Liverpool FC: the Great Lost Generation

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 26, 2005, 03:25:52 PM

There is a ghost team out there 末 a team of vanished potential; of future destinations never arrived at; of tomorrows which never came. One day we all woke up, and they were gone. Not just gone from Liverpool, but gone from the game.

   What became of the Likely Lads?

   In 1996 Liverpool possessed arguably the best collection of young players in its history. Or rather, the players who should have been the best young players in its history. The club has always had its share of great kids, with Steve Nicol, Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush (bought-in kids, admittedly) all coming through in the early 80s before going on to 400+ game careers at Anfield, and before those, plenty of others, such as Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Tommy Smith, and more.

   But in 1995/96, the collection of outstanding under-25s (nearly all English) was undeniably impressive. They now form nothing more than the vanished generation, lost in dreams of what might have been; or rather, what should have been.

   David James should have been "England's no.1" for a decade, as the Kop serenaded him on a bi-weekly basis.

   Rob Jones should still be the Liverpool and England right-back.

   Robbie Fowler should be closing in on Ian Rush's tally of 346 goals for Liverpool, instead of only getting halfway.
   
   Steve McManaman should have been part of a title-winning side with the Reds. (Although, of course, he decided to leave, and won two league titles in Spain, and two European Cups.)

   Jamie Redknapp should have collected 50 England caps, and developed into a commanding central midfielder, not too dissimilar to Xabi Alonso.

   Dominic Matteo should (although I might be pushing it a little here) have at least come close to being the 'New Alan Hansen', and not just merely touted as such.

   Stan Collymore should have taken his phenomenal natural talent and battered defences 末 and not instead be remembered for battering Ulrika Jonsson (not to mention lewd 'dogging' acts 末 the best performances he's given in public in years).

   What strikes you about the list is that not only are they all ex-Reds, but almost all are washed up, well before their time. Injuries have taken their toll, and ended the careers of Jones and Redknapp, while McManaman looks close to following suit. Fowler showed glimpses of his old form in the second half of last season, but the overall impression is of a player well past his best. Stan Collymore totally lost the plot, and then some. Only David James has improved since leaving Liverpool (perhaps down to being under less pressure), while McManaman, despite never producing his Liverpool form consistently while at Real Madrid, is the only one to go on to win major honours. (I am almost certain that the rest haven't won a single thing since leaving Liverpool.)

   The retirement of Jamie Redknapp, aged just 31, marks another chapter in the demise of the dreaded 'Spice Boys'. While Redknapp, for one, was more professional than the tag suggested, what should have been a golden period in the club's history is now seen as a rather murky beige. Or rather, an insipid cream. (An Armani-hued embarrassment. As a side-note, I couldn't believe those four Reds wandering around Istanbul in their cream suits. As hilarious as it was 末 and it was hysterical 末 didn't they remember that in 1996 they were such a bad portent? Luckily the players themselves wore more suitable attire in 2005.)


Seven-year itch

Seven years is a long time in football. But is it that long? Of course, seven days can seem like an eternity in the game. And as for Istanbul 末 well, we know what can happen in less than seven minutes.

   Seven years is not even half a playing career 末 in some exceptional cases, it may be only one-third of a playing career (debut at 16, retire at 37). Much of Arsenal's success in recent years has been based on seasoned pros giving outstanding service into the 11th hour (and 59th minute) of their careers. Tony Adams, David Seaman, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Denis Bergkamp squeezed every last drop from their talent.

   In 1998 G駻ard Houllier inherited, with the exception of Collymore, all of the aforementioned Liverpool players; just seven years ago. All of those players should have had over half of their careers ahead of them, and bright ones at that, given the shape the club looked in just two years earlier, in 1996. Liverpool's youngsters were arguably every bit as good as Manchester United's lauded 'fledglings' of the same time, if not better; the difference was that United had players like Schmiechel, Keane and Cantona to provide the spine, crucial to which was the partnership of Pallister and Bruce. Liverpool's best players in 1995/96 were nearly all youngsters.


Combustion

What I find most startling is how rapid the decline of the Class of 1996 proved. When writing Golden Past, Red Future, I originally planned to commence my look at the recent history of Liverpool FC at the end of the Evans reign and the start of Houllier's tenure, in 1998: when the club went 'continental'. But with the additional emphasis put on the Champions League campaign of 2004/05, it was easy to jettison this part of the book, especially as it is covered in other books, notably those on Houllier. So I instead began with the decline of Houllier.

   My focus, in the 'deleted scenes' of the book, was going to be on how quickly the careers of 90% of Evans' players disintegrated in less than a handful of years 末 and how, with the exception of a couple of players, that side had 'relegation' written all over it 末 if a radical overhaul hadn't been performed after the arrival of Houllier.

   Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I have no wish this to be about knocking 'Uncle Roy', as Evans started extremely well, building a very good and exciting side; it just happened to be one which too quickly fell away. Not all great football men make great managers. Some are best behind the scenes; others, like Souness, remain merely great players.

   Houllier's overhauling of Evans' side also hit a brick wall within a handful of years. Both managers were at their best 2-3 years into their reigns 末 seen to be the time of optimum effectiveness for a manager, when his ideas are taking shape but before the players have grown tired of the same routine 末 from which point the decline was rapid.

   (If even limited managers can produce very good sides 2-3 years into their reign, then imagine what Bentez can do by 2007. Look at Dalglish's third season: the amazing 1987/88 vintage; look at Paisley's third season: the club's first European Cup. Whereas Paisley could keep it going, and even improved upon the blend, Dalglish, like Evans and Houllier, 'peaked' 2-3 years into the task. Bentez, as at Liverpool, started with a remarkable first season at Valencia, but the second was only so-so. It was his third season when his team played its best football, and won the league in style and the Uefa Cup at a canter.)


Decline

Perhaps it is unfair to make such comparisons, but take the great Liverpool team of 1979 (league champions, and in some style), and you'll find that, five years later, many were either busy winning the European Cup (Dalglish, Hansen, Souness, Neal, Alan Kennedy), or, in the case of players like Ray Clemence, still turning out quality displays in the top division (in his case, at Spurs). But for serious illness, Ray Kennedy may still have been with the Reds, while Jimmy Case played some great football for many years after leaving Anfield.

   Players will always fall away from the top, or be released the moment they pass their peak. But the 1998 Anfield vintage possessed remarkably few players who would go on to impress in the new millennium.

   The thought of Evan's 1998 side 末 with the promise of 1996 all but extinguished 末 still representing Liverpool in 2003 brings me out in the shakes; and as it was, the 2003 vintage of Houllier's Liverpool wasn't anywhere as good as anyone would have liked, and hardly one to pine for. That's how lacking Liverpool were in 1998.

   And in 2005, you wouldn't want a single one of those previously listed 'should have been' starlets from 1995/96 near the Liverpool first team. (Fowler might get a nod for the sub's bench on sentimental grounds, and Rob Jones, if he was still playing, had the quality to remain at the top; unlike Fowler, McManaman and Redknapp, Jones retired before his reputation had the chance to suffer too much damage. Meanwhile, David James remains a very good goalkeeper, but one who few Reds would trust to keep goal again.)

    Of those in the squad which G駻ard Houllier inherited, only Owen and Carragher remain of the quality the Reds currently demand. (Gerrard, of course, was still only at the Academy at the start of 1998/99.) Patrik Berger had the talent, but he was yet another who saw his progress halted by serious injury, while Vegard Heggem, seen wandering around Sabiha Gk軻n airport in Istanbul at 5am following the final, had a promising career cut short. Danny Murphy did better than expected for a few years, but has perhaps found his level in a workmanlike Charlton side.

   But the rest?

   Leonhardsen, McAteer, Babb, Bjornebye, Ruddock, Harkness, Dundee and Staunton all went downhill at a rate of knots (some didn't have far to go on their way to hit rock bottom), and with the exception of Dundee, whose whereabouts remain as unknown (to me, at least) as when he was at Liverpool, all ended up in the First Division within two or three years. (As did David James, Brad Friedel and David Thompson, while Jamie Redknapp was relegated with Southampton before retiring. Dominic Matteo was another who, despite some fine individual form, suffered relegation, with Leeds Since then, he's been a reserve at Blackburn.) Paul Ince is still playing in that division, but given his age, he was never likely to be one of those still at the top of the game in 2005.

    With the odd exception, these were players on a downward spiral. It's hard to say if the subsequent decline of these players is down to one thing only, or a combination of factors: the improvement in the Premiership as the other sides brought in a succession of talented individuals; de-motivation upon leaving Anfield; crippling injuries; unprofessional lifestyles; choosing the wrong club to join (even the best players can be dragged down by poor teammates). Or perhaps they simply weren't good enough 末 plain and simple 末 and were found out (certainly true in some cases).

   Crucially, not one of those players has since played in a team that has finished above Liverpool in the Premiership. Not a single player Houllier released from that original squad came back to haunt the club in that sense; they may have had the odd moment of fleeting fleeting 'revenge' by scoring against their former employers (Berger, Thompson, Fowler), or from being in a side to win against Liverpool, but not one player emerged to the point where he made being sold look like a grave folly.

    So when I say that the 1998 side had relegation written all over it, it was literally true for many of the players.

   While Houllier bequeathed Bentez what many felt to be a squad of debatable quality, there actually proved enough talent (with the addition of Alonso and Luis Garcia, but the loss of Owen) to win the European Cup. It's an unlikely equation, given the club's over-reliance on Owen in past seasons: Houllier's signings + Alonso + Garcia - Owen = European Champions; but true nonetheless.

   The side Evans bequeathed Houllier was one even Bentez would have struggled to work wonders with. But with the European Cup housed permanently at Anfield, and Robbie Fowler now able to extend his thumb in addition to those four fingers to the baying Old Trafford crowd, the sense of sadness of a lost generation has passed.
   
   Greatness never arrived from the class of 1995/96. But the current crop, for all their faults, achieved something legendary this summer.

   If you'd told me in the summer of 1998 that Liverpool would win the European Cup seven years later, and that the only player surviving Red would be Jamie Carragher, I'd have laughed in your face. Because you'd have been joking, right?

ゥPaul Tomkins 2005

Golden Past, Red Future: Big Summer News Update!


First of all, just to confirm that as of Saturday 25th June, all pre-ordered copies have been despatched (if people can let me know when they get their copy, and where they live, so I can keep track of how long it takes to get to different parts of the world, that would be most appreciated). With the backlog 100% cleared, we can now start taking orders again at www.paultomkins.com. Initial feedback has been very pleasing, with the chapter on Istanbul and the final going down particularly well.

Anyone wanting signed copies/dedications, will need to order direct from us:

Click here to order

(Please note: in order to stop people worrying if their copy hasn't arrived a day or two after ordering, we are collating the orders in weekly batches and then sending them out, so if you order just after we return from the post office having sent off a load of copies it could take up to a week for yours to be despatched.)

Anyone wanting their copy quickly, go to to Amazon:

Click here to order

(Amazon haven't been the most straightforward to deal with. It may take a few more days before they can do the "available within 24 hours" despatch time 末 it currently says 1-2 weeks 末 but they've assured us that this will be changed ASAP.)


Next week I'll try to concentrate on sorting deals with bookshops, but they aren't especially straightforward in their dealings with independent publishers.


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