The tragedy and triumph of Liverpool’s 1988/89 season

The tragedy and triumph of Liverpool’s 1988/89 season

To say that Liverpool were peerless in the 1987/88 season would be to underestimate the sheer level of their dominance. After Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as player-manager in 1985, he had overseen an overhaul of the playing squad, the reduction of his own playing time, and the building of a new great Liverpool side – which crucially still played the Liverpool way – featuring John Barnes, John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley, among others.

Liverpool strolled to the title, scoring 87 league goals, ending with a total of 90 points, nine ahead of Manchester United in second. Although they lost in a memorable FA Cup final with Wimbledon, the 1987/88 season will go down as one of the greatest in English football history. The uncertainty that had surrounded the club as the season began was gone. The Liver Bird was well and truly entrenched on its perch. 

Liverpool fans had every reason to feel optimistic entering the 1988/89 season. The star players from the previous season had remained, and one in particular had returned, with Ian Rush trudging back after an unhappy spell at Juventus for a fee of £2.8m – then a British record. Joining Rush was Nick Tanner from Bristol Rovers and Barry Jones from Prescot Cables.

Of course, Rush’s return was the highlight of the summer, with the chairman John Smith stating, “It would be an understatement to say I’m delighted.” Thoughts then turned to the previous season’s top scorer, John Aldridge, who many felt would presumably be making way for Rush to reclaim his spot upfront as the number 9. 

However, it was Aldridge who partnered Beardsley upfront against Wimbledon in the Charity Shield at Wembley on 20 August, with the league champions gaining a modicum of revenge for their FA Cup final loss the previous season in a 2-1 win, Aldridge scoring the winning goal. Post-match, Aldridge stated he’d heard of Rush’s return when it was announced on the radio that week, but that he would make Dalglish’s first-team selection difficult. Clearly, he wasn’t going to simply step aside for the returning hero.

Rush was again on the bench on the opening day as Dalglish’s side visited Charlton in their much-loved grey away kit. Aldridge again staked his claim to remain in the starting lineup, scoring three goals in a fantastic opening day hat-trick as Liverpool won 3-0. Same old, same old.

Liverpool then welcomed Nottingham Forest to Anfield in the quarter-finals of the Centenary Trophy – held to celebrate 100 years of the Football League – and soundly defeated Brian Clough’s side 4-1 through goals from Barry Venison, Jan Mølby, Ray Houghton and Barnes. 

Next up was the visit of Manchester United to Anfield. Barnes repeatedly tore the United defence to shreds in the first half, regaining much of his previous campaign’s form (Barnes had been criticised of “going missing” at Euro 88 and not showing anything like his Liverpool form) dribbling at them, and turning his opposing number, Viv Anderson, inside-out. Unsurprisingly, it was Barnes who won Liverpool a penalty in the 38th minute. Dispatched by Mølby, the score would finish 1-0. This was the first time United had lost at Anfield since 1979. 

Read  |  Why Liverpool’s team of 1987/88 is perhaps English football’s finest

A pair of draws against promoted Aston Villa and Tottenham followed the United victory, with Liverpool suddenly looking shakier than in the previous year-and-a-half. The goals were still beautiful – Beardsley’s top corner strike against Spurs a highlight – but it was noticeable that the side that had been peerless sixth months earlier wasn’t quite at the same level.

The match was also significant for being Bruce Grobbelaar’s last until the turn of the year, the Zimbabwean becoming hospitalised after meningitis. After four league games, Liverpool sat fourth in the table on eight points, and the draw against Spurs was followed by a 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the semi-final of the Centenary Trophy at Highbury. 

Thanks to Dalglish’s experience and guidance, Liverpool seemed to get themselves back on track with a comfortable league victory against second-place Southampton and a League Cup win over Walsall to close September. The victory would be significant for Rush’s first Liverpool goal of the season, a classic turn and finish in the box.

However, the Reds would go winless in their next four league games, losing to Newcastle, Luton – replete with their AstroTurf pitch – and Forest, with a goalless draw against Coventry. The Newcastle loss was in stark contrast to their easy victory against the Toon at St. James’ Park at the beginning of the 1987/88 season. The Luton defeat would see Gary Gillespie out injured, forcing Liverpool to open their chequebook, paying West Brom £500,000 for David Burrows. Since every cloud also has a silver lining, the Forest draw finally saw Rush’s first league goal of the season. Still, this meant that after nine league games, Liverpool sat in seventh, ten points adrift. Mølby had also been sentenced to three months in prison on 17 October for drink-driving. He would serve 45 days. 

Next up was West Ham at Upton Park, and finally Liverpool – and Rush – showed real signs of life in a 2-0 victory. Their first came from a long goal kick, which bounced to Rush. The Welshman dummied the defender, controlling with his right and moving the ball to his left, before striking it on the bounce from just outside the area. With the ball left nestling in the back of the net, it was becoming harder to argue that Rushie was returning to form. The second was a classic Liverpool goal, passing around the defence before cutting the ball back into the penalty box, with Beardsley stroking it into the bottom corner.

Liverpool then drew 1-1 with Arsenal at Anfield in the Littlewoods Cup, taking the lead thanks to a glorious solo effort from Barnes, who scythed his way through the Gunners defence before finishing past John Lukić. Back in the league, Liverpool would defeat Middlesbrough 3-0, with Rush grabbing his first goal at Anfield that season, smashing in from five yards in front of the Kop to send the fans into delirium. Gone now was the issue of having to play Rush or Aldridge: Dalglish simply picked both, moving Beardsley deeper. It appeared that the Liver Bird was beginning to spread its wings once again.

Another draw, this time 0-0, followed against Arsenal in the Littlewoods Cup replay. The third match would finally be won by Liverpool at Villa Park, with Steve McMahon and Aldridge gifting the Reds a 2-1 win.

Of course, as had become the pattern throughout the season, Liverpool then stuttered to draws against Millwall and Wimbledon at Anfield, before a 1-0 victory at Loftus Road against QPR. They would end November with a thrashing by West Ham in the Littlewoods Cup, going down 4-1 at Upton Park thanks to a fantastic performance by a young Paul Ince. Consistency was becoming increasingly hard to come by for Dalglish’s men. 

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December began with yet another draw against Arsenal, in the league this time, at Highbury, with Barnes on the scoresheet. A week later came the small matter of the derby at Anfield against Everton. Liverpool peppered the Toffees’ goal, with Venison going close, but it was Houghton who finally broke the deadlock, breaking the offside trap after being played in by Barnes and rounding the goalkeeper after 30 minutes. Liverpool had further chances to stretch the lead, but early in the second half, Burrows gave away a penalty which was converted by Wayne Clark, sending goalkeeper Mike Hooper the wrong way. Both sides then had chances to take the victory, but it ended 1-1.

By this point, Liverpool had recorded only two victories at Anfield all season. Their home record became even worse when surprise leaders Norwich came to Anfield and left with a 1-0 victory. This left the Reds eight points back, with Arsenal only two points behind Norwich boasting a vital game in hand. A 1-0 victory over Derby at the Baseball Ground ended a disappointing first half of the season for Liverpool as the new year beckoned. 

If Liverpool fans thought the new year would suddenly boost their form, they were wrong: 1989 would hardly start on a positive for Dalglish’s side, with a disappointing away loss at Old Trafford. At this point, Liverpool sat seventh in the table with 28 points after 19 games, having won seven, drawn seven, and lost five. Few Liverpool fans would’ve recognised that as title-winning form. However, the loss at Old Trafford would prove to be a turning point. Liverpool would now begin to show the form of champions – and they would turn their season around in the process.

Following the defeat against United on New Year’s Day, Liverpool would begin an unbeaten run that would last until May. In January they would defeat Aston Villa and Southampton – Grobbelaar returning to the line-up and playing well – and come back from 2-0 down against Sheffield Wednesday to draw 2-2. In the FA Cup, they defeated Carlisle 3-0 in the third round and Millwall 2-0 at The Den. However, despite the improvement, they still ended January fourth in the league and nine points behind new leaders Arsenal.

February would see Liverpool rarely in action due to the poor weather, and so the only matches they played were a 2-2 draw to eventually relegated Newcastle and the fifth round of the FA Cup, a 3-2 away victory over Hull. Whilst Liverpool hadn’t been able to play in February, leaders Arsenal had. They ended February with a 19-point gap between themselves and Liverpool, but crucially the Reds now had four games in hand. Still, the bookies had Arsenal at evens to win the title going into March. Would the real Liverpool stand up?

March would be a defining month for the Merseyside giants. Dalglish’s side won all six league games they played, scoring 17 and conceding just two, recapturing their form of 1987/88. The highlight was a 5-0 victory at Anfield over Luton, with a hat-trick from Aldridge supported by goals from Beardsley and McMahon. As March ended, following a 1-0 victory over Derby in front of over 42,000 at Anfield, Liverpool had closed the gap to Arsenal to five points.

They still had one last game in hand, too. Suddenly, it seemed as though there might just be a title race after all. Aldridge had undoubtedly been the key factor in this resurgence, scoring in every single Liverpool game in March on his way to finishing as Anfield’s top scorer. It seems no coincidence that Aldridge’s return to form occurred at the same time that Rush was ruled out with a knee injury that would require surgery. The Rush return hadn’t been quite the success that John Smith and the board had hoped for. 

A further victory over former league leaders Norwich took their winning run to seven, and when they faced Sheffield Wednesday on 8 April, they knew they would go top with a win. A vintage Liverpool performance led to goals from McMahon, Barnes, Houghton and Beardsley as the Liver Bird reclaimed its perch with a 5-1 win. Once again, Liverpool were top.

Read  |  John Barnes: pioneer, genius and still under-appreciated

Much like 1987/88, the football had returned to being “simple, but of a quite stupendous quality”as John Motson had put it. Arsenal would retake the top spot later in the day leaving Liverpool three points back, but the Reds still had that game in hand.

They won their ninth straight game away at The Den against Millwall, coming back from 1-0 down to triumph 2-1 thanks to goals from Barnes and Aldridge. Liverpool were now top on goal difference with six league games to go and, despite their poor start to the season, somehow pushing for a league and cup double.

The next game Liverpool would play would be the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. The events of 15 April 1989 would change Liverpool Football Club, the city and the wider English game forever, as 96 Liverpool fans would head to the match and never return home.

The first competitive game Liverpool played after Hillsborough – they had played Celtic in a friendly – would fittingly be the derby at Goodison. There were shows of solidarity between both sets of fans throughout, including a banner that read, ‘The Kop thanks you all, we never walked alone’but despite being an entertaining game it remained goalless and Liverpool drew for the first time since February.

Liverpool eventually defeated Forest in the replay of the FA Cup semi at Old Trafford, winning 3-1 thanks to two strikes by Aldridge. It meant that the FA Cup final would be another derby against Everton.     

Back in the League, Liverpool faced Forest again on 10 May, winning 1-0 at Anfield thanks to a late Aldridge penalty. The draw to Everton in the derby had cost Liverpool, with Arsenal now five points clear, but the Reds still maintained that important game in hand. On the final full weekend of the season, Arsenal would trip themselves up again, losing to Derby.

Liverpool, however, on the anniversary of their FA Cup final defeat to Wimbledon, went to Plough Lane to face the Dons, and despite going 1-0 down following a deflected shot by John Fashanu, ended up coming back to win 2-1 thanks to Aldridge and Barnes. On the 16th they faced QPR at Anfield, and were again comfortable in their 2-0 victory with goals from Aldridge and Ronnie Whelan.

The night after the QPR win, Arsenal dropped points to Wimbledon. This left Liverpool level on points with the Gunners, but with a game in hand. Arsenal only had one game left to play: Liverpool at Anfield. The comeback was almost complete. 

Before that was the small matter of the FA Cup final. Liverpool had taken the lead after Aldridge finished a beautiful counter-attack, but were pegged back after a goalmouth scramble ended with Stuart McCall finally getting the ball over the line. After 90 minutes the scores were still tied, so the game continued. In extra-time, substitute Rush gave Liverpool the lead, taking the ball with his back to goal, pivoting to his left in the box and firing the ball into the top corner, making a very difficult skill look remarkably effortless.

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Rush may not have had the season that the Anfield faithful had hoped for, but this was his game of the season. McCall would again bring the Toffees level again, volleying the ball into the bottom corner in the 102nd minute. Not to be overshadowed, Rush gave Liverpool the lead two minutes later, heading in a Barnes cross from the left. The Welshman had spent portions of the season coming off the bench but, when it mattered most, the Anfield legend won the FA Cup for Liverpool, perhaps the most fitting end to that year’s competition following the tragic events of the semi-final. It remains Liverpool’s most emotionally-charged glories.

Back in the league, Liverpool faced West Ham at Anfield in their penultimate game of the season, knowing that a win would take them clear at the top. West Ham were fighting for survival in the First Division and a tricky encounter was expected. Liverpool, however, were now at their peerless best and sent West Ham down to the second tier with a 5-1 drubbing. The ever-reliable Aldridge opened the scoring in the 20th minute, tapping in from a Barnes cutback. West Ham equalised but Houghton regained the lead with two second-half goals.

After Houghton’s second, the commentator said: “… and that also means a league title for Liverpool this season.” Rush then continued his improved form with a goal in the 84th minute before Barnes completed the rout with one at the death.

This left Liverpool going into the final fixture with Arsenal – only happening because the original game had been postponed following Hillsborough – on 27 May three points clear, needing to avoid losing by two clear goals.

Liverpool hadn’t been beaten since January; they hadn’t lost by two goals at Anfield in three years; they’d made an incredible fightback after a poor start to the season; now they’d surely ease past Arsenal on the final day, becoming the first team to repeat a league and cup double. Closing out titles was Liverpool’s bread and butter.

Over 42,000 at Anfield and 12 million watching on TV would see one of the most dramatic climaxes in the history of English football. Liverpool’s starting line-up that day was: Grobbelaar; Nicol, Hansen, Ablett, Staunton; Houghton, Whelan (c), McMahon, Barnes; Aldridge, Rush.

Dalglish’s decision to start Beardsley on the bench when Liverpool arguably looked better with him can be questioned, but this was a strong team nonetheless. Dalglish will have known that a goal was what they needed early, perhaps influencing his decision to start both Aldridge and Rush. Whatever the decision, as You’ll Never Walk Alone was belted out by the Kop, the triumph and tragedy of Liverpool’s 1988/89 season was about to culminate in one game. 

Liverpool did have chances. Early on, a wonderful move between Barnes, Rush and Aldridge led to Rush having a shot on goal from outside the box. Unfortunately, he could only smash the ball into Lukić’s grasp. With 32 minutes gone, Rush would come off with a groin strain, to be replaced by Beardsley. Despite Rush’s underwhelming season, Liverpool still hadn’t lost when both he and Aldridge started together.

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With George Graham’s Arsenal largely limiting Liverpool’s traditional 4-4-2 by using a 5-4-1 formation with David O’Leary at sweeper, chances were hard to come by, and both sides went into the break at 0-0. Still, advantage Liverpool. 

After the break, Arsenal would win a free-kick 25 yards out after a long ball forward. Nigel Winterburn would loft the ball into the area, with Alan Smith gambling to flick it towards the corner past a motionless Grobbelaar. Arsenal had the lead. Liverpool were convinced that Smith had handled the ball, but no foul was given. The goal would stand. Still, though, it was advantage Liverpool. 

Arsenal would then switch to a more attacking 4-4-2 and begin to push forward. Houghton would have a half-chance, but his first-time strike after a lofted ball from Aldridge flew just over the top corner of Lukić’s goal. Arsenal continued to push forward, but Liverpool’s defence withstood their attacks.

As the clock ticked beyond 90 minutes, it became clear that Liverpool were doing what they always do – close games out. Barnes was seen passionately shouting to his teammates to keep going as the Kop began to sing. In the 91st minute, a midfield scramble ended with Barnes winning the ball deep in Arsenal’s half. He began to dribble towards the corner but then turned to the goal, losing the ball to Kevin Richardson who played it back to Lukić.

Lukić threw it to Lee Dixon, who played a long pass forward that was controlled by Smith. He turned and lofted the ball forward, meeting Michael Thomas, who controlled it with his toe and went past Liverpool’s defence. As Grobbelaar came out to meet him, Thomas calmly feigned to shoot, before guiding the ball past the Liverpool keeper. Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool. As the Gunners began to celebrate, Liverpool’s players collapsed in disappointment. It would prove to be the final kick of the game.

Tony Adams lifted the title at Anfield in one of the most emotional nights in the history of football. There is a reason that match is still remembered to this day, and for many, it is their version of “Agueroooooo”. Agony and ecstasy. For Liverpool, there was only agony. McMahon would later comment: “It hurts me. It just hurts me. It hurts me so much. It was just unreal. It just flashed before you, the goal. It was like ‘Nah, is this really happening?”

For Liverpool, it was a gut-wrenching end to what had been a tragic season, the most emotional Anfield has ever experienced. From the poor start leaving them in seventh to the unbeaten run that brought them back into the title race, to Hillsborough and the scars that remain to this day, it was a season that no Liverpool supporter who lived through it will forget. The FA Cup glory was just reward for a team that could be blistering on its day, but one that was just shy in terms of efficiency when compared to the class of 1987/88.

Whatever preceded and followed it, the 1988/89 season will be remembered by Liverpool fans for the 96 souls who went to Sheffield and never returned. FA Cup glory was emotional, while losing the title was bitter. But, ultimately, it will always be the year Liverpool – the city and the club – changed course forever.

By Jonathon Aspey @JLAspey

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