One of the greatest days in a modern Liverpool fan’s life was unquestionably 25 May 2005. A miracle happened in Istanbul that night as Rafael Benitez took a rag-tag bunch of world-class talent and comedy fodder to a Champions League title.
It remains the greatest game of football ever.
But, just how did Liverpool Football Club end up at that point, on that date? What is the genesis of that incredible moment?
For many, it would be the appointment of Rafa as Liverpool manager. For me, it was the summer of 1999 and in this series, I’ll explain why:
Time For Change
To understand where Liverpool were in the summer of 1999, some context is appropriate. Having been THE team in the 70s and especially the 80s, Liverpool had not adapted to the 90s at all well. An ageing squad had lifted the league in 1990 but only an FA Cup in 1992 and League Cup in 1995 had been added.
Kenny Dalglish had left in early 1991 – the toll of Hillsborough and managing the top team in the land becoming too much for the King – and his replacement, legendary ex-player Graeme Souness, was, for lack of a better term, disastrous. Replacements for ageing legends were sub-par and by 1994, fans had had enough. He was ousted and Roy Evans was promoted.
Evans was a Boot Room disciple, a bit-part player under Shankly and coach under all the greats from 1973. He tried to return Liverpool to the old style of football and mid-90s Liverpool were certainly fun to watch. However, Evans is a lovely man and the criticism levelled at Roy is that he was too nice and his players just didn’t have that extra edge because of it. The prevailing attitude at that time was style over everything and the tabloid stories didn’t help. They were tagged ‘Spice Boys’ for a reason.
Gerard Houllier Arrives
The constant lack of a league title meant that 1998 saw Evans informed that he would be joined by Frenchman Gerard Houllier in the first-ever joint manager arrangement. This was a first in the English top flight and something Liverpool felt would take the club to glory once again.
Evans resigned in November.
That left Houllier in sole charge and, with a squad in transition, Liverpool stumbled to seventh in 1998/99. Houllier was no random man off the street though. A former France manager, he’d led PSG to the Ligue 1 title in 1985/86 and had previously done fantastic work with the French youth teams before arriving in England. This was a highly rated man.
He was also a hard-nosed manager.
Famously, Houllier held a grudge against David Ginola over France’s failure to qualify for the World Cup 1994 while stories from Liverpool players at the time of his arrival certainly back up his reputation. He tightened up diet and discipline, coming down particularly hard when one Christmas party got out of hand, banning them completely.
Out with the old, in with the new
His strength of character showed through 1999. Out went a number of familiar faces of the mid-90s, such as Jason McAteer, Steve Harkness, Steve McManaman, David James and Paul Ince. In their place came younger, hungry players and signings Houllier identified to be central to his vision of Liverpool. Defensive pair Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, Dutch keeper Sander Westerveld, Newcastle’s German international Didi Hamann, Czech winger Vladimir Smicer and, in March 2000, England striker Emile Heskey.
Houllier was also wise, though. He retained stars from Evans’ tenure in Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler and gave them leadership roles. Academy graduates Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and David Thompson were given more prominent roles in the team and Michael Owen was, well, the golden boy.
The impact was almost instantaneous. Liverpool were in and around the Champions League places throughout the season before a horrific run of form saw them finish fourth and facing UEFA Cup football the following season.
The positives though were plain to see. Liverpool had lost Redknapp, Fowler and Owen to injury for large parts of the season. Without their two main strikers, they had struggled to score. Heskey’s arrival helped a little as did burly Guinean Titi Camara who earned himself permanent cult hero status. Youngsters Gerrard, Thompson and Carragher all proved themselves with their performances. Meanwhile, new signings Hamann, Hyypia and Henchoz provided added steel down the spine of the team.
This was a team with a lot of potential. What would happen the following season would be a remarkable story on its own.