In the spring of 1990, English football was abuzz. A virtuoso performance by Paul Gascoigne against Czechoslovakia sealed his place at the centre of an England team that would set the ‘world in motion’ at the World Cup, while speculation surrounding Alex Ferguson’s job at the helm of Manchester United peaked each time the FA Cup draw was made, with the sack seemingly being the inevitable consequence of elimination.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s hopes of winning the Divison One title – their third of the Kenny Dalglish era – after the heartbreak of losing it in last minute of the previous season to Arsenal, were again under threat, this time by an unheralded Aston Villa team inspired by the dynamism and goals of David Platt and the management of Graham Taylor.
As the March transfer deadline approached, both teams sought the final piece of the jigsaw to help get them over the line. For Villa, an over-reliance on Platt’s goals witnessed the signing of a proven scorer as the priority. On the face of it, the procurement of Tony Cascarino, whose prolific 99-goal partnership with Teddy Sheringham had helped establish Millwall as a top-flight team, was a good fit.
For Dalglish, goals were also a concern, with talismanic striker Ian Rush out injured for a number of weeks and with his natural stand-in, John Aldridge, having been sold to Real Sociedad earlier in the season. However his choice would raise eyebrows – even amongst the most fervent of Liverpool fans.
The man charged with filling Rush’s boots was a player little known outside of the confines of Belgian and Israeli football, where he had plied his trade for four years: the 26-year-old Israel striker Ronny Rosenthal, who arrived on an initial loan deal from Standard Liège. Whilst Rosenthal had not stood out in European competition, his record of 24 goals in 54 games for Standard was respectable, and earlier in the season, he was an instrumental part of the Israel team that had almost qualified for the 1990 World Cup, only to be denied in a playoff by a Carlos Valderrama-inspired Colombia.
Standing at five-foot-eleven, Rosenthal had a powerful physique, which allied to his blistering pace led to Liverpool fans christening him ‘Rocket Ronny’. Against most predictions, he scored seven goals in eight games, acting as the catalyst for a run of wins that propelled Liverpool to the title by a margin of nine points over Villa. His signature performance was a perfect hat-trick in the match away to Charlton Athletic, scored with right foot, left foot and header.
For the Villains, the signing of Cascarino failed to have the desired effect, the striker scoring just twice in ten games. His style was out of kilter with that which had made Villa so successful earlier in the season. Indeed, it was an acquisition that invited comparisons with Rodney Marsh’s transfer to table-topping Manchester City in 1972, a move seen by many as disruptive to the team dynamic and which ultimately cost City the title.
Following his heroics, Rosenthal’s move was made permanent for a £1m fee in the close season (the fee would have been just £500,000 had it been a permanent move from the start), but the remainder of his Liverpool career failed to touch those heady heights of spring 1990. The restored fitness of Rush combined with competition from later signings like David Speedie and Dean Saunders saw Rosenthal’s playing opportunities severely restricted, resulting in his transfer to Tottenham in January 1994.
If one incident highlighted Rosenthal’s fall from grace, it was an astonishing open goal miss against Aston Villa in September 1992, when he shot against the crossbar from short range when it appeared easier to score, something that has lingered long in the memory. The unassuming and still underrated Israeli jokingly told the Liverpool Echo in an interview: “You never forget the players at the lower level, only the top level.”
However, it was those seven goals in the 1989/90 season that have maintained “Rocket Ronny’s” cult status amongst Kopites, especially with each year that has passed without the league trophy in the Anfield cabinet. Such was the supernova effect that he had on the club that, in a 2006 poll held amongst 100,000 Liverpool fans by LFC TV, Rosenthal was ranked at number 76 amongst the ‘100 Players who Shook the Kop’ – a fitting tribute to an unlikely hero.
By Mark Orton @MarkAOrton