Through Gritted Teeth #16: The Liverpool back four of the 1980s

by Chris King

You know their voices. You may even be familiar with their faces.

But if you are a football fan that first drew breath sometime after the Stone Roses released their eponymous debut album, there’s every chance you won’t have seen my choice for “Through Gritted Teeth” play. You won’t have had the chance to understand why TV companies or Football Associations nowadays pay good money to present the direct opposite of their performances.

For my choice to acknowledge through gritted teeth is not one player, but part of a formation: the Liverpool back four of the 1980s.

To favour only one player from that era — a side so dominant across almost two decades at both national and European level — would do the whole, famed ‘Boot Room’ ethos the club had a massive disservice. No, instead, better to confront your childhood nightmares of an impenetrable red wall. The sort of wall that grows the closer you get. So large it dominates the area of play. That comes with rumours of a small door you can escape through — but to what? No one who ever got through actually came back to tell their tale.

All of this is written from memory, but the memories I have of the Liverpool back four (c. 1981-1990) — that monolithic red wall — are none too pleasant. As a Spurs fan growing up amid Thatcher’s Britain, I knew exactly what it was like to lose things — milk, free travelcards, away games at Anfield. Bizarrely, the ‘80s were actually a purple patch for us, with back to back wins across ’85 and ’86. The fact it took 73 years to start that run, and ended with another seven years in the doldrums is testament to how depressing a fixture it was for us; for most clubs.

It may seem strange to focus on the defence given the sheer quality the club had in other positions. Yes I could have been sucked in, as most defenders were, to Dalglish’s prominent derrière. Found Ian Rush’s moustache to have been Satan incarnate; or given up all hope at the thought of Barnes and Beardsley — yet I believe that the bedrock of any great side is not in how many goals they score — but how bloody hard they make it for their opponents.

Liverpool’s back four across that period was not just a collective of thrown together defenders. They were handpicked specimens — identified because of the individual attributes they had, which could be moulded to make a wider, more steadfast unit. They could defend deep, support the attacking line, hold the ball up or play it with unnerving accuracy any time they saw a chink in their opponent’s own defence.

Yet the overriding memory of that decade is not in their ability to go forward, it is in the way the defence could crush the life out of a game simply by passing the ball between themselves: back to the keeper, towards the low lying midfielder and back to the keeper again. It was attrition football at its worst/finest (delete as applicable). But then who am I to criticise such a tactic? In amongst the free spirited, attacking adventures that saw Ian Rush et al score almost at will, the defence was there, on hand, to sap the spirit of players and fans alike. The way the defence refused to ever cough up the ball helped the club to an impressive six of the ten Division One titles in that decade. They also secured two European Cups from three final appearances.

Is that reason enough to applaud their success through gritted teeth? Yes – but what was to follow makes their achievements all the more impressive; all the more unbelievable for those within the pre-agreed age range.

The standout figures from that back four are the media darlings Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson, Mark Lawrenson and Jim Beglin. To be subjected to Thompson’s over-the-top style of Saturday afternoon reporting, or the playful interplay between “Lawro” and Hansen on MotD is enough to leave a novice to conclude that they may have been involved in the game at some point, but not to the standard their playing careers would suggest. In Beglin’s case it is easier to assume that he merely has photographic evidence of Clive Tyldesley’s many misdemeanours — how else would he get the ITV gig?

Then there is the great Phil Neal — who played the Stan Laurel to Graham Taylor’s Oliver Hardy in one of England’s darker periods. Who was caught on tape, uttering “yes boss” to Taylor more often than you’d expect from a cotton picker in a Civil War drama series. Who then had the audacity to ask the Observer for a fee to discuss one of the most prominent stadium disasters in living memory.

Even Steve Staunton had the sort of career most players would be enviable of, only to tarnish it all with his managerial exploits – first with the Republic of Ireland and then Darlington. Then there’s the odd success story like Alan Kennedy who scored the winning penalty in the 1984 European Cup, or Steve Nichol who had an illustrious playing career, and still appears to be in control of his sanity when managing or broadcasting in the States. Though there will always be the Gary Abletts of the side, whose only modern reference point came after someone thought it would be clever to use his name as slang for drugs.

Ablett was part of a generation of Liverpool defenders that had the back pass taken away from them — and much like the mythical Samson with a number one all over — what had once made them unbeatable, now left them naked, exposed; human.

And now for FIFA, read television executives. For if the sport’s world governing body stripped them of their power with a new law, television has done the same with cameras and microphones — only this time, they’re not human — they are idiots.

Idiots they may be, but there is no denying how great that defence once was — even if it is through gritted teeth.

Chris only pretends to like football. His real love is bowls. Bowls is sexy. He’s written for In Bed With Maradona, and can also be found pottering around his domain at Northern Writes. Follow him on Twitter: @NorthernWrites.

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