Historical Context — Strength of Rivals and League
By 1983, Manchester United were experiencing something of a revival under Ron Atkinson, the flamboyant Liverpool-born manager who had done so well with West Brom in the late ‘70s. But United were proving more of a cup team; in the league, they finished 4th in both of Joe Fagan’s seasons, without ever posing a serious threat. When Fagan took charge, it was only three years since Nottingham Forest completed back-to-back European Cup triumphs, and only 12 months after Aston Villa, following on from the Reds’ winning their third European crown since 1977, had garnered England’s sixth success in six seasons. English football was clearly very strong at the time, with Villa finishing down in 6th the season they conquered Europe, as, domestically, others leapfrogged them.
When Liverpool won the 1984 title, Southampton, under the guidance of Lawrie McMenemy, were the surprise runners-up. The Saints had been boosted by the arrival of Kevin Keegan in 1980; his capture helped raise the profile of McMenemy’s outfit. Four years later, Southampton finished with 77 points, three behind Liverpool, even though Keegan had by that time moved to Newcastle. Another England star, Peter Shilton, had arrived at The Dell, while a future Liverpool star, Mark Wright, aged 21 at the time, was about to win his first England cap on account of his impressive performances with the south coast club. Nottingham Forest, still managed by Brian Clough but without both Shilton and Trevor Francis, were no longer the force of a few years earlier, but they finished 3rd, a further three points behind Southampton.
A year later, and both Southampton and Forest had fallen outside the top four, with Spurs moving up to third. But it was Everton who won the league in 1985, thirteen points ahead of Liverpool, who were runners-up with 77 points. It was the fourth year running that the Reds’ league total diminished, which, while far from conclusive (given that three of the seasons ended with a league title), was perhaps indicative of a deterioration. The Reds had won the league in 1982 with 87 points, and again a year later, with 82. The third successive title, achieved with Fagan as the new manager, came courtesy of an 80-point haul. Within four years, Liverpool had registered a ten point loss.
Fagan wasn’t in charge long enough to stir any great rivalries into action. But with Howard Kendall awakening Everton from their slumber, Liverpool’s successes and failures would be directly affected by their neighbours. Everton were defeated in the 1984 League Cup Final after a replay, courtesy of Graeme Souness’ long-range winner. A year later, Liverpool finished 2nd in the league, 13 points behind their local rivals. In the ’80s, Liverpool was clearly the premier city of English football — the city won seven consecutive titles between 1982 and 1988.
Unlike Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan at least had some previous managerial experience beyond Liverpool’s reserves — albeit 25 years before he took charge at Anfield. Fagan started out as player-manager at Nelson FC in the Lancashire Combination, and led the club to championship titles in 1950 and 1952. Nelson narrowly missed out on re-election to the Football League, and so in 1954 Fagan moved to manage Rochdale. Clearly it was vital experience gained by the young man, but these were low-key appointments well away from the top end of the game, and a million miles away from the pressures and expectations at Anfield.
Three months before the 1985 European Cup Final in Brussels, Fagan, at the time of his 64th birthday, had announced to members of the club’s hierarchy that he was contemplating retirement. He was tired, and the job had taken its toll. He would make a final decision at the end of the season, but it was widely accepted that he would be stepping down. In a Brussels hotel room, on the eve of that ill-fated game, Sir John Smith called a board meeting. The directors were informed that Fagan would be retiring after the game the following day, and that Kenny Dalglish would be taking over.
It is a great pity that Fagan, with the chance to bow out at the top, suffered a fate far worse than he could have expected. In his mind, as the plane touched down in Belgium, defeat would have been the worst conceivable outcome. But to lose in amongst the far more significant loss of 39 opposing fans turned the whole experience about as sour as it could possibly get.
In 1984, with the League Cup in the bag, and the league title sewn up, all that remained in order to complete an historic treble was the small matter of playing AS Roma in their own stadium for the European Cup.
Phil Neal gave the Reds the lead, following up at the far post to prod home an early goal. Liverpool were looking fairly solid, although Roma had already forced Grobbelaar into one meaningful save. Then, just before half-time, Roma broke through when Pruzzo headed home Conti’s cross. The game finished 1-1 after extra-time, and a penalty shootout beckoned. Fagan was calm, thanking the players for their efforts and commending their performance. Perhaps he was also resigned to failure, with the first-team having been beaten 5-0 by the youth team in a practice shootout a few days earlier. It didn’t get any better when Steve Nicol blasted the opening attempt wildly over the bar. Di Bartolemei scored from Roma’s opening kick, and the result was starting to look a formality. But then Grobbelaar intervened. The Zimbabwean became a legend that night, in what was the highlight of his career. “The biggest memory I have is the 1984 European Cup Final against Roma,” he said, “and my ‘spaghetti legs’ routine during the penalty shootout that won us the trophy. People said I was being disrespectful to their players, but I was just testing their concentration under pressure. I guess they failed that test.”
Conti was the first to succumb to the keeper’s antics; Grobbelaar wobbled his legs on the goalline, and the Italian missed. Souness and Neal scored from their kicks, and Righetti kept his nerve for Roma, making the score 2-2 after three attempts each. Rush put Liverpool ahead with an unconvincing strike, but the keeper had gone the wrong way. Grazoli became the second of the Italian team’s players to fall foul of Grobbelaar’s distracting movements, blazing his effort over the bar. After four attempts each, the Reds were leading 3-2, and next up was Alan Kennedy with the chance to win the cup. Although he’d scored the winner in the 1981 final, his record with penalties was not impressive; he’d only taken two, in pre-season, and missed both. These misses could be interpreted in two ways: he was either someone who needed the big occasion to force him to focus, or he was a hopeless penalty taker who, if unable to score in meaningless games, stood no chance in what would have been the biggest moment of most footballers’ careers. Fears of the latter were eased when he strode up and sent the ball past a wrong-footed Tancredi, into the top corner. It was the cue for delirious celebrations as Kennedy hopped with glee and the other players raced about the pitch with demented fervour.
Like a man entrusted with the keys to a vintage Aston Martin, Joe Fagan helped keep things ticking over during his two years in charge, without attempting to modify and modernise. He didn’t add any outstanding players, perhaps with the exception of Jan Molby, but he introduced plenty of good ones who were capable of doing a job for the first team. Liverpool would win the double in Dalglish’s first season, so there still wasn’t much wrong with the squad, but a lack of really top-class additions between 1983 and 1985 left Dalglish with quite a bit of work to do in the transfer market in order to take the club forward.
Joe Fagan’s first signing was Gary Gillespie, a graceful Scottish centre-back in the Alan Hansen mould, who cost £325,000 from Coventry City. Quite remarkably, Gillespie had captained Falkirk at the age of 17. He then spent six years at Highfield Road, impressing Arsenal enough to make a move, but Liverpool stepped in to secure the services of the 23-year-old. He had his work cut out dislodging either Hansen or Lawrenson, and played only once in his debut season, but between 1986 and 1988 managed almost 100 games, with Lawrenson moved to full-back. In total, Gillespie played 214 games and scored 16 goals, before moving to Celtic for £925,000 — a phenomenal fee for a player who was 31.
Less successful was Michael Robinson, the 25-year-old Brighton striker who cost £200,000 in August 1983. While never totally convincing on an individual basis, his debut season was the club’s greatest in terms of success. He featured 42 times on the way to the treble success, including a substitute appearance in the European Cup Final, and scored 12 times. Mark Lawrenson, who played with Robinson at Preston and Brighton, as well as for Ireland, before the two were united for a third time at club level, said “The nicest thing about Michael was that he knew his own limitations. He would tell you himself that he didn’t have a good touch for a big man and he was predominantly one-footed. But he was strong. He was very powerful and would chase everything. When the chips were down he would give you absolutely everything.” Robinson himself said: “I’ve never known a shirt to weigh so heavy. I felt silly playing for Liverpool. I thought all my team-mates were far better.” His limitations grew more obvious in his second season, and halfway through 1984/85 Robinson was sold to QPR for £100,000, having scored 13 goals in 52 games.
John Wark, purchased in March 1984 at the age of 26, was another signing who wasn’t seen as a total success, although the Scottish attacking midfielder left fours years later with a very impressive statistical record. Having cost £450,000 from Ipswich, he scored 42 goals in 92 starts and a further 16 substitute appearances. His first full season saw him finish as top scorer, with 27 goals, although a series of niggling injuries followed by a broken leg limited his effectiveness from his second season onwards, and as a result his reputation as a top Liverpool player was never quite secured. Wark eventually returned to Ipswich for £100,000 at the start of 1988, having been a peripheral figure in Dalglish’s rebuilt squad.
Another talented individual who didn’t quite reach the heights expected, and who had also found himself out of the first team picture by 1988, was Paul Walsh. Outstanding in training, he never quite translated his ability into matches on a regular basis. Not yet 22 in May 1984 when he moved to Anfield, the diminutive striker cost £700,000 from Luton. It appeared Fagan had got a bargain, fighting off competition from Manchester United for the PFA Young Player of the Year. A clever player with bags of skill, Walsh scored 13 goals in 32 matches in his first season, but it was his 18 goals in 25 matches during the double season that showed his true potential. Ruptured ligaments ended his run in the side, and he’d only score six more goals for the club before his sale to Spurs for £500,000 in February 1988, after 112 games.
Jan Molby, signed from Ajax for £200,000 in August 1984, was seen by many as Graeme Souness’ replacement. Having been brought to Liverpool on a ten day trial, the 21-year-old quickly impressed and a permanent deal was struck. But it wasn’t clear when the Dane would be ready for the first team, or just what his was role would be, and so three months down the line Fagan moved to buy someone who was a bit more in the Souness mould. Signed in November 1984, Kevin MacDonald started slowly but eventually began to fulfil his promise, albeit under Fagan’s successor. The tall, rangy midfielder cost £400,000 from Leicester City. Kenny Dalglish was very appreciative of his qualities: “A real work-horse for us in the middle of the pitch,” he said. “Got about the pitch well, won the ball and gave it, kept everything simple. Never tired and did a really good job. Hugely underrated.” A serious broken leg sustained in 1986 kept him out for almost two years, and he was never the same player again. He was released after 64 games, having scored five goals.
In January 1985, Fagan agreed a £250,000 deal for Oldham’s teenage hopeful, Wayne Harrison. The youngster never played a game for the Reds, and at times must have wondered if he had run over a litter of black cats without realising, so horrific was his luck.
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Rather than sign anyone astonishing –– 8.59 was the highest rating for Quality, and none played 300 games –– Fagan made several good signings who all, bar the teenager Wayne Harrison, contributed something to the Liverpool cause, with each receiving at least one league winner’s medal. But there was one player who at times came close to being another world-class star: Jan Molby. While in later years Molby (and his belly) would stand out for all the wrong reasons, in the mid-’80s he was a sublime midfield General, whose passing skills helped open up countless opposition defences, while his long-range strikes and über-cool penalties helped him rack up 21 goals in all competitions in his second season. Possibly due to a period of adaptation, and the pressure of having to replace Graeme Souness, Molby struggled in his first season at the club, and it was only when Fagan was replaced by Dalglish that the Dane came into his own. “Jan was a very, very talented player,” Dalglish said, “with a great knowledge and appreciation of how to play football.” His finest moment in a Liverpool shirt came in a home League Cup match against Manchester United in November 1985. He dispossessed Norman Whiteside near the halfway line and strode past three United players before unleashing a long-range rocket that flew into the top corner like an Exocet. A TV strike denied the rest of the world the chance to witness what many still believe to be the greatest-ever Anfield goal.
Molby was a crucial part of the double-winning team of 1985/86, although this would be his finest season in a Liverpool shirt; never again did he reach such heights in a further decade at the club. Alan Hansen, who sung Molby’s praises as a midfield playmaker who, unusually, could also dominate in the air, was particularly impressed with how he could also fill in at centre-back and sweeper without looking out of position. Injuries, and an inability to control his weight, resulted in a less-effective Molby over subsequent campaigns, while a three-month spell in prison in 1988 for a driving offence didn’t help matters. Having played 34 league games in 1986/87, scoring 12 goals, he only managed to feature in 37 over the next three years.
While he never lost his skill and vision, Molby’s lack of mobility became an increasing problem. He endured a revival of sorts in the early ‘90s, and shone in the 1992 FA Cup Final victory over Sunderland, but there will always be a sense of unfulfilled potential. Molby’s Liverpool career was ended by Roy Evans in 1996, after 12 years but only 292 appearances; contrast this with Phil Neal’s 650 in eleven seasons. In total Molby scored 62 goals, 42 of which were from penalties — with only three spot-kicks missed, resulting in an exceptional conversion rate of 93%.
Wayne Harrison, signed for £250,000 from Oldham Athletic in January 1985, was the world’s most expensive teenager at the time. He is unquestionably the costliest mistake made by Joe Fagan. It wasn’t so much that Harrison — aged just 17 — was a bad player, just that incredibly bad luck ended his career at Liverpool before it ever got started.
Signing Harrison was without doubt a gamble; the striker had played just two league games, and those were in the second tier of English football. He was allowed to stay with Oldham for the remainder of the ‘84/85 season, and he played a further three times for the Lancashire club. By the time he arrived at Liverpool, Fagan had retired; Kenny Dalglish duly received a promising player to blood in the reserves. But it was blood loss that was to prove the initial problem; having made good progress, and been on the fringes of the first team, the youngster, in a freak accident, fell through the glass panel of a greenhouse. On account of an ambulance strike, Harrison had to wait a long time for Army medics to arrive. He was lucky to escape with his life, but his experiences with hospitals and operations were far from over. Over the next few years he endured a series of serious injuries. Each time he fought back, and got himself back into contention. But then, during the last reserve game of the season against Bradford City in May 1990, he collided with the goalkeeper. The collision shattered the cruciate ligaments in his knee. Again he fought to try and make a recovery, but it was futile. In 1992, after 23 football-related operations, and seven years after arriving at Anfield, he was forced to accept that, aged 24, he had to retire, never having played a first-team game for the Reds. He remains the perfect example of how a player — and indeed, the manager who signs him and those who subsequently inherit him — needs luck as well as talent. Harrison had a bucket-load of the latter, but precious little of the former.
One Who Got Away
In the summer of 1983, Liverpool were close to signing rising Danish star, Michael Laudrup. Reports suggested that the 19-year-old was due to sign, but the deal fell through when the club looked to make it a four-year contract, whereas the striker, represented by his father Finn, only wanted to sign for three years. Laudrup instead moved to Juventus, although it would take him two years to actually play for the club. The rule that limited the number of overseas players to just two meant that Laudrup had to go on loan to Lazio for two seasons, with French maestro Michel Platini and Polish striker Zbigniew Boniek the two established foreign stars. In the process, Liverpool lost out on one of the truly outstanding players of the mid-to-late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He could have been the perfect long-term replacement for Kenny Dalglish, but it wasn’t to be.
Budget — Historical Context
In 1985, when Everton overtook Liverpool, they did so with a relatively inexpensive team. Having spent big in the previous decade, only to flop, they now relied on products of their youth system, along with a handful of bargain signings –– including Kevin Sheedy, who’d cost just £100,000 from the Reds in 1982. Only Adrian Heath, who cost £700,000 in 1982 (46%), was vaguely expensive. On average, the team — Neville Southall, Gary Stevens, Kevin Ratcliffe, Derek Mountfield, Peter Reid, Trevor Steven, Paul Bracewell, Kevin Sheedy, Adrian Heath, Andy Gray and Graeme Sharp — cost just 11% of the English transfer record. By contrast, the Liverpool side of the time was just over 30%.
The Manchester United team that beat Everton 1-0 in the 1985 FA Cup Final — Gary Bailey, John Gidman, Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Mark Hughes, Frank Stapleton and Jesper Olsen — cost 25.5% of the English record.
League Championship 1983/84
European Cup 1984
League Cup 1984
P W D L F A %
Overall 131 70 37 24 225 97 53.44%
League 84 44 25 15 141 67 52.38%
FA Cup 9 5 2 2 23 7 55.56%
League Cup 16 8 7 1 27 9 50.00%
Europe 19 13 3 3 34 10 68.42%
Other 3 0 0 3 0 4 0.00%
It’s a sad legacy of an ill-fated European Cup Final that the enduring image of Joe Fagan is one of a broken man at Speke airport, clutching his face as tears stream down his cheeks. Having spent 27 years at the club, he was bowing out at the worst possible moment. His retirement, which lasted until his death in July 2001 at the age of 80, was tarnished by the awful conclusion to a wonderful career at the club.
While he is generally not regarded in the same bracket as Shankly and Paisley, Fagan topped them both in terms of achievements in a single season. For that, he will always be fondly remembered. Whether or not Fagan was a true great, he oversaw the club’s greatest season, and was a European Champion. For that, he will remain something of a legend.
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