Every once in a while something special happens – so special – that there’s no need for hype or hyperbole. Think of moments and performances that transcend sport, when fans and the uninterested unite to exclaim: ‘Did you see that?!’
Such a night visited Liverpool’s famous old Anfield stadium on April 17, 1988. The ground had seen more than its fair share of glory over the years, not so much as the Real Madrid teams of Di Stefano and Puskas but this night was to change all that. The Red Machine that night was driven by player-manager Kenny Dalglish, whose new-look side had swept all before them that season.
Juventus-bound Ian Rush had been replaced by boyhood-Red, John Aldridge, signed from Oxford United in January 1987, and he was joined a month into the new campaign by former team-mate Ray Houghton. England international John Barnes was added from Watford for £900,000, while international colleague Peter Beardsley swapped Tyneside for Merseyside in a British record deal for £1.9m. The fantastic four joined established stars like Alan Hansen, Steve Nicol and Ronnie Whelan and soon had the purists purring with their continental brand of football.
The Reds equalled Leeds United’s record of going 29 games unbeaten from the start of the season – losing just twice in the league that term, at neighbours Everton and that evening’s opponents, Forest.
The team from Nottingham were managed by their own legendary figure in Brian Clough, who less than 10-years earlier had turned the East Midlands club into two-time European Cup winners. Their side that night contained England internationals in Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Neil Webb and Nigel Clough, and would go on to finish third that season – Championship dwellers, these were not.
The two sides had built something of a rivalry in the late 70s and the game brought an end to April’s fiercely contested three-match mini-series which had seen the two clash in the league – with Forest winning 2-1 at the City Ground and the FA Cup semi-final, which saw Liverpool gain revenge by the same score line.
As the game kicked off, the hosts knew they were only seven points from title number 17 and they played that way. Just 18 minutes in, skipper Hansen imperiously brought the ball out of defence and found Houghton infield on the right. The busy Irishman exchanged passes with Barnes before leaving Des Walker in a heap as he clipped it over the advancing Steve Sutton for the game’s opener. The beauty came in its simplicity and was just one of many great Liverpool goals scored that season.
Seven minutes from the interval Liverpool struck again, having barely let the visitors over the half-way line during that first period. Aldridge grabbed another of his 26-league goals that season as Beardsley proved once again he was the creator supreme. The little forward had tormented Forest for much of the half with his clever probing and another piece of devastating play conjured the second.
A dummy in his own half left his Forest marker for dead, before he bent a pass 30 yards into Aldridge’s path – the striker not needing to break stride as the ball was again lifted over the advancing Sutton. The four sides of Anfield rose, conscious of the fact that it would have been more but for Sutton’s one-man defence in the face of the Red cyclone.
If Brian Clough’s men thought they’d been chasing shadows in the first half, they hadn’t seen anything yet. Now John Barnes came to the party and showed the graceful form that would see him pick up both Player of the Year awards later that month.
As Liverpool attacked the baying Kop, Barnes’ quick corner from the left was played into Houghton, who carried the ball along the bye-line before pulling it back to the unmarked Gary Gillespie. The classy centre-back fired into the roof of the net to put the game beyond their ragged opponents with still over half an hour to play.
If Cloughie thought Liverpool would shut up shop, he was sorely mistaken. With 11 minutes remaining, Beardsley grabbed the goal of the game as Barnes made a fool of his marker Steve Chettle. Picking the ball up from Nigel Spackman on the left-hand touchline, Barnes carried the ball towards the corner flag before standing his opponent up. As Chettle swiped for the ball, Barnes cheekily nutmegged and raced away in a flash, swaying away from a desperate lunge in the process. The ball was pulled back to Beardsley 18-yards out and he buried a richly-deserved goal.
Two minutes from the end, with the Kop breathless from the display, Aldridge claimed his second and Liverpool’s fifth as Spackman again broke down the left and squared to the striker.
At the end pundits and the press alike struggled to put into words what they had witnessed.
Tom Finney, arguably the greatest English player of all time, called it “the finest exhibition I’ve ever seen the whole time I’ve played and watched the game”, while future UEFA President Michel Platini was moved to describe Liverpool as “a continental team, not an English one”.
In Barnes’ autobiography some ten-years later, Barnes himself claimed it was “the best Liverpool performance I ever played in”. The greatness of the performance was brought home by the BBC’s decision to show the highlights the following night in a one-off special, in the days before football was a seven-days-a-week event.
The Reds would go on to claim the League title by nine points from Manchester United, but amazingly missed out on the double weeks later in a shock 1-0 loss to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final. That night represented the high-water mark of Dalglish’s tenure, and even though an FA Cup and another title would be secured in consecutive seasons, that showing would never be repeated or forgotten by the 40,000 who saw it.
Liverpool: Grobbelaar, Gillespie, Ablett, Nicol, Spackman, Hansen, Beardsley, Aldridge, Houghton, Barnes, McMahon
Subs: Johnston, Molby
Nottingham Forest: Sutton, Pearce, Walker, Foster, Chettle, Webb, Rice, Wilson, Gaynor, Clough, Glover
Subs: Crosby, Wassall