April 28, 1990 – John Barnes coolly slots a penalty into the bottom right corner to put Liverpool 2-1 up against QPR.
Anfield erupts and over the next 30 minutes the noise just gets louder and louder as the men in red hold on to win the match and, for the 18th time, be crowned league champions.
More than 30 years later, Barnes’s penalty remains the last title-winning goal scored by a Liverpool player. Those roars at Anfield, the last time that hallowed ground was filled with genuine title winning celebrations.
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Sadly, it will be some time before Anfield witnesses scenes of such euphoria but for more than a generation of Liverpool fans, the wait to see their side win a league title in their lifetime is finally, almost, over.
That ‘almost’, it is a big word.
There have been so many ‘almosts’ in the 30 years since King Kenny took the Reds all the way. For a few months it felt like this season was going to be the same; one where the football gods and whatever other deities you believe in combined to prevent the inevitable.
When the coronavirus pandemic brought the season to a halt, Liverpool was just two wins away from ending its quest for a first title in the Premier League era. Its closest rival was 25 points in the rearview mirror. It was not a case of if but when.
More than 100 days later, that quest can finally come to an end.
Before a Liverpool player next kicks a ball, he could already be a Premier League winner. If Manchester City fail to beat Chelsea on Friday (5:15am AEST), Liverpool will walk out to play City the following Friday as champions rather than champions-elect. Is there a heavier millstone in sport than that cursed hyphenate?
With all likelihood, City will beat Chelsea but even then a win will be enough for Liverpool against the Manchester club, and what a fitting opponent to end this tortured run against.
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After all, it is City who has denied Liverpool the title the past two times it has mustered a serious challenge.
That 2013-14 campaign still hurts every adopted scouser from the red half.
More than six years ago, little known Crystal Palace striker Dwight Gayle plunged a dagger into the hearts of Liverpool fans around the world as he ran onto a flick on from Glenn Murray before burying it past an outstretched Simon Mingolet.
At 3-0 up Liverpool had fancied piling in as many goals as possible as it looked to make up for that slip a week earlier.
When the final whistle blew with the scores tied 3-3, it became clear there would be no fairytale on Merseyside that year. Luis Suarez, the league’s best player by a country mile, wept. This was a team built on emotion, chaos and hurricanes of attacking brilliance – no one embodied that more than the hot-tempered and irrepressible Uruguayan.
Just three weeks earlier it seemed like the hardest part of the job was done. All season the Reds had been going punch for punch with City and when Coutinho sliced home the fifth and final goal to win a thriller against Vincent Kompany’s men, Brendan Rodgers’ side landed what was meant to be the deciding blow.
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There were still four rounds to go but aside from a faltering Chelsea, there were no major banana skins in their way. The equation was simple. Three wins and a draw against Chelsea would do the job.
As Anfield revelled in its 3-2 win, Steven Gerrard brought his team into a huddle to remind them the job was not over.
“This does not f***ing slip now,” he said. “We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again. Come on!”
Two weeks later those words came back to haunt Gerrard, proving once and for all that football is a cruel and heartless partner in life.
In 2005 Gerrard made a last-gasp decision to reject a move to Chelsea and stay with his boyhood club. By the time 2014 rolled around, the London side had won the Premier League twice. This was meant to be the season that vindicated Gerrard’s decision to stay.
Instead, after collecting a routine pass from Mamadou Sakho, Gerrard slipped and fell on the edge of the centre circle, allowing Demba Ba to charge through unencumbered to a season defining goal. The following season Gerrard’s Liverpool and Premier League career would come to a close. The Premier League’s finest ever midfielder – in this writer’s opinion – would bow out without a league title to his name.
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Between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, Suarez would force his way out of the club, sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup before a record-breaking move to Barcelona. Deep down, every Liverpool supporter knew it would be some time before we pushed for a title again.
That was the third and final title charge of Gerrard’s career and comfortably the closest he came to that most cherished of trophies.
It was a charge not too dissimilar from that led by manager Roy Evans in 1996-97. The Reds did not come nearly as close to winning it on that occasion, but the flaws that haunted Rodgers’ side in 2013-14 undermined Evans’ too.
They were a team that played electric football but had to be at their best to function. The attack was sizzling but the backline bore plenty of criticism and there was a lack of title-winning experience in the side too. Kolo Toure was the only member of Rodgers’ squad that had won an English league title before and Barnes was the same for Evans. Having led the league at Christmas, the side slumped to fourth by the campaign’s finish.
When Evans resigned in 1998 the last of Liverpool’s boot room managers had exited the building. He was replaced by Gerard Houllier – who he briefly co-managed with – and the Frenchman brought Liverpool into the modern era. In the 2000-01 season he took the Reds to a treble, winning the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup and Liverpool looked set to mount a title charge the following season.
There was a challenge of sorts, with Liverpool on top for much of the season, but it would be a stretch to call it a race as Arsenal won at a canter.
Seven years later, Liverpool entered its first real title race since Kenny Dalglish resigned midway through the 1990-91 season. Dalglish seemed destined to take Liverpool to a 19th title that season but there had been much bigger things than football happening on Merseyside for the past two years and the stress felt in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy had taken its toll on the Reds icon.
Despite an ongoing battle with US owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, manager Rafael Benitez found a way to pull together one hell of a spine in 2008-09.
In Pepe Reina he had a world class keeper, and in front of Reina he had Jamie Carragher with either of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel or Sami Hyypia. But it was the midfield where things went up a gear. All three of Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano had claims to being the best in the world at their specific role. Throw in the world’s top striker, Fernando Torres, and his telepathic link with Gerrard and the team took some beating.
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Of course, this was an era in which Chelsea consistently put out world class outfits and Manchester United had the league’s greatest ever manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie had pulled together quite the team too, with a rock-solid centre-back pairing – Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic – in front of the excellent Edwin van der Sar. Oh, and they had all four of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov. For all that talent, it was the little known Federico Macheda who saved the day for the Red Devils in the end.
Despite that, Liverpool sat on top of the table on the ninth of January. Their lead sat at a handsome seven points, though Manchester United still had two games in hand.
It’s on this day that Benitez decides to unleash his infamous “facts” rant, taking Ferguson to task. He accused United of being nervous, Ferguson of having undue influence over the referees and of playing the victim over the season’s fixtures.
For many, that is the day Liverpool’s title charge went off the rails. Whether there is any truth to that is debatable. To borrow from the still loved manager’s vernacular, the fact is Liverpool only lost one of the 18 games that followed that press conference, famously thumping United 4-1 at Old Trafford.
If anything, the issue with Benitez’ spiel was the fuel it provided United with. Aside from that hammering at the hands of Liverpool, Ferguson’s team only dropped four more points for the rest of season, suffering a loss against Fulham and a draw against Arsenal.
Liverpool’s big problem – one it would struggle with a decade later – was that it drew far too many games. There were only two losses in the season but there were 11 draws in no small part because of a serious lack of depth. Liverpool were on another level when Gerrard and Torres played together, but cruelly that would only happen 12 times. Only four points separated Liverpool and United when the season ended. What could have been …
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In the way the flaws of Evans’ team haunted Rodgers’, one key flaw from Benitez’ side undid Jurgen Klopp’s last season. Though, in truth, flaw feels an awfully strong word to use for a team that picks up 97 points only to fall one short against arguably the greatest Premier League team ever assembled.
Klopp’s brilliant red machine only lost one game in 2018-19 but still fell agonisingly short of its ultimate goal. The season’s champions, Manchester City, lost four. What separated the sides is that Liverpool drew seven matches to City’s two.
In all but one other season, Liverpool did more than enough to win the title last year. The 97 points it picked up are the third most ever in a campaign, behind the 100 City won in 2017-18 and the 98 it earned to pip Klopp’s team that same year.
As with any tortured second placed finish, there were mutterings of a ‘choke’ from rival supporters but the last points Liverpool dropped in the season were against cross-town rivals Everton in round 29 at the Toffees’ home ground. Liverpool went nine games without blinking to finish the campaign, the only issue was City didn’t blink either.
It was a campaign decided by infinitesimally small margins. A season determined by Kompany scoring the most unexpected of rockets from well outside the box against Leicester and Kelechi Iheanacho bottling a chance to equalise in the same game.
A campaign determined by City’s 2-1 win over Liverpool at the Etihad; a game which Liverpool came within 11.7mm of leading only for a Sadio Mane shot to be cleared just before it crossed the line. A few months later, City beat Burnley by nearly as fine a margin, with the winner crossing the line by 29.51mm.
It was a near-perfect failure.
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The difference between 2018-19 and those doomed campaigns of the three prior decades was Liverpool’s title charge had not been built on sand this time. There were solid foundations.
The 1990-91 season saw the irreplaceable Dalglish exit, while 96-97 and 01-02 were far from the real deal.
In 08-09 the manager and the board were at war and in the off-season Alonso bid farewell, with no proven quality coming in to replace a key member. The 2013-14 side had more quality than it is often given credit for but its nucleus was Suarez and if you build a team around a man you cannot replace bad things can happen.
The side of 2018-19 was built to last. The board and the manager were and remain on the same page. No key personnel left. And rather than being defined by one unimaginable talent on the field, it is shaped by another off of it.
Soon issues of regeneration will come up but right now there is a team built for both immediate and prolonged success.
Liverpool is only one win away from ending a 30-year drought, and by god you can’t say they haven’t earned it.