London: Celebrating their 10th league title in 15 years, Liverpool players jumped joyously at Anfield on April 28, 1990, never suspecting a decades-long wait for the next.
When the Reds took a nine-point lead in late December, Kopites thought that elusive 19th English championship was just ahead.
Liverpool head into Sunday’s final matches in the Premier League one point behind defending champions Manchester City, likely needing a victory at home against Wolves and City failing to win at Brighton.
“I’ve always said funnier things have happened in football,” Bruce Grobbelaar, Liverpool’s goalkeeper in 1990, said.
Since Liverpool’s last league title, Manchester United won 13 championships under manager Alex Ferguson to raise their total to a record 20. Chelsea won five, Arsenal four, City three, while Leeds, Blackburn and Leicester earned one each.
“I’m not quite sure we’d know how to take it. It seems to have been like a holy grail for so long,” said Steve Nicol, a defender on the 1990 champions side and now an ESPN commentator. “It’s kind of one of these things that you wonder is it ever going to happen and then you can’t imagine how you’d feel when it does happen.”
And following Tuesday’s historic comeback from a three-goal aggregate deficit against Barcelona, Liverpool face Tottenham in the Champions League final on June 1 with the chance for a double — and to rebound from a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League final.
But the English title is far more significant than the European honour — “by a country mile”, Nicol said.
“On more than one occasion, we’ve just scraped through matches and you really think that it may be our season,” said 51-year-old Paul Tremarco, manager of The Arkles pub next to Anfield. “We’ve still got a chance. It may only be a chance and it might be slim. But we’ve still got a chance.”
Back in the 1989-90 season, three before the start of the Premier League era, Liverpool had three matches left and a game in hand over second-place Aston Villa, needing four points to clinch the old first division championship.
Roy Wegerle, a future US national team player, beat Grobbelaar from short range in the 14th minute to put Queens Park Rangers ahead following a corner kick. But Ian Rush levelled off a cross from Nicol in the 40th, Nicol was tripped by Danny Maddix at the edge of the penalty area, and John Barnes sent goalkeeper David Seaman sprawling the wrong way to convert the penalty kick in the 65th.
Villa were tied 3-3 at home against Norwich, and in the pre-internet era fans at Anfield listened on transistor radios waiting for the final whistle. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” echoed around Anfield.
“They sang until we all heard the roar, and when we heard the roar that’s when we knew that we had won the championship,” Grobbelaar recalled.
Celebrations would become a rarity for Scousers, as the Liverpool natives are called, their verses of “The Fields of Anfield Road” tinged with more nostalgia than merriment.
Liverpool had won just five titles and were in the second division when they hired Bill Shankly from Huddersfield in December 1959. The Reds earned promotion in 1962 and won three league titles in 14 seasons under Shankly. Liverpool won six league titles in nine seasons under Bob Paisley, one in two seasons under Joe Fagan and three in five seasons under Kenny Dalglish, who had become the team’s greatest star by the time he was elevated to player-manager.
Stagnation followed under Graeme Souness. Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Dalglish in his return and Brendan Rodgers all failed to win the league, although there was occasional cup success and a European title in 2005.
“From Shankly through to Dalglish there was nothing that surprised anybody,” Nicol said. “We knew what it was, what we had to do because we’d done it before. And that’s very much easier than walking into something that you’ve never experienced.”
Jurgen Klopp has steadily improved the club over four seasons. Led by Mohammad Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool opened a nine-point lead over second-place Spurs after play on December 29 and were seven points ahead after City won the following day to reclaim second.
But Liverpool’s lead dissipated with a 2-1 loss at City on January 3 followed by draws against Leicester, West Ham, Manchester United and Everton in a six-match span from late January until early March. Still, a Liverpool win would leave them with 97 points — more than every other English champion except for last year’s City side that finished with an even 100. The loss to City was Liverpool’s only league defeat this season.
“It should be a day of celebration, no matter what the City result ends up being,” said Paul Wess, a 35-year-old Liverpool fan from Pittsburgh who was at Anfield for the first time this week to see the win over Barcelona.
“It’s going to hurt, for everybody. But when we step back from the disappointment, we’ll be like, ‘Wow, 97 points, 25-point improvement from last season, highest points total to not win the league.’ There are definitely things to be impressed by.”