Few moments so concisely, so memorably represent the greatest moment of a footballer’s career. Few footballers had moments like Stan Collymore. Sixteen years before Martin Tyler immortalised Sergio Agüero’s title-winning goal, there was his equally legendary commentary that belonged to the moment Collymore scored Liverpool’s late winner in that 4-3 win over Newcastle, in March 1996, the most famous Premier League goal of the 1990s; some may argue the most famous Premier League goal of all.
Skill, strength, speed, as Alan Hansen might have put it. Collymore had the lot, and more. A maverick footballer, he possessed a fiercely independent personality that, in hindsight, marked him out as an anachronism among the clinical homogeneity of the Premier League era.
Collymore spent only two seasons at Anfield. Two seasons peppered with isolated moments of genius, and one sustained period of consistent brilliance. The perceived notion that Collymore career was one of underachievement is strangely, at once, true and false. Even before Roy Evans broke the British transfer record in the summer of 1995, Collymore had cut an enigmatic, sometimes controversial figure, which, on the pitch, defenders had few answers to.
Collymore signed professional terms with Crystal Palace in 1990 and it was his during his one season at Southend, 1992/93, that he caught the eye, scoring 15 goals as the shrimpers maintained their place in the second tier of English football. But it was after joining relegated Nottingham Forest for £2 million, in the summer of 1993, that Collymore’s career exploded. At the City Ground, Collymore found a perfect home for his devastating gifts.
His goals helped Frank Clark’s team back into the Premier League at the first attempt. But it was more the manner of the goals over the two-season period that stood out. Looking not unlike an English version of Brazilian genius Ronaldo, Collymore destroyed defence after defence. Receiving the ball just inside the opposition half, he’d simply humiliate defenders before applying a trademark blistering finish.
In his second season at Forest, he scored a stunning goal against Manchester United at the City Ground, and an even better one at Old Trafford, arguably the best and most famous goal he had scored up to that point in his career. Alex Ferguson was an admirer but signed Andy Cole instead. There were many more spectacular goals and an England cap in the summer.
Collymore was a contender, and in the summer of 1995, the big time beckoned. Roy Evans, building an exciting young team at Liverpool that included Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, David James, Rob Jones, and Jason McAteer, needed to complete the jigsaw. Collymore, the £8.5 million long-term replacement for Ian Rush, was the final piece.
His debut against Sheffield Wednesday at an expectant, sun-kissed Anfield, on the opening day of the 1995-96 season, was the stuff of dreams. Collymore scored a goal that was part solo, part stunning long-rage finish to leave Liverpool fans believing he would prove a catalyst to a title challenge. But the opening months, despite an outstanding goal against champions Blackburn, did not go smoothly.
Injuries and alleged criticism of Evans did not help. Neither did Fowler’s stunning form, which saw him preferred to Collymore in the starting line-up alongside Rush. November, in particular, was a chastising month for Liverpool as they crashed out of Europe and the League Cup. Then came December, and a reborn Collymore proved a catalyst after all.
As Liverpool trailed 1-0 to Southampton, at home, it looked like the dismal run would continue. Then Collymore collected the ball inside the area and brutally dispatched an equaliser into the roof of the net to give Liverpool a point. A week later he scored the only goal at Bolton.
From that point on, until that dagger through the heart of Newcastle’s title ambitions in the spring, Collymore embarked on one of the most exciting periods by an individual player at Anfield in recent decades, and alongside Fowler provided comfortably Liverpool’s most exciting striking partnership of the 1990s.
After Bolton came a 2-0 win over Manchester United in which Collymore simply ripped Ferguson’s team apart. A week later, he provided three assists as Fowler scored a hat-trick against Arsenal at Anfield. On New Year’s Day, Collymore scored twice as Liverpool beat former club Forest 4-2 at Anfield. Collymore and Fowler had clicked, and they were unstoppable. More goals followed against Leeds, Aston Villa, a brace against Blackburn, and Wimbledon. And then, of course, his two goals against Newcastle.
Liverpool finished third, but a Wembley date with champions Manchester United awaited them. The 1996 FA Cup final is now remembered more for the white suits worn by the Liverpool players pre-match than anything else, forever tainting what was a gifted and in relative terms — though not by Liverpool standards — successful group of players.
At a gloomy, rain-thrashed Wembley, Liverpool and Manchester United played out a dismal match. Liverpool were poor, and United were poorer. But whereas Fowler, Collymore and co. failed to rise to the occasion, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona did. On 75 minutes, Collymore was replaced by Ian Rush, playing his last ever match for the Reds. Ten minutes later, Cantona scored a fine winner to confine Liverpool to one of the most painful defeats in their history.
Collymore’s second season at Anfield, though far from unproductive, saw him edge closer to the exit door. The signing of Patrick Berger often left Collymore on the bench with Evans seemingly hell-bent on substituting one for the other as Kop idol Fowler became undroppable.
For long periods of the season, Liverpool were Manchester United’s only challengers for the Premier League crown and looked set to break a seven-year title drought. But a poor finish to the season, which included notorious defeats at Anfield to Coventry and Manchester United, meant Liverpool ultimately finished fourth in a two-horse race. To make matter worse they missed out on Champions League football in the first season that a second-place finish offered qualification.
After 35 goals over two seasons, Collymore’s time at Anfield was over, as boyhood favourites Aston Villa came calling. At 26, and arguably the peak of his powers, it was a dream move. It started well, too. There was UEFA Cup hat-trick and even a small measure of revenge against his old club as he scored twice in 2-1 win over Liverpool. But highlights proved few, and far between. Collymore was in out of the side as he reportedly failed to see eye to eye with gaffer Gregory.
He scored just seven league goals in a three-year spell interrupted by a loan spell at Fulham. Far more seriously, Collymore suffered from clinical depression, which to his immense credit he continues to highlight, and bravely fight, to this day.
After Villa, Collymore’s career unravelled quickly, even if there were occasional reminders that this was one of the most gifted players of the Nineties. Briefly, he performed well for Martin O’Neill’s Leicester, before his career petered out with short spells at Bradford, despite a spectacular overhead goal on his debut, and Real Oviedo in Spain. Collymore had fallen out of love with the beautiful game and eventually, at only 31, walked away from football.
He left us with some of the most explosive moments of the Premier League’s first decade. One in particular, of course. “Collymore closing in…. Liverpool lead in stoppage time!” As Liverpool’s number eight ran the perimeter of a hysterical Anfield, he wasn’t to know this would be his finest hour. Or maybe he did. Very few players could even dream of hitting such heights, of doing what Collymore could do. And he did it all in his own way.
By Ali Khaled @AliKhaled_