When Alan Hansen lifted Liverpool’s eighth championship in 12 years in 1990 few would have thought it would be a quarter of a century, and counting, before the club would collect its next. A 2-1 victory over QPR at the end of April secured an 18th title that in truth never looked in doubt as Kenny Dalglish’s side finished nine points clear of runners-up Aston Villa.
The likes of Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year John Barnes ensured Liverpool boasted the most feared attack in the country, while Hansen, Steve Nicol and Bruce Grobbelaar helped form the meanest defence in the top tier.
“They’ve done it because they’ve been the best and they are the best,” claimed Dalglish after the win against QPR. Such sentiments would not be echoed at Anfield for the foreseeable future.
It was the Reds’ 11th title in 17 years as they monopolised football’s major honours and won admirers in the process. There was little to suggest that the fine work of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Dalglish would be undone in a few short years, but mistakes made in the early ’90s would shape the modern identity of this grand old club.
After two decades of unparalleled success at home and on the European stage Merseyside’s trophy-gathering juggernaut was set for a rude awakening. Less than a year after collecting his third championship medal in five years Dalglish resigned, leaving the club a healthy three points clear in the league and still in contention for the FA Cup.
Former club captain and Kop idol, Graeme Souness, stepped into the void but would never live up to the task of being manager of the biggest club in the land. Much like Dalglish, Souness played with distinction for Liverpool, winning multiple honours during his six-year stay, and his appointment was initially lauded as a smart move.
A man who epitomised the drive and ruthless will to win of arguably Liverpool’s greatest ever team, Souness appeared ideally suited to the demands of managing the Champions. A successful five-year spell at Rangers had yielded three league titles and four league cups. Souness had completed his managerial apprenticeship with flying colours and was ready to step up.
He took over on April 16, 1991, and immediately found himself in an ultimately unsuccessful race for the title with Arsenal. A trophyless first few months was no cause for panic but a summer of transition was on the way as Souness attempted to reinvigorate an ageing squad; a job he set about with gusto ahead of the 1991-92 season, some would argue too much gusto.
Hansen retired while Beardsley, whose form had fallen away in the second half of the season, David Speedie and Gary Gillespie were all sold. On top of this, Ian Rush, Nicol and Ronnie Whelan were now 30 or older and John Barnes played just 12 league games after suffering an Achilles tendon injury, which he later claimed sapped him of his devastating pace. Souness was now fighting a losing battle to return Liverpool to the summit of the English game.
The Scot’s chosen successors were Rangers midfielder Mark Walters, Mark Wright, Dean Saunders – for a then national record fee of £2.9 million from Derby County – and youngsters Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman.
While the new order had their qualities – Saunders was the club’s top scorer in all competitions with 23 goals, and McManaman showed promising raw talent – they lacked the title winning knowhow of their predecessors and Liverpool’s sixth place finish was their first outside the top two in 11 years.
To suggest Souness was solely responsible for Liverpool’s downturn would be irresponsible. He enjoyed success in his second season, claiming the FA Cup with a 2-0 win over Sunderland, and would go on to win Blackburn Rovers’ first League Cup in 2002 as well as bringing a Turkish Cup to Galatasaray. He was a competent manager but his actions at Liverpool undoubtedly hastened their decline.
Finishing sixth for a second consecutive year in 1993’s inaugural Premier League season only confirmed that the rot had well and truly set in. England’s premier club had lost its edge ahead of the formation of the Premier League, and would miss out on much of the financial reward that came with the newly commercialised game.
A five-year deal worth £191.5 million with BSkyB eclipsed ITV’s previous £44m rights package and opened the English game up to a worldwide audience. However, Liverpool’s sixth, eighth, and fourth place finishes in the formative years of the league left them fighting to remain relevant in the eyes of the new breed of international football fan.
Liverpool took home the second highest share of the Premier League’s merit payments (£778,155) in its first year, but their lowly league finishes would prevent them from reaping the real rewards of football’s new cash rich era.
After being banned from European competition for six years in the wake of the Heysel Stadium disaster, in which 39 people died and 14 Liverpool fans were convicted for manslaughter, Liverpool were now eligible to compete in Europe again. This coincided with the renaming of European Cup as the Champions League, as well as rule changes that would soon allow for multiple English teams to compete in the competition. Yet the club would not return to Europe’s premier competition until 2001, and as a result missed out on the opportunity to promote themselves on the biggest stage in club football.
Poor performances meant it became even more important that Liverpool’s commercial arm flexed its muscles to keep pace with the sides at the top of the division. With, for want of a better term, a globally recognisable brand at their disposal, Liverpool were perfectly placed to arrest their slide into mediocrity and modernise the club ahead of the dawn of the 21st century.
The perfect example of their failure to do so – and Liverpool fans will not want to hear this – is Manchester United.
As Souness and the Liverpool marketing department were overseeing the club’s fall from grace another Scottish manager was breathing life back into the former Manchester superpower. Sir Alex Ferguson won the FA Cup with United in 1990 before capturing the Old Trafford club’s first European honour since 1968 with a 2-1 defeat of Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later.
It would prove to be the start of a power-shift in English football, as United went on to win five premier League titles before the end of the ’90s and transform into a global super brand. Liverpool, by contrast, picked up a solitary League Cup and remained in stasis during this period.
United returned to the top of the English game and joined Europe’s footballing giants in embracing commercial opportunities and maximising their international appeal. Merchandising went into overdrive and clubs used their storied histories to increase revenues and fan bases around the world. In turn, stadiums, training facilities, player wages and transfer fees would improve at a rate Liverpool could not compete with.
Whether or not cashing in on the past in this manner is right remains debateable, but what is certain is that it does secure a future. A brief glance at the teams who Liverpool were on a par with at the turn of the ‘90s tells you that.
The likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus, Arsenal and Ajax have all moved to new stadiums while United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea have modernised their grounds. Meanwhile, Anfield has been the subject of multiple failed development plans and the current work to increase the grounds capacity cannot come soon enough.
By the end of the ‘90s Liverpool were well adrift of Manchester United and Arsenal and started to find it difficult to hold onto star assets; a problem that would continue well into the new millennium. Home-grown products, McManaman and Michael Owen left for Madrid, while the likes of Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torrres and most recently Luis Suárez have also left for pastures new in recent years.
It also remains to be seen if Liverpool can fight of interest from Europe’s big spenders and retain the services of Raheem Sterling this summer. This trend needs to be bucked if Liverpool are to mount a serious assault on the title similar to that seen in 2014.
Simply put Liverpool have failed to move with the times and are still desperately trying to claw their way back to the top. The Liverpool of the 1990s bares glaring similarities to the Liverpool of today, a club that looks back fondly on former glories and fails to deliver the vision to recapture those heady days.
When asked about the 25 year title hiatus former manager, Brendan Rodgers, said: “It’s a mark of how far the club has moved forward that there’s such disappointment that we weren’t challenging this year.” Nice try Brendan, but it’s further evidence of how far the club has fallen.
By Harry Gray. Follow @Hgray55