Growing up as a Liverpool supporter at exactly the right time meant life was good. The decade from the mid-1970s onwards spanned not only most of my childhood and my progression into adulthood, but also coincided with Liverpool’s most successful epoch. In the 15 seasons between 1976 and 1990, Liverpool managed to amass no less than 21 major trophies.
Such success meant that crushing disappointments were few and far between in this period. However, although rare they did occur, even if with pleasing irregularity. Therefore, rather than a happy rose-tinted nostalgic trip back through time as usual, this week’s article delves into some of the memories I’d perhaps like to forget and yet somehow can’t seem to completely do so.
At the age of seven, I witnessed success for Liverpool for the first time as the 1976 league title was secured alongside that season’s UEFA Cup. Thereafter, at least one major trophy was collected in 12 of the next 14 seasons. (I said, major trophies. No matter what Pep and José say, the Charity Shield and European Super Cup do not count and never have!).
In my time following ‘the boys’, I have experienced many highs, obviously, but have also looked on helplessly as four European and FA Cup finals apiece have been lost, alongside some agonising second-place league finishes. Thrown into the mix are any number of semi-final losses (too many to count) and other near misses.
It occurs to me that my response to each of these setbacks can fall into different categories. There is the first category of youthful despondency. This relates to the levels of grief being felt due to a lack of maturity or, simply put, through being a kid. For me, this period lasted up until, perhaps, the age of 11 or 12, and so until around 1980. Indeed, the last time I remember tears being shed due to a defeat was following the 1979 FA Cup semi-final loss to Manchester United
So, anyway, first heartbreak ensued during 1976-77, when as an eight-year-old I watched Liverpool’s treble dreams disappear courtesy of an FA Cup Final defeat at the hands of old rivals, Manchester United. Subsequent setbacks occurred over the next few years but were accepted reasonably stoically until Spring 1985 rolled around.
In the Summer of 1984, Liverpool suffered the treble whammy of losing the services of Graeme Souness through transfer to Sampdoria, Ian Rush through injury, and Kenny Dalglish through lack of form. This resulted in a poor season by their standards and by the following April the prospects of retaining the title had long since disappeared. Instead, all focus was being garnered on the cups of FA and European.
Everton were running away with the title, and so in order to retain some sort of local bragging rights, it was imperative that at least one of the two aforementioned trophies was secured. Unfortunately, even this relatively meagre target was not to prove possible to realise.
A bleak time for football in general ensued in those few weeks, with the tragedy of the Bradford Fire combining with the death of a football fan through hooliganism at Birmingham. In addition, a few weeks earlier Millwall fans rampaged at Luton in truly frightening and disgraceful scenes.
That Liverpool and their fans were heavily involved in two other incidents in this period has always been a source of shame for the club. Both incidents were connected with the side’s bid to win the cups up for grabs at that time, and perhaps bore some connection to the fans’ frustration with seeing Liverpool fall behind local rivals, Everton, for the first time in a decade and a half.
The hooliganism at and around Goodison Park on Saturday 13 April 1985, was abhorrent in the extreme and it was only by the grace of a power altogether more mighty than us mere mortals that fatalities were not recorded that dark day.
Liverpool and Manchester United fans ran running battles all day in and around the ground as the two sides clashed in the semi-final of the FA Cup. This was highly orchestrated violence and involved thousands of thugs on each side.
The match itself, however, was a classic, with Liverpool twice snatching a reprieve at the last. Firstly, Ronnie Whelan struck in the 87th minute to cancel out Bryan Robson’s opener, and then Paul Walsh dobbed one over the line in injury time of extra time after Frank Stapleton had restored United’s lead.
The replay four days later at Maine Road, Manchester, was equally exciting on the field, and almost as violent off it. The resulting 2-1 defeat for Liverpool was perhaps the most disappointing defeat for me in my adult life. Although undoubtedly fortunate to escape with a draw in the first game, I was convinced Liverpool would prevail in the replay and the disappointment that ensued at the hands of two goals scored by Mark Hughes and Robson again was immense.
A few weeks later, however, and football changed forever as far as I was concerned.
May 29th 1985 is a black date that lives on in infamy. It was supposed to be the glorious culmination of another season of Europe’s top teams doing battle, with two giants of the game, Juventus and Liverpool, clashing for the right to confirm themselves as European Champions.
That 39 people perished as a direct result of hooliganism has been well-documented. It was the day that football changed forever, and for me personally, it has never had quite the same appeal since. I watched events unfold from my sofa two months shy of my seventeenth birthday and, all these years later, am ashamed to say that I watched the facade of the match that followed the riots despite knowing deaths had occurred.
A defeat in the final of any of Liverpool’s four previous European Cup Finals would have been devastating. The 1-0 defeat to Juventus, however, meant nothing to me.
1987 saw Liverpool finish runners-up to Everton in the league for the second time in three seasons and provided me with a unique experience. 1986-87 was the first time in my footballing consciousness that Liverpool had failed to prevail in a close-run battle for the title. Since “my” first season of 1975-76, Liverpool had either been champions or else not really in the running for the title. This included distance 2nd-place finishes in 1978 and 1985.
My feeling at the time was one of annoyance rather than anything else. In spring that year, Liverpool had been primed to prevail once again but then had uncharacteristically collapsed on the run-in, so handing the initiative and title to Everton. This prevailing feeling of annoyance is thus the second category of emotions into which Liverpool’s failures can be placed.
The next season, 1987-88, Liverpool swept all before them as their 17th and penultimate title was secured.
I say they swept all before them. Well, not quite. Wimbledon stood before them and an unprecedented second “Double”.
The mood at Wembley that baking hot May 1988 day amongst the estimated 80,000 Liverpool fans in attendance before the game was one of joviality. There were none of the nerves expected of Cup Final Day, and most agreed that the game would be little more than a procession – a carnival of celebration for what had been a magnificent season.
Perhaps this lack of tension before the game explains the lack of disappointment afterwards. While Wimbledon and their fans cavorted around Wembley, the mood on the terraces amongst those bedecked in red was one of bemusement rather than anything else. How could that have been allowed to happen, us Liverpool fans collectively mused.
Bemusement is thus the third and least common of all emotions designed to handle the disappointment of defeat.
A year later and once again football was plunged into darkness. Hillsborough and its accompanying horrors rendered football immaterial for so many at the time and for many years following. After a lot of soul-searching, Liverpool continued with the 1988-89 season and progressed through to both the FA Cup Final once again and a winner-take-all title shootout with Arsenal.
The first leg of the double safely secured, Liverpool went toe-to-toe with Arsenal on May 26th 1989.
And lost 2-0 in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Ordinarily, losing the title in such a manner would be something that no football fan would ever come back from. To have not just the championship but also the Double so cruelly snatched away at the death would have been too much to bear. However, this was not a normal season with normal circumstances, and although I couldn’t say in all honesty that losing in such a manner didn’t affect or upset me, the disappointment felt was probably akin to, say, being knocked out of the FA Cup in the quarter-finals in any other season.
Since 1990, of course, Liverpool have not won the title and although several cups, both domestic and European, have been secured, there has been nowhere near the same levels of success as enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s.
As I have got older I think I have learnt to enjoy football more, though. Liverpool have had two, perhaps three or four at a stretch, real bangs at the title since 1990, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each one. The last two, in particular, 2013-14 under Brendan Rodgers, and last season under our man Jürgen were wonderful rollercoasters.
Bemusement probably reared its not-so-attractive head when Stevie performed his slip against Chelsea in 2014, while disappointment at last season’s near-and-yet-so-far effort was tempered by the excitement of the season and the ultimate successful pursuit of ‘Number Six’.
Other recent defeats and setbacks that spring to mind include those in the semi-finals of the domestic cups to Aston Villa (FA) and Southampton (League), as well as in the final and semi-final of the Europa League to Sevilla and Atletico Madrid respectively. Each of these failures was simply annoying, rather than anything else.
Somebody once commented on how football was more important than life and death, and while his words were no doubt uttered with a degree of tongue in cheek, alternative comments emanating from another equally famous voice of the past probably resonate a truer picture.
Football really is a funny old game.