent of The La’s 1988 single There She Goes: transcendent, pure, and no less magical after repeated playbacks. Like La’s singer Lee Mavers, Beardsley was constantly striving for utopia in his chosen profession; commentator Motson calls him “the perfectionist” towards the end of the game. One hopes that Beardsley was happier with his end product that night than the notoriously hard-to-please Mavers ever was with his band’s recordings.
Two-nil up at half-time, Liverpool saw no reason to let up in the second half. With the limping Des Walker having been replaced by the 19-year-old Darren Wassall – you’ll find his name in the dictionary under “hiding to nothing” – Forest could do little against Liverpool’s bewildering total football.
Every player in red is comfortable on the ball, everyone seems to switch positions, and switch play, with consummate ease. Gary Gillespie adds a third before Beardsley gives Aldridge a run for his money for goal of the night, expertly slotting home to make it 4-0 after Barnes had turned Forest’s entire right-hand side into matchwood.
With Aldridge rounding off the scoring after sterling work from Beardsley and Nigel Spackman, Anfield was triumphant and Motson struggling to stay cogent.
“Individual skill that nowhere in the world, surely, would you see better.”
The best Liverpool performance? Possibly. The best Liverpool team ever? Without a European Cup to their name, there’s no way. One thing is for certain, though: on Planet England in the late ’80s, cut off from the rest of the footballing universe, the Liverpool of Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge were light years ahead of the competition. Apart from Wimbledon, of course.
By MJ Corrigan. Follow @corriganwriter