Throughout the 1980s two of the best sides in the country regularly provided some of the most gripping encounters as Merseyside's finest did battle in league title deciders and high profile cup ties; but when the two faced each other in an FA Cup fifth round replay at Goodison Park on February 20th 1991, few could have foreseen what would happen next in a game that is still considered one of the greatest derbies ever.
Liverpool and Everton had played their first tie just three days earlier at Anfield as the Red and Blue of Merseyside cancelled each other out in a largely forgettable 0-0 draw. A strong penalty shout after a Gary Ablett challenge on Everton’s Pat Nevin being the only real talking point in the game that otherwise offered little.
But if anything, the stalemate at the home of Liverpool was just the Hors d'oeuvre for a main course that would have everyone asking for more as the FA Cup yet again served up a large helping of drama, excitement and nail-biting tension.
As former Everton boss Howard Kendall said at the time: “There shouldn’t have been a replay, really, because referee Neil Midgley missed a blatant penalty at Anfield. But a lot of people will look back at how events unfolded at Goodison and say they’re glad there was.”
Going into fifth round weekend Liverpool, under the guidance of manager Kenny Dalglish, were three points clear at the top of Division One and looked on course to retain the title which they had won comfortably the previous season. Once again it was Arsenal they were doing battle with for the league and few people expected the men from north London stopping a third title in four seasons.
Everton, on the other hand, were struggling under Kendall, after a turgid start to the season had seen them go seven games without a win. They still boasted some top talent in their ranks, however, in the form of Neville Southall, Graeme Sharp and record signing Tony Cottee, but in truth, the two league titles and four FA Cup final appearances of the previous decade now seemed like something of a distant memory.
Not all was as rosy as it seemed at Liverpool, either. Captain Alan Hansen was regularly sidelined with a recurring knee injury and retirement looked imminent, while Ronnie Whelan and Steve McMahon, who had played such a huge part in the club's successes in the ‘80s, were ageing fast. John Aldridge had left the club for Spain at the end of the previous season, while, unusually, the superb Peter Beardsley was somewhat surprisingly out of sorts.
Even so, a cup tie against their nearest of neighbours, who were languishing at the wrong end of the table, might just have been the boost that the Red men needed to kick-on as the season reached the business end in both league and cup.
To the surprise of many Dalglish fielded something of a defensive side that night, with Hysen, Burrows, Nicol, Molby, Ablett and Staunton hardly being the most attacking players in the starting 11 — though Messrs Barnes, Beardsley and Rush were more than capable of providing creativity and flair.
Combine this with an Everton side who were more than up for hassling, haranguing and generally having a good go at their opponents in front of a crowd of 37, 766, and all the ingredients were there for the classic encounter that was about to follow under the Goodison Park lights.
Everton 0 Liverpool 1… After some good work from Ian Rush down the left it looks for all money that he will open the scoring when he cuts inside and shoots past Neville Southall. But the ball is acrobatically cleared off the line and falls perfectly for Peter Beardsley on the half-volley. For the rest of the first half Liverpool are in control and probably should have put the tie to bed.
Everton 1 Liverpool 1… Two minutes into the second half and, somewhat against the run of play, the tie is level. Andy Hinchcliffe crosses from the left and an unmarked Sharp times his leap perfectly to nod the ball past Grobbelaar.
Everton 1 Liverpool 2… On 71 minutes the momentum shifts again as Peter Beardsley collects a short pass and evades a challenge, before shimmying away from another blue shirt and firing a superb left-footed shot past Southall. “OH I SAY!” yells Sky’s Martin Tyler.
Everton 2 Liverpool 2… With Liverpool fans still singing about Wembley, a long and hopeful punt upfield causes chaos in the Liverpool defence 60 seconds later and as Steve Nicol’s attempt to intervene confuses his own ‘keeper, Grobbelaar, and Sharp has the simplest job of prodding the ball into the net.
Everton 2 Liverpool 3… Just five minutes later and Liverpool are ahead once again when Molby is given plenty of time on the right-hand side to pick-out Ian Rush for the easiest of headers past a stranded Southall.
Everton 3 Liverpool 3… The last minute of the game sees no let up in the tempo or the drama as a hopeful flick into the Liverpool area sees their defenders standing stock-still like a row of statues and substitute Tony Cottee, who had just come on, alive and alert as always slotting past Grobbelaar with his left foot. “THREE, THREE!” yells Tyler this time.
Everton 3 Liverpool 4… With the game now into extra time both sides are relying on those players who can provide that little bit of magic that might just win the game for their side. For Liverpool this means John Barnes, who cuts in from the left touchline, advances on goal, then, from the edge of the penalty area, curls a dipping, right foot shot which evades everyone and flies into the net. 4-3 and surely that is it now?
Everton 4 Liverpool 4… Not a bit of it. Everton have one last chance in them and, thanks to some more calamitous defending on the edge of the Liverpool box, which sees Glenn Hysen let the ball run through his legs, Cottee, once again seizes his opportunity and fires the ball under Grobbelaar to make things all square.
“Merseyside derbies should come with a Government health warning,” wrote the Liverpool ECHO’s Ric George as he opened his report on probably the most enthralling game ever played between the two sides.
“This was without question the greatest match I have ever watched – but also the most stressful,” he added, in what was to be a frighteningly blunt and accurate prediction of what was about to unfold in the coming hours.
“If you asked Evertonians to name their greatest match, a lot would say the European Cup-winners’ Cup win over Bayern Munich in 1985,” Graeme Sharp later claimed. “But there are plenty who would go for this one. It really did have everything, and we showed great character to keep bouncing back.”
Easy to say now in hindsight, but amid the drama and excitement of that incredible night there were signs that things weren’t what they once were for Liverpool. Their performance in that 4-4 draw with Everton had been something of a microcosm of their entire season, a team who had seen better days, who were great to watch but desperately lacking in many areas.
Not only had one of the greatest sides in the country let their lead slip times, but their manager, a man who was once the most animated and passionate, both on the pitch and in the dugout, now looked a shadow of his former self as he watched on from the sidelines.
While his opposite number lived and breathed every kick, Dalglish spent most of that epic encounter slumped against the dug-out, hands in pockets, offering little encouragement and few instructions. Incredibly, he also made no substitutions in the entire 120 minutes of one of the most hard-fought and exhausting cup-ties in recent years.
He looked like a man bereft of passion, whose love for the game had long since diminished. Just 24 hours later his actions confirmed what many people might have been thinking, yet few could have predicted. Dalglish sensationally quit as manager of Liverpool.
His decision wasn’t solely football related. In the wake of Hillsborough, Dalglish was no longer just an icon of the game, he’d become a grief counsellor that thousands of people were turning in their hour of need; a shoulder to cry on in every sense.
Along with the huge task of rebuilding an ailing and ageing team who, just two years ago, were probably the greatest side in Europe but were fast becoming a shadow of their former selves and it had all become too much for this natural born winner.
The following week, with Ronnie Moran in caretaker control of Liverpool, a 12th-minute strike by Dave Watson was enough for Everton to win the second replay, back at Goodison, 1-0, but the Blues’ FA Cup adventure was ended in the next round by West Ham.
Meanwhile, over at Anfield, Dalglish was eventually replaced by former Liverpool favourite Graeme Souness, who, despite inheriting a side who were reigning champions and top of the league, could only steer a listing ship to a disappointing second-place finish behind Arsenal.
“I have often wondered what it must have been like to have been in the crowd the night Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier took each other to the brink of human endurance, now I know.” wrote the ECHO’s Ken Rogers when looking back at the events that night. And, at times, the encounter did resemble a heavyweight title fight.
But one man felt every painful blow more than most during this epic slugfest and like any great champion Dalglish knew his time was up.“After we took the lead for the final time, I knew I had to make a change to shore things up at the back,” he would later explain. “I could see what had to be done, and what would happen if I didn’t, but I did not act on it. That was the moment I knew I was shattered. I needed to get out and away from the pressure.”