I got drawn into a Twitter debate a few weeks ago, one on the whys and wherefores of the early 1990s demise of Liverpool FC. It reminded me of an article I wrote for this site a year or so ago, one about the misguided decision to re-sign Ian Rush in the summer of 1988. How it was a transfer that was sort of forced upon us and how it had a passively negative effect.
We didn’t need a highly priced striker in the summer of 1988. What we really needed was a centre back of substance.
When it came to Rush, we were left between a rock and a hard place. We didn’t need him, we arguably didn’t suit him anymore, but we couldn’t let him fall into the hands of a rival English club.
Unbeknown to us at the time, the return of Rush marked a line in the sand as such. Although we went on to win one more league title in 1989-90, it was the beginning of the end when he shockingly strolled out at an Anfield press conference, a press conference, that rumour had it, had been called to announce the signing of Gary Pallister from Middlesbrough.
John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge played with a rare footballing telepathy. They were a startlingly damaging force-of-nature for opposing defences to face up to. There was a third eye element to them. Each one seemed to instinctively know where the other would be at any given time. They were almost balletic in their movement. They played instinctively between one another. It was beautiful, it was bludgeoning and it was near perfection.
The Liverpool FC that Rush left in 1987 was a very different beast to the one he returned to a year later. We’d gone from a regular centrally delivered ball for Rush to run on to, to a team which operated the wing positions in a way we hadn’t really done since the mid-1970s.
The dawning of Jimmy Case and the adaption of Ray Kennedy, from misfiring striker into a left-sided midfielder of immense purpose during the 1975-76 season, saw us move away from traditional wingers for wide midfielders who ‘tucked in’. It was a style of play which stuck around for over a decade until the arrival of Barnes changed the landscape markedly.
In effect, Rush was a vanity signing in the summer of 1988. While cover was certainly needed in the wake of Craig Johnston walking away from the club that summer, we didn’t need to blow the entire transfer budget on a striker.
After the sale of Paul Walsh to Tottenham Hotspur, Johnston had operated as a very effective makeshift striker at times during the 1987-88 run-in. In the absence of Walsh and Johnston a void appeared behind Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge. The remarkable strength in depth with which we began the summer 1987, post-Rush world, had diminished by the summer of 1988.
1987-88 Liverpool, certainly during the first half of the campaign, was blessed with what was a remarkable strength in depth for the era. We started the season with a defensive line-up of Barry Venison, Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen and Gary Gillespie, with Mark Lawrenson and Gary Ablett as back-up. There was still hope that Jim Beglin might recover from the horrendous broken leg he sustained at Goodison Park the previous season.
In midfield we had Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan occupying the central midfield roles. Whelan, who up until then had played on the left-hand-side of the midfield during his Liverpool career, had been thought to be under threat due to the signing of Barnes. Instead, it was Jan Molby who proved to be the odd-man-out.
Molby was in good company as back-up to McMahon and Whelan, as we also had Nigel Spackman, John Wark and Kevin MacDonald. With Barnes and Johnston on the left and right respectively we were further enhanced in the early autumn by the signing of Ray Houghton. We had a startling array of options as we approached the winter months.
With Aldridge and Beardsley covered by Walsh, and even Bruce Grobbelaar being afforded the cover of Mike Hooper, a keeper with a sizable degree of first team experience from the 1986-87 season, plus Nicol’s ability to cover wide-midfield positions when required, we had heavy blanket coverage everywhere across the pitch.
By the time Rush returned, much of that cover had dissipated however. While some of the squad eroding circumstances of the 1988-89 season couldn’t have been foreseen, some of the obvious structural issues weren’t remedied.
As the 1987-88 season progressed into the new-year, we began to shed players on an increasingly frequent basis. When Lawrenson limped out of the iconic 2-0 win at home to Arsenal in January with a recurrence of his persistent Achillies problem, it would prove to be the last game of his career. He ended the season as the manager of Oxford United.
Added to the loss of Lawrenson, Wark was allowed to return to Ipswich Town, Walsh made his move to White Hart Lane and it became increasingly clear that Beglin’s injury was more complex than initially hoped, while MacDonald wasn’t quite the same player after his own return from a broken leg. When Johnston walked away from football at the end of the 1987-88 season, we suddenly looked much lighter in numbers than we had a few short months earlier.
This was pressed further when it was confirmed that we’d start the 1988-89 season without the services of Alan Hansen. Although Hansen was initially expected back by October, it would be April before he did return.
Despite the mistaken thought process that Hansen would be back much sooner than proved to be the case; with the legendary defender now 33, and with the early permanent loss to injury of Lawrenson at the start of the year, it was a glaring error not to strengthen significantly in central defence in the summer of 1988.
Bringing in Nick Tanner from Bristol Rovers, being forced to field Alex Watson and moving Ablett across from left back were not adequate concepts to shore up a part of the pitch which was being patrolled by Hansen, Gillespie and Lawrenson just months before.
When we went to Wembley for the Charity Shield against Wimbledon, it was all about the shockwaves of the return of Rush and the response of the now ‘at-peril’ Aldridge. Aldridge’s two goals in a 2-1 win made it something of a formulaic ‘business as usual’ performance.
Within the bigger picture, it was in defence where the structural sands were shifting. Watson played centre back alongside Gillespie, ahead of Molby, who had been expected to fill in for Hansen. Before the year was over the unforeseen circumstances came thundering in to conspire with the previously avoidable weakening of our options at the back.
Gillespie suffered a succession of minor injuries which meant he was in and out of the side on a regular basis, while the long arm of the law ensured that Molby was ‘unavailable’ for a spell midway through the campaign. All the while, we weren’t benefitting from the return of Rush in the manner everyone had anticipated. Injury and illness kept him side-lined for sizable swathes of the season.
Amidst it all, Ablett became the central defensive linchpin for the season. He was partnered at various times by Gillespie, Molby, David Burrows after his signing from WBA, Watson, makeshift alternatives in the shapes of Spackman and MacDonald, then eventually the returning Hansen. When you add to that, the loss of Grobbelaar to illness for four months, then the pressure on Ablett to perform was massive.
A centre back signed in the summer of 1988 would have made not just a short-term difference, but also kept the ethos of evolution of the squad on track. Ablett also would have been afforded more time to grow into his Liverpool career organically, rather than have advanced responsibility thrust upon him. Ablett, unfairly to a degree, eventually became the focus of frustration from the support when the empire began to crumble.
Once we began to paper over our emerging deficiencies we lost control of our future. Pallister was very nearly that much needed summer 1988 central defensive signing. Newly promoted Middlesbrough stubbornly hung on to him for their Division One campaign ahead. Had we managed to persuade them to sell, a Liverpool FC with Gillespie and Pallister at the heart of the defence would have been a foundation we could have restructured upon as the 1990s came into view.
Chelsea’s relegation in the 1988 play-offs, which saw Middlesbrough literally take their top-flight place over the course of their two-legged final, might well have been infused with comic merit, but we perhaps would have signed Pallister that summer had Chelsea stayed up instead.
Elsewhere on the pitch, legend has it that the summer of 1988 also had the projected signing of Paul Gascoigne. The story being that Kenny Dalglish, in light of the outlay on Rush, asked Gascoigne to sit tight at Newcastle United for one more season before he came in for him in the following summer. Gascoigne instead opted to move to Tottenham Hotspur with immediate effect, rather than play the waiting game with Liverpool.
Conjecture and hypothetical as it may be, yet the very real lost summer 1988 signings of Pallister and Gascoigne might well have helped extend our era as a league title winning entity. We’d have certainly bridged the 1980s and 90s with a better rounded side.
I’ve always argued that the concept of Rush coming back to Liverpool wasn’t a problem, but the timing of when he came back was. Had he returned in 1990, or 91 maybe, to a Liverpool with a more stable defence, to a Liverpool with Gascoigne supplying a familiar centrally delivered through ball for him to thrive upon, then who knows what might have been.
Just as all old empires do, at the peak of our powers we took our eye off the horizon. Our remarkable transfer dealings of 1987 were unpicked somewhat in 1988. As much as I love Kenny Dalglish, and will always argue he sits much further up the list of great managers than the wider spectrum of football insists he’s placed, he undeniably made the wrong decisions in the summer of 1988. It’s perhaps telling that this coincided with Bob Paisley stepping back from his role as an official advisor to Dalglish.
Liverpool were never knocked off their perch. Liverpool subconsciously vacated it from the point of one of their greatest heights. You can pretty much chart our demise from the night we beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 at Anfield on the evening of April 13 1988.
It was a combination of not strengthening key positions, and the right man at the wrong time element to the return of Rush which saw us lose sight of our future direction. It was all to do with fine-lines of error in judgement which deflected us from our well-plotted path to continued success. In re-signing Rush, we looked back, rather than forward. Players like Pallister and Gascoigne and perhaps one or two more of their age group would have had a chance of bridging the gap to the Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler era.
We had to relinquish our vice-like grip on English football eventually, but I do believe we could have delayed our abdication by another 5 to 10 years, had we kept our eyes fixed on the horizon in the summer of 1988.
Check out more of Steven’s work at his website - www.anfieldbark.com