‘They see it as their job to win… just like we did’: Liverpool icon Ian Rush likens 1990 Reds side’s mental toughness with Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League winners of 2020
- Liverpool secured their first English top-flight title in 30 years on Thursday night
- Former striker Ian Rush was part of the last Reds side to win a title, back in 1990
- Rush sees parallels between his title winning side and Jurgen Klopp’s men now
Liverpool’s 19th title has been achieved in the face of a wearying burden of expectation, though some would say that the psychological obstacles to the 18th, 30 long years ago, were close to insurmountable.
The still-raw memories of the Hillsborough disaster were among them, of course. The plight of Tony Bland, who would become the 96th victim, was dominating the pages of the Liverpool Daily Post as he clung on to life when the 1989-90 season began.
And then there was the shattering loss of the previous season’s championship to Arsenal, in that legendary game at Anfield.
Ian Rush says Liverpool’s 2020 title victors have the same mental toughness as the 1990 team
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds celebrated the title on Thursday night after Chelsea beat Manchester City
The Reds have been almost unbreakable this season and exerted a rare dominance in England
It’s a measure of the Liverpool mindset back then that Ian Rush does not dwell on any of these hurdles.
‘There are some things you never forget and of course that was the case when it came to Hillsborough,’ the 58-year-old says, from the villa in Portugal where he has been with fiancée Carol Anthony throughout the lockdown.
‘But our job was to win the league. We never took it for granted that we would do that. But we thought we could do that. We thought it was our job.’
Easier said than done. The team looked inhibited and terribly unconvincing when they returned to Hillsborough for the first time since the tragedy, in late November 1989 and lost 2-0 to Sheffield Wednesday.
What did play on Rush’s mind at that time was whether he would shake off the effects of illness which had dragged on for nearly two years and rediscover the peaks he had once reached. The problems went back to a bad bout of chickenpox — possibly shingles, he thinks — which preceded his last season with Juventus.
Liverpool’s 1990 squad had much to deal with mentally as they pushed for their 18th title
There was a new manager, Dino Zoff, to impress before that season, so after the Italian’s club doctor visited him in England he spent time in Switzerland, ‘walking up the mountains, trying to get right’, as he remembers it.
‘I went back too early,’ he reflects. ‘And when I came back to England I wasn’t fully fit. I signed in the late summer and there’d been a lot of uncertainty about it so I didn’t get a pre-season when I came home. It took me a season to get right and the 1989-90 pre-season was the one I was banking on to be properly ready.’
Change was in the air at Anfield. The peerless defensive machine on which Liverpool’s hegemony had been built was gradually being broken up. Mark Lawrenson had left to be Oxford United manager and, though his team-mates did not have the remotest idea of it, Alan Hansen had resolved that this would be his last campaign.
‘Perhaps he told us on the day we won the league; perhaps it was a bit after that,’ Rush says. ‘He was a very private person and no one at Liverpool made a song and dance about things.’ Glenn Hysen was the one manager Kenny Dalglish hoped would be a future defender in Hansen’s mould.
The Reds had both Hillsborough and the 1989 final-day defeat to Arsenal on their minds
A 9-0 win over Crystal Palace — John Aldridge’s swansong — is the game most often recalled as the symbol of Liverpool’s pomp that autumn, though Rush has always felt the 3-1 win at Goodison Park was better.
Everton were strong and extremely effective but Rush’s mind goes back to an imperious John Barnes, saying: ‘He was in brilliant form at that time.’ That day, Peter Beardsley, bought to replace Dalglish, also came as close as perhaps he ever would to replicating the Scot’s partnership with Rush.
One report of the game described Rush as ‘at last looking like his old pre-Juventus self’. His two goals in three minutes made it six in five matches for him. ‘Rush and Merseyside getting back to normal’, one national headline stated. The win took Liverpool top. ‘Yes, I felt I was properly back,’ Rush says. ‘We were flying.’
After the defeat at Hillsborough, the side lost just once in 23 league matches, with Ronny Rosenthal, loaned from Standard Liege by Dalglish after Aldridge left for Real Sociedad, emerging as an improbable talisman, with a hat-trick in the 4-0 win at Charlton Athletic in the April.
Rush admits there were signs that Liverpool’s dominance could be waning in 1990
‘You never knew what to expect from Ronny,’ says Rush. ‘He was most probably the king of the supersubs. On a good day he could score three.’
Liverpool were almost two goals down in the game at home to QPR on April 28, 1990, in which they sought to seal their 18th title. Roy Wegerle tapped in the opener and Colin Clarke then hit the bar.
But Rush’s goal on 40 minutes — exceptionally good, even by his standards — illustrated the unflappability of that team. A one-two between Barnes and Steve Nicol down the left presaged Nicol’s cross for Rush with his right outstep.
The then 28-year-old Rush’s chest control seemed to have put the ball slightly out of his control but he hooked it in from an acute angle between David Seaman and the near post. A Barnes penalty sealed the win.
Rush, now 58-years-old, never expected Liverpool’s run to extend so long, even in 1996
‘I just remember that they scored first and I scored at the Kop end,’ says Rush. ‘But no one was shouting and screaming when we went behind. There was a confidence in the team. It was our job to win the next game. We went about our job.’
Rush adds: ‘I left the club in 1996 and even then I thought the title would come back. ‘There were good players like Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp. People might say Liverpool were in decline but other teams were catching us up.
‘What you need — and what we’d always had — was mental toughness. You’ve got to play well in five out of six games, not three out of six. After 1990 we were not making the five out of six. So maybe the signs were there.’
Klopp delivered a staggeringly dominant season, rewarding Reds fans after the long wait
There later became more uncertainty about who would play, he thinks. ‘Some people didn’t know whether they were coming or going whereas with Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish you knew you were playing if you were fit.
‘You reported fit to play if you were only 70 or 80 per cent fit because you worried that if you missed a game you wouldn’t walk back into the side.’
Jamie Carragher would reflect years later that Liverpool’s fall from the peak was born of complacency. Rush does not contest that notion. ‘Liverpool set a standard and teams always want to beat Liverpool, simple as that,’ he says.
‘Mentally as a player I wouldn’t ever entertain complacency. I just can’t and won’t ever understand that mindset.
‘But I can see that what we had back then is there in this Liverpool team. If they’re playing at Anfield and go a goal behind, they’re the same as us. You won’t see any sense of panic setting in. They see it as their job to win — just like we did.’