at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – APRIL 28, 1990. Anfield is bouncing and the Kop is in full voice after Liverpool have been confirmed as champions of England for the 18th time.
A new decade starts with the arrival of more silverware, maintaining the glorious theme of the 1970s and 1980s, and Kenny Dalglish’s position as the most inspirational manager in British football has been cemented — that was his third title in five years, to sit alongside two FA Cups.
Liverpool finished that campaign seven points ahead of their nearest pursuers, Aston Villa, and had a yawning advantage of 31 points over 13th-placed Manchester United. To put Liverpool’s domination into context, it was the 34th major honour they had won since 1973.
Nobody predicted the empire would crumble, despite Dalglish’s shock departure on health grounds in February 1991. Not even two years later when his successor Graeme Souness’s first full campaign in charge had ended with an FA Cup triumph, a few weeks after Liverpool and their fans had gleefully celebrated wrecking United’s challenge for a first title in 25 years.
That was the last time, before these last dispiriting seven days, that United had suffered three defeats in a week and the scenes that followed that 2-0 win in April 1992, in which Ian Rush scored his first goal against Liverpool’s most bitter rivals, suggested normal service would soon be resumed.
But crumble it did. The ‘bastion of invincibility’, as Bill Shankly called Liverpool, lost their aura. The decision of one iconic figure to end his tenure presaged an extra-ordinary reversal in fortune and there is no doubt United fans will be fretting whether Ferguson’s departure will have parallels with Dalglish.
Do not underestimate how important one figure can be. When Dalglish walked away, Liverpool were three points clear at the top of the First Division and favourites for the title. They ended the campaign trailing the new champions Arsenal by seven.
It was not a blip. Over the next three seasons, the gap between Liverpool and first place kept widening. They were 18 points behind Leeds in 1992; 12 months later they had fallen 25 points behind United before 1994 saw Liverpool trail in a massive 32 points adrift of Ferguson’s men.
Liverpool have won 13 honours since 1990, including the Champions League, but the one they covet more than anything – that 19th English title – continues to elude them.
Ferguson reflected in his recently published memoirs: “Towards the end of Kenny’s first spell in charge, you could sense a shift. The team had grown old and Liverpool were starting to make unusual purchases: Jimmy Carter, David Speedie. These were untypical Liverpool signings.”
Some of that is true. Dalglish would bristle at the criticism of those buys but the perception that he left a team full of veterans when he left is wrong. The average age of his final team selection against Everton was 27.3 and many top players, such as John Barnes, Jan Molby and Ian Rush, still had much to offer. “Graeme Souness made the right move but too quickly, breaking up an ageing team too fast,” Ferguson argued. “Graeme is a good guy but he’s impetuous. He can’t get there quickly enough. And his impetuosity cost him.”
Football has, of course, changed dramatically since the days Liverpool set the agenda but what happened at Anfield and what could yet unfold at Old Trafford under David Moyes is the same.
The departure of such a towering figure; one who has commanded so much respect and been a source of inspiration, cannot fail to have an impact. Ferguson might be providing Moyes with support at this moment but are his players doing everything for him?
Consider this observation from Barnes, made the day after Ferguson announced he was retiring last May. It was one he was well placed to offer, given he experienced the highs of winning the title and the nadir that came with transition.
“If the Manchester United players don’t do as well as they have done this year and in previous years, it will be no reflection on the new manager,” Barnes said. “It will be a reflection on them. If you are going to do what you have done under Sir Alex Ferguson, why should that change?
“‘But we know human nature. In modern football, managers bear the brunt of anything negative. When new managers come in, they are not bad managers. I went through this when Graeme came in. We recognised that he might not be popular with the fans.
“I would never accuse another player of not trying but subconsciously you know as a player if you don’t win that day, the fans are going to boo the manager rather than you coming off the field. As long as that is the case, you don’t have to perform.
“You then have to question the players, if they have respect for the manager and for the club, and ask whether they have done what they have done because of the manager or because of themselves?”
Those words have been prophetic. Whether United are set to follow Liverpool’s example or arrest this slide depends as much on his squad as it does on Moyes.