In the 90s: Liverpool (Part 1) featured the Merseysiders’ fortunes from 1990 to the summer of 1995, a turbulent five-year spell in which they went from league champions at the start of the decade to also-rans in the early seasons of the Premier League. Part two charts the remainder of the decade – would the concluding years of the 20th century see an upturn in Liverpool’s fortunes?
1995/96: The white suits final
The £8.5 million signing of Stan Collymore from Nottingham Forest offered hope that Liverpool could finally challenge for the Premier League title. However, after starting brightly, a disastrous five-game winless streak in November saw them drop to seventh, 14 points off leaders Newcastle. Pre-Christmas wins over Manchester United and Arsenal offered a glimmer of hope that they could yet push for the title.
The summit came into sight again in an epic Premier League encounter on 3 April 1996, when leaders Newcastle, managed by Anfield legend Kevin Keegan, twice took the lead, only to be pegged back on both occasions. The game was 3-3 deep into stoppage time when neat interplay from Ian Rush and John Barnes set up a chance for Collymore to lash into the net and propel Liverpool into the title frame while also greatly damaging Newcastle’s prospects. After that famous victory, though, defeat at Coventry effectively killed off the Reds’ title hopes and they would have to settle for third, but the revival under Roy Evans was certainly continuing.
Once the league title had gone, Liverpool turned their attention to the FA Cup final, where they would play a double-chasing Manchester United. The Merseysiders earned notoriety in the build-up to the game for their choice of garish white suits, adding to their ‘Spice Boys’ reputation as players of style over substance. A poor final was decided five minutes from time when, from a corner, David James punched the ball to Eric Cantona, who volleyed the winner for Manchester United and deprived the Reds of a second trophy in as many seasons. Another low note at the season’s end was the departure of Rush after two glorious spells at Anfield, amounting to 16 years in total, yielding more than 300 goals.
1996/97: Missed opportunity
Despite Rush leaving on a free transfer to Leeds, the potency of Robbie Fowler and Collymore up front, along with the midfield effervescence of Steve McManaman and new signing Patrik Berger, meant that Liverpool had lots of goals in them. They earned plenty of plaudits for their enterprising football during the season and had a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League going into 1997, but they were routinely undone by sloppy defending and inexplicable errors from enigmatic goalkeeper James.
The Reds’ inconsistency allowed Manchester United to steal ahead of them going into the closing weeks of the season and consecutive home defeats in April to Coventry and Manchester United ultimately cost them their best chance of winning the league since their last triumph in 1990. Indeed, Liverpool would finish in fourth, one place lower than the previous season, although they still earned the same points tally as second-placed Newcastle.
This was also the season when Liverpool finally enjoyed a prolonged run in Europe. Playing in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, they overcame My-Pa 47, Sion and Brann to reach the semi-finals, where they faced Paris Saint-Germain. A 3-0 thrashing in France ultimately settled the tie, although a second leg 2-0 win at Anfield saved face, even if it left a sense of ‘what if’ after the fateful first-leg defeat. That typified Liverpool’s season – close but no cigar.
1997/98: Evans approaching the end as Owen comes of age
Just as Fowler had emerged from the club’s academy as a prolific striker earlier in the decade, another teenager made his presence felt in 1997/98. Michael Owen scored a debut goal at the tail end of the previous season and, after breaking into the first team, he would end the year as the Premier League’s joint-top scorer with 18 goals. His breakthrough was timely given that Fowler spent most of the season out injured with a broken leg.
Liverpool again mixed the good with the bad in the Premier League, wavering between impressive wins over Leeds, Aston Villa and Chelsea and home defeats against the likes of Leicester, Barnsley and Southampton. Aside from a five-game winning run either side of Christmas, they were too inconsistent to challenge for the title and ended up in third, best of the rest behind pacesetters Arsenal and Manchester United.
Evans’ initial progress had given way to a period of standing still and, towards the end of the campaign, there were whispers that his time in the dugout may have been approaching its conclusion.
1998/99: Continental drift
In summer 1998, Liverpool made the bizarre decision of appointing Frenchman Gerard Houllier as co-manager along with Evans, his continental sophistication contrasting sharply with his colleague’s local knowledge and passion. After starting the campaign brightly, a woeful sequence of one win in nine during the autumn dropped the Reds from top to 11th, the disparity in philosophies between the managers leading to Evans resigning in November to leave Houllier in sole charge. The first few post-Evans weeks were disastrous, with Liverpool crashing out of the UEFA Cup and dropping as low as 12th.
A brief revival at the turn of the year provided only temporary respite, as the Reds went on a dreadful run of just two wins from 11. With less than a month of the season remaining, they were a sorry 10th and, while they eventually climbed to seventh, it still represented a calamitous season for Liverpool, with Houllier struggling to maintain the progress that had been made during the Evans era. It was a bitter irony that the club’s first manager from mainland Europe had failed to guide them into European competition in his debut season.
1999/2000: Late slump proves costly
Houllier knew that his squad needed strengthening and he scoured the continent to lure some unfamiliar names to Anfield, with the likes of Vladimir Smicer, Sami Hyypia, Sander Westerveld, Stephane Henchoz and Dietmar Hamann giving a cosmopolitan flavour to a club that had begun the decade with a strong British core.
The new arrivals took time to gel, with Liverpool in the bottom half going into October, although they would climb into the top five by the midway point of the season. With Manchester United streets ahead of the chasing pack, the Reds were in the frame to qualify for the Champions League for the first time, with England by now having three representatives in the competition. Going into the final month of the season, they were in second and well-placed to return to Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 1985, when it was still in the guise of the European Cup.
However, a dire finish to the season proved very costly, literally and figuratively given the riches that the Champions League would have yielded. Failure to win any of their last five games, capped by a 1-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Bradford on the final day, cost them their Champions League berth, with Leeds stealing ahead of them to take third. A progressive season had gone to waste because of that faltering run-in.
For Liverpool, the 1990s were akin to a previously big-name band whose later albums flopped spectacularly. As if their own struggles weren’t difficult enough to bear, that it coincided with the beginning of two decades of Manchester United domination made it all the more galling for Kopites.
Once Kenny Dalglish departed and Graeme Souness took over, the club’s days as English kingpins truly reached an end. Souness will always be regarded as a legendary Liverpool player, but his reputation has since been tainted by his ill-fated spell in the dugout. Evans was not far away from recapturing the glories of old, but his title tints were undone by defensive inconsistency.
Houllier’s initial impact was less than impressive, but the Frenchman ended the 20th century sowing the seeds of an Anfield revival in the 2000s. The 90s were largely tough for Liverpool, but at least they ended with clear signs of a better future, albeit one that didn’t quite hit the prolonged heights of their 70s and 80s heyday.
Overall, the 90s was a decade of regression and false hope for the Reds.
1995/96 – Managed by Roy Evans, 3rd in Premier League
1996/97 – Managed by Roy Evans, 4th in Premier League
1997/98 – Managed by Roy Evans, 3rd in Premier League
1998/99 – Managed by Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier, 7th in Premier League
1999/2000 – Managed by Gerard Houllier, 4th in Premier League