You could tell when Graeme Souness was angry. He didn’t shout and scream. He didn’t punch the air in frustration.
It was the moustache that gave it away. Whilst he may have appeared a picture of quiet calm, his facial hair bristled furiously, much like Tom Selleck when he found out Magnum PI wasn’t getting another season.
Souness had every reason to be furious. Liverpool had produced many a shambolic performance under his leadership, but this was a new low. Thirty minutes in at St. James’ Park, three-nil down and utterly embarrassed by Kevin Keegan’s newly-promoted side.
He puffed his cheeks in the dugout. What was the point? The eleven men in red were utterly appalling.
And the only person to blame was himself.
In Souness’ first season in charge, characterised by bumbled signings and baffling tactics, Liverpool tumbled to sixth, their worst league showing since 1965. He’d followed that up with an identical showing the following year. He’d asked for time to steady the tide. Yet everything he did seemed to plot a course directly for the iceberg.
Liverpool were a sinking ship. You could picture Souness on the deck of the Titanic, staring defiantly at the fast-approaching land mass and refusing to blink. Meanwhile, Neil Ruddock emptied the pantry and Torben Piechnik debated whether to use the grand piano as a lifeboat.
He’d done well to make it this far. September, when Liverpool lost all four of their Premier League outings, looked like it might be his last stand.
It took the intervention of a young Robbie Fowler, promoted to the first team in a desperate roll of the dice, to bring him back from the brink. Liverpool secured precious back-to-back victories. The Scot clung on to his job.
In normal circumstances, there was always the hope that new signings could reinvigorate the team. But Souness’ record in the transfer market on Merseyside was awful. This was the man who’d brought Istvan Kostma to Anfield. With those sort of credentials, you’d feel safer with Robert Maxwell handling your personal fortune.
So the Souness team that arrived at St. James’ Park was as good as it was going to get for now. And it was the usual hot-potch of players out of form, out of position and in some cases, out of their depth. Working out who was playing where was like playing a game a game of Guess Who? “Is he prone to giving the ball away? Playing the attacker onside? I’ll go for Steve Harkness.”
The Liverpool board must have looked across to the home dugout, where another former legend was performing miracles, and wondered how they’d made such a catastrophic decision.
In the space of two seasons, Kevin Keegan had taken Newcastle from the brink of relegation to the third tier back into top-fight football.
He’d been helped by the deep pockets of Sir John Hall and his own ruthless determination for success. No sooner had Newcastle celebrated the First Division title, than Keegan began plotting for life in the Premier League. He discarded the mainstays of the promotion-winning side without hesitation. When you’re building a legacy, there’s no place for loyalty. David Kelly and Gavin Peacock were both turfed out of Tyneside.
The major incoming transfer was veteran striker Peter Beardsley. Keegan had played his final season at Newcastle alongside Beardsley a decade earlier. And when he heard that Howard Kendall was willing to let him leave Goodison, up there with Brett Angell as one of Everton’s most nonsensical transfer decisions, he didn’t hesitate.
Beardsley was a footballing paradox. He wore the permanent look of a man struggling with the five-letter words on Bullseye. Yet on the pitch he was a genius, blessed with a peripheral vision that few could match. In the game, they call it the ability to “play around the corner”, which was what my mum used to tell me when she wanted me out of the kitchen. In any case, the £1.5m fee would prove to be one of the bargains of the season.
Alongside him was the raw pace of Andy Cole, a late-season signing from Bristol City whose 12 goals in 11 starts had inspired the Geordies’ march towards the top flight. The two hit it off immediately.
Newcastle’s form had been steady. Winning some, losing some, they were adjusting to the new level of competition. Often porous at the back – you had more chance of finding clean sheets on Bon Jovi’s tour bus – they relied on their potent attacking force to outscore the opposition.
And it was Beardsley and Cole who would orchestrate Liverpool’s demise here – albeit in bizarre fashion.
Sometimes you wonder what happens behind the closed doors of a football club. As supporters, we don’t see the hours of planning that go into preparing a professional team for the rigours of a Saturday afternoon. We judge from what we see when the whistle goes.
Based on this game, it seemed Souness had scrapped training and let the lads sit down to re-runs of Benny Hill instead.
The most extraordinary thing about Liverpool’s capitulation was their refusal to learn from their mistakes. They conceded three identical goals in the opening thirty minutes, all of them from crosses from the left flank.
Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” Heaven knows what Mankind’s greatest physicist would have made of Liverpool’s back line here. Probably that someone needed to mark the fucking left winger.
It was Rob Lee who provided the first. The Newcastle midfielder scampered down the left, swept the ball across towards a sliding Andy Cole, who nudged home courtesy of his studs.
For the next 10 minutes Newcastle poured forward. On commentary a befuddled Andy Gray tried to make sense of Liverpool’s defensive shape, much like a mum admiring her toddler’s drawings.
They were a mess.
Newcastle looked like scoring at any moment and after quarter of an hour they did just that. This time Beardsley was the architect. Surrounded by four Liverpool men, he threaded a beautiful pass to Scott Sellars, enjoying the wide open spaces on the left wing. Sellars rolled it across the six-yard box and the most tender of touches from Cole was enough to beat Grobbelaar.
The third was the pick of the bunch. Beardsley to Lee, whose first touch split Liverpool’s sad excuse for a defensive line, and Sellars hit Cole for another tap-in. Keegan, wearing a coat so well-insulated that he seemed to be seriously considering hibernation, celebrated emphatically on the touchline.
Infamously, this would later be cited as one of the games cited in Bruce Grobbelaar’s match-fixing court case. Yet the Zimbabwean was the only Liverpool player worthy of any praise on this dismal afternoon. Smart saves from Sellars, Beardsley and Cole in particular, kept the score to some semblance of respectability.
The final whistle brought an end to Souness’ miserable afternoon and his spell at Anfield would come to a close in January after a humbling FA Cup defeat to Bristol City, where Brian Tinnion made himself an overnight success.
For Keegan’s Newcastle, they would finish a sensational third in their debut Premier League season. The 3-0 win against his former club was the statement of intent to the rest of the top flight that the Toon were back in business. And he loved it, just loved it.