Liverpool have had some great sides. That is an obvious statement. What isn’t such an obvious statement, is that one of those great sides was the team from the mid-nineties.
No seriously, bear with me here.
I’m not comparing them to the perennial trophy haulers of the Shankly, Paisley and Fagan eras, nor the obliterative Dalglish team of the 80s.
But if you, somehow, ignore the history of Liverpool FC, and consider the team solely on its own merit, the side from 94–98 was actually very good.
After the disappointment of Graeme Souness’ tenure, with two consecutive 6th place finishes, Roy Evans took the reins and guided the club to four consecutive top four finishes — two 3rd places, two 4th places — alongside a League cup win, and an FA Cup Final appearance.Embed from Getty Images
For most clubs, that would be considered success. But for Liverpool, of course, it was not.
And that really is why this team is underrated, because in the grand scheme of Liverpool FC, it was a disappointment. But in the grand scheme of the Premier League, it was a very good side indeed.
The Evans Liverpool team changed personnel a lot over the course of these four years.
The team that began the 1994 season, in parts still looked like the team from the previous decade.
Ian Rush, John Barnes and Michael Thomas were among a group of experienced, top professionals, in the latter years of their career.
Evans deserves plenty of credit for not allowing these players’ reputations to dictate their roles at the club.
Rush was moved on by 1996, and a goalscoring record of 3 in 36 games at Leeds that season suggests the Liverpool management made the correct decision.Embed from Getty Images
Barnes and Thomas remained until 1997 and 1998 respectively, but each played less and less of a prominent role across these years.
And the reason for this was to allow youth to come through.
Somewhat derogatorily nicknamed “The Spice Boys” for their penchant for garnering more media attention than success on the pitch (such as the infamous “cream suits to the FA Cup Final” incident), the core of the mid-to-late nineties Liverpool squad was young, and mainly British, talent.
Players like Steve McManaman, a Rolls-Royce of a left midfielder, who would go on to buck all trends and star at a Galacticos-filled Real Madrid, pulling off a man of the match performance in a Champions League final, no less.
Other midfielders, Jamie Redknapp and Jason McAteer, had almost as much talent but maybe not the dedication of McManaman. Redknapp was a continental-style central midfielder, more Gullit than Gerrard, whose ability to score spectacular long-range belters and free-kicks was a huge bonus to his side.
In 1997, he was joined in the centre of the park by a player who had traversed the M62, via the San Siro.
Paul Ince was a supremely talented footballer, and hard as nails. Having made the rare move of playing for both Liverpool and Manchester United, he never really became a true legend at either side, but arguably, his talent would have warranted it. He added steel to a luxury midfield, but brought flair of his own too.Embed from Getty Images
Another “Spice Boy” was goalkeeper David James. In many ways, he best summed up that identity of perceived underachievement and overzealous extracurricularism. Prone to the odd blunder, the best form of his career came once he left Liverpool, but there was no doubt that he was a top keeper — he earned the first of over 50 England caps while at Liverpool.
The biggest evidence of the shift in personnel enacted by the Evans regime was at the back.
In the first few years of his time at Liverpool, Evans relied on the solid, old-school options of the likes of Neil Ruddock and Phil Babb to marshal the centre of defence.
Gradually, he transformed this key position into one that more resembled the best European sides. Norwegian pioneers like Stig Inge Bjornebye and Bjorn Tore Kvarme represented a culture-shift in the types of players the top English sides were willing to take chances on at the back.
Until the mid-nineties, there was still a pervasive view that foreign players were best-suited to the attacking roles, that homegrown hard-nuts were the way to go in defence.
Liverpool, along with Chelsea and eventually Man United and Arsenal, changed this perception, and that’s in large part due to players like Bjornebye and Kvarme adapting to the English league with such success.
Another player who emerged at this time, who was not really considered part of the Spice Boys group, nor a new continental import, was Michael Owen.
Too young to be aligned with the Spice Boy faction, Owen’s breakthrough season came in Evans’ last full one — 1997–98 — when at just 18 years old, he scored 18 Premier League goals.Embed from Getty Images
He would then go on to star at that summer’s World Cup and continue to play a pivotal role at Liverpool for the next six seasons.
He took the striking mantle from Stan Collymore, who had briefly shone in the prior seasons. Collymore was an undeniable talent, and his career peak may well have been during this period, but off-field issues tainted what would have been a supreme on-field legacy.
The Star Player
But if Owen was the prodigious talent, and Collymore the troubled star, then their strike partner Robbie Fowler was the undisputed genius.
It’s hard to imagine now, but during the mid-nineties, England was so blessed with an abundance of striking talent, that a player of Fowler’s calibre barely made a dent on the international scene. 26 international caps is a paltry return for such a force, though injuries played their part.
Between 1993 and 2001, Fowler scored at a rate of better than a goal every two games, and that’s including at least one season completely ravaged by injury.Embed from Getty Images
For three seasons between 1994 and 1997, Fowler scored 30 goals or more.
He is still the only player to ever score that many goals in each of his first three seasons in the top flight.
He won the PFA Young Player of the year award in 1995 and 1996, and held the record for the Premier League’s fastest hattrick until Sadio Mane’s effort in 2015.
For the first few years of Evans’ reign, he was simply sensational.
In hindsight, an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the 97/98 season prevented Fowler from continuing his remarkable run of form for another season, and his career never truly recovered from there.
But for a while, he was approaching world class. In the esteemed company of Liverpool striking legends like Dalglish, Keegan and Rush, Fowler more than holds his own.
Having taken over from Graeme Souness during the 1993/94 season, Evans set about consolidating a team in turmoil.
Where Souness sought to bring about a revolution in playing staff and style, and achieved neither, Evans saw an opportunity for quiet evolution.
His management of the old guard, phasing them out slowly over time, rather than immediate banishment, allowed the younger players to grow and flourish alongside them.Embed from Getty Images
Despite this, and perhaps because of the high watermark that Liverpool FC sets as a club, Evans is not regarded in as high esteem as his successors, Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez.
The cup successes of these two managers, in particular their European exploits, muddy the waters as to their overall impact — in the league, neither reached the levels of Evans.
Under Houllier, Liverpool’s average league position was 3.6. Under Benitez 4.0. Under Evans, 3.5.
In the 1996/97 season, despite ultimately finishing 4th, they were very much in the title race.
And they played a beautiful brand of football. Evans was the last of the Liverpool “boot boys” and the team was moulded very much in this tradition.
The wondrous attacking verve of this side was unmatched by few others at this time, and yet it was not simply a “gung-ho” attacking force that propelled them forward — in three of the four Evans seasons, Liverpool conceded fewer goals than the eventual champions.
The biggest problem with this Evans version of Liverpool was a lack of consistency. Defeats of the league’s big boys were often followed by meek losses to unremarkable teams.Embed from Getty Images
A penchant for the classic “bottle-job” was also a defining feature — had they beaten Man Utd in April 97, for example, they’d have gone top of the league. Instead, they lost, and within a month they were finishing the season in 4th.
It’s a difficult legacy, especially as one sandwiched between domestic dominance and European largess.
It says much about the Evans era that it culminated in an unprecedented job share with Houllier for the 98/99 season, which then resulted in his departure just three months into the campaign.
Winning the league cup was good. Beating Man Utd even better.
But the moment that best encapsulates this era, is one that is still regarded by many as the greatest in Premier League history.
In April 1996, Newcastle travelled to Anfield knowing a win would take them level on points with Man Utd at the top of the league, with a game in hand. Liverpool themselves were sat in 3rd and could cut the gap to the two teams above.Embed from Getty Images
Two minutes in, Liverpool scored. A cross from Collymore was headed in by Fowler. Just eight minutes later, Newcastle equalised through Faustino Asprilla (so far, so nineties).
By the 14th minute, Newcastle were ahead. David Ginola took hold of the ball after some solid build up play from Les Ferdinand.
It had already been a classic performance from the Frenchman, his swerving and slaloming runs from the left proving a headache for the Liverpool backline.
But this time he was more direct, head down, a lung-busting run taking him into the box and a simple finish with his left gave Newcastle a 2–1 lead.
Fowler scored his second to make it 2–2 early in the first half, followed by another from Asprilla to regain the lead for Newcastle.
In the 65th minute, Collymore levelled the scores once again with a bundled close range effort.
The next twenty or so minutes passed and though each team had their opportunities, the game looked destined for a draw.
Then, in the 92nd minute…Embed from Getty Images
A phenomenal set of one-touch passes between John Barnes and Ian Rush took Liverpool from the centre-circle to the edge of the box. A slight scramble and then dinked pass from Barnes resulted in a loose ball on the left-side of the area.
Up stepped Collymore. One touch on his right, moving it expertly onto his left, and then a pure, power-strike into the top corner, bursting the netting in the most satisfying way possible.
Liverpool had won one of the most entertaining games in the Premier League era, leaving Kevin Keegan slumped on the advertising hoardings in one of the most pervasive and iconic frames of Premier League history.
Newcastle didn’t mathematically lose the league that day, but it certainly ended their challenge in spirit. Liverpool didn’t do anything more with the season either, going on to lose in the FA Cup Final and finish 3rd.
Yet for anyone who watched that game, or even anyone who has watched the highlights since, it is a masterpiece of footballing emotion and action.
Liverpool may not have won the league then, or since, but they played a part in possibly the greatest advertisement for the game of football this country has ever seen.
That alone, warrants this side’s inclusion in this series.
Written by Jackson Rawlings.
Jackson Rawlings is a football and politics writer, and long-suffering Spurs fan. You can follow him on Twitter here – https://twitter.com/jacksonhraw