Chapter 13 from Champions Again: The Story of Liverpool’s 30-Year Wait for the Title by Ian Carroll
On the 11th of May, 1996, Liverpool travelled to Wembley to face Man Utd in the FA Cup final. I was there.
I travelled down to London with my mate Hero in the back of a nippy sports car that belonged to a bloke I occasionally worked for. He and his dad sat up front, and we sat in the back. We fairly flew down the M6 and M1 in record time.
We all had seats in different parts of the ground. It was difficult enough to get one ticket for a cup final, let alone a pair, so we all tried our best to remember where we had parked and arranged to meet up after the final whistle.
There was much-anticipation that we were about to witness a great game. The two teams were the top scorers in the cup that season, and the rivalry between us meant there would be no quarter given.
Man Utd had won three league titles in the previous four years. This was their third FA Cup final in a row, having beaten Chelsea two years earlier before losing to Everton a year later.
Crowned League Champions just six days earlier, United had little to lose. Their season was already successful. Ours was not. If they could win, they would complete a League and FA cup double.
We had to stop them. We would surely give it our all against our great rivals.
The teams came out for the traditional walk on the pitch, prior to kick-off, to soak up the atmosphere of this great occasion.
The players usually opt for a smart, dark suit, worn with a shirt and tie, and a pair of shoes.
Man Utd appeared in navy-blue attire, respectful and appropriate. The Liverpool team came out dressed in white Armani suits, white shoes, and brightly-coloured ties. This was certainly not combat-gear or battle-fatigues and suggested that the squad cared more about their appearance than they did about the trophy they were about to compete for.
How Alex Ferguson must have laughed. He must have been delighted. We had done his team-talk for him.
‘Look at that lot,’ he might have said. ‘They think they’ve won already. They’re straight off to the West End after the game to celebrate, in those self-same suits.’
How had this fashion faux-pas happened? No doubt, the fairly-relaxed regime under the fairly-relaxed manager was partly to blame. Surely he should have set the dress-code and, on having been informed of the players’ intentions, curtailed them with a stern ‘Not on my watch!’
Instead, Roy Evans treated the players as adults, as equals, almost. He cut them a lot of slack, at a time when there were many off-field distractions.
There was a spirit of optimism in the country. Cool-Britannia captured the zeitgeist of a nation as Blur and Oasis were battling it out at the top of the pop and rock charts and the Spice Girls were making history as the most successful all-girl band of all-time.
The young footballers of both Liverpool and Manchester United were mixing in the same circles as these pop-stars. Some of them were even sharing their beds!
They all had plenty of cash to throw around, and they were all basking in the celebrity spotlight.
Some of the footballers even acquired modelling contracts. David James, the Liverpool goalie, had just been signed up by Giorgio Armani.
James asked Armani if they’d like to design the team-suits for the cup final. How many of us wish that he hadn’t.
The game itself was a close affair. Liverpool had plenty of flair, and more than a little steel. United could match us in both departments, but they could also better us with a recent track record of picking up trophies.
Dull it was. And tense. There was a lot at stake. For us, it meant an above-average season would be elevated that little bit further. It would also put a dent in our opponent’s voracious appetite for silverware.
At half-time, the score was nil-nil. Roy Keane, in the Man Utd engine-room, was on his way to a match-winning performance as he sought to nullify everything Liverpool threw at them which, admittedly, did not amount to that much.
In the second half, it continued to be a closely-fought game. Where I was sitting, in the stand behind one of the goals, I sensed we were starting to get the upper hand.
Once or twice, Stan Collymore carried the ball forward (not literally) and put the United defence on the back foot, turning them inside out, almost teasing them as he started to ping in speculative crosses.
Surely, before too long, one of these searching balls into the box would be met by the predator Fowler?
Alex Ferguson must have felt the same way. In the 74th minute, he hauled off a striker, Andy Cole, and replaced him with midfielder Paul Scholes.
Fergie obviously felt the need to bolster his troops in the middle of the park. Even Roy Keane could not hold back the mounting tide of Liverpool attacks.
And then Roy Evans, on the Liverpool bench, did something unexpected. He hauled off Stan Collymore and replaced him with Ian Rush.
I’m sure this was a reaction to Ferguson’s move, as it came just two minutes later. The United substitution was a response to our improved standing in the game. They had to do something as the game was turning against them.
The Liverpool substitution appeared to be tit-for-tat. We’re drawing. They’ve made a change. We’ll make a change.
It bore the hallmarks of an inexperienced manager. If only the manager had taken an alternative view, one borne of confidence. They’ve made a change because it’s not going according to plan for them. That means we must have them worried. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing. We’re fine as we are.
Instead, Collymore’s shirt number went up on the subs-board. The player couldn’t believe it. His look was one of complete shock. ‘I’m killing them, here, boss’ he seemed to be saying. ‘Do you want to win this game or what?’
There can have been a no-more relieved person in the ground that day than Alex Ferguson at that moment.
Collymore was starting to run them ragged. They were struggling to contain him, hence the introduction of another midfielder to try to get close to him.
There was only one person that could have stopped Stan Collymore that day, and that was Roy Evans.
And he did.
It was now up to Rush and Fowler up front to try to latch onto some stray bit of play and snatch us a goal. Both of these players were goal-poachers. They needed someone to provide the creative spark. The rest of the team were duelling themselves to a stalemate against a strong United side. The one man who had license to try something different was now sitting in the dug-out.
With five minutes to go, United won a corner.
The ball came in, and David James punched it clear; except, it barely made it out of our penalty box. Instead, the ball landed at the feet of the last person you’d wanted it to, if you were a Liverpool fan.
Eric Cantona set himself up nicely with his first touch, and then unleashed a right-foot drive that made its way through a crowd of players with the accuracy of an Exocet missile before ending up in the back of the net.
There was hardly any time left in which to respond, and the game drained away to a United victory.
And as for the white suits? Well, as my dad says, they should have played in them. They wouldn’t have got them dirty!
John Barnes later said that he was gutted with the choice of attire, too. As he was soon due to retire, he thought of all the use he might have got out of a dark Armani suit. It would have served him well for TV appearances, after-dinner speeches, and the like. Instead, it went into the wardrobe, never to be seen again.
As for The Reds, another season was now over. Another one with nothing to show for it. Still, another one would be along soon enough. There had at least been some progress made in the past 18 months. We’d risen from eighth place to third in the league, and had only narrowly lost out in the cup final.
We had some exciting young talent on our books, and those white suits would soon be forgotten, wouldn’t they? (The answer is clearly ‘no!’)
So roll on 1996/97.
We were about to get New Labour. Would we get a new Liverpool, too?
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Read the full story of Liverpool’s 30 year wait to become league champions once again in: