The long wait: Liverpool looks to win elusive league title
Celebrating their 10th English 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 they took a nine-point lead in late December, Kopites thought that elusive 19th English championship was just ahead.
Liverpool heads into Sunday’s final matches in the Premier League one point behind defending champion Manchester City, likely needing a victory at home against Wolverhampton 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 Wednesday at Yankee Stadium where he was helping to promote a July 24 friendly in the Bronx against Sporting Lisbon.
Since Liverpool’s last league title, Manchester United has won 13 championships under manager Alex Ferguson to raise its 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 and 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 faces 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 in an island nation, the English title is far more significant than the European honor — “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-placed Aston Villa, needing four points to clinch the old first division championship.
Roy Wegerle, a future U.S. player, beat Grobbelaar from short range in the 14th minute to put Queens Park Rangers ahead following a corner kick. But Ian Rush tied the score 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 was 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.
This was just over a year after the darkest day in Liverpool’s history. Tragedy struck when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at Hillsborough in Sheffield during an FA Cup semifinal in April 1989 — Grobbelaar wore a pin with “96” as he spoke with Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia before New York’s game against Seattle.
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 was in the second division when it hired Bill Shankly from Huddersfield in December 1959. It earned promotion in 1962 and won three league titles in 14 1/2 seasons under Shankly, a revered figure who famously established the tradition of the Boot Room near the tunnel to the field. He would meet in tight quarters there with his staff to have a cuppa and talk football.
His assistants became his successors. Liverpool won six league titles in nine seasons under Bob Paisley, one in two seasons under Joe Fagan, and three in 5 1/2 seasons under Kenny Dalglish, who became the team’s greatest star by the time he was elevated to player-manager.
Stagnation followed under Graeme Souness, and the Boot Room was demolished during his tenure to create space for a press room.
Roy Evans, Gérard 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.
Ownership became unsteady when Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks bought control of the club in March 2007 from David Moores and caused it to take on more debt, and they sold the club in October 2010 to another American group headed by John Henry and Tom Werner of the Boston Red Sox.
“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.”
Jürgen Klopp has steadily improved the club over four seasons. Led by Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool opened a nine-point lead over second-placed Spurs on Dec. 29 and was 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 Jan. 3 followed by draws against Leicester , West Ham , Manchester United and Everton in a six-match span from late January until early March.
Liverpool could finish 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 is Liverpool’s only league defeat, and leaves Klopp requiring an unexpected result for the defending champion at Brighton.
“It was a week of miracles, of big football moments,” Klopp said on Friday, referring to Liverpool and Tottenham overturning three-goal deficits at various stages in the Champions League semifinals to get to the final. “And from our point of view, if there could be another big moment on the weekend that would be nice.”
“It should be a day of celebration, no matter what the City result ends up being,” said Paul Wess, a Liverpool fan from Pittsburgh who works in information technology and 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.”
Blum reported from New York and Douglas from Liverpool, England.
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