My life as a ‘longish’ distance fan of Liverpool Part 1 (1988-94)
Write about what you know some say. What about what you love? What sometimes seems unrequited love. Until you remember that a football team is under no obligation to love you back. The lessons of not only unrequited love are to be learned, but unconditional too; a love that humans do not give easily.
I have some kind of marriage with Liverpool Football Club. I’m like an uncle who you rarely see back at the family residence, instead preferring to observe matters from afar. In the early days the temptation was there to go out for the proverbial pint of milk and never return but something always kept me coming back.
Yes, that’s right I’m one of those fans. The long suffering Liverpool fan who’s never seen his team finish worse than 8th in the league and seen his team lift 14 trophies since their last title coronation. Charges of being insufferable rarely register on my side of the Irish Sea however. Certainly not with any substance.
My current place in the scheme of things is far away, watching on a dodgy laptop stream or nowadays maybe in an empty cafe if the time difference allows. Heading into my fourth decade with a routine steeped in well-being and sleep(the latter at least) I don’t know how often I’ll be getting up at 3am for matches. But this current crop of players are so damn exciting it’s hard to resist.
How I connect is usually through social media forums. An often unfriendly place where I am as guilty as anyone else of being too partisan, engaging in long duels of ‘whataboutery‘ with trophy counting Paul Scholes’ lovers and Gary Nevillites.
Ah Manchester United. Like Batman and the Joker, it seems one club can’t exist without the other. Despite only finishing 1st and 2nd in the same season about 5 times since the league began, the rivalry goes beyond football with the city’s economic interests actually what started all this enmity. A port town turned into an international city versus a landlocked metropolis with a canal dug out of the damp Mancunian soil. If football isn’t your thing the history itself could fascinate for hours. The fact that Man City and Everton can seem to get along pretty well would indicate a flaw in my theory. Maybe like two single women at a wedding wearing the same dress, this could be simply a battle over the colour red.
For me the white hot hate of a M62 derby is not a direct part of my life. I have neither had to endure the austerity of Thatcher or witness the rebuilding of Manchester following an IRA bomb. So it is quite upsetting to see both sets of so-called fans engaging in songs of hate. The tragedies of Hillsborough and Munich greatly damaged not only both clubs but also both cities. Dublin was largely free of that, though we must remember Billy Whelan.
This is football. See Buenos Aires, Athens, Glasgow or Moscow for much worse. In the Sky Sports Universe however this is the one. Armchair fans are drawn into the phony war a couple of times a year and for a few moments you actually think this ‘one’ will actually settle everything for ever. You wonder if they’ll run out of ideas for promoting the fixture. The game itself inevitably disappoints mind you. There hasn’t been a stone cold classic between the pair since September 1999.
In Ireland at least, fans co-exist peacefully, many with a nodding wink that above all else this is an English problem and they can go to work normally the next day without much fuss. The most significant arguments usually relate to annoying barmen with demands of increased TV volume and being annoyed by the occasional appearance of an unhelpful ‘neutral’ (insert City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton at your pleasure. Arsenal fans, thin on the ground, always seem to have something else much bigger going on in their lives) League Of Ireland fans are largely ignored or compromise by having an ‘interest’ in the English game.
And that’s how it’s pretty much been for the past two decades. In a perfect world it would be a beautiful cacophony of sound and colour every weekend. Instead it becomes a wasteland of ripped up betting slips and crisp packets. I can only endure that from time to time which leaves me pretty much where I want to be. At home, in peace, not wanting to miss a second of the action, replays, angles, VAR and all.
I digressed from my analogies of marriage with the distraction of ‘them lot up the road’ and the culture of viewing football in Ireland, so let me get back to where I was.
My love affair is many people’s definition of marriage. It started off happy, followed by some years of bitter, harsh, ill-chosen words with occasional glimpses of light. There was never a trial separation though the 1998/99 season was rough going. Right now I feel like it’s a second honeymoon.
Like most marriages the television plays a big role. Many say a key to a good union is to have two TV’s in your home. I was satisfied with one. And my armchair. For the past three decades I have contorted my body into some kind of position to watch my favourite long running soap opera. The travails of this magnificent club. Am I a real supporter? Not in the sense that I’ve ever had a season ticket for L4 0TH nor will I probably ever have one. But the hours spent reading, listening and watching must count for something right? While I mull over that rhetorical question let’s go back to the very start.
This story begins a few months after the birth of my footballing awareness. It is not exhaustive nor is it a list of the best performances we ever had. Instead I want to recall some of the matches and memories that stick out to me after 32 years with the same ‘bird’.
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool 1988/89
My earliest memories are a bit of a blur. I know for certain that my football rumblings didn’t really begin to stir until the Summer of 1988. Ray Houghton, Stuttgart and all that. I have some vague recollections of the season before. My Manchester United supporting dad cursing at the TV as his side disappointed yet again. Some crowd called Liverpool were just too good and wouldn’t let United win at all. I think my initial reaction was one of distress and then something approaching defiance. I was not going to have my day spoiled by a team that didn’t make me happy. The generational baton of supporting the same team was under threat in the Hyland house.
Into the following season and really my fascination was beginning to take shape. The magazines started to come thick and fast. Again, my long suffering dad returning from late work on a Thursday with a copy of Shoot or Match from Tuthills in Clonsilla. I was immediately taken in by the colours of those wonderful jerseys. Nobody really wore Irish green except for the goalkeepers. And if you looked quickly enough all of the Adidas keepers looked similar to the Ireland players. So I knew I was going to latch onto an Adidas team.
The next parameter I was unknowingly adopting was again the Irish factor. United and Liverpool both had contingents at their club. And when I saw United draw at Everton I was immediately impressed by a Welshman, Mark Hughes. A fine number 10. He was surrounded by little else it seemed but then again I was only putting the pieces of a 90 minute puzzle together. It would take a few more weeks and ITV camera’s next road trip of consequence. Some place called Highbury.
In between that I was making my first steps towards my own footballing anonymity. On our big green around the corner from my house. A true field of dreams. A quick head count among my peers saw Candy and Crown Paints out numbered Sharp four or five to one. Goals were being recreated with questionable accuracy and it seemed like those who wore Candy had a lot of glory to recreate. Those older boys were advising me on my decision without realising it. But I still wasn’t quite there.
A few weeks later and on a cold winter day I settled in to Elton Welsby and Brian Moore’s latest broadcast. It looked rough enough. The pitch was not yet the carpet we’d come to appreciate at Arsenal Stadium. Certainly nothing like the immaculate turf seen in Germany during the summer. That wouldn’t matter much 40 minutes later.
Whatever about United’s number 10, Liverpool’s counterpart was seemingly on another plane. John Barnes. Digger, named after his namesake from the Dallas TV show. Watching him in glorious grey-silver slalom in from the left past an Arsenal back four I knew I had my mind made up. I was a Liverpool boy.
The season ended with the corresponding fixture. Again Barnes and Houghton involved in the final denouement as the Gunners grabbed glory after an epic battle. I was in tears watching from the bar stool of the Grapevine in Dunboyne Village. As we went home, the wise old man promised that Liverpool would win it again. It wasn’t just the comforting words of a father to his son. He’d been putting up with Anfield based success for the previous 16 odd years at this point.
On reflection I should have been grateful that the team had kept going at all. Hillsborough had been less than six weeks before. This group of men had gone back to work, perhaps still shellshocked by that fateful day. Even won the FA Cup. As a stupid kid I couldn’t appreciate that.
Liverpool 1-0 Tottenham
The new season started with a neighbour having lovingly printed out a full photocopied journal for me to keep track of the season. I wish I still had it now( sorry Fiachra) but I remember watching the highlights on UTV that first Saturday of the season. Liverpool had easily beaten City. It wasn’t really newsworthy however. The biggest story was Man United’s potential new owner. Michael Knighton came onto the pitch not in a black Pontiac Trans Am but instead with a full kit( actually a half kit and fetching German-esque Adidas sweatshirt) and proceeded to play keepy uppy before knocking one into the Stretford End. I didn’t know it was called the Stretford End. I probably called it the Wonderfuel Gas end at this stage.
United won that day 4-1. An impressive result against the champions. I remember watching the report on BBC and being utterly confused and impressed in equal measure. There appeared to some detente between the two terrestrial giants. BBC 2 news carried it on their seven o clock bulletin.
The more I read, the more I was fascinated. Arsenal had come from nowhere to win their first league since 71. My initial fears of Gunner dominance had apparently been unfounded. They were a flash in the pan. I studied all the league tables in the years previous and they had barely bothered the top 5 since 1971. They’ll slip away, I thought. Besides half the team are alcoholics, whatever that means.
Indeed for one season I was half right, Arsenal did put some form together in the autumn but never really threatened to retain. That season the real rival for Liverpool was the team after the Gunners in the sticker albums. Aston Villa.
But rewind to October 89 when Spurs rolled into Anfield for another episode of the ITV’s Big Match. We’d just come off a shellacking at the Dell and Villa were going along nicely.
I was intrigued by the regard in which Spurs were held. Many had them on the same level as Liverpool. Imagine my outrage. But they did have Lineker returning from Barcelona. No matter. Liverpool dispatched them. Houghton and Barnes. I remember thinking on the day that Ray H didn’t get enough credit for the assist. I was right. I also remember thinking that Barnes was a little bit greedy at times and he missed a lot of chances. I was wrong. This was his season. And in turn, our season. Our last at the top for many years.
Forest 2-1 Liverpool
A lot changed very quickly between the summer of 1990 and the following year. King Kenny had abdicated the throne. It was quickly becoming clear to me that Liverpool were nursing many wounds. As a city as well as a club. The players looked a bit older with only a few maintaining the standards of that already legendary 87-88 season.
As a lifelong pessimist I could see what we no longer had. In the previous season’s FA Cup semi, Palace had shown the world we could be got at. Ablett and Hysen were not going to be able to cover for the madness of Bruce like Lawreson and Hansen did. Nicol was struggling to stay fit from the waist down and didn’t appear to be getting any slimmer from the waist up. Beardsley who had mysteriously fallen out with Kenny, was rumoured to leaving in the summer. He had been in and out of the team despite an early season hat trick against Man U. David Speedie was signed from Coventry and even an equaliser at the Wonderfuel Gas end did little to convince even me he was the real deal. Barnes too, worryingly showing signs of being human after a long run without injuries.
What we did have now was a literal tugboat in Jan Molby, trying manfully to steer his teammates around the pitch. The man who Liverpool had brought in to replace Souness on the pitch was now the same said Souness’s leader on the pitch. He had been brilliant in late 1985-86. But now was different. He was still nerveless from the penalty spot and poised on the ball. But to borrow Shankly’s parlance there weren’t enough piano carriers in the team to accommodate him. We were brittle. And Forest proved it.
The Tricky Trees would have one more hard slap to give us at the start of the ‘whole new ball game era’ . 13 years after knocking Liverpool out of Europe, they knocked us out of our stride on the opening day of the 1992-93 season. We had some bad days at the City Ground. Blew a 2 goal lead in the title winning season too. But Forest, like so many other Midlands and Yorkshire based sides, would not survive the new dawn with any kind of prosperity.
Another league title for Arsenal then. While they were more imperious than in ‘89, they operated without the brilliant Rocastle for much of the season and the team does not seem to be as fondly remembered. George Graham had built from the back. Seaman, Winterburn, Bould, Adams, Dixon. If Liverpool didn’t sort themselves out, they looked set to be THE team of the 90s. Though a shock in Rotterdam in the European Cup Winners Cup final proved to be more prescient when discussing the decade’s possibilities.
The Reds meanwhile, faced an uncertain 1991-92. Allowed back into Europe, we all hoped ‘Souey’ could bring us back to the top. And to be fair, maybe a lot of us assumed it.
Liverpool 3-0 Auxerre
November 91 and by the time this match was played Liverpool looked a mile off the top of the English first division. Though we had the most expensive player in Dean Saunders we didn’t look anything like United who looked like they were playing a different sport. The Red Devils now had an imposing (and annoyingly loud) goalkeeper as well as two speed demons on either wing, Giggs and Sharpe. Three if you count Kanchelskis. I remember almost gasping in awe as Schmeichel arrowed a 55 yard throw towards Giggs in Bramall Lane. Grobbelaar could barely manage that with his right boot. Other additions to the back line included Torben Piechnik with Nicky Tanner getting more first team action
Much like Adidas’s efforts with the new kits we were trying to evolve. Hansen was long gone now as was Hysen, Beardsley too, sold to Everton. Barnes a long term injury. It was all doldrum stuff, with little to look forward to post Christmas. One ray of light did break through however. Mike Marsh. Well he scored a great header. But I’m talking more about Steve McManaman.
This was one of the first occasions to see him in full flight. And oh how he flew. In an era where wingers built like welterweights was now en vogue we had ours. Trouble was United had three of them. In the end this season brought us the solace of an FA Cup. Officially the end of a great era, the last knockings of a proud generation. By the time we’d get another trophy only a few from this season remained.
Souness had seen the squad needed to be refreshed but made some bad judgments, arguably staying loyal to those he played with almost a decade earlier ( Nicol, Whelan, Grobbelaar) when the slightly younger players might have been a better bet ( Houghton had a solid three years at Villa, Beardsley excellent at both Everton and Newcastle). It was not all his fault of course. Player contracts can be tough to sort out, especially if there are seven or eight players all around thirty years old. Either way we had not seen the changes coming in time.
Still though, this was a nice show of defiance. One of the last great nights at the old Anfield, with the Spion Kop still in situ. I watched this at home. Judging by a three quarter full stadium so did a lot of other people.
Aside from Liverpool the season ended with Leeds winning the last traditional 1st division, thanks to an assist by us. Much had been rumoured about the forthcoming Premier League but many just assumed it was a rebrand a la Canon or Barclays in the 80s. Maybe a new trophy and that’s it. People wouldn’t be arsed getting satellite dishes and it would be back on normal telly after a year. Right? RIGHT???
Spartak Moscow 4-2 Liverpool
Watching football was getting trickier for me at this point. Our household hadn’t yet gone all in with Sky and that wasn’t really surprising. It was expensive for one thing. But there were still one or two trips to Caffrey’s in Batterstown for a Super Sunday. Title wise, Liverpool were very much a bit part player. It was United now, facing down a 26 year wait for a title, with their only resistance coming from Norwich and Aston Villa. I had yet to reach the levels of resentment history obliges me to have and so I wished them well on their success. Just like so many United fans have done with me recently (haha…If only)
BBC did have a contract for Liverpool’s European games and it was on a weekday afternoon I recall rushing back from Corduff to watch us get educated by a wily Russian outfit. Speaking of outfits Barry Davies actually had to clarify we weren’t in red. Spartak having a virtually identical kit.
The green away didn’t bring much success for us. Bar a fine Old Trafford debut by Rob Jones and a delicious Barnes backheel against Crewe the previous year, it was witness to tonkings at Highbury, here in Moscow plus of course the infamous Rosenthal miss at Villa Park. Another notable incident from this game was David Burrows ending up in nets. Though a league medal winner, for me he was more part of the rot setting in than a nice new coat of left back paint. He wasn’t much use as a keeper either sadly.
Swindon 0-5 Liverpool
These are tough days to look back on. United were imperious in this season. Though the foreigner rule did for them nicely in Barcelona. Who in turn were even more nicely cooked against Milan. European football was showing me all I needed to know about life. Sometimes staying in your bubble is the safest, least embarrassing option.
Of course it started so brightly for us. An eye-catching new away kit and a hammering of Swindon Town that had many pundits giving us the ‘contender’ kiss of death. Ronnie Whelan had managed to avoid the Souness cull and scored a rare goal. New signing Ruddock bludgeoned another into the net and would repeat the feat later in the year against United. Another new signing, Nigel Clough would score that night too but neither men’s careers are recalled with much fondness sadly.
But in early Autumn it looked promising. I remember watching this in either Collinstown or Castlepollard. It was a nice road trip with the folks. A late summer break, before the school term began. By season’s end Souness would be gone and I had finished my first year in Secondary school. I just assumed things were going to get better.