My life as a longish distance Liverpool fan
Part 2: 1994-1999
I hope you enjoyed Part 1. I will keep the introduction to Part 2 a bit shorter this week, perhaps only allowing for some choice scene setting.
I was still madly in love with the game in the summer of 94. And why not? The national team was beating Italy in the World Cup and RTE had the rights to Champions League coverage for another year. If Liverpool weren’t doing the business in reality, no matter. I played numerous Sensible Soccer games at home that I could play until a fictitious result was created to my liking. Coupled with my ongoing efforts in football kit design I was happily living in dreamland.
The Shoot and Match magazines were less prominent now. Replaced by 90 Minutes and later Match of the Day. I wasn’t a big Four Four Two fella.
I kept up my own playing a little bit. Myself and my Beechdale pals out on the green after Football Italia on a Sunday afternoon. Emboldened by my efforts in heads and volleys I joined the local teams, with very mixed results. Looking back it was just simple, Ventolin fueled, pre internet times. It was all football. At least until I was 16.
I then remember getting a job in 4th year of school and beginning to notice the rest of the world around me.
I had a lot less time to play football now that I had cigarettes to be smoking and snooker games to lose to Alan Dowdall. I also had a first sip of lager in the middle of England’s inevitable defeat to the Germans in Euro 96. Within a year I had become something of a hardened drinker, enjoying a few pints after a lounge boy shift in The Mill House. Shelf stacking in Spar came later and more academic irresponsibility.
With each passing day I dreamt about a life outside the cold walls of Riversdale in Corduff. I still have fond memories of the break time tennis ball games in second and third year. But transition year ruined a lot of our collective momentum. Many left never to return, while others were already bargaining with repeating the Leaving Cert even though they hadn’t done the first one yet. Still there was always the football. And if Ger Power and me had anything to do with it, we would ensure that Liverpool could get back on our perch*.
*note United didn’t knock us off it to begin with. It was actually the emotional effects of Hillsborough, an ageing squad and to a lesser extent Arsen…
Liverpool 2-0 United
Time moved on quickly and progress was swift under the leadership of former boot room stalwart Roy Evans. This season I recall as being filled with optimism. An opening day ass-whoopin’ was dealt to Palace at Selhurst and there were numerous other good away performances in the early stages, without getting the result we wanted. Highlights included a Barnes overhead in a defeat at Ewood Park and a fine performance by the boy Redknapp at Old Trafford in a two nil loss. We had also drawn at St. James Park which was a marked improvement on the previous year’s drubbing.
Evans enjoyed a lot of good will from the faithful this year. Much like the new Kop the team was in a rebuilding phase. We had gone in big on Babb and Scales and while neither would ever make their way to the Mount Rushmore of the club’s centre halves, Scales in particular looked quite promising initially.
A personal favourite of mine was one of the many Norwegians we would sign; Stig Inge Bjornbye. A solid left back with an ability to cross early. The rebuilding phase also had a lot to do with the evolution of the old youth team graduates. Redknapp and McManaman as mentioned earlier alongside a diminutive local magician called Fowler. I had heard first about him the morning after an impressive 5 goal haul against Fulham in the previous season’s Coca Cola Cup. He had built on this with a few goals that season before Souness got his P45. By the time the next season came around he was virtually undroppable. The one scarily good performance people still talk about is the 5 minute hat trick at home to Arsenal. I was very tempted to make this my favourite match of the season.
Ultimately though, the two nil win over United in March went a long way to denying them the title and that was my shout. We were gearing up for a League Cup win by then ourselves and looking like a team ready to go to the next level.
I remember the Anfield pitch wasn’t looking too healthy but apart from the grass everything else was suitably rosy. It had been a season of ‘pride restored’. We were really purring at times. Often it looked effortlessly easy and this is a theme I will return to in later years. Alongside Barnes or Redknapp, another unheralded signing from the Souness era remained. Micheal Thomas, the villain of May ’89 would probably never be able to shake off that memory but he was a very classy operator. Our midfield was the best in the league when it wanted to be.
On this day we looked the equal of a United side who looked a little out of ideas at times. Little did I know that this game was to be a wake up call for Ferguson. ‘Big time Charlie’ Paul Ince would be gone by the summer and a bunch of kids came in instead. I think I watched this in the Grindon’s gaff three doors away. I was quite chuffed with myself after it.
Another more obvious choice for fondly remembered games would have been the final day encounter vs Blackburn.
Anfield was packed, with many locals actively wishing us to lose. I fondly recall a Rovers man in glasses mouthing ‘fuckin hell’ as Redknapp sweeped in an admittedly brilliant last minute free kick into the Anfield Road goal. But thanks to Ludek Miklosko, United hadn’t done the business at Upton Park so that was that. Dalglish, manager of Blackburn for just over three years, had taken them from the old second division to the top of English football. What a man.
Aston Villa 0-3 Liverpool
By the time April 1996 rolled around we had rolled over Aston Villa twice in the league and there was a feeling of nervousness(certainly for me) that they would have figured us out by now. Alas no, we went and battered them again in the FA Cup semi. I remember watching this ‘somewhere’. It was a Sunday anyway, before the Junior Cert so I wasn’t working.. Hmm nope can’t remember. Anyway…
By now we had pretty much evolved into what media would dub the Spice Boys era. I never went in for it myself, at least not while Mark Wright was still there. That man looked 55 when he was 25. Anyway, alongside the earlier signings Jason McAteer and of course Stan Collymore had come in this year. With one swing of his size 14 red Diadora Stan the Man scored a pearler on the opening day against The Wednesday and he did pretty well for a while after that .
He was an awkward phenomenon was Stanley. Excellent pace and power when given space, prone to frustration and indiscipline when tightly marked. He wasn’t sent off while with us but there were enough signs that year that he was unusually moody for a guy who was being provided with excellent service nine times out of ten. Later it would be established that he is a manic depressive so to have had any career in the game deserves praise. See also Paul Stewart.
McAteer however was definitely a popular figure at the club. Scouse born but capped by Big Jack, it was nice to have an Irish connection back. There was him and Babb as well as very rare sightings of Mark Kennedy. Their presence always provided a chance of an extra Liverpool column in the Evening Herald.
Unfortunately though this season ended as it started. Brondby had sucker punched us out of Europe by Halloween and Cantona did us with eight minutes to go at Wembley. I was bitterly disappointed and searched hard for the answers.
In the end it was nothing more complex than just a lack of consistency. We weren’t tough enough in the head. A bit too fond of ourselves. While United had put together a run of 10 wins in 11 games we couldn’t even muster more than 5 in a row.
EDIT: I didn’t know if there was much point in adding this in but I wanted to acknowledge it. The Republic of Ireland and Liverpool have had a very symbiotic relationship over the years, none more so than in the 80s and early 90s. Numerous players have decked out in both green and red and Bob Paisley even came within a whisker of the Irish job in 1986. Of course everyone knows what happened next. I’ll happily relive it all some day in word form but in November 1995, Jackie’s Army was approaching its last stand. Could we defy the odd one last time and book our ticket to the European Championships the following summer? Heartbreakingly no. We were outplayed by a Dutch team who had woken up on the right sides of their bed for once. But nonetheless, the Irish fans remained unbowed, serenading Charlton at the end of the game. The Kop, Ireland, Jack Charlton. All part of the magical story weaved over those glorious nine years.
Liverpool 2-0 PSG
In the following season Liverpool went even closer to the title but there was something that never felt right. I’ve put it off for long enough. We need to talk about David.
I have always fancied myself as a bit of a keeper (though previous girlfriend’s dads would differ boom boom) I actually only played two games in nets for Dunboyne AFC. Around 1994 I’d say. An unfortunate 8-0 pre season loss in Straffan when I let a 5km/h daisycutter trickle through my legs due to stagefright. I played another on the Summerhill Road, though that might have been a First vs Seconds job. Either way that was no less horrific. I think I brought Paul Fitzpatrick down for a pen which I didn’t save. On reflection I can’t dispute Big Jake’s decision to bench me. I gave it another go the following year with St. Mochta’s in Clonsilla. It was equally ignominious. The trouble I had at this point was that I was still quite small. I hadn’t filled out at all and I was afraid of getting broken up when a high ball came in. The reflex saves were actually less of an issue for me. In the end I had a few games for St Peter’s Gaelic team and clawed back a bit of dignity though the wind did play havoc with my kickouts up in St Paul’s pitch one Saturday evening. Look, I was a shite teenage goalkeeper alright!!!
Anyway the reason I brought it up was that I knew ‘shitness’ when I saw it. And I took absolute exception to anyone who suggested David James was anything but shit. I was probably being unfair. He was talented certainly. Even dabbled in drawing during his Watford days. But a lack of judgement and a mind scattered by playing too many computer games had did for him. The United Cup Final was perhaps his crowning glory. The vanilla Armani suits were conceived by him and then the chap decided to come for a corner he was never going to get. His sequel ten months later put paid to our league chances but I have to say it wasn’t just him. The communication between a keeper and his back four is vital. Nobody was talking to each other there, and if they were, nobody was listening.
We’d end the season with nothin. Collymore would be sold and despite heartthrob Paddy Berger arriving it was beginning to look like we were being left behind on the big money transfer side of things.
This season and last were to be the highpoints of our decade, league wise. Barnes would pack his bags at the end of this year. Understandable, despite another very decent showing in midfield( with some great goals along the way) Rushie had gone the previous summer and it was looking very uncertain and unfamiliar heading into 1997/98. I had a feeling watching us that we were on the slide. Fowler remained a goal machine though certainly didn’t look any more athletic in the baggy Reebok kits and Redknapp was now in the middle of a heartbreaking decline due to injuries.
I chose an almost famous European Anfield Night. A game where the impossible nearly became reality. Another French team, PSG. Led by the likes of Patrice Loku, the Brazilian Rai and goalkeeper Llama. It was difficult for us to retain our aristocratic reputation in that company, particularly with Harkness and Carragher in the squad.
Nonetheless it was a brave attempt at a comeback. Not that we should have been in that position to begin with.
Liverpool 4-2 Chelsea
More change, with similar results. In transfer business Karl Heinz Riedle came in with a shiny new champions league medal but at aged 32 it wasn’t quite going to set the heart racing. He was certainly worth a punt and YouTube will confirm some golden moments. Perhaps his most sizeable contribution was to take another young whipper snapper under his wing. Enter the Owen era.
Young Michael was a freak of nature. Weighing about 9 stone wet and only about 5ft 7″, Owen had natural biological gifts which gave him a ridiculous turn of pace. It meant that Liverpool were able to play more directly at times, a tweak that suited us given the departure of Johnny Barnes. In his stead came another Norwegian, Leonhardsen from Wimbledon. And yes, The Guvnor Paul Ince.
I was working most weekends at this stage and even watching Match of the Day was often not possible. I do recall watching a few live games namely the Chelsea one.
We had shared a couple of big score lines the previous season and after many years in the doldrums Gullit and his black book of Serie A contacts seemed to have them on some kind of journey. For all their Latin infused elan however they didn’t reckon on a one footed wizard from Praha.
A hat trick perfectly encapsulated what this infuriating team could do at times.
Berger’s legacy is a respectable one. Like Redknapp he was dogged by injuries but when he was on form and that trigger was pulled back, it was all she wrote. He had to wait 5 years before winning a trophy but helped play his part in the 2001 treble.
In the end we finished 3rd but it wasn’t as impressive as it sounds. Roy Evans had given it his all but whether he was too nice or some of the players were too fond of a breakfast roll, the writing was on the wall sadly.
United 2-1 Liverpool
So I have to do this yeah? Right then.
This season coincided with my goodbye to secondary school. By the summer of 1999 I was relieved both were behind me. I had spent the previous two years seeing my general optimism on life descend in some far more cynical. Whether it was Liverpool’s contrasting fortunes or my having very little success with the girls up at the local disco, I couldn’t see a reality I liked. Instead of hauling out the Mega Drive to settle scores, I had gotten back into WWF in a big way. Watching Bret Hart and Stone Cold win their pre-determined fights was infinitely more satisfying than watching Bjorn Tore Kvarme lose out in a physical duel with (insert John Hartson/Clive Mendoca/ Duncan Ferguson here.) I also rediscovered another lifeline; writing.
In school both myself and Ger had spent most days standing up for this team of good time boys, usually defending them by criticising our opponents instead. It wasn’t easy. And in time I began to doubt my own propaganda. Negative folks like me don’t keep a team going in the lean times. Ger was always far more positive than I.
What really worried us during this season was not United’s pre-eminence. For most of the year they looked very good but vulnerable. They never looked like the outright best team in Europe. Not in the group stages, not against a Juventus team slightly past their best and definitely not against a Bayern side with a 39 year old Lothar Matthaus. See I’m not bitter.
No, what was on our mind were the rumours of McManaman’s departure.
By the summer of 1998 Liverpool were at a crossroads. Other clubs were beginning to modernise as the Bosman ruling was beginning to change the shape of European football. And those who weren’t going on free transfers were being sold by fees only going one way. With our continuing absence from the Champions League we were not the destination we once were.
McManaman had been at the fulcrum of all our attacking endeavours for most of the decade now. If he clicked at all Liverpool were usually in business. He was a wonderfully balanced player, strong with both feet with an underrated ability of heading the ball. One early warning on our over-reliance on him had come in 1994/95 when The Owls had put on a man marker on him. Peter Atherton’s attention had paid off and perhaps shown others the way. Despite those occasional frustrations he was generally top notch for us. Which made the later criticism of him hard to stomach.
It had long been said that he was refusing to put pen to paper, waiting for a free transfer and more options to sign with a big team abroad. In years to follow there was a lot of ill-feeling directed towards him. It was true Liverpool could’ve done with a big transfer fee. But that would’ve meant him leaving earlier. In the end it was a moot point. This team, that started the year with two managers and ended with the sole leadership of Gerard Houllier, were rebuilding again.
Evans, ever the gentleman, had to resign in the Autumn. Liverpool had neither the heart or the courage to fire him. So the Frenchman became our first foreign manager.
It was soon clear that this wasn’t his type of squad. Too much flair, too many luxuries. In time his pragmatic approach would glean success but initially it wasn’t smooth sailing. One case in point was the FA cup 4th round at Old Trafford. After an early goal by Owen, the Red Devils laid siege to our goal. We hung in grimly for over 85 minutes. A future template for Houllier to follow when playing the top sides. I can still recall this game vividly. BBC One on an early Sunday afternoon. My Dad was gracious as always, a trait I wish I could inherit. We had our dinner and talked a little bit about it. Liverpool were far far back in United’s rearview mirror. A lot had changed in a decade.
Another year of transition then. What would the new millennium bring?