There was a time when Liverpool were good.
I know what some of you are thinking: “They were good last year.”
But I’m talking about something far beyond that level of “good”. Something beyond coming second in a season when you didn’t have to think about Europe. Beyond even winning the Champions League in a season when you didn’t really have to think about the Premiership.
I’m thinking about a time when everyone from Barnet to Real Madrid would get all nervous and twitchy over the prospect of facing the might Liverpool FC. It was a time when they were a force at home and abroad, an era where the phrase “Just you wait until next year” wasn’t uttered, because you’d spent this year along with the subsequent decade watching them dominate.
Anfield was home to some truly great players: Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Mark Lawrenson, Graeme Souness and of course, the legendary Alan Hansen.
Hansen is known for many things. A central defender, he played over four hundred times for Liverpool amassing a collection of titles that would stand credibly alongside any other: Eight English League titles, three European Cups (more than Sir Alex Ferguson and as many as Manchester United overall), two FA Cups and four League Cups from a time when people fielded their first XI in them.
Yet, when I think of Alan Hansen, what springs to mind more readily than anything else is that famous comment he uttered on Match of the Day, back at the start of the 1995-96 Premiership season: “You can’t win anything with kids”
This was said in the wake of Manchester United losing to Aston Villa 3-1 earlier that day, as he and Gary Lineker discussed potential title contenders. He dismissed United out of hand. They had allowed a number of prominent players to depart in the summer, electing to replace them not with new signings, but with players from the youth team. Hansen like many, decided that this was an error on Alex Ferguson’s part. For his pick he declared “One word: Liverpool!”.
That year, Man United did the League and FA Cup Double.
I know it’s easy to mock Alan so many years after the fact, 20/20 hindsight firmly in hand, but it’s not only that benefit that makes his comment so resoundingly stupid that it’s followed him ever since.
For a start, he was talking about Man United, a club whose most legendary line-up – albeit in the wake of tragedy and a mountain of stolen potential – were the Busby Babes. With an average age of 21 when the landed their first of two league titles in 1956, they were the pure embodiment of “winning with kids”.
“Oh!”, I hear you cry “As brilliant as Duncan Edwards was considered to be, you can’t compare the rigours of the nineties Premiership with the late fifties! Different era! Apples and Oranges!”
To which I respond: Why did you start that proclamation with “Oh!” like some kind of Dickensian character and what does fruit have to do with this?
To the greater point of comparing eras, fine. I’ll give you that one. Let us then go with another example. One closer to the time when Alan Hansen became associated with saying something on MOTD other than “Shocking defending!”.
Back before UEFA shuffled the Champions League around, allowing more clubs from bigger leagues to not only enter, but to receive more money by virtue of the “Market Pool” section of prize money (a mechanism for acknowledging a nation’s contribution to the TV audience, which in effect basically rewarded big and popular clubs from big and popular leagues for being big and popular), Ajax were good. Very good. Like the Liverpool I mentioned at the opening of this blog entry.
Not that I afford them much sympathy for being a shadow of their former selves. They’ve merely become victims of the extension and evolution of a mechanism that once allowed them to run roughshod over their own domestic league.
Anyhoo, Ajax had produced a number of great teams over the years, with the likes of Johans Cruyff & Neeskens, Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp having graced their fields. In the mid-nineties, they produced their last truly great side. Alongside the likes of Jari Litmanen, the legendary Frank Rijkaard and captain Danny Blind, the team was noted for featuring a great many youth products: Edwin Van Der Sar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Michael Reiziger, the De Boer Twins, Winston Bogarde and a teenage Patrick Kluivert.
This team went on to land not only the Dutch domestic cup and the Eredivisie title but also the UEFA Champions League. More poignantly, they did it in the 1994-95 season.
To summarise: On the day of the first round of league games in England, following the final game of UEFA’s competitive calendar the previous season, in which a team noted prominently for its youth completed a treble and was declared to be the best in Europe, Alan Hansen comes out with “You can’t win with Kids”.
What an arse.