Destiny’s Child: how the history of Football was shaped (part two)

football destiny part two

Last time out, we initiated an investigation into ‘destiny changers’ – the phenomenon of seemingly small events occurring or decisions being made that set in motion a chain of events with far-reaching effects.

We pored our way over Queens Park Rangers’ ultimately unsuccessful tilt at the 1975-76 title, and pondered how football’s landscape in the late 1970s and 1980s might well have been different had the Hoops prevailed. Of particular importance was a shock defeat to Norwich City with just a handful of games to go, when the Canaries scored a crucial goal that surely would never have been allowed under current VAR regulations.

Anyhoo, onwards and upwards as they (who?) say.

This time we will have a look at other incidents and events that at the time appeared to be no more than the normal roll and grift of the national game, but now with the benefit of many years of hindsight, could be argued to be pivotal.

The Arsenal of the early to mid-1980s was a peculiar beast. Coming off the back of three successive FA Cup Finals and a European Cup Winners’ Cup Final appearance, Arsenal were almost annually tipped to challenge for the league and so add to their eight previous title successes and yet every season they flattered to deceive. Despite finishing fourth in 1980, third a year later, and fifth in 1982, no sustained title push was forthcoming and in December of 1983, Terry Neill got the push and was replaced by his trusty assistant and side-kick, Don Howe.

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Howe took on the mantle on a caretaker basis initially, with the plan being that come the end of the season a permanent appointment would be made. When neither Alex Ferguson nor Terry Venables could be tempted to throw in their lot at Highbury, Howe got the gig full-time.

Two years passed in the blink of a very slow, patient, defence-minded, offside-trap-induced, I-think-my-eyes-are-bleeding, 1-0 to-the-Arsenal, blink-of-an-eye, without much discernable progress being made, but then, finally, the corner seemed to be turning.

With eleven games of the 1985-86 season remaining, Arsenal sat fifth in the table, eight points behind leaders Everton but with two games in hand. It was then that the Arsenal board decided to once more enquire about the availability of Venables with the intention of elbowing Howe aside at the end of the season.

Unsurprisingly, Howe was less than amused by this turn of developments, and so with the side of the verges of the title race, he promptly – and totally understandably – quit. Arsenal’s form then promptly fell away, with the club finishing seventh a massive nineteen points behind champions, Liverpool.

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Venables, for his part, was doing very nicely indeed at the time managing Barcelona, and having turned down Arsenal once before when he was at QPR, quite why anybody thought he might now be tempted to give up the Nou Camp for Highbury must have been as baffling to him then as it looks to anyone now.

Once again failing to land Fergie in the summer, Arsenal were forced to set their sights elsewhere and so it was to South London and the Second Division that their attentions turned.

Back in September 1967, Arsenal met Tottenham Hotspur in a league game at Highbury, and instrumental in the Spurs side that afternoon was none other than Terry Venables. On the morning of the match, however, the young(ish) midfielder had an important duty to carry out. He had been tasked by his closest friend with fulfilling best man duties at his wedding. This was a task Venables was only too happy to carry out, and when the nuptials were over, the two men bade each other a hearty farewell.

So, to Highbury Venables headed where a chastening 4-0 defeat ensued. As he trooped off the pitch a forlorn figure some ninety minutes later, he came across his newly-wed best buddy once again.

The two men shook hands.

A variation of, ‘Bad luck, Tel,’ was no doubt offered up.

Now, almost two decades later, the very same man whose wedding Terry had performed so admirably at, and the scorer of Arsenal’s second goal that day, was appointed Arsenal manager.

Step forward one George Graham.

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Venables would stay another season at Barcelona before being bumped off.

Erm…I mean, before being sacked.

Meanwhile, Graham would famously lead Arsenal to the league title within three seasons and another one two seasons after that.

What would have happened had Venables been unable to resist Arsenal’s overtures? Would they have been as successful as they were under Graham? Ergo, what role does Venables’ refusal to come to Highbury play in the club’s success over that period?

Arsenal famously snatched the title away from Liverpool in that 1989 season, of course, with practically the last kick of the season. This brings us nicely to our next bone of contention, that Ian Rush was responsible for Liverpool’s decline in the 1990s and beyond.

Perhaps the more cynical of readers might opine that your writer is stretching a bit here, (‘trolling,’ I think is the kids’ current phraseology,) but bear with me for a while.

The Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s were – of course – extremely successful with league titles and European Cups galore, but in the main, the style of football played was functional and effective rather than expansive and free-flowing. Even in the most successful of seasons, such as in 1984 and 1986 when a treble and the league and cup ‘double’ respectively were achieved, results were often ground out on the back of a solid defence, a hard-working midfield, and the genius of Dalglish and Rush up front.

By 1987, however, times were changing. As player-manager, Dalglish had pretty much moved away from the playing side of things, and Rush was on his way to Italy to play for Juventus in a record-transfer fee deal. Liverpool had signed Paul Walsh in 1984 as a ready-made replacement for Dalglish, but although he had enjoyed a couple of decent seasons in the side, he never quite lived up to his potential and so with Rush loaned back to Liverpool for a season, Dalglish was taking his time in weighing up the options.

In early 1987, John Aldridge was signed from Oxford United in what some thought at the time was a straight replacement for Rush, but Dalglish saw things differently.

Although Aldridge could, and sometimes did, play alongside Rush, he was a different type of player. Rush could find space anywhere in the opponents’ half of the field and was able to make the sort of runs Aldridge never could, while Aldridge did all of his best work within the penalty area. A quick look at his career stats, for example, tells us that Aldridge scored a remarkable 363 goals in 683 league games.

Dalglish knew that to accommodate Aldridge he would need to change Liverpool’s shape, and so with Rush finally on his way to Turin, he brought in John Barnes from Watford and Peter Beardsley from Newcastle United.

The effect was both immediate and stunning. Playing with a freedom and flair rarely displayed by previous sides anywhere, let alone Anfield, Liverpool swept to yet another league title in 1987-88 and only a complete aberration at Wembley against Wimbledon in the FA Cup Final that May prevented Dalglish’s men from securing a second double in three seasons.

Liverpool’s football that one Rush-free season was simply majestic, with Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge dove-tailing perfectly with the result that sides were often simply blown away.

Meanwhile, in Turin, things were not going so swimmingly for Ian Rush. Finding that Italian football was not suited to his style of hanging on the last defender and moving onto defence-splitting passes, Rush had pretty much decided by December 1987 that he would be returning home to England at the end of the season.

This, naturally, put all the leading clubs on high alert and with Liverpool doing so well in his absence other clubs were favourites to sign him. The fact that Manchester United and Everton were amongst the clubs rumoured to be showing an interest was a concern for Liverpool fans, but as the 1987-88 season drew to its dramatic close, for the main part supporters’ interests lay elsewhere.

The summer was a different story, though, and with Rush seriously considering a move to either Old Trafford or Goodison, Dalglish moved to bring him ‘home’ to Liverpool.

The re-signing of Rush was an understandable decision in as much as it would have been unpalatable to see Rush lining up in either of Colin Harvey or Alex Ferguson’s sides, but it did beg the question of just where and how he was going to fit into the Liverpool side.

As it happened, the 1988-89 season kicked off with Rush less than match fit and so Aldridge mostly stayed in the team. On the occasions when Rush did play, he looked off the pace and Liverpool failed to look anywhere near as fluent or coherent as they had the previous season. This slow start was to ultimately cost Liverpool dear as Arsenal pipped them to the title in such dramatic circumstances.

Aldridge enjoyed another top season personally, once more rattling the goals in to finish as top goalscorer, but by the time the 1989-90 season kicked off, the writing was on the wall. Rush was now back to full fitness and Dalglish decided to revert to a 4-4-2 system with Beardsley partnering Rush upfront.

This meant there was no place for Aldridge, and when Dalglish informed him the club had accepted a £1m bid from Real Sociedad, he had no real option but to leave Liverpool. Aldridge was heartbroken to leave Liverpool, but off to Spain he went where he enjoyed two goal-laden seasons before coming back to England and spending another six years banging them in left, right and centre for Tranmere Rovers.

Liverpool won another First Division title in 1990, and it seemed the Red Machine would simply keep rolling along, but the truth was things were changing. It was a poor First Division in 1989-90 if truth be told, and Liverpool were far from convincing at times.

Aston Villa under Graham Taylor had chances to take the title as Liverpool continued the previous season’s habit of playing in fits and starts, and had the Villains perhaps had a little more experience, the title would have been theirs.

Rush and Beardsley were not a particularly good partnership together and the two did not gell, the 1990 title success notwithstanding. As a result, Beardsley began to find himself out of the team more often during that and the following season, 1990-91, and rumours were abound (and still are to this day) that he and Dalglish had a personal as well as professional falling out.

Dalglish began to feel the pressure of all the criticism coming his way, and this added to the stress he had been under since the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, became too much for him so he left the club in February 1991. His successor, Graeme Souness, shared Dalglish’s opinion that Rush and Beardsley were not a suitable pairing, and in the summer of 1991, Beardsley moved across Stanley Park to Merseyside rivals, Everton.

Hence, it can be argued that the re-signing of Ian Rush could be labelled a classic case of, ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ Although Rush would score 90 goals in 245 league appearances over the eight years of his second spell at Anfield, other than that 1990 title success, the only trophies won were two FA Cups and a solitary success in the League Cup, and Liverpool would have to wait thirty years until their next title success.

The Liverpool side that John Aldridge played in, and from which he was unceremoniously elbowed aside to make way for the returning Rush, on the other hand, is still rightly remembered as one of the greatest-ever Liverpool sides.