You would have got good odds in 1990, as Alan Hansen hoisted the Football League’s championship trophy into the Anfield air, on Liverpool waiting 30 years to become champions of England again.
But here we are, very much at the business end of a three-decade quest for title No 19. Jordan Henderson – let’s go out on a limb here – will follow in Hansen’s footsteps soon enough, and when he does, the historical baggage of No 18 will be cut loose for ever, the 1989-90 campaign quietly slipping away into the mists of time.
It was not the most memorable of seasons, let the truth be told. So before it’s removed from the general discourse – like Manchester United’s shadow-casting 1966-67 championship before it, after Alex Ferguson cracked a 26-year-old code in 1993 – let’s turn our thoughts back to that symbolic campaign. The past is a different country all right, a fact amply illustrated by the identity of two of the First Division’s early leaders in the autumn of 1989: Coventry and Millwall.
Millwall reached the summit for the first time in their history after a bore draw at Wimbledon, the highlight coming during the warm-up when a stray shot knocked a bobby’s helmet clean off his bewildered head.
Coventry then took over after defeating Manchester City, but having finally made it to the pinnacle of English football after 106 years of trying, they could stay there for only 44 seconds, the exact time it took for the the Millwall striker Teddy Sheringham to spark a 4-1 rout when the teams met in the next round of matches.
Coventry ended up with the 5ft 7in David Speedie in goal, a bad day at the office all round. Millwall went top again, though that second reign could not last either: they were battered 5-1 by Manchester United the following week and ended the season rock bottom and relegated.
Aston Villa emerged from the pack as unlikely contenders. They had been champions only nine years previously – ending a 71-year title wait – though they had since spent a season in the Second Division and avoided another relegation in 1988-89 by a single point.
However, below the radar, Graham Taylor had quietly cobbled together a team brimming with class: Paul McGrath, David Platt, Tony Daley, the 1985 Everton title-winner Derek Mountfield, and a couple of 1982 European Cup-winning heroes in Gordon Cowans and Nigel Spink.
Villa announced themselves during the autumn with a five-match winning sequence that culminated in a 6-2 rout of Everton live on ITV, then over Christmas they saw off Manchester United and the reigning champions, Arsenal. By February, Villa were top, having won at Spurs, their 15th victory in 18 games.
At which point the wheels came clattering off. Three days later, Wimbledon rocked up at Villa Park and battered the hosts 3-0. Taylor responded by breaking the club transfer record for the Millwall striker Tony Cascarino. It was not £1.5m well spent. On his debut, Cascarino was denied by the 40-year-old Derby goalkeeper Peter Shilton, the pair re-enacting the famous Mexico 70 moment between Pelé and Gordon Banks as best they could. Cascarino would not trouble the goal netting until his ninth game … by which point it was far too late.
Liverpool were to all intents and purposes the same side who had sashayed across the country in style during the 1987-88 season. Now a couple of years older – and still processing the dreadful ramifications of Hillsborough, a subject beyond the remit of nostalgic title whimsy – some of the sparkle had faded, though they were still capable of thumping nine goals past Crystal Palace, repaying Arsenal for the previous season, and chalking up a rare win at Old Trafford. Kenny Dalglish nevertheless sensed the need for new blood and injected it at exactly the right time.
As Villa began to stumble, claiming seven points from 21 on offer during the spring, Liverpool unveiled Ronny Rosenthal, a loan signing from Standard Liège. Hitherto unknown in England – Belgian league aficionados are thin enough on the ground even in these hipster-riddled times – he soon set about making his name.
A perfect hat-trick against Charlton – left foot, right foot, header, with no other player scoring in between – began a run of eight goals in eight games. Direct and unpretentious, he helped Liverpool barge past Villa into top spot, doing as much as anyone to haul his new team over the line.
The title was secured with a couple of matches to spare in late April. Liverpool did their bit by coming from behind to beat QPR at Anfield, though they made heavy weather of it. Justin Channing nearly scored with an ersatz version of a John Barnes slalom; Roy Wegerle whipped home from a corner; Colin Clarke turned Hansen and lashed a shot off the underside of the crossbar. But Ian Rush beat David Seaman at his near post just before half-time and Barnes, the newly crowned footballer of the year, secured victory from the spot midway through the second half, converting a penalty awarded for a Danny Maddix challenge on Steve Nicol that looked suspiciously outside the box.
An unremarkable victory, and one that would not have landed the title had Villa not dramatically capitulated at home to Norwich. Cascarino finally scored his first goal for Villa but Mountfield put through his own net and Robert Rosario rescued a 3-3 draw for the Canaries late on. The Villa game finished four minutes after the final whistle at Anfield, so Liverpool’s players were forced to linger helplessly on the pitch before they could finally celebrate with their fans. And to think that seemed like an interminable wait at the time.
Liverpool were presented with the trophy three days later, after a 1-0 win over Derby. Anfield was treated to a 19-minute valedictory cameo by Dalglish, who came on for Jan Mølby. “The crowd wanted me on,” he sheepishly explained. Liverpool rounded off their 18th title-winning season with a 6-1 rout of Coventry, Barnes scoring a hat-trick, Rosenthal bagging another two.
A lovely final flourish but it’s not a season that has gone down in the canon and is probably remembered more for those FA Cup semi-finals, 13 goals in an afternoon, Palace’s revenge, all that.
But Liverpool fans still recall its bittersweet charms, bringing what joy it could to a city still mourning fallen loved ones, salving the altogether more trivial pain of the previous season’s Michael Thomas smash-and-grab, and setting the clock running on title 19 – a number that stubbornly refused, one way and another, to tick round quite as quickly as everyone assumed it would. Now they just need City to drop points at Chelsea on Thursday night and they will have made it at long last.