On the eve of the 25th anniversary of our 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest, Liverpoolfc.com columnist Paul Tomkins examines whether the performance has ever be bettered?
Twenty five years, in the blink of an eye.
It was my 17th birthday, and I had carefully avoided the score to watch the highlights of Liverpool playing Nottingham Forest later that night. My mum joked that it wasn't worth watching, and like the idiot I was, I threw a teenage hissy fit at her for ruining the surprise. (Think Kevin from the Harry Enfield Show.)
Either she was right, and it was dull and Liverpool lost, or she was being ironic and the game was worth staying up for on a school night (these were not my rock'n'roll years).
The latter proved to be the case. This was no damp squib. Indeed, in terms of squibs, this was bone-dry and connected to a ton of TNT.
No-one could recall such an impressive display of football; not even the greats of yesteryear, including Sir Tom Finney, who was 66 at the time. "It was the finest exhibition I've seen the whole time I've played and watched the game," he said. "You couldn't see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil. The moves they put together were fantastic."
Maurice Roworth, the Forest chairman, said that "No one could have competed against [Liverpool]. They are the best team in Europe, which is why they are not in Europe. They are too good."
Remember, this 5-0 routing came against the team who'd go on to finish 3rd in the league a month later, and who were also the vanquished FA Cup semi-final opponents of Dalglish's Liverpool, at a time when the FA Cup was still a national treasure. Forest were not so much taken down a peg or two as razed to the ground like their South American namesakes. All that was missing was Sting mounting a protest in Brian Clough's honour. (Meanwhile, Steve Sutton in the Forest goal should have been offered protection by Amnesty International.)
The football was slick, fast and brutally punishing. The visiting fans liked to sing "You'll never beat Des Walker". The pacy England centre-back, lining up in a back four that also included Stuart Peace, picked up an early injury and soldiered on until half-time, but he must have been wondering why he bothered, as the Reds swarmed past his colleagues.
It wasn't even Liverpool's strongest XI from 1987-88. Nigel Spackman was only playing because of an injury to Ronnie Whelan, and Gary Gillespie was in the side because Mark Lawrenson had just been forced to prematurely retire due to a serious Achilles problem. Both stand-ins were outstanding.
Everything clicked into place in that famous season, and this performance was the apotheosis of an epoch-defining team. John Barnes was mesmeric, Peter Beardsley a jinking magician. John Aldridge was more of a mere mortal in that sense, but his special power was that he knew exactly where to be. And Ray Houghton combined energy with intelligence.
Together they were unstoppable. At a time when English football was mired in a lot of long-ball nonsense, this provided pleasure for the purists, with the Reds showcasing possession with purpose. Perhaps it helped that Forest were also a passing side, as they weren't set up to stifle in the way that the Reds' bogey side, Wimbledon, tended to manage. However, Clough's men just couldn't get hold of the ball on the night for long enough periods to keep the home side at bay.
Watching the whole game again, two and a half decades later, the most obvious difference to the football of 2013 is the backpass rule. Having grown up with 'keepers being able to pick up passes from teammates as part of the game, my first instinct - as pure reflex - was still "what the hell are you doing, Brucie!?". The outlawing of this tactic was clearly one factor in the speeding up of football in the intervening years, although this classic match still looks fairly frantic, with passages of chaotic play, and a fair bit of pace and athleticism.
Another difference is the tackling, and how forwards were far less protected back then. While I believe that Lionel Messi bears comparison with the great Diego Maradona, the '80s were still a time of brutal punishment for flair players. John Barnes may not have regularly impressed on the world stage (in part due to England's lack of cohesion), but he tore international defenders apart in a red shirt. Had Liverpool been in Europe at the time I have little doubt that he'd have done the same.
Barnes had pace and skill in abundance, but what marked him out as the league's best player was the ability to ride a robust challenge. If he'd been a racehorse he'd never have fallen at Becher's Brook. And to mix in a few more animal metaphors, he was strong as an ox and as agile as a cat. No matter how he was clattered he always seemed to land on his feet, running off with the ball as the defender looked helplessly on. In fairness there were no nasty tackles in this match, although I counted at least 10 occasions that could have led to a red card these days due to players leaving the ground with studs showing (all were playing the ball, but these days that's irrelevant if deemed dangerous).
Barnes was just one of several stars on the night, and arguably not even the man of the match. Gary Gillespie was a revelation, at times pioneering the false 9 role from centre-back (including a sweetly struck goal), with his partner Alan Hansen also frequently joining the attack. At one point Hansen was in on goal from open play, but chose to square it, and overhit the pass; and therefore it wasn't one of 14 shots on target that I counted, to Forest's meagre two. (I also noted three passes by the silver-permed referee, Roger Milford, who seemed eager to show his skills and keep things moving whenever the ball went dead.)
I was fortunate enough to see Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton, Nicol and McMahon while they were still in their pomp, but my first game at Anfield was two years later, in 1990, and those incredible heights were never quite hit again. Indeed, this incredible victory all but secured a 17th league title, and it's now been 23 years since the 18th.
Dividing the game into nine 10-minute periods, I went through and counted every successful pass, to try and get an idea of how it compared with modern football. While I may have missed the odd one due to replays (although they were very sparse in those days, with the third goal not even getting shown again), I reckon that overall the Reds made 483 successful passes, compared with Forest's 291, to result in what I reckon to be 62 per cent possession. To put that into context, Liverpool averaged 400 successful passes last season and 440 so far this season.
At no point in the game did Forest boss proceedings, or even get within 10 passes of the Reds in any of those nine periods of play. Some of the one-twos between Barnes, Beardsley, Spackman, McMahon and the rest remain breathtaking. The way Beardsley shimmied in between defenders and the way Barnes glided past them helped make for one of the most inventive forward lines the British game has ever seen, and that pair, along with Aldridge, notched an incredible 64 goals that season.
To their credit, the much younger Forest side persevered, and four times in the final few minutes Steve Nicol produced a timely interception, with future Red Nigel Clough, then aged 22 (but looking about 11) showing form that he never managed to recapture after leaving his dad's club. With Forest piling forward for a late consolation, the Reds broke and added a fifth goal right at the death.
Twenty five years is a long time in football, and aspects of the performance (and hairstyles) have dated; just as looking at the 1954 Hungary team would have seemed quaint in the '80s. The English game is now full of many of the world's elite, whereas back then it was the best of British and a smattering of Scandinavians, with very few of those imports on a par with Liverpool's sub, Jan Molby. The only non-British/Irish starter out of the 22 on display was Bruce Grobbelaar.
But it was the same for everyone in the late '80s, and you can only judge a side within the context of the era. To put it into a modern setting, it was as if the Reds had Gerrard, Rooney, Wilshire and Bale, and the rest had Jenas, Zamora, Noble and Cattermole, to pick four random relative journeymen.
Liverpool were ahead of the times and ahead of the game, and that's what marked them out as special, even if Barcelona have taken the passing game to new heights. Although it remains debatable because the two could never meet, only AC Milan were on a par with the Reds back then.
And never did that Liverpool side put in a better display than the one that had the Kop chanting "Cloughie, Cloughie, what's the score?"