FA Cup Flashback: Leaving of Liverpool (1990/91)

We’ve reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, and now only sixteen teams retain the dream of lifting the world’s oldest cup in May. To celebrate this season’s competition we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (we all remember Bradford City winning at Stamford Bridge), nor even the most entertaining games (though Manchester City’s comeback at White Hart Lane was quite something, wasn’t it?), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. This time out we’re looking at a humdinger from the early nineties. The shorts were still short, the pitches were still quagmires, and the FA Cup was still the most important tournament in English club football. As if we needed proof, Everton and Liverpool played out an astonishing game at Goodison Park that changed the course of history on Merseyside. 

The perfect FA Cup tie can be created from a vast array of ingredients. Ideally you want it played at night under the floodlights, when even sitting at home you can feel the buzz coming from the stands. In earlier rounds it’ll usually include an underdog and a big-hitter going toe-to-toe, but once we reach the business end the best results tend to come from two top flight teams desperate to win the competition. You’ll need plenty of incident, preferably a few goals, and if that’s not enough why not make it a local derby between two teams that had spent the previous decade fighting it out for every trophy going? Last season’s meeting between Liverpool and Everton proved a surprisingly entertaining affair, with debutant Virgil van Dijk securing a place in the fourth round for the Reds with a late winner. But it had nothing on the meeting between the two sides at the Fifth Round stage in 1991.

Throughout the 1980s, Merseyside hoarded trophies like Hugh Hefner hoarded trophy girlfriends. Between them Liverpool and Everton won eight league titles, three FA Cups, four League Cups, two European Cups, and one Cup Winners Cup. At no time in history had the rivalry between the two been as fierce as it was during that decade. Following the Heysel Disaster and English clubs’ subsequent ban from European competition, Everton’s inspirational boss Howard Kendall departed for Athletic Bilbao, and the Toffees quickly fell back into the chasing pack behind their neighbours. By the end of the 80s, Arsenal had emerged as Liverpool’s main challengers in Division One, winning the title in ’89, and putting the pressure on in the 90/91 season.

Though they had continued to dominate English football, the entire Liverpool squad had been deeply affected by the events of 15th April 1989, when ninety-six fans had travelled to Hillsborough for the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and lost their lives. The strain was particularly felt by manager Kenny Dalglish, who not only attended the funerals of all those who died in the tragedy, but provided comfort and solace to their families. Though not widely known at the time, the psychological affect of his three years surrounded by grief had begun to take its toll on Dalglish. His Liverpool side had started to lack the swagger of that dominant team of the 80s. For the first time during his managerial reign, pundits and supporters had begun to criticise his mangement of the team; the tactics were negative, the starting eleven was questionable, the transfers were bizarre. Cracks had appeared in the previous season’s FA Cup semi-final, that remarkable topsy-turvy defeat to Crystal Palace, and now every result and performance was under intense scrutiny. It had taken replays to see off both Blackburn Rovers and Brighton and Hove Albion already this season. A supercharged meeting with Everton in the Fifth Round was make or break.

The Toffees had endured a rough campaign themselves. Two wins from their first eleven games had seen Colin Harvey depart the dugout, and the sensational return of Howard Kendall. With a far weaker squad than those he won the First Division title with, however, it took time to begin grinding out results. Four wins on the bounce over Christmas and New Year had seen Everton shoot up the table and out of trouble, and wins over Charlton Athletic and Woking gave them a chance to go deep into the cup. A trip to Anfield would hardly have been high on their wishlist, particularly after losing 3-1 in the league just a fortnight earlier.

The first game was something of a non-event. Tense, tight and scrappy, only a half-hearted penalty claim from the visitors gave the match any colour. The replay couldn’t have been more different. Daliglish named six recognised defenders in his starting line-up, though the presence of Peter Beardsley was welcomed by those who had travelled across Stanley Park, making his first start for two months. Opting for brawn, Kendall paired Mike Newell with Graeme Sharp. If Everton couldn’t out-football their neighbours, they could at least try out-jumping them. The opening exchanges were frenetic. Beardsley clearly felt he had a point to prove, and tested Neville Southall in the Everton goal within seconds of kick-off. Immediately, the hosts went up the other end, and John Ebbrell fired wide from Sharp’s knock-down. What seems most remarkable about this match is that it took until eight minutes before half-time for the first goal. Kevin Ratcliffe, so long the embodiment of a cool head in Everton’s defence, dallied on the ball, losing out to Ian Rush. Arcing his effort beyond the grasp of Southall, Andy Hinchcliffe scuttled back to clear off the line, only for Beardsley to follow up and slam home the rebound.

Everton emerged from the break with a renewed sense of purpose, Kendall having introduced the tenacious Stuart McCall for Ray Atteveld. Within sixty seconds of the restart, the hosts were level. Pat Nevin and Ebbrell took it in turns to launch balls into the Liverpool box, and the latter found the head of Sharp who planted it past Bruce Grobbelaar. An even game swung back the way of the league leaders twenty minutes from time. Beardsley, again, asked questions of his manager’s judgement, picking the ball up thirty yards out, showing Everton’s backline that famous shuffle before launching a shot into the top corner.

Rather than settle the tie, the goal sparked six minutes of madness. Sharp scored his second just two minutes later, the product of more agricultural play from Kendall’s team, as Newell nodded on Southall’s seventy yard punt, and Steve Nicol poked the ball past his own goalkeeper and into the path of the Everton striker. Parity wouldn’t last long, however. Four minutes later, Jan Molby received a short corner and plonked the ball onto the head of Ian Rush – it was always Ian Rush – who nodded past a statuesque Southall. Three-two, and surely Everton were done.

Rush’s goal dampened the Goodison atmosphere somewhat, as John Barnes and Beardsley ran the ball into the corners in a bid to play out time. A last throw of the dice, Kendall threw on Tony Cottee in place of Nevin, switching to three up front. Though not suited to the long-ball game that Everton had put their faith in, Cottee could buzz around Liverpool’s backline and make a nuisance of himself. With a minute to go, Southall punted it forward again, and again Barry Venison and David Burrows treated it like a live grenade, before Cottee diverted into the bottom corner. Extra-time beckoned.

Everton legs began to tire as the clock ticked beyond 100 minutes. Liverpool continued to threaten, always looking the more likely to score, but it took a screamer from Barnes to re-take the lead. Receiving the ball on the corner of the box, the #10 took one look before thundering a curling effort into the top corner. Surely now the tie was settled. With six minutes left, Liverpool shot themselves in the foot again. Jan Molby, battling for the ball in midfield, plays a pass back into his own penalty area, which Glenn Hysen leaves for Grobbelaar. Cottee, sniffing out a chance, pounces on the error and fires past the stranded keeper. After 210 minutes of football, the tie would need to be decided by another replay.

The two sides would meet at Goodison Park again seven days later, but not before Liverpool were shaken by the news that Kenny Dalglish had resigned. It had been written on the manager’s face throughout the game. Slumped against the dugout, disconnected from the madness playing out in front of him, Dalglish hadn’t made a substitution the whole game. He was elsewhere. Consumed by guilt and grief. No longer able to commit himself fully to the success of Liverpool Football Club. He would later reveal that, after Barnes’ goal put the Reds 4-3 in front, he knew a change needed to be made to shore up the defence, but something – overwhelming pressure, mental exhaustion – stopped him. He had to get away.

Everton went on to win the second replay 1-0 thanks to a Dave Watson goal, but would be knocked out in the next round at West Ham. Liverpool, under Ronnie Moran and Graeme Souness, were unable to keep pace with Arsenal and finished second in the league. They haven’t won a title since. In it’s own right, the FA Cup Fifth Round replay between Everton and Liverpool is considered one of the great cup ties and one of the most dramatic Merseyside derbies. Beyond some great goals and kamikaze defending however, it also provides a watershed moment for English football. The final nail in Liverpool’s era of dominance.


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