“The following article was published in the English football magazine LATE TACKLE back in August 2011 as an homage to one of the best team performances I had the privilege of witnessing on TV in April 1988 when Liverpool FC were at the height of their powers.
Anfield was heaving that night as Kenny Dalglish’s side tore apart Brian Clough’s talented Nottingham Forest side they had lost to eleven days previously”.
– Ger McCarthy.
THE NIGHT LIVERPOOL ACHIEVED FOOTBALL NIRVANA
By Ger McCarthy
Younger readers of the article may not be aware of the fact that one club ruled English domestic football in the 1980’s and claimed the European Cup (when it was a straight knockout tournament) on numerous occasions.
It was not Manchester United who dominated the Sky TV fueled Premier League of the 1990’s or the billionaire backed Chelsea who enjoyed success under Jose Mourinho in the 2000’s.
It was Liverpool.
The Anfield club were the undisputed Kings of English and European football for over a decade thanks to the steadying hand of brilliant man-managers Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. The Reds incorporated a beautiful one-touch pass and move game that mesmerised defences up and down the country for the best part of 10 years.
Liverpool were already an institution in World football before their successes in the 80’s and were also the smartest club in the transfer market regularly adding to a squad bulging with international talent.
The fabled Anfield boot-room where the manager plotted the downfall of opponents became as legendary as the simple five-a-side training routines and the club’s off-field drinking habits.
Former centre-back and Republic of Ireland international Mark Lawrenson mentioned the drinking culture that was prevalent in the English game in a recent article with the Guardian web site but pointed out that Liverpool’s training sessions were often tailored to counter-act the booze intake.
It was the ability of the Anfield hierarchy to work in harmony with their manager and seamlessly move from one coach to another that kept them at the top for well over a decade.
In many fans and pundits eyes, Liverpool reached their peak during the 1987-88 season. Oddly, the previous campaign had ended trophyless with city-rivals Everton claiming the league crown and Coventry winning the FA Cup.
Kenny Dalglish set to work in the summer of 1987 and having earlier added John Aldridge from Oxford to replace legendary striker Ian Rush (transferred to Juventus) the Scotsman purchased John Barnes from Watford, Peter Beardsley from Newcastle and Ray Houghton from Oxford. These new signings added to a settled squad that already included internationals: Alan Hansen, Gary Gillespie, Steve Nicol, Nigel Spackman and Steve McMahon.
The result was devastating as Liverpool tore through the English First Division with the unstoppable attacking triumvirate of Aldridge, Beardsley and Barnes carving up defences.
The Anfield club deservedly won the English First Division title that season by nine points from nearest rivals Manchester United. In all they scored a whopping eighty-seven goals and were unbeaten at home thanks to fifteen wins and five draws.
The tragedy of the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 meant that all English clubs were banned from European competition until 1990-91. There is little doubt that the Liverpool side of the late 1980’s would have proven a formidable side in Europe and claimed the continent’s most coveted footballing trophy had they been allowed enter.
On the 13th of April 1988 Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest visited Anfield for a league fixture knowing the home side were still favourites to win the title despite losing 2-1 (one of only two losses all season) at the City ground only eleven days earlier.
In between the two league encounters with Clough’s side Liverpool had also won an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and gained revenge for that previous defeat with a 2-1 win over Forest.
Sadly, the two clubs would meet in the FA Cup semi-finals at the same venue the following year only for the worst Stadium related disaster in history to occur and claim the lives of 96 football fans.
The game was played at a frantic pace from the opening minute with Liverpool dictating the tempo with crisp passing in the centre of the park from Houghton, McMahon, Spackman and Barnes. The home side completely dominated possession and a Forest side including internationals such as Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Neil Webb and Nigel Clough simply had no answer to the incessant attacking.
Fans thronged behind the Kop heaved with every flowing attack as Houghton’s probing passes on one wing matched the mazy dribbling of Barnes on the opposite side of the pitch. Chances came and went as Peter Beardsley’s influence began to grow but Liverpool had nothing to show for their efforts until the 18th minute.
Alan Hansen broke up a Forest attack and strode out of defence before releasing Houghton with a simple pass. The Republic of Ireland international raced towards the penalty area, played a quick one-two with Barnes and slotted the ball past Steve Sutton. It was a simple, beautiful effort encapsulating all the best traits of Liverpool FC.
Forest were unable to stem the tide and Liverpool would hit the woodwork twice and watch Sutton pull off a string of magnificent saves before John Aldridge doubled the host’s advantage shortly before the interval.
Peter Beardsley was quickest to react to another failed Forest attack and the former Newcastle United player released John Aldridge with a 30-yard defence-splitting pass. Aldridge still had plenty to do but waited until Sutton committed himself and chipped an instinctive shot over the out-rushing goalkeeper.
‘Another superb Liverpool goal, it looked simple but was of quite a stupendous quality’ as described by BBC commentator John Motson.
Following the half time break, most teams would have been content to defend their 2-0 advantage and counter-attack when the opportunity arose. Instead, the Anfield club moved up a gear and netted three additional goals in front of the Kop to complete a marvellous 90-minute performance.
True, Forest lost the services of centre-back Des Walker during the interval but even if the England international had been on the park, it is unlikely he would have been able to prevent any of the goals.
A first-time finish from Gary Gillespie following a quickly worked corner-kick made it 3-0 before John Barnes weaved his way past two defenders and pulled the ball back for Peter Beardsley to fire home a fourth. ‘A glorious goal again from Liverpool’ mused Motson on commentary.
An amazing Anfield night was complete once Beardsley and Spackman combined to send Aldridge through for his second and Liverpool’s fifth. Dalglish’s side would go on to claim the league championship following a 0-0 draw with Norwich a week later but failed to claim an expected double when the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon caused a huge upset by defeating the Reds 1-0 in the 1988 FA Cup final.
To put the Nottingham Forest result into context, Liverpool had just crushed one of only two teams (Everton being the other) to defeat them in the league that entire 1987-88 season and 5-0 was not a flattering score.
It could and should have been more but irrespective of the number of goals scored it was the sheer dominance and movement of Liverpool on that balmy April evening that lives longest in the memory.