The longest journey starts with a single step. In the seventies and eighties, Liverpool just had to search Scotland or Division Three for the most masculine ‘tache, sign up the possessor, and that’d secure a league title for another season – and a European Cup if they’d a decent perm.
But as the fortunes of unpretentious facial fur have waned, so have those of the Anfield side. And while there have been plenty of low-points across the 28 league title-less seasons since, the first leap along that miserable path came in the aftermath of the maddest Merseyside derby in living memory.
Back in the early nineties, a fifth-round FA Cup replay still cast a spell over even the biggest clubs, and both red and blue sides of the so-called “friendly derby” had enjoyed extended success through the previous decade, collecting 17 pieces of silverware in the decade previous.
But Scouse footballing dominance came to a crashing halt after 1990, with just three cups and no league titles shared by the sides through the nineties. No game marks the start of the decline more clearly than their 4-4 cup replay of February 20th 1991.
On paper, Liverpool’s team still had great players in their prime. John Barnes, Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley, this was a trio that could destroy any defence on their day. Wear and tear was accumulating among the squad – Alan Hansen’s chronic injuries deprived them of their best centre-half – but, along with Welsh centre-forward Rush, Steve Nicol and goofy keeper Bruce Grobbelaar owned European Cup medals from 1984, while Jan Molby still had the yard in his head that made up for the tyre around his gut.
The Reds were also defending Division One champions and top of the league going into the tie. They hadn’t finished outside the top two league spots in a decade and looked set to continue that run under the guidance of Liverpool playing legend-turned-manager Kenny Dalglish.
Within 48 hours of the Goodison replay the Reds’ world had been turned upside-down.
Four times in 120 minutes King Kenny’s charges took the lead, and four times their fiercest rivals reeled them back. Adding insult to injury, just ten days before they’d beaten their cross-city rivals 3-1 in the league. A scoreless draw on the following Saturday at Anfield saw the Blues earn a replay on their own turf, but the champion’s quality should’ve shown through at the second attempt.
Howard Kendall’s team had other ideas. Still trading on Graeme Sharp’s goals and Neville Southall’s world-class shop-stopping, both of whom were members of teams who’d seen league glory in the mid-eighties, Everton weren’t title challengers any more but that didn’t matter when their biggest rivals turned up in front of the Gladys Street end.
A scrappy opening was broken by the treacherous Goodison surface, which confounded Kevin Ratcliffe and allowed Rush to set up Peter Beardsley’s opener after almost 40 minutes of sparring.
That really should’ve been that, with Liverpool’s quality allowing them to shut down the game and march on to play West Ham in the next round.
But as the pitch fell to pieces so did their defence.
Sharp levelled within two minutes of the restart with a rocket header, Beardsley retorted with a 25-yard screamer before the experienced Nicol was undone by rapidly deteriotrating turf to make up for Everton’s first half gaffe, Sharp pouncing to make it 2-2.
Everton failed to seize the momentum though, and Rush glanced home a Molby cross that looked to have settled the game until, in the 89th minute, a Liverpool clearance was returned from the halfway line, squirting onto the boot of Stuart McCall, whose instinctive jab forward to no-one-in-particular played not one but two Everton forwards through on goal.
The recently introduced Tony Cottee’s fresh legs gave him an advantage over both his teammate and the onrushing goalkeeper. He poked home the loose and unleashed pandemonium.
And there was still extra-time to come.
Liverpool’s side showed their championship class by digging out a fourth lead when bowing to fate would’ve been easier. John Barnes, a passenger during the 90 minutes, sprung to life in the extra period and saw his efforts rewarded when he clipped in the kind of arching, swerving edge-of the-box effort that Thierry Henry spent a career copying.
A goal to win any game, let alone the most pulsating derby one of football’s most passionate cities has ever seen, Barnes effort remains a bittersweet memory for Liverpool fans because of what followed.
Perhaps it was a portent of impending decades-long agony Scouse fans would endure that an effort of such beauty would be denied a rightful place in the collective football memory by another Cottee goal as wretchedly fortuitous in its construction as it was satisfying to the vast majority of those in attendance.
With possession bobbling like a bouncing grenade on a war-torn street, Liverpool’s Gary Ablett treated the ball as would befit a live explosive and sloppily shifted it towards his own goal, where it fell into the path of another darting Cottee run. The tiny striker punished the lapse before any Liverpool defender could react to save Everton again, ensuring a second replay – this was the last year of multiple FA Cup replays – and closing an all-time classic clash.
It’s no surprise to hear that, after throwing away four separate leads against an inferior opponent, earwigging Evertonians down the corridor could overhear a loud and prolonged inquest in the away dressing room at full-time. The visitors had crumbled under the ferocious force of the Goodison crowd and the endeavour of a weaker side, with Alan Hansen’s lengthy absence being felt – he would not play in the 1990-91 campaign and was forced to retire that summer due to injury – while Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan were also missed as their years of midfield toil took a toll.
Manager Dalglish reportedly remained silent while assistant Ronnie Moran tore strips off the faltering champions. Instead, two days later, Dalglish did his talking when he signalled that the strain of the game itself and the Liverpool job, allied with the trauma of being present at both Hillsborough and Heysel tragedies, had become too much, and resigned as manager with his team top of the league.
The club and wider football world was stunned. Graeme Souness’ success at Ibrox saw him swiftly installed as successor, but his new team, shell-shocked by their ex-boss’ departure and a growing sense that they were no longer the slaloming force they’d once been, could not withstand the blow and would collapse in the closing weeks of the season. Their three-point lead over Arsenal at the top the of the First Division when they first faced Everton in the cup had turned into a seven-point deficit by the final day of the season and started the league title drought that extends to this day.
Everton would win the second replay 1-0 a week later with their opponents still coming to terms with Dalglish decision, a Dave Watson goal the difference, but would lose to West Ham in the quarter-final.
Souness tried to clear out the deadwood and rejuvenate Dalglish’s ageing squad, but an FA Cup win in 1992 was scant reward for a club where winning had seemingly been in the DNA, and a malaise set in under his watch that, despite Houllier and Benitez’s trophies and Rodgers’ Suarez-inspired near-miss, only Jurgen Klopp has looked like lifting.
Though Everton would endure rougher times, barely avoiding relegation a few years later and rarely challenging for silverware, the Blues can still take comfort in their 1991 FA Cup heroics and the way it chiselled open the thin cracks in Liverpool’s historic resilience.
It’s difficult not to wonder how different history would’ve been had Cottee not taken both his chances that night. Dalglish would return to the game with Blackburn Rovers, winning promotion and a Premier League and becoming the first of Alex Ferguson’s great rivals in the rebranded First Division, but would Liverpool have declined so far if Dalglish had remained at the helm? Would Blackburn’s success have been Scouse instead? Would United have come to dominate the top-flight as their Northwest rivals once had?
It’s impossible to know, but, in subsequent years to the epic derby draw, Liverpool certainly lost their intimidating aura. Teams no longer feared them, and the new incumbents of Mersey red both on the field and in the dugout started to feel, and seemingly fear, the weight of the club’s history and expectations instead.
Though it preceded the Premier League era, the fallout of Dalglish’s abdication two days after the eight-goal classic is still felt today in every Liverpudlian dream of league success and echoes through their 28 years of heartache.