• Rewind To 1992

Manchester United crisis echoes the end of Liverpool dynasty

Steven Saunders & Ismail Vedat
January 10, 2014
Who's unhappy at United?

When Sir Alex Ferguson selected David Moyes as the man to succeed him at Manchester United, there was a sense that the reigning Premier League champions could continue to be the team to beat.

But a side toiling after years of domination in the absence of a legend is nothing new. A glance from Old Trafford towards their bitter rivals at Anfield, the 1991-92 season, and the turbulent first year of Graeme Souness's reign as manager, shows just how difficult it can be to extend a dynasty.

The day Sir Alex Ferguson called time on his successful managerial career is one that Manchester United fans had long dreaded. On a forebodingly damp and grey afternoon last May, Sir Alex Ferguson bid farewell to Old Trafford with United as champions. "Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important."

The chosen one, handpicked by Ferguson, was Everton manager David Moyes. Fergie's statement showed all the knowingness we had come to expect of him, his ability to say the right thing at the right time for the good of the club. The implication was: This is not going to be easy. And so it has proved.

Ferguson's reign had lasted 26 years, 22 of which had been unerringly consistent, never finishing outside the top three. As United began challenging for and then winning titles at the dawn of the Premier League era, Ferguson's stated aim was to knock Liverpool off their perch.

"At that time, I thought Graeme was the best person for the job," said predecessor Dalglish, pictured here at a testimonial just days after Souness had been named manager © PA Photos

In 1991, Manchester United finished sixth. It was to be the last time they would finish so low under Ferguson. Meanwhile, the prime spot on that Liverpool perch was being vacated by one Anfield great for another. An exhausted Kenny Dalglish, winner of three league titles and two FA Cups as manager, resigned in February and was eventually replaced in April by Graeme Souness. It was a European Cup-winning captain coming in for the club's most revered player turned successful manager.

With Souness proving his managerial pedigree with an utterly dominant Rangers in Scotland, there was confidence that Liverpool's long run of success could continue. "At that time I thought Graeme was the best man for the job," wrote Dalglish in his 1996 autobiography. There were no warnings of having to stand by the new manager, the presumption being that it would not be necessary.

There is legacy, and then there is burden. When a retired Bill Shankly kept turning up at Liverpool's Melwood training ground, his successor Bob Paisley took him aside. "Look, Bill, I can't do my job because you're still here. The boys still think you're the boss. You're confusing them." Dalglish was determined this would not happen with his departure. "Anfield was now Graeme's place, not mine," he wrote in My Liverpool Home, published in 2010. "The stories of Shanks getting under Bob's feet were very much in my mind. I didn't want to cast a shadow." Witness now the debate over Ferguson's role as director at United and his presence at every game, and you can see where Dalglish was coming from.

The decks were clear for Souness, although he seemed intent on making the club and team his beyond any doubt. Out went Peter Beardsley, Steve Staunton and Steve McMahon, mainstays of Dalglish's team. In came the likes of Mark Walters, who had starred for Souness at Rangers, and Michael Thomas, who had already scored a title-winning goal at Anfield, although it was famously for Arsenal.

Souness walks out for the FA Cup final quietened by triple heart bypass surgery and a vicious backlash to an interview with The Sun © Getty Images

The 1991-92 campaign had started well enough for Souness's Liverpool. They suffered just two league defeats, both away from home, before the end of October but there were still signs things were not as they should be - a 1-0 defeat by Kuusysi Lahti of Finland was embarrassing even if progress in the Uefa Cup was secured. Then came Souness's first Anfield defeat, and to Crystal Palace, a team destroyed 9-0 by Dalglish's side at the same venue two years previous. Then came a League Cup exit at Peterborough, but that was folowed by an unbeaten run of 12 games in all competitions until the end of January, and all seemed right with the Liverpool world.

And then the wheels came off. Between February 1 and April 22, Liverpool recorded just six wins in 23 games. They were battered 3-0 at Norwich, 2-0 at Sheffield United and humiliated by Genoa in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals. Even the apparent saving grace of a run in the FA Cup was not all it seemed: they reached the semi-finals beating just one top-flight side (Aston Villa) and being taken to replays by Bristol Rovers and Ipswich.

April 1992 brought a furious chain of events that will forever be associated with Souness's reign. The FA Cup semi-final at Highbury against Portsmouth ended 1-1 and days after came the shocking news that Souness required triple heart bypass surgery, aged just 38. That was just the beginning. Liverpool needed penalties to beat Portsmouth in the replay while newspapers were awash with stories of how Souness had left his wife for another woman, who was by his side throughout his stay in hospital. Souness took the step of facing up to the coverage and agreeing a tell-all confession of his new-found love.

The exclusive was granted to The Sun, which had caused uproar and bitter resentment with their coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. "The Truth", they had declared on the front page just days after, accusing fans of pick-pocketing the dying people and urinating on the bodies. "Just unbelievable," recalled Dalglish of that week in 1989. "Liverpool punters went ballistic, some of them burning the paper on the news-stands, others coming up to Anfield to talk about their anger."

Souness's exclusive with The Sun ran on April 15, 1992 - three years to the day of Hillsborough

The Sun's editor Kelvin Mackenzie had called Dalglish to ask what he could do to fix it. "Print 'WE LIED' in the same size print on your front page," said Dalglish. "I can't do that," said Mackenzie. "Then I can't help you," replied Dalglish.

Souness cosying up to his new love was one thing, to do it on the front page of The Sun was quite another. It got worse; the story ran on April 15, 1992 - three years to the day of Hillsborough.

Fans were utterly disgusted, and some declared they would not return to Anfield until Souness was no longer manager. A bereaved father declared he would have his son's name removed from the plaque outside Anfield that commemorates the Hillsborough tragedy. Souness himself would later term the exclusive "an almighty rick". His job was hanging by a thread.

As the furore continued, so did the season. A 2-0 win over Manchester United at Anfield contributed greatly to Leeds United pipping Ferguson's side to the title on the final day of the season. A two-decade long wait for a league title at Old Trafford continued, but Liverpool had been reduced to the unusual role of spoiler and their own title starvation had begun. They finished sixth, their lowest placing since 1965, 18 points behind Leeds.

They did have the FA Cup final, and a quietened Souness took his place in the dugout for that match. Goals from Thomas (a superb volley) and Ian Rush secured a 2-0 victory over yet another side from outside the top-flight. At least Liverpool had a trophy in the cabinet at the end of a season few would forget or ever wish to endure again.

"Souness slammed" was just one of the headlines on the lengthy meeting Souness had with six of the eight directors at Anfield less than a week after they lifted the FA Cup. He kept his job. What Liverpool had become in Souness' first season hurt Dalglish, who had by now returned to football as manager of Blackburn but later admitted had pined for an Anfield return before Souness was appointed. "I had no right to hope that Liverpool would come back to me. But if Liverpool had waited until the summer, and then asked me, I would have gone back. Like a shot. Liverpool will always be in my family's heart."

What happened next?

Souness continued to incur the wrath of the Liverpool fans, as well as legends of the club, and there was even talk of Dalglish coming back for the start of the 1992-93 season, dismissed as nonsense by the man himself.

Souness survived that campaign, but in January 1994 his time at Anfield came to an end. The FA Cup of 1992, and the emergence of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp would be Souness's only successes.

Dalglish's links with Liverpool and Ferguson reached a bizarre denouement in 1995, as Blackburn lost to Liverpool - Redknapp scoring a last-minute free kick that stunned the entire crowd - but won the league on the final day of the season. Manchester United had again been pipped to the title. Liverpool fans remained after the game to celebrate Dalglish's triumph and United's failure.

"Graeme's time as manager of Liverpool wasn't a huge success," wrote Dalglish in 2010. "I believe he made too many changes too quickly. I had too much respect for Graeme and Liverpool to say that I'd recently won the League [when criticised about leaving behind an ageing squad]. Leaving Anfield never stopped me loving Liverpool." He is now, like Ferguson, a director of the club he will forever be associated with. Liverpool have still not won a title since Dalglish's last game as a player for the club in 1990.

Graeme Souness and Ronnie Moran embrace after winning the FA Cup final against Sunderland in 1992 © PA Photos
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