Ask football fans of a certain age in pubs across Britain which team they most dislike and a number of them will say Liverpool. As a football fan who was born early in the 1990s, it’s difficult to figure out why so many of them have a deep-seated hatred for Liverpool to this day – until you consider that the exact same thing is said by this generation about Manchester United.
Quite simply, success breeds contempt, and for 20 years throughout the 1970s and the 80s, no team in English football was more successful than Liverpool Football Club. Dominant just doesn’t quite cut it: American sports refer to this kind of success as a dynasty, and Liverpool were certainly that.
The number of great teams Liverpool developed during this period was simply astounding, and although the key parts largely remained the same – Kenny Dalglish in particular featured from 1977 until the late-80s – the team continually evolved throughout two decades.
Evolved is indeed the perfect term to describe Liverpool, because many feel that Liverpool’s last great side – the side of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge – was their finest of them all, certainly from an aesthetic standpoint. What’s more, their first season together in 1987/88 is one of the greatest domestic league seasons a British club has ever achieved. Fans from the time look back and say that it was like watching Brazil; 87 league goals suggests it was.
What’s difficult to believe is that the entire season began with an air of uncertainty surrounding Liverpool, something that rarely existed at an Anfield that had gotten used to stability. Manager Kenny Dalglish – fresh off the club’s first-ever League and FA Cup double in 1986 – began to refocus the team throughout the 1986/87 season, severely reducing his appearances as player/manager as Liverpool finished second.
Dalglish also sold Liverpool legend and leading scorer Ian Rush to Juventus for £3.2m – then a British record fee. Of course, that money would be reinvested back into the playing squad, and it is tantamount to the expert organisation and administration behind Liverpool at the time that it would be done perfectly.
In came Peter Beardsley from Newcastle, Nigel Spackman and Aldridge in early 1987 from Chelsea and Oxford – then a First Division side – and winger Barnes from Watford. Beardsley, Barnes and Aldridge would go on to spearhead Liverpool’s attack throughout the coming season and would provide some of the best football Britain will ever see.
Beardsley was signed to fill the creative striker role left vacant by Dalglish, Aldridge was signed to be Rush’s successor – a player he bore a noticeable stylistic and physical similarity to – and John Barnes was simply the best attacking player in the country at the time, and would take his talent to new levels in the classic red Adidas kit.
However, Liverpool and Barnes would open the season in their grey away kit, away to Arsenal at Highbury. Arsenal had defeated Liverpool in the previous season’s League Cup final, but Liverpool showed their progress as a side, defeating them 2-1 through goals from Aldridge and Steve Nicol. Aldridge’s former side Oxford were also defeated at Anfield in September, with the striker opening the scoring before Barnes sealed the game with a second.
Liverpool were unbeaten by the time they went to another of their new signings’ former clubs in Newcastle United at St James’ Park. Newcastle had signed the Brazilian Mirandinha from Palmeiras to replace Beardsley, but it was the Liverpool number 7 who came away with the bragging rights, making several wonderful passes through the Newcastle defence in a 4-1 win with Nicol grabbing a hat-trick and Aldridge again scoring.
Liverpool were peerless. After a 4-0 win over top of the table Queens Park Rangers – though Liverpool had two games in hand – in which Barnes scored two wonderful goals scything through the defence, Liverpool signed Irishman Ray Houghton from Oxford for £825,000, further strengthening the side. Houghton would play on the right of midfield and would wear the number 9 – Aldridge did not want the pressure of wearing Rush’s shirt.
Liverpool’s next major challenge was against city rivals Everton in November. The Reds were still undefeated in the league at this point and were clearly out for revenge for the previous season’s loss of the league title. Furthermore, Everton had knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup mere days before.
The scoring was opened by Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon after a wonderful through ball from Barnes, and Beardsley added a second when the ball dropped to him just inside the box – after a blocked shot by Aldridge set up by a beautiful back-heel from Barnes leading to a cross – and he thundered it into the top corner with his left foot. His technique was perfect – it was classic Beardsley – with the Kop absolutely thunderous in its appreciation. Liverpool’s form continued throughout 1987 and, by the turn of 1988, Liverpool were still unbeaten in the league, a massive 13 points ahead of second-placed Nottingham Forest, then managed by Brian Clough.
Arsenal were a point behind Forest in third, and they came to Anfield in mid-January in a match that set a record for a television audience for a single league game. They would see another outstanding Liverpool display, with the opening goal being one that summed up Liverpool’s skill, attacking flair and work ethic.
After Barnes dribbled past several defenders and put the ball into the box, Houghton had a shot at goal that was blocked and cleared towards the touchline by Tony Adams in some classic English defending. As the ball ran towards the touchline, McMahon sprinted after it, putting his foot on it to stop it going out of play – almost going into the stands himself – before turning back for the ball, sidestepping past an Arsenal defender and playing a lovely pass into Beardsley inside the box, who fired a shot at John Lukić, who couldn’t hold onto it. The ball fell to John Aldridge at the back post who slid in to put the ball in the back of the net. Words really do not do it justice; it was hard work and beauty, all in one.
The second was a solo goal from Beardsley, who dribbled past several Arsenal defenders before deftly chipping Lukić as Liverpool just kept on winning. Like a machine, they just kept on rolling through the rest of January and February.
By March, Liverpool were in danger of breaking Leeds United’s record of the number of games unbeaten – Leeds’ record was 29 – from the start of a league season. When they went to face Derby at the Baseball Ground on the 16th, they knew they would equal the record if they avoided defeat, and in terms of statistics, Liverpool were even better, winning more games, scoring more and conceding less.
Liverpool came away from the East Midlands with a 1-1 draw through Craig Johnston’s goal, meaning they had equalled the record, and would break it if they avoided defeat in their next game – against Everton at Goodison Park. Liverpool had beaten Everton at Goodison in the FA Cup weeks earlier, and the Toffees were out for revenge.
Of course, as fate would have it, the only goal of the game was scored by Everton, meaning that Liverpool only equalled the record of Leeds, but when it is considered that statistically their season was far better than Leeds’ until this point, it is possible to say that Liverpool did indeed better the record.
Liverpool bounced back from that defeat in their next game, defeating Wimbledon 2-1 with goals from the ever-present Barnes and Aldridge, before slipping to another defeat, this time to Nottingham Forest at the City Ground.
Liverpool faced Forest again on 9 April in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, defeating them 2-1 with Aldridge scoring twice. However, as luck – and strange fixture organisation – would have it, just days later Liverpool faced Forest again in the league – this time at Anfield – in what was being dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’ with the series effectively tied at 1-1.
However, this would be another occasion where Liverpool would prove their brilliance, and would dominate Forest right from the first minute, winning 5-0 with consummate ease. Houghton scored the first after a one-two with Barnes that split open the Forest defence. Several further chances followed – including Beardsley blazing over the bar after a wonderful pass from Barnes – before the second, a truly beautiful pass from Beardsley in his own half found Aldridge one-on-one with the keeper, who finished calmly to put Liverpool in control of the match.
John Motson’s commentary summed up the goal: “And that is another superb Liverpool goal. Peter Beardsley made it, John Aldridge scored it, and as with everything Liverpool do, it looked simple, but it was of quite stupendous quality.” It wouldn’t be the last goal to garner this reaction from Motson.
The third quickly followed through Gary Gillespie, a close-range thunderbolt after a combination between Barnes and Hougton, before the fourth simply garnered applause from the whole crowd. Barnes found himself in the corner before putting his foot on the ball, nutmegging a Forest defender, slipping past a sliding tackle, before pulling the ball back to Beardsley, who calmly placed it into the bottom corner. The goal summed up how utterly unstoppable Barnes could be.
The match ended 5-0 and, without any shadow of doubt, this was Liverpool’s best performance of the season. Forest were made to look ordinary as Liverpool showed how good they were, and how much better they were than all the other teams in the country.
After that game and towards the end of the season, Liverpool’s league form slowed down – although they never experienced defeat again – with several draws against mid-table opponents, yet they still won the First Division title with four games to spare with a 1-0 win over Tottenham at Anfield. The Reds ended the season on 90 points, with 87 goals scored and multiple four-goal games.
Of course, Liverpool’s perfect season would go on to become imperfect as a result of the FA Cup final in which they were defeated 1-0 by Wimbledon in one of the great cup final shocks. The fact that the 1988 final is still remembered today illustrates how good Liverpool were that season and how heavily they were favoured going into the game.
It means that their season perhaps isn’t remembered as it should be, but from an aesthetic point of view, Liverpool were as good that season as any British team has ever been. They played with pace, tempo, skill and grit, with players that would have been world-class in any era.
The what-if question is how good would they have been in Europe? At the time English teams were banned from European competitions following the Heysel disaster in 1985, and you have to wonder if they would be remembered more fondly amongst the general public – much like the 1999 Manchester United team or the old Liverpool European Cup-winning sides – if they had played in Europe.
Of course, there is always the argument that Liverpool became so good because they didn’t have Europe to contend with. When you become the best side in your country, the only way to improve is to be the best in a different way. In terms of style of play, it really was the zenith of Liverpool Football Club, and for me, the best they ever played.
At the time, Sir Tom Finney said: “You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil.” He wasn’t wrong.
By Jonathon Aspey @JLAspey