(Reuters) - Liverpool won the last of their 18 First Division titles in the 1989-90 season but the decline of an ageing team had already started in the wake of the Hillsborough stadium disaster.
There was a sense of inevitability about the team’s empire crumbling when the new campaign started, as the Anfield club’s former Scotland defender Steve Nicol recalled.
“The last time we won the league, we were in decline from the team the year before. There’s no way we played half as well or with the same passion or commitment,” Nicol, who played for the Reds from 1981-95, wrote in his autobiography, “Five League Titles and a Packet of Crisps”.
“There’s just no way we were as good that year — the last time we won the league — compared to the year before. That’s when (the decline) started.”
Nicol said he was badly shaken by the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 people died and 766 were injured during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in Sheffield.
Things would not be the same for the Reds after the tragedy. Players were shaken, and manager Kenny Dalglish would eventually leave, self-admittedly “unwell and under strain”.
“Three years of being unable to focus properly,” said Nicol. “Three years of playing in a bubble. Three years on autopilot. It was hard to realise that was the case at the time. Impossible, in fact.
“Trying, and failing, to deal with the aftermath was obviously having an effect but no-one knew how to properly cope with it.”
Having lost the title in dramatic fashion to Arsenal the previous season, Liverpool started the 1989-90 season with an 11-match unbeaten run.
But their edge was going and the deterioration was epitomised by the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace when they lost 4-3 in extra time after leading 1-0 and 3-2, with all the London side’s goals coming from set pieces.
It was suggested that Liverpool were not ready for the shift which was about to happen in English football with the creation of the Premier League as clubs took advantage of lucrative television rights deals and soaring ticket prices.
“You can take away (the kids’) ability to support their local team and the best way to do that, of course, is to up the price,” Liverpool-born screenwriter Jimmy McGovern wrote.
“That’s been happening ever since the Football Association stupidly allowed the Premier League to break away from the Football League.
“But the bourgeoisification of football is in no way to blame for the decline of Liverpool Football Club. No, our decline began a little earlier — at Hillsborough in 1989.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Michael Perry