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The wonder left wingers of Liverpool



Heighway’s departure looked as though we were at the end of our succession of outstanding left wingers and the fact was that we went through most of the eighties without a genuine outside left in what was still an outstandingly successful team.

Ronnie Whelan played as our left sided midfielder but he was never a winger in the mould of Liddell, Thompson and Heighway. Whelan was an outstanding player in his own right to such an extent that Bob Paisley, when asked by a journalist what his team would be for a forthcoming game, was quoted as saying ‘Ronnie Whelan and 10 others’. I would question the validity of this quotation on the basis that Bob had the likes of Messrs Dalglish, Hansen, Souness and Lawrenson available but the point was made that Ronnie Whelan was an integral part of the team.

Whelan’s performances were such that there were many who questioned the judgement of Paisley’s eventual successor as manager, Kenny Dalglish.

When Kenny inherited the hot seat in the aftermath of the awful events at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 he spent his first season in charge with only one major signing, Steve McMahon, from Aston Villa. That first season under Kenny’s stewardship turned out to be the best possible antidote to the pall that hung over the club after Heysel. We won the double, pipping Everton for both the league championship and, in a magnificent final at Wembley, the FA Cup. From a personal point of view I was unable to fully enjoy the glory of our double as the scars of Heysel live with me to this day. We still mourn those we lost at Hillsborough but I can’t help thinking that we conveniently forget our disgraceful part in the Heysel tragedy.

Kenny’s second season in charge saw the arrival of players who had obviously impressed him during his playing days. Barry Venison, Steve Staunton, John Aldridge and Nigel Spackman were enlisted and all played a full part in a hugely successful period in the club’s history. But Everton regained the Championship and it was obvious that we needed a couple of replacements. Kenny himself was coming to the end of a magnificent career and he saw Peter Beardsley as the man to inherit the mantle (successfully as it turned out) and the other master stroke was the acquisition of John Barnes from Watford.

Barnes became the 4th of our great post war left wingers. We had seen him score a stupendous goal for England against Brazil but, as he played for Watford, we assumed that this was a flash in the pan and that he would sink back into anonymity with a lower standing club. Kenny had different ideas and he spent the princely sum of £900,000 to bring him to Anfield. Never was money better spent.

Barnes was nothing short of sensational. He was a left winger, pure and simple, but his technical skill allied to his supreme fitness made him almost impossible to mark. He was never less than excellent and, when he had one of his special days, he was unstoppable. He had blistering pace, superb ball control, a terrific eye for the telling pass and an ability to get the better of the best full backs and put over a succession of crosses for grateful strikers to convert into match winning goals.

His goal scoring record is not as good as might be thought although 108 goals in 407 games as a winger is as good a return as is likely in the modern game.

He inspired the whole club and I was delighted to be present at Highbury for the first game of the 1987/88 season when Barnes and Beardsley made their debuts. We won that game 2-1 and I was close to where Beardsley laid the ball off to Barnes who beat his full back to cross for John Aldridge to head a spectacular opening goal. Arsenal equalised but the game was won by a magnificent header from outside of the penalty box by Steve Nicol.

Barnes’ contributions are far too numerous to recall individually but I must recount a personal favourite that he scored not long after the Arsenal game. It was against QPR at Anfield in October 1987 and the game had already been won but John Barnes won a block tackle right on the halfway line and proceeded to stroll at the QPR defence beating man after man before passing the ball into the net from about 10 yards. There have been many more important goals scored at Anfield but few that epitomised the supreme ability of a supreme player.

The author with the European Cup and the European Super Cup

This rambling piece about our dynasty of left wingers has put me into a corner of my own making.

Four great players in one position. How do they rate against each other?

My own personal greatest ever Liverpool player is Billy Liddell, not necessarily for his skill alone (great thought that was) but more for his contribution to the club in the bad days of the second division and his influence on not just LFC but the city of Liverpool.

If I was put into a corner and asked for my 1234 of the aforementioned left wingers purely on playing ability I would plump for:

1. John Barnes

2. Billy Liddell

3. Steve Heighway

4. Peter Thompson

I haven't conducted any research into other clubs and their history of successive players in certain positions but I would be surprised if any club could improve on our foursome.

Sadly, John Barnes has never been replaced. Had we possessed a left winger of his ability over the past ten years I am convinced that our wait for our next league title would not have gone on for so long.

Paddy Berger shone briefly and evoked memories of 'Digger' with his pace down the wing and his cannonball shooting but he never produced 30 top games a season that Barnes had done. Ironically, Paddy's best contribution to our cause was, arguably, a pass from deep in his own half that freed Michael Owen to score the second goal of his memorable double that shattered Arsenal and won us the 2001 FA Cup Final.

Harry Kewell was bought from Leeds but, sadly, has been so plagued by injuries that he has only shown us tantalising glimpses of the talent that he so obviously possesses.

John-Arne Riise occasionally puts in an outstanding performance as a left midfielder but I don't think of him as a winger. For me he is a full-back who occasionally helps out further upfield.

I am convinced that, for us to achieve the holy grail of the league championship again, we need to find a fifth left winger capable of emulating the deeds of the quartet who have illuminated Anfield for much of the last half century.

I hope that we find him before I am called to meet my maker.

Copyright - John Martin - written for LFChistory.net

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