Liverpool in 1990: The story of the Reds’ last title win

In the context of a 30-year wait to be crowned champions of England – one that sometimes felt like it might never end – a delay of a few months, ultimately, won’t make too much difference.

Before the coronavirus pandemic cast all professional sport into a state of doubt and uncertainty, Liverpool were cruising towards their first league title since 1990.

Three decades ago, it would have seemed inconceivable for the club to have endured such a long barren run. They’d won 11 of the previous 18 titles, including a run of three in a row. For a while, they were the most successful club in Europe, if not the world. Then, everything changed.

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Trophies became a rarity rather than the entitlement they once were. No matter what changes they made or how much money they spent, Liverpool simply couldn’t win the league.

The team that will celebrate this season’s title – the club’s first of the Premier League era – is rather different to the one that last did so. Football has been transformed in the past 30 years, becoming a far wealthier and more globalised game than anyone could have imagined. The matches themselves are now quicker and more technical.

The 1980s was a troubled era for English football, during which many grounds had been allowed to fall into disrepair, supporters had been demonised and lots had elected to stay away for fear of violence or mistreatment. An unsavoury atmosphere hung in the air. Both on the pitch and in the stands, a degree of cynicism and casual brutality lingered around the game.

Football was somewhat unfashionable, but that was beginning to change. The tackle from behind would soon be outlawed, allowing skilful players to flourish. The back-pass rule was introduced to speed up play and cut down on gratuitous time-wasting. The high drama of Italia 90 helped to rejuvenate football’s ailing reputation, appealing to a new audience much larger than before. Money flooded in from new sources, irrevocably changing the game’s structure and composition.

The current Liverpool squad boasts 14 different nationalities from four continents. Although relatively cosmopolitan by the standards of the time, the 1989-90 squad had just four players from outside the UK and Ireland. One of them was Glenn Hysén, a Swedish international defender who signed from Fiorentina for £600,000 in June 1989. He recalls that the team benefited from a real togetherness.

“Of course, there were a lot of great players at Liverpool, but off the pitch I was most impressed because everybody was so nice,” recalls Hysén.

“There was no arguing in the dressing room. We lived up in Southport, which was very close [to Liverpool]. There was me, Steve McMahon, Barry Venison, Alan Hansen, Gary Gillespie. Half the team was up in Southport. When we didn’t train or play, we all met up. All the girlfriends, all the wives, all the kids. We felt even closer on the pitch. Kenny [Dalglish] lived up there as well. It was just amazing.

“I think I came into the group quite easily because I was easy-going as well, like everybody else. I’m nothing special. I’m down to earth. I love to play football. I love to have a laugh off the pitch, and everybody else was the same. I became part of that group quite quickly.”

Liverpool had extra motivation to win back the league title after seeing it slip from their grasp on the final day of the previous season, losing 2-0 at home to Arsenal and having to endure the visitors celebrating on their own pitch. It was one of the most dramatic endings to a top-flight season ever, with Michael Thomas charging through the middle to score the deciding goal in added time. That defeat hurt Liverpool and they were desperate to make amends.

More than just a heartbreaking end to the previous season, which they’d been left to stew on over the summer, the club and city were still reeling from the Hillsborough disaster back in April. It cost 96 supporters their lives and many more a long fight for justice. The truth about what happened that day took years to finally emerge, while the landscape of football was transformed by the Taylor Report and the development of all-seater stadiums.

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Liverpool exacted a small measure of revenge for that famous defeat to Arsenal by beating them in the Charity Shield at Wembley to start the season. Peter Beardsley scored the only goal as Dalglish’s side reasserted their credentials. It set the tone for the season to come. Liverpool were resilient and ruthless when they needed to be.

An opening day win at home to Manchester City was followed by battling draws on the road against Aston Villa and Luton Town, before Liverpool hit their stride with two thumping victories. The second, a 9-0 demolition of newly promoted Crystal Palace, was a statement of intent, sending them top of the table.

It was the first time that a top-level match had featured eight different goalscorers, one of which was John Aldridge, enjoying a final appearance ahead of his move to Real Sociedad. He came off the bench to score the sixth from the penalty spot with his first touch, showing that sentiment still played a part in the Liverpool machine. At the full-time whistle he ran to the Kop, throwing his shirt and boots into the crowd before heading off down the tunnel.

Failure to break down Norwich City in their next game just four days later was evidence of Liverpool’s staccato form. They tasted their first defeat of the season at the end of October, losing 4-1 at The Dell. Matt Le Tissier was in majestic form for Southampton, while Rod Wallace grabbed a brace.

November proved to be a difficult month, as Liverpool suffered three defeats in the league to fall off the pace, despite beating Arsenal at Anfield. John Barnes, who would go on to be named PFA Player of the Year, scored the winner with his tenth goal of the season. As always, he was at the heart of Liverpool’s best football – strong, skilful and decisive.

“For me, John Barnes was the biggest talent that I played with. There’s no doubt,” says forward Ronny Rosenthal, who arrived on loan towards the end of that season.

“At that time, we’re talking 30 years ago, talented players dominated football and he [Barnes] was very much dominant. He had good speed, combined with top talent, technique and brains. For me, John Barnes was like the Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo of that time.”

The last of those three November defeats, away to Sheffield Wednesday, involved an emotional return to Hillsborough. There was a floral tribute, with both sets of players lining up at the Leppings Lane End, the lower terrace still closed, as they observed a minute’s silence ahead of kick-off.

Liverpool, perhaps understandably out of sorts in the circumstances, lost 2-0 as Dalian Atkinson ran their defence ragged, sealing victory with a fine solo goal late on.

Led by the goalscoring prowess of Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ian Rush, Liverpool recovered from that stumble to go 13 games unbeaten in the league, including wins against Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United. Steve McMahon, the team’s driving force in midfield, continued to will them on in tough matches, eventually earning himself a place in England’s World Cup squad.

Having won the FA Cup the previous year, beating Everton in a dramatic final that went to extra time, Liverpool looked on course to retain the trophy. Via a series of replays, they reached the semi-finals, facing Crystal Palace at Villa Park. It would become one of the competition’s all-time classic ties, a contest that ebbed and flowed on a dry, bobbly pitch.

Liverpool had already beaten Palace twice in the league, including that 9-0 victory at Anfield, but somehow contrived to lose. The game swung back and forth in glorious sunshine, with vociferous support for both sides. Liverpool were 3-2 up after Barnes’s 83rd-minute penalty but failed to deal with a late aerial bombardment – Andy Gray equalised and Alan Pardew scored the winner in extra time.

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“We’d beaten them 9-0, and 2-0 away. We were up 1-0 in the first half. There was nothing that pointed to us losing that game, but you have to be on your toes for 90 minutes,” says Hysén.

“I can’t tell you what went wrong. I have no idea. The first two games had gone too easily. We were up 1-0 and thinking, ‘is it going to go the same way again? Here we go.’ But football is a different game. You have to concentrate.”

That shock defeat left Liverpool to focus on securing the championship. Despite a recent 1-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, their fifth and last of the season in the league, they were three points clear of Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa with a game in hand and seven still to play.

The introduction of Rosenthal, on loan from Standard Liege, provided a timely boost. Replacing the injured Ian Rush in the starting line-up, he scored a perfect hat-trick to swat aside Charlton Athletic.

The Israeli striker then broke the deadlock against Nottingham Forest. He would find the net seven times in his first eight appearances for the club to help wrap up the title and earn himself a permanent move.

Although Rosenthal hadn’t intended on joining Liverpool – having originally signed for Udinese the previous summer, only for the Italian club to back out of the deal amid claims of a failed medical – he was delighted with how things worked out.

After Luton had failed to meet Liege’s asking price, Liverpool had taken him on trial, completing a loan deal with minutes to go before the deadline. He soon fell in love with English football.

“The support was second to none. You couldn’t even compare it. The atmosphere in the stadium. The noise. The passion of the fans was what I discovered in England. I knew I’d come to the right place. And, of course, on top of this was the level of football. The level was good in Belgium, but the intensity of the game was the biggest difference. I thought, ‘this is real football,’ you know?” says Rosenthal.

“I wouldn’t say of myself that I was a top, top talent, but what I had was speed. When I came to England, I was probably among the 10 quickest players. If you have one quality that’s needed in football it’s speed. It obviously gave me the chance to play at the top level. This was my main weapon, but just running isn’t enough. You have to deliver goals and assists and make the right decision. I had this balance.

“I think my chance came because we lost against Crystal Palace in the semi-final. That was the trigger for Kenny to give me a chance. He just announced to me one hour before the game against Charlton that I was starting. That day, when I scored the hat-trick, really boosted my career. Everything went perfectly. You feel like you’re on top of the world. There are no other words to describe it.”

Liverpool were confirmed as champions on 28 April. They needed to win at home to QPR and hope that Villa failed to beat Norwich City to make it official. But the visitors took the lead through Roy Wegerle, who scrambled the ball over the line from a corner. There were solemn faces on the terraces and in the dugout as things threatened to unravel. Colin Clarke was close to extending QPR’s lead as he rattled the underside of the bar.

On 40 minutes, Ian Rush forced home an equaliser from a tight angle to spur Liverpool on for the second half. Just past the hour mark, the marauding Steve Nicol won a penalty for a foul that took place outside the box and John Barnes stepped up to score. Despite their poor record from the spot that season, he delivered when it mattered most.

As Liverpool hung on, supporters eagerly checked for updates from Villa Park. With moments to go news filtered through that it was 3-3 and the title would be returning to Anfield. It was a poor collapse from Taylor’s side, who had been leading 3-1 until an own goal from Derek Mountfield and a Robert Rosario strike let Norwich back in.

Liverpool took the sting out of their game and played for time, but had to wait for confirmation of the Villa result before they could truly celebrate. Dalglish and his players were serenaded from the stands. Back in the dressing room, TV cameras captured the moment a fully clothed Dalglish was thrown into the team bath by his players.

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“I’ve been a champion in the UEFA Cup twice with Gothenburg. We won the league two times and the cup three times, but this stands out,” says Hysén.

“This was another level. And I think that’s because I’d seen English football for so many years and I was so impressed with it. So, to stand there with the trophy in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, having won the league, was unreal.”

While there were plenty of joyful scenes, they carried the assurance of so much prior success and the expectation of more to come.

“It was a fantastic achievement, but I felt it was a celebration of habit,” adds Rosenthal. “It wasn’t like when Leicester won the league for the first time in their history – something unbelievable for a club that had never won it. We’re talking about Liverpool, who were used to winning. Of course, it was a fantastic celebration, especially after losing the league title the year before, but it’s something that they were used to. It was expected.”

Liverpool won their final two games against Derby County and Coventry City to take the margin of their title victory to an emphatic nine points. With the game against the Rams goalless, Dalglish made a late substitute appearance, his first in two years and the last of an illustrious career. The 39-year-old was given a hero’s welcome by supporters. He had the respect of his players too.

“Kenny was a very, very clever manager. A lot of intelligence. Like he was as a player,” says Rosenthal. “Kenny was not someone who talked a lot before the game, but that wasn’t needed. At the time Liverpool had this system that had worked for many years. If he needed to talk to you, he’d pull you aside and talk to you.”

Gary Gillespie scored a late winner and Alan Hansen lifted the trophy on the pitch. It was a significant moment for the Liverpool captain, a great servant who’d spent so long out through injury. Many doubted whether he would be able to make a comeback, but his steadying influence had helped to see them through a tense run-in to secure his eighth title with the club.

Liverpool finished the season in style with a 6-1 win at Highfield Road, which meant they’d scored more goals on their travels than they had at home that season. They went behind early on against Coventry but proceeded to make a stirring recovery – Rush with a rare goal from outside the box. A Barnes hat-trick and a brace for Rosenthal ended the season on a high.

Dalglish was named manager of the year for the third time in five seasons, while Barnes collected the PFA Player of the Year and top goalscorer prizes. In among the garlanding of another Liverpool success, there was little to suggest their dominance of English football was rapidly coming to a close.

Dalglish resigned and Hansen retired towards the end of the next season, which would prove to be the club’s first without a major trophy in four years. In different ways, the strain of competing at the sharp end for so long had been too much for both of them. Their experience was missed as Graeme Souness took the club in a different direction. It would be a while before they next made a serious title challenge.

“I think one of the reasons was that Kenny packed it in. One day he just came in and said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ We were shocked and after that it wasn’t the same,” recalls Hysén.

“Ronnie Moran took over for a while and then Souness came in, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the same atmosphere. He was one of the best players they’d ever had at the club, but that doesn’t mean you’re a good manager.”

Back in 1990, another Liverpool title had seemed entirely unremarkable, routine even. The club was accustomed to winning trophies and this was just another example in an ever-growing list. Little did anyone know how long their wait for a repeat would be. Mistakes were made that have only belatedly been addressed.

“That was something unthinkable,” Rosenthal sums up. “But I knew, over the years, because I’m in the football business and I saw the type of players that Liverpool bought. Obviously, they have corrected it in the last five years and that’s why the results are there. The scouting system is much better too.

“Liverpool now is a combination of athletes with top, top talent. This is what you want. They’re good in all departments – in defence, in midfield, in attack. They have a balanced team and more importantly, they have players on the bench who can be first choice at any time. Other clubs don’t have such a rich squad. That’s the reason why they’re there.”

With the wait surely on the verge of ending, Liverpool fans’ patience will finally be rewarded. The matter of how and when, though, still remains up in the air.

Liverpool in 1990: The story of the Reds’ last title win
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