The 1990-91 season. Liverpool’s fall from the top


Anfield was still basking in the afterglow after claiming their eighteenth league championship as they beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 on a late warm August evening.   The week previously Liverpool had beaten Sheffield United at Bramall lane 3-1 and it was deemed business as usual as the reds started the 1990-91 campaign in the quest to not just retain the title but win a nineteenth league championship.  There were to be twist, turns, and shocks but not always on the pitch and it was to be a season that it could be argued the demise of Liverpool’s dominance of the game began.

With Liverpool winning their first eight games on the trot there was nothing to suggest that the reds would not retain their title.  One of the games had included a 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United courtesy of a Peter Beardsley hat-trick.   It had been a lesson of speed, precision of moving and passing the ball as well as a master class in cold finishing.  Manchester United who were constantly expected and failing to match Busby’s team of the fifties and sixties in winning a league title since 1967 were it seemed still light years behind from the level required to win the league.

Nevertheless there were still concerns about this Liverpool team and looking back retrospectively it was clear that the cracks were starting to appear.  For starters the defence which was known to be as miserly as Scrooge was beginning to look vulnerable.

This was evident at the 1990 FA semi-final against Crystal Palace at Villa Park as Liverpool lost 4-3 mainly due to their inability to defend from set-pieces.  Many saw the semi-final defeat as the beginning of the end but it was one of many cracks that had appeared which would result in the reds falling apart during the events of the 1990/91 season.

Liverpool fans knew that the club could not keep on relying on their stalwart centre half Alan Hansen who was part of the spine of the team from the 1970s that had given the club so much success.  That season Hansen was injured and would eventually retire in March 1991 due to his on going knee problems.

Another problem was the lack of any notable signings since 1987 when Kenny Dalglish had obtained the services of John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley.

It had led to one of the most exciting Liverpool teams with Tom Finney describing the 5-0 win against Nottingham Forest as “the finest exhibition that I’ve seen.  You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere not even Brazil.”  Liverpool had ran away with the title going twenty nine games unbeaten although they were surprisingly subdued in the Cup final against Wimbledon as they lost 1-0 courtesy of a Sanchez header.

Ian Rush had returned from Juventus in 1988 but it was hardly the Liverpool way of phasing players out just as they were starting to decline and continuing a smooth transition that many supporters scarcely noticed.

It was a lesson that Bill Shankly and the bootroom had learnt after a 1970 third round FA Cup tie defeat against Watford that sentiment and allowing the team to age without adequate replacements was not a recipe for continued success.  Since then Shankly, Paisley and Fagan had always ensured that there was a regular supply of young talent coming in with those having reached their peak quietly moved on.  It was done so subtly that many didn’t even realise the changes immediately.

The squad for the 1990-91 season had a bulk of players who were approaching or already over thirty years old.  No new signings had been made at the start of the 1990-91 season to rectify this problem.  The only deal that was done was making Ronny Rosenthal’s loan move permanent after his crucial goals during the title run in had helped Liverpool reclaim the league from Arsenal.  Even the season before the only addition had been the twenty nine (soon to become thirty) Swedish international Glenn Hysen who turned down Manchester United in favour of the reds.

With hindsight Liverpool should really have turned their attention to a young Gary Pallister who was playing for Middlesbrough which was what United did after failing to sign Hysen.  It could be argued that Shankly, Paisley, and Fagan would not have considered signing a player hitting his thirties and believed signing young players was more beneficial in the long run especially after a stint in the reserves which would teach them the Liverpool way.

As the honeymoon glow of the 1989/90 title success faded like the autumn leaves something didn’t seem quite right within Liverpool.  Manchester City were unlucky not to win at the end of November as Rush equalised in the 82nd minute at Anfield to salvage a point.

The following week with Liverpool still six points clear of Arsenal (who had two points deducted due to a mass brawl at Old Trafford in October against Man Utd) were to travel to Highbury.  Dalglish decided to play a more defensive team with six defenders on the pitch despite Arsenal getting battered 6-1 by Manchester United in the league cup.  Houghton, McMahon, and Beardsley were dropped for the game with the latter not even making the bench.  Liverpool were unable to get into their stride as Arsenal won the game easily 3-0 with World Soccer declaring that Dalglish ‘had backed the wrong horse,’ with regards to his team selection.

Two home wins against Sheffield United and Southampton followed after the defeat but the football did not appear to be slick as previously.  This was particularly so as the Christmas period drew scant rewards with a draw away to QPR and a defeat at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace.  Although a convincing 3-0 win against Leeds United on New Years day at home the second half of the season was to bring more erratic results.

In January Liverpool completed the signings of Jimmy Carter and David Speedie hoping that they would provide an extra boost in the challenge for the title.  Even back then the two transfers had raised eyebrows.  Although a decent player for Millwall, Carter didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary whilst the purchase of the thirty one year old Speedie from Coventry would have made more sense a few years back.

The concerns over the defence had still not been addressed and as the season progressed there was continued bemusement over the non selection of Peter Beardsley in the starting XI.

Liverpool’s began the FA Cup with a third round tie against Blackburn Rovers with Liverpool making hard work of it as they needed a replay to beat the Second division side.  It was the same in the following round as the reds needed a replay were they beat Brighton at the Goldstone 3-2 to face Everton at Anfield in the fifth round.

It was to be a key defining moment in Liverpool’s history which caused a shock throughout the football world when Kenny Dalglish dramatically resigned as manager.

Nobody was aware that Kenny Dalglish was contemplating leaving Liverpool never mind that one of Liverpool’s greatest player’s and manager had decided to resign.  After drawing 0-0 at Anfield (which was only notable for Steve McMahon having to come off injured and join Ronnie Whelan who had been injured in the Derby the week previously in the league) Dalglish had decided for the sake of his sanity that he had to step down for his health.  Regardless of whether Liverpool won or not, Dalglish had decided that he would inform the Chairman Noel White and the Chief Executive Peter Robinson at the annual meeting which was scheduled for the next day.

The Hillsborough disaster two years previously had played a major impact on Dalglish’s health.  He had provided much support to the families and supporters as well as acting as a figurehead for the club.  In the summer of 1990 Dalglish had ‘wanted a break, there and then,’ but felt that he owed the club a debt.  ‘Liverpool had been so good to me and my family,’ he stated in his autobiography ‘I felt obliged to carry on.’

From a footballing point of view it may have had an impact on Dalglish’s decisions with regards to the team and tactics.  This was something that may have had some substance as Dalglish later admitted again in his autobiography that he was starting to second guess himself on decisions.  Even on the night of the 4-4 draw he had allowed himself to be talked out of making a positional change by wanting to move Molby to sweeper when leading 4-3.  Retrospectively Dalglish believed that had he been one hundred percent he would have made that decision.

Either way Dalglish decided that for once he had to make a decision for himself rather than Liverpool handed in his resignation.  The aftermath and shock was on a par when Bill Shankly had suddenly resigned in the summer of 1974.  Even the grim pained body language of both Shankly and Dalglish looked familiar as a stone faced Chairman read out the resignation statement.  Nobody could quite believe that Dalglish had decided to leave such was his affinity and respect that Liverpool supporter’s had for their manager.

As the ripples of the aftershock continued to reverberate, Ronnie Moran was put in temporary charge whilst the club looked to find an adequate replacement for Dalglish.  The league was still a realistic prize and with a second FA cup replay against Everton at Goodison it was important to try and get back some stability.

The wheels though had already started to skid as Liverpool entered 1991 and they would now start to come off the road.  A 3-1 away defeat to Luton Town on their plastic pitch followed after Dalglish’s resignation as well as going out of the Cup to Everton 1-0 in the replay.  Up next was Arsenal at Anfield.  Both teams had played twenty four games with Liverpool three points ahead.  Consequently whoever won the game would take a huge advantage.  As it was Liverpool lost to a Paul Merson goal who secured the three points for the Gunners.

Liverpool picked up three wins afterwards against Manchester City, Sunderland, and a 7-1 demolition of Derby County at the Baseball ground.  It was to be a short lived revival with the season now hitting a crucial time as the games were running out Liverpool were outplayed and well beaten by QPR 3-1 at Anfield.  The ascendancy was now with Arsenal as Liverpool slipped again away to Southampton 1-0 then drew 1-1 against Coventry as they then beat Leeds United 5-4 in a thriller at Elland road.

With Dalglish resigning the priority for the club was to find a replacement.  Much has been discussed since on whether the club should have waited until the summer before making a decision.  Dalglish himself stated that he might have returned to Liverpool in the summer.

Ronnie Moran had made it clear that he did not want the pressure of the hot seat and would only act as the caretaker manager until a permanent replacement was found.  The club it seemed wanted stability as soon as possible began the hunt.

John Toshack a former red seemed high on the list especially as he was an experienced manager who had won the league with Real Madrid the year before.  Alan Hansen was also touted as a possible replacement but the job went to Graeme Souness who had enjoyed much success as his time as a Liverpool player.

There wasn’t any disapproval to the appointment of Souness.  He had brought success back to Glasgow Rangers since taking charge in 1986.  Furthermore there was a link to Liverpool during his time as a player who would understand the Liverpool way.

A 3-0 win against Norwich at Anfield brought a good start to Souness’s career with another 3-0 win against Crystal Palace ensured that Liverpool would be at least be playing in the UEFA Cup after serving a extra year ban following when English clubs had been allowed to compete in Europe after Heysel.

Liverpool though did not push Arsenal and after two away defeats to Chelsea and Nottingham Forest, Arsenal won their tenth league title.

Graeme Souness in his match day notes in the final home game against Spurs expressed his disappointment at not making it as hard as possible for Arsenal whilst questioning the desire of his players by stating “I think some have fallen into the habit of losing and accept that far too readily.  The history of this Club is one of fighting to the very end and we did not do it this season.”

Liverpool beat Tottenham 2-0 courtesy of goals from Rush and Speedie in the final game of the season.  All eyes were on the future with many fans knowing that there would be no quick fix to an ageing team that needed re-building.  Much talk was on the need to sign a quality centre-half and to start the process of phasing out the faded player’s who had brought much success to the club.

The 1990/91 season was a pivotal one for Liverpool when it started to unravel.  The lack of quality signings especially in defence, the stress and pressure of managing Liverpool that led to Kenny Dalglish resigning all strongly shone a large beacon light on the problems Liverpool faced.

For the following year Liverpool needed a steady hand to sail the club through what was going to be very stormy waters.  Instead Souness tried to change things too soon and signing too many inferior players who were simply not good enough to wear the red shirt.  The likes of Paul Stewart, Julian Dicks, and Istvan Kozma with the latter nicknamed ‘Lord Lucan’ due to the lack of first team starts highlighted the poor quality of signings made by Souness.

With the dawn of the Premier league and the money that it brought Liverpool still allowed itself to fall behind Manchester United not just on the pitch but off it.  United had realised its market potential and was subsequently cashing in on that whilst Liverpool stood still.

It was a challenge despite the emerging talent of Mcmanaman, Fowler, Redknapp, and Rob Jones that the following managers of Souness, Evans, Houllier, and onwards were unable to meet.  At times and certainly with the former the club lurched ever backwards that even now they are no closer to matching the dominant success that Liverpool enjoyed in the 1970’s and 1980’s.


Brian Benjamin


Author: Brian Benjamin

I love football and will watch any game. Writing is also a passion of mine and apart from writing about football I have also tried my hand at short stories in my spare time.

2 thoughts on “The 1990-91 season. Liverpool’s fall from the top”

  1. Interesting piece and pretty much spot on. I’ve always thought the Palace,Cup Semi-Final defeat in 1990 was the eye opener that the team had issues……and Liverpool got themselves in a mess the following season, took their eye off the ball on and off the pitch,, the beginning of the end..

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