The agonizing wait for a first Premier League title

The agonizing wait for a first Premier League title

Gary Gillespie can’t remember how he and his teammates celebrated Liverpool by winning the English first division title in 1990. “We probably got together and had a few drinks and remembered the season,” said the former Liverpool defender at CNN, laughing at his foggy memory.

There was little reason to particularly savor this year’s performance, Liverpool’s 18th championship title and Gillespie’s third in five seasons, as winning was what the club had done. Spring in Liverpool was the trophy season.

The agonizing wait for a first Premier League title
The agonizing wait for a first Premier League title

There was satisfaction and relief, an uprising in the red half of the city after a heartbreaking decade, but not the intoxicating blow to the senses that generally comes with the glory of being the best in the country.

Liverpool, it has been assumed, would do everything again in the seasons to come, or at least get closer. No one knew that the 1989/90 campaign was an end, a complete end to what had been an unforgettable phrase in the history of English football.

“Everyone used to win and maybe took it for granted, and every time you take something for granted in life, sometimes it comes back and hits you in the face,” says Gillespie, “and c is exactly what happened because we are talking about 30 years later, and Liverpool have not managed to win a title since. ”

1980s, Great Britain. Margaret Thatcher’s decade. The city of Liverpool is fighting for its survival.

The quays, once the heart of Liverpool’s prosperity, have been declining since the 1970s. The manufacturing sector is contracting, economic stagnation is strong, the population is declining, houses in the city center are falling into decay and unemployment is high. The city is also the first in the UK to be hit by a heroin epidemic that will ravage a generation.

The “ People’s March for Jobs ” arrived in London on May 28, 1981, after a 28-day march from Liverpool to protest high unemployment. Credit: Central Press / Getty Images

“Liverpool have been forced to their knees,” Gordon Jenkins, 61, a long-time supporter of Liverpool and a retired academic, told CNN. “I remember Chelsea fans beckoning us for £ 20 and saying,” We have a lot of money. “”

On a hot day in July 1981, thousands of supporters lined the streets of London to joyfully wave the Union flags to celebrate the marriage of Charles and Diana in the English capital. Two hundred miles away, Liverpool was burning. Terrible economic conditions, combined with tensions between the police and the Afro-Caribbean community, had exploded in anger, quickly plunging into nine days of disorder that left hundreds injured, arrests and one killed.

Widely known as the Toxteth riots, it is known locally as the “uprising”.

Buildings burn in the Toxteth district of Liverpool following the riots of July 1981. Credit: Jacob Sutton / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

“It was a city without leadership,” wrote Michael Heseltine, the cabinet minister who would later build a framework to revive Liverpool, in his autobiography.

“We must not spend all of our limited resources trying to raise the water.”

Geoffrey Howe, British Minister of Finance, 1979-1983

In the aftermath of the unrest, ministers closest to Thatcher spoke of a “managed decline” in the city, national archives revealed in 2011, with Thatcher’s finance minister Geoffrey Howe warning: “We must not spend all of our limited resources to try to turn the water up. ”

It was during this decade that Liverpudlians came to regard themselves as foreigners, separated from the rest of Britain. Thatcher had become polarized and radicalized. A broken working-class city which historically had not always leaned towards the political left has turned red.

But in these times of division, the people had football, two of the best teams in the country in Liverpool and Everton. The beautiful game gave Heroes and Hope to Liverpudlians. Football, says Jenkins, was, and still is, “inexorably woven into the fabric of why we are who we are.”

From 1981 to 1990, the two Merseyside clubs won between them nine championship titles, two European cups, a cup winners’ cup, three FA cups and three League cups.

The Liverpool Football Club had become the bastion of invincibility that former manager Bill Shankly envisioned when the club was rebuilt in the 1960s. Shankly’s successors, all named from within, had carried the torch. Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. Seamless successions on which a dynasty was built.

“I’ve been there for eight years, the worst we’ve ever finished in the league was second,” said Gillespie, who left Liverpool for Celtic in 1991. “If you finished second, it was considered a failure , you had a bad season, no matter what you won. “

The title of the league was, says Gillespie, “all and for all” and this was particularly the case in the second half of the decade when English clubs were indefinitely banned from European competition after the Heysel disaster in 1985.

Spectators flee the Heysel football stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Thirty-nine Juventus supporters were killed in a scuffle before the European Cup final on May 29, 1985. Credit: Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty Images

“We were never allowed to get carried away,” said Gillespie, identifying the camaraderie formed during the watered evenings as one of the reasons for the club’s success.

“The coaching staff always called us ‘big heads’ and whatever opportunity they had, they would try to knock you over. There has never been too much praise for us. I don’t think we needed it.

Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 to win their last game in the 1985/86 season, winning the title for the 16th time. Celebration of Gary Gillespie, Craig Johnston, Kevin MacDonald, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish. Credit: Allan Olley / Sunday Mirror / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

“When we got there after the games we had to tie our boots so it was easier for the coaching staff to put the boots away. When we removed our kit, we just didn’t throw it on the ground; we had to pile the shorts and the tops in a heap. It’s little things like that that kept you grounded. ”

Although football saved the city during this decade, it was also the source of unimaginable pain.

On April 15, 1989 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death on the terrace of Leppings Lane in Hillsborough, Sheffield, during an FA Cup semifinal. Ninety-six men, women and children illegally killed, an investigation would find 28 years later, due to police misconduct and the commanding officer’s criminal negligence.

The players watched the injured and dying victims carried by billboards used as emergency stretchers, and in the weeks that followed brought comfort to the grief. At one point, 38-year-old Dalglish, now manager of Liverpool players, attended four funerals a day.

The false accusations, published on the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper “The Sun” immediately after the disaster, added to the suffering that Liverpool fans urinated against the police and picked up the victims.

An injured fan is transported to Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

“He [the disaster] has left its mark on many people, “said Gillespie, conceding that players still don’t like to talk about the tragedy.

At the start of the year, defending champion Liverpool was in an unknown position: fifth in the league and nine points behind leader Arsenal. And, therefore, the second half of the season was devoted to the relentless pursuit of the Londoners, Liverpool ending up dropping Arsenal from the top with two games to play thanks to 21 wins in 24 games. However, the championship was not yet won. The decisive end-of-season title was yet to come.

Arsenal’s April visit to Anfield had been postponed to the last day of the season due to the Hillsborough disaster, which forced nervous Londoners arriving on Merseyside to beat their rivals, who six days earlier had won the FA Cup, by two goals to become champions.

No one expected Arsenal to win, but this Friday night spotlight match became legendary from the final whistle. In a mind-blowing ending, with a few seconds remaining and visitors 1-0 ahead, Michael Thomas of Arsenal broke from midfielder and scored, assuring an extraordinary 2-0 victory – and the championship – for the Gunners.

Michael Thomas scores Arsenal’s winning goal, avoiding Steve Nicol and Bruce Grobbelaar of Liverpool at Anfield on May 26, 1989. Credit: Colorsport / Shutterstock

At the final whistle, television cameras capture Dalglish standing silently near the Liverpool canoe, looking into the middle of the distance.

“When Arsenal score, you can see a lot of them (Liverpool players) collapsing on the ground. They played three games a week; they went to all the funerals, and there was a feeling that many of them were exhausted, ”says Gordon.

For those who have witnessed it, the final of the 1988/89 season lives on in our memories. But when the Liverpool players returned to pre-season training four weeks later, no one at the club mentioned Arsenal’s defeat, or even the previous campaign.

“The coaching staff, the manager, the whole ethos of the club was never to look back, never linger, whether you won or lost the title. It was just something that was rooted in us, ”says Gillespie.

“Winning the championship after a heartbreaking decade … it was a remarkable achievement.”

Gordon Jenkins, Liverpool fan

Liverpool’s only major player this summer was Swedish defender Glenn Hysen, bought from Fiorentina for £ 600,000 ($ 670,472).

The new season started with an eight-game unbeaten streak, including a 9-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, but it was not a particularly dazzling vintage for Liverpool. A 4-1 loss to Southampton led to an indifferent patch, and while Liverpool finished the year at the top of the rankings in March, Aston Villa took the initiative.

However, Villa stuttered. A home loss to Manchester City was followed by a 3-3 draw with Norwich City and, like any seasoned predator, Liverpool capitalized. On April 28, 1990, after defeating QPR 2-1 at Anfield that day, Liverpool regained the title.

“Winning the championship after a heartbreaking decade … it was a remarkable achievement,” says Gordon.

Liverpool players celebrate victory at Anfield on April 28, 1990. Credit: Bob Thomas Sports Photography / Getty Images

“We have had so much success for so long, to say that we took it for granted was not entirely the case because it was always a great privilege to be a Liverpool supporter, [but] it was like resuming normal service. ”

The smartphone, not to mention a wireless network, was still a few years from being part of everyday life, so it was left to the announcer of Anfield stadium to inform fans that Liverpool had won a sixth championship in 10 years.

That night, John Gibbons, seven, attended his first game at Anfield. As Liverpool players strolled across the pitch to recognize the fans – club idiosyncratic goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar performing pear trees – Gibbons remembers standing on a seat and serenading the champions for “ You will never walk alone ”

“Everything was pretty understated,” said Gibbons, a contributor to the CNN’s Anfield Wrap podcast. “It was exciting, it was good, but if you had told someone in this field that it would take 30 years to win the next one, they would not have believed you.”

For the players, absorbing the pressures of waiting was over until at least the following season. “You put 10 months on hold, you give everything for 10 months,” says Gillespie. “Fortunately for us, we have normally been successful, but I don’t think you can take advantage of it. [a season]. ”

But in the early 90s hedonists, Liverpool would learn that even the big clubs can’t stop to catch their breath. As Shankly once said, “Football is relentless … it goes on and on like a river.”

On the morning of February 22, 1991, three months before the 1990/91 season, photographers, television crews and journalists had gathered at Anfield.

The city’s newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, had already prepared its front page because it knew what was going to happen: Dalglish, with Liverpool three points ahead of the leaderboard, was to resign as manager of Liverpool.

“Kenny Dalglish as a person has pushed himself to the limit,” the Scot said at the press conference, flashes of lightning on his face.

The front page of Liverpool Echo the day Kenny Dalglish surprised the world of football by resigning from his position as manager of Liverpool. Credit: Liverpool Echo

As a Liverpool player, Dalglish had won three European Cups, five league titles and four League Cups and added three other league titles and two FA Cups, including a double league and cup, as a player -manager.

But it was a man who had assumed the sorrow of the city.

In a recent documentary on the man considered to be Liverpool’s greatest player, his family spoke of the impact Hillsborough has had on him: sleepless nights, mood swings, a rash covering his body, struggle to make simple decisions.

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is seen alongside police in Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. Credit: Ross Kinnaird / EMPICS / Getty Images

He also took over the team shortly after the death of 39 Juventus fans before the Italian club’s European Cup final against Liverpool in the Belgian city of Brussels. Supporters, the youngest of 11, were killed in a stampede before kick-off at the dilapidated Heysel stadium. All of this had taken its toll.

“It all started to go wrong when Kenny left,” says Gillespie.

The cracks, apparently first seen when the team suffered an FA Cup semi-final loss to Crystal Palace in 1990, have deepened. Famous players have reached the end of their careers and the new manager Graeme Souness has made inappropriate and expensive signatures.

Thirty kilometers away, its big rivals, Manchester United, were preparing to dominate the new age of English football. The birth of the Premier League in 1992 caused a boom: wealth, glitter and globalization of the English game. Successful in the field, United prospered commercially.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian in 2002, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who would guide the Old Trafford club to 13 league titles, said something now famous.

His biggest challenge, he said, was to “bring Liverpool down from its perch”.

Eric Cantona of Manchester United, in the center, celebrates the score against Liverpool at Old Trafford, England, on October 1, 1995. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. Credit: Shaun Botterill / Allsport / Getty Images

With 20 league titles against 18 at Liverpool, the Manchester club can still sing, but United is not the dominant force it once was.

Some fans are known to ask for selfies on the Kop with Chris Bolland, once they find out how long the 63-year-old has been attending games at Anfield. A familiar face in the stands since 1966, he remembers numerous title victories. But neither of his two sons had the joy of seeing the team lift a championship trophy.

The family has had close calls over the past three decades – second place under Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers, and the astounding 97-point run from last season that was only overshadowed by Manchester City – but during those seasons, Liverpool was unquestionably the best. Fans dreamed, but never really believed.

This season, however, Jurgen Klopp’s men are 25 points ahead of Manchester City’s closest competitors, losing only five points before the coronavirus pandemic breaks the world. Never had a team negotiated a season in England’s elite in such a relentless and uncompromising way.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp kisses Mohamed Salah after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 19. Credit: Alex Dodd / CameraSport / Getty Images

Postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, no one knows for sure when or how English football will resume. If the Premier League season was not over, would Liverpool be denied the two-game championship? For now, this is the unanswered question.

The nervousness that rumbled around Anfield at times last season as the team competed with Manchester City in one of the closest title races in recent memory – although they only lost only once did Liverpool miss the title by one point – had disappeared this season.

Winning the European Cup in Madrid last June, Klopp’s first major trophy as manager of Liverpool had boosted fans’ confidence in the players. They believed. But anxiety increases in times of uncertainty.

Joy Bratherton, 64, moved to Liverpool in 1974 to be closer to Anfield. Once the woman alone faced a crowd of thousands on the Kop, she endured sleepless nights before a global pandemic even stopped the load of Liverpool to the title of champion.

That Liverpool won the Premier League is, she says, “the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night”.

“I have very mixed dreams when I fall asleep,” she adds, speaking to CNN a few days before the UK is locked out. “The tension and stress of the past two seasons has been overwhelming.”

Liverpool players participate in a bus parade through the city after winning the UEFA Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid on June 2, 2019. Credit: Nigel Roddis / Getty Images

It was after comfortably beating Manchester United in January that the first chants of “We are going to win the league” resonated with Anfield. A new banner also appeared in the stands at the start of the year with the phrase “This bird returns to its perch”.

But the deaths and suffering caused by the coronavirus have changed the outlook. The dreams of winning a first champion title in 30 years are no longer all consumers.

“You Never Never Walk Alone is not just a song, it’s not just an anthem, it’s a declaration of intent.”

Gordon Jenkins, Liverpool fan

“Not being able to be crowned champion for the foreseeable future is completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter at all,” says Jenkins.

“Jurgen Klopp, who is reincarnated Bill Shankly, said that football is the most important thing of the least important things and that it completely tackles.” You’ll never walk alone “is not just a song, it’s not just an anthem, it’s a declaration of intent. It’s not just the Liverpool people, but people in general.

“If we didn’t win the league because it was canceled, it would be unfair but not a disaster. The real expectation is when we can all return to the match. This expectation is more painful than if we win the league or not. ”

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