Through Gritted Teeth #35: Liverpool 1988

by Mike Counsell

Occasionally in life, something happens that is so alien, so counterintuitive, so brain-jarringly wrong that it makes you question whether there can ever again be such a thing as certainty. It was May the 14th 1988, FA Cup final day, and I was in the pub. Nothing unusual or counterintuitive about that, as anyone who knows me would confirm.

(Incidentally, as a digressing disclaimer, there will be errors of fact and attribution in this piece. Football is a game of passions and opinions, and I prefer the kind of truth that’s refracted through memory and experience rather than the kind that reflects, you know, what actually happened. The date I can vouch for, but I’m afraid that that constitutes the full extent of my research.)

I was having a mid-day pint with my mate Tim (Leeds United — 2nd division, mid table) and his mate David (Chelsea — just relegated) and much pontificating was being gone through about the match to come, and what each team would need to do in order to win the game. The consensus was that Wimbledon’s best plan was to pray for divine assistance, whereas Liverpool’s best chance was to try and remember to turn up; as long as they got that bit right the victory would surely nestle fairly effortlessly in their collective lap ninety minutes or so later.

It was during this conversation that David said something that triggered the ‘what’s happened to everything I understood about reality’ moment. He said that not only would it be an upset if Liverpool lost, an upset bordering on being a miracle, it would also be a moral and objective wrong. A disservice to the world. The tenet of his argument was that such had been the quality of Liverpool’s play in the 1987/88 season that the world of football stood at a qualitative crossroads, a crux in history. If Liverpool were to win the double, with the world watching, it would push football, or at least English football, into an age of enlightenment, of intelligence, possession and movement, of angles, control and applied technique. If Wimbledon were to win it would say to the world that English football had reverted to ‘hoof it up the channels and get stuck into ‘em’ mode. It would be nothing less than a victory for thuggishness.

What stunned me; what flipped my world onto a new axis, was that I suddenly discovered that I agreed. I agreed. Every word. There are lifelong friends who will stop reading here and never speak to me again. Gritted teeth doesn’t really cover it.

Now, Liverpool had been magnificent all season, and undoubtedly deserved the double. So why was it such a revelatory moment?

Some background. I am a Manchester United supporter, and in 1988, when it felt a lot more like supporting a football club rather than an American investment bank, when it was still possible to say ‘d’you fancy going to the game tomorrow?’, I was quite fanatical. If you’d asked me, I’d have said that I hated scousers. I didn’t, of course. You couldn’t hate scousers growing up in Warrington, you went to school with them, went to the pub with them, worked with them, got lessons from them in nicking cars. Not that last one.

Warrington is where the roots are. We moved there when I was three years old, and that’s where I grew up. I live a long way away now but my family are still there and I I still get the yearning for return. It’s home. This means that I am allowed to run it down and disparage it constantly, but you may not do so.

Things may be different now, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Warrington was the biggest small town in Britain. It has a big footprint, Warrington. It’s a town big enough to have three distinct accents, and therein lies the problem. None of them are its own. Once you get south of the Mersey and the Manchester Ship canal the accent is the bland, nothingy Surrey-in-the-North tones of Cheshire. (Basically Received Pronunciation with short vowel sounds; ie. bath rhymes with hath, not hearth.) It’s what I sound like, except that I grew up in a very Lancashire family, which I like to think gives it a bit of an edge. To hear one of the other accents depends on whether you follow the Mersey or the Manchester ship canal. There is a signpost at Bridge Foot that points East with the legend, Manchester 16, and to the West, Liverpool 17. Pretty much anywhere North or East of the town centre and you’d think you were in Manchester, a couple of miles west to Great Sankey and Penketh and you could be in Liverpool.

This is the essence of the small town atmosphere of which I speak. It may be a big town but it is dwarfed by the marauding giants on either side, and there is a tendency, or certainly was then, to identify pretty quickly with one or the other. It’s possible that things may have changed. There might be a self-reliance and pride about the town, now, that says a big ‘yeah, come and have a go then’ to the two big cities, but I doubt it. The point being that you instantly gravitated to, and allied yourself with, either Manchester or Liverpool. I instinctively went Mancunian. The kids were cooler, and the music was better. In the late 70s and 80s we had Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division/New Order, Magazine, The Smiths, Durutti Column and James, with the Mondays and the Roses round the corner, amongst countless others. Liverpool had, by way of contrast, the Real Thing, Our Kid and Marseille. (If you think that this seems (a) crow-barred in, and (b) a slightly cherry-picked list, you’d be right, it’s a long overdue response to a ‘scouse’ Warringtonian writer who gave the opposite view, and managed to disparage Manchester music at the time without mentioning any of the above artists. Sorry.)

In football terms, Warrington is in an odd place. There are no football grounds within 15 miles, and loads within 30 or so (Wrexham, Chester, Tranmere, Liverpool, Everton, United, City, Bolton, Bury, Wigan, Stockport, etc.). In reality of course, unless you were in, say, a Stockport County family, there was a choice of United, Liverpool, City and Everton, and I’d say the split was about 35/35/15/15. When we moved to Warrington, we lived in a sort of tied housing area; most of the dads in the street worked together, thus developing an instant community. I had a bizarre best friendship thing that was closer to hero worship with a lad down the street who was a few years older than me. He was the son in a family who’d moved from Manchester; United fans all, so, decision made. And if it paid off eventually, it wasn’t fun supporting (even if only in theory, I didn’t actually get to my first game till 1977) a team that was forever struggling against relegation, and would eventually lose that fight. Three years of interminably depressing local radio commentaries. And when you’re eight, nine, ten years old, three years is forever. My football education was of a United in disarray, my only experience of George Best the permanent Daily Mirror headlines of him running away from the club or one of his wives. Misery, despair, hooliganism, Wilf McGuiness, Frank O’Farrell, and relegation at the feet of City and King Denis (yes, we know it really wasn’t down to that moment, but not as much as we know that that’s what it felt like.) Imagine my joy when I get called a glory hunter.

And of course, when times were bad, there were Liverpool fans everywhere, all the time. A few days after we got relegated, Liverpool destroyed Newcastle in a ridiculously one-sided FA cup final. Such wretchedness at ten years old.

In the seventies, and into the eighties, there were certain truisms that you repeated to yourself about Liverpool’s continued success. That it was bought by mercenaries (Dalglish was reported to be coming to United: ‘I can’t wait to join my old mate Lou Macari’ the alleged quote, only to change his mind and go to Liverpool when they supposedly offered a few more quid) so it didn’t count. That it was simply a matter of consistency; clearly, United were the better team, but we were mavericks, children of mischievous Gods, who played with the fire of their eccentricities, veering from brilliance to clay-footed horror from one week to the next, while Liverpool had simply learned how to do enough to win. That they would spend the first, referee-lenient twenty minutes or so kicking the opposition into the air (ringleader Souness), get a goal through a goal-hanging and probably offside Ian Rush and hang on to the lead by the simple process of Grobbelaar to Hansen, Hansen to Lawrenson, Lawrenson to Grobbelaar. I still hear friends say that it’s no coincidence that Liverpool haven’t won the league since the back pass rule was introduced. I still hear myself say it.

The bullying thing had an element of truth to it, Souness was a much better player than he’s now remembered as, but more than capable of blunt thuggery, and it’s again frequently cited that the reason United had a pretty good record against Liverpool over the eighties was that you couldn’t bully the likes of Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Remi Moses and Jesper Olsen. Not that last one.

Elements of truth only get you so far of course, and in 87/88, it became increasingly churlish to argue anything other than Liverpool were fantastic. Which was depressing, because that year it was all going to be so different. United’s squad looked great. It still does, at least in defence and midfield. The problem, it’s now obvious to see, was in attack, and though McClair had a great season there was no real back up for him. Whiteside had lost what little pace he had and was playing in midfield when fit, and Davenport was never really good enough to replace Mark Hughes, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that he clearly didn’t think he was up to the job. But at the start of the season we didn’t know that, and the best news in our long wait for the title was that the Liverpool side had fallen to pieces. Souness had gone, Rush had gone, Dalglish was too old to play more that the odd few minutes as sub, and they’d been reduced to buying in players from Watford and Oxford.

And of course they were brilliant. Better than ever. There was nowhere near the amount of football on telly as there is now, but it was becoming more common, and each time Liverpool were on things became clearer. Rush, Souness and Dalglish still seemed to be playing, though under the names Aldridge, MacMahon and Beardsley. Rush hadn’t even bothered to disguise his appearance while playing as Aldridge (possibly put off by the Halloween mask Dalglish was wearing as Beardsley. Cheap shot. Sorry).

Ray Houghton was great all year, and John Barnes was just sensational. He’s one of those players that require you to remove the United-tinted glasses, and simply acknowledge that he was a genuinely world class footballer. Not often for England, admittedly, but for Liverpool he was, in a way that made you hate him, consistently, fluidly wonderful. I recall listening in to a conversation at work between a couple of dullards, one saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t approve of blacks in football but if you had to have one he was glad they had Barnes. On no account should a team play more than one black, though, and it was a terrible thing that United had two, in Anderson and Moses. The other bloke was pointing out that this was nonsense; not, sadly, for any of the reasons why it was nonsense, but because Barnes was a fancy-dan and if you had to have a black player he’d much rather have Moses. Such conversations were soul-destroying, and not rare. (Bloke number two was also wrong. I bow to no man in my admiration for Remi Moses, but saying that you’d prefer him in your side to Barnes is like saying that you’d rather watch Michael Essien than Cristiano Ronaldo.)

The Times back page, 1988: "Liverpool Set New Standards In Memorable Show"

Famously, it is Liverpool’s destruction of Nottingham Forest by five goals to nil that is best remembered, and quite rightly. Among the ‘it was five, but it could have been twelve’ games that people talk about, this is the non-United one that springs to mind first. And a lot of it is because this wasn’t a bad Nottingham Forest side. This was the second best side in the country at the time, and a defence including Des Walker and Stuart Pearce were ripped to pieces, Forest becoming reduced to sitting back in an attempt at damage limitation so poor that by the end Liverpool’s defenders were wandering forward at will, taking turns at trying to get in on the act. It was pointless to do anything but pretend it wasn’t Liverpool and enjoy the football. The game killed off Forest’s title hopes, and they finished third, United clinching a distant second with a storming run of victories at the end of the season when it was already far too late.

So, what did I do, on May the fourteenth, 1988, when presented with the argument that it would be morally and objectively wrong if Liverpool lost? I agreed, and I agreed officially, out loud, partly to hear for myself if I could actually say the words, and partly to see whether I would be struck down by a bolt from the blue. I praised the pivotal Houghton, the clinical Aldridge, the visionary Beardsley and the genius Barnes.

And so, that afternoon, I found myself in the unique position of being about to support Liverpool in a football match. Girding my loins and gritting my teeth I tried, for the good of the future of English football, to put my support behind Liverpool. But, in all honesty, that’s not how it went. What followed was the strangest football watching experience of my life, as I realised pretty much instantly, and very very strongly, how much I wanted Wimbledon to win.

The problem was, I couldn’t say anything. I had precious little in the way of self-esteem at the best of times, I couldn’t have coped with exposing myself as (as it would have appeared) someone who changes his allegiance on a whim, or according to whoever’s winning. I had to sit on my hands and not cheer as Lawrie Sanchez scored; not scream abuse at the referee who’d bottled it and given Liverpool their traditional dodgy penalty; not yell in joy as frequent comedy keeper Beasant saved it; not laugh out loud as the same ref disallowed Beardsley’s goal as he’d already blown for a Liverpool free kick; and not jump up and down at the final whistle. What I had to do instead was make my excuses, shake my head in apparent misery as soon as the final whistle went, look crestfallen at the wilfulness of fate, run home, and watch the video, this time with full appropriate joyous vocal reflection, if no spontaneity.

Football survived, even if Wimbledon didn’t, and never again would I try to curb my natural prejudices (well, prejudice, I really do only have the one) to such a degree. Tribalism won, but I can still, just about, grit my teeth and say that that was a great Liverpool team.

Wimbledon celebrate their 1988 FA Cup final victory

Mike is a prize-winning short story writer. Highlights from the 1988 FA Cup final are here and here (though there are interruptions from talking heads).


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