Liverpool began the 1980s with 11 league championships to their name. Spring 1990 sees them win their 18th; it had been a productive decade. Few teams in football history had been as adept at regenerating their team while maintaining their position at the top of the table, and unless you looked really closely, nothing looked set to change in the 1990s.
Summer 1989 had seen Glenn Hysen and Steve Harkness brought in. So what? 1990: Maybe Ronnie Rosenthal wasn’t the true heir to Ian Rush, but he’s decent enough. 1991: David Speedie and Jimmy Carter? Alright maybe things aren’t running *perfectly* but Graeme Souness, a club legend, is coming in to replace another, Kenny Dalglish. Everything’s going to be OK.
Narrator: Things were not OK. The early years of the Premier League saw Liverpool reduced to TV-friendly also-rans as arch-rivals Manchester United established a modern megastore dynasty that wins them fans and influence across the country and the globe. By the end of the Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford in 2013, United had pulled two clear of Liverpool in league titles, having won 13 of their 20 under the Scot. Even so, a club as big and important and chequered as Liverpool was not going to go 30 years without winning another league title. Only they did and they have, and there’s no logical explanation as to why that is the case.
Sit down a Liverpool fan in July 1990 and tell them Leeds, Blackburn, Chelsea (then a long-running west London fiasco), Manchester City and even Leicester City (who had, in 1990, just finished two places below Port Vale in the second tier), plus Manchester United and Arsenal – all of those teams – would be champions of England before Liverpool and they’d have laughed for a fortnight. Sometimes you aren’t champions of England again. You can come close, though, and in incrementally more ridiculous ways as the Premier League era unfolded, Liverpool did so. Here are the six times they’ve been thwarted:
Manager: Roy Evans. Incredulity rating: 5/10
The final league table shows Liverpool in fourth place and that is accurate. Liverpool came fourth… in a two-horse race. The Reds are top at Christmas, top at New Year, they go to Everton with five games to go knowing that a win will take them top but draw 1-1 and suffer the fatal blow of a Robbie Fowler red card. Liverpool then lose 3-1 to eventual champions Manchester United and without the talismanic Fowler pick up just four more points from the remaining three games. The attack was title-worth, the defence was not. David James drops 14 crosses during the season – three more than any other goalkeeper in the league – and in an era when every top team is swinging in crosses by the truckload, this is not ideal. The title drought is seven years. It will get longer.
Manager: Houllier/Thompson. Incredulity rating: 6/10
Liverpool finally dispense with the Boot Room ethos in the late 1990s. Continental technocrat Gerard Houllier comes in, first to work alongside Roy Evans, then instead of him. The Frenchman understands Liverpool’s defence is not good enough to win a league title. This incrementally improves during his time in charge, albeit at the slow expense of the attack.
The 2001/02 season remains arguably the most curious in Liverpool’s modern history. It’s a Houllier team but managed by a club old boy, Phil Thompson, as Houllier recovers from heart surgery. The team start with 10 wins from 14, implode over Christmas and recover to finish with 13 wins from their last 15 games. The impossible has been done: Liverpool finish above Manchester United in the table for the first time since 1991. A French manager lifts the Premier League title. It’s Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. The wait goes on.
Manager: Rafa Benitez. Incredulity rating: 8/10
For so long Liverpool’s total of 18 league titles was an unmatchable feat, but Manchester United start 2008/09 on 17 – the enemy finally in sight after all these years. It spurs Liverpool into one of their greatest-ever league performances. Top at Christmas, top at New Year, top on May 9, second on May 24.
Ten wins from the last 11 includes a 4-1 annihilation of United at Old Trafford that should have been a coronation, except somehow United unearth Federico Macheda and win games they should have at best drawn. Macheda scores a stoppage-time winner against Aston Villa in his senior debut on April 5 and follows it a week later with a 76th-minute winner against Sunderland to save United four points in six days then never again scores a meaningful goal for the club, but it doesn’t matter. Liverpool end the season with just two defeats in the league, the first time a team has lost as few and not won the title. By four points and with a worse goal differential than their rivals, Manchester United win the title. They have 18 of them now. A familiar number.
Manager: Brendan Rodgers. Incredulity rating: 8/10
What would a Roy Evans Liverpool team have been like if it had been even better going forward and even worse at the back? Probably something like Brendan Rodgers’ team in 2013/14. A hundred and one goals is testament to a forward line boasting Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho but they let in 50 goals at the back, and no team has been champions with a defence that suspect since Ipswich back in 1962. In the Premier League era, Manchester United have won the title three times conceding 43-45 goals, but no one else has allowed more than 39.
Even so, from winter onwards Liverpool are virtually unplayable. Suarez scores 10 goals in December alone and 14 wins and two draws from New Year’s Day onwards puts the title, yes, the league title, in Liverpool’s hands with three games to go. Don’t let it slip now.
In retrospect, Steven Gerrard’s era-defining mistake in the 2-0 loss to Chelsea in Game 36 (a draw would have kept Liverpool’s destiny in their own hands) was less the slip that allowed Demba Ba to score but rather his desperation to make amends in the remainder of the game. The captain has eight shots after his mistake, from an average distance of 27 yards. We are now in the expected goals era, so sometimes logic has to outrank heroic narrative. The despair is compounded in the next game, a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace. 3-0 up, Liverpool had to chase goals to try and reduce their goal difference deficit to Manchester City. Instead, they crumble under the floodlights and Luis Suarez departs the pitch in tears. So near, so far, we go again.
Manager: Jurgen Klopp. Incredulity rating: 9/10
How do you match a peerless Manchester City team who win the Premier League in 2017/18 by collecting 100 points, the first time an English top-flight team has ever broken three figures? Answer: by matching them in the autumn, pulling clear over Christmas (the last three times a team has been top of the Premier League on Christmas Day and not won the league are Liverpool in 2008, Liverpool in 2013 and Liverpool in 2018), wobbling *slightly* as spring approached and then keeping step with City in the most relentless yet somehow suspenseless title run-in ever seen. Liverpool win their final nine league games, City their final 14, all of which leads to a final table with Guardiola’s team on 98 points and Klopp’s on 97.
Remember when Benitez’s team became the first team to lose only twice and not win the league? This side loses just once (away to Manchester City, of course) and still comes second. A sixth European Cup is some solace but 29 years without being champions of England is barely conceivable after a league campaign like this.
Manager Jurgen Klopp. Incredulity rating: 11/10
2018/19 was widely seen as Liverpool’s failed one chance at overhauling Pep Guardiola’s gleaming Etihad machine, and when City scored five on the opening weekend to overtake Liverpool (who had scored four the previous evening) that felt right. But Guardiola’s team, aiming to become only the fifth club in English top-flight history to win the league three seasons in a row, are haggard and injury prone throughout the autumn. Liverpool are six points clear on November 1, on December 1 they are eight ahead, on New Year’s Day 2020 they are 10 clear with two games in hand, by March 1 it’s 22 and as the league pauses indefinitely it’s 25 and the title is just an inch away.
Life in 2020 is no longer measured in inches, though, and as May looms, the champions elect are the champions in exile. A 30-year wait, which should have come to an end in March, dangles just out of reach like a carrot in front of a horse. Replay the history of the Premier League a thousand times and there’s no chance Liverpool reach 2020 without a 19th title, but here we are. If the 2019/20 season is ended early and Liverpool handed a league win before it was mathematically assured, then some will argue it should have an asterisk next to it. Yet if you queue up at the shop every day and never get what you want, eventually they’ll let you in early.