Charity Shield, Wembley, 8th August 1992
Life should have been good for the two teams who strode out at Wembley in August 1992 to bring the curtain up on the glitzy new world of the Premier League. Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds Utd were preparing to defend a title won in thrilling, improbable fashion, having only been promoted back to the top tier three seasons prior. Liverpool had endured a rocky 1991/92, finishing a disappointing sixth, but had nevertheless managed to pick up the silverware they then still took for granted in lifting the then-prestigious FA Cup.
Yet both clubs stood on the precipice of disastrous seasons. The champions would finish 17th in 1992/93, just two points off the relegation zone, their safety not confirmed until the league’s penultimate weekend. Liverpool meanwhile, were again forced to settle for sixth – having been 15th (and just three points away from the drop zone themselves) as late as March.
The game itself was a riotous hybrid of The Matrix meets the Marx Brothers – quality, cutting-edge finishing intermingled with screwball defending. It also featured one of Eric Cantona’s last great performances in a Leeds shirt.
The first goal arrived after 25 minutes. Rod Wallace’s first touch was abysmal, but his pace – and the unfathomable amount of space he was afforded as he raced down the left-hand channel – saw him effectively latch onto his own through ball. Moving into the box, the striker unselfishly squared for Eric Cantona, who ignored the three Liverpool defenders hastily converging on him to sweep the ball powerfully and precisely into the net.
10 minutes later, parity had been restored, thanks to an Ian Rush far post header following Ronnie Rosenthal’s cross from the left byline. It was a goal more notable for Lee Chapman’s bewildered attempt at defending, the Leeds number nine looking like a man recovering from amnesia as he stood in his own six yard box, dimly aware of something he would usually do in this situation. He tracked the ball, launched himself towards the ball, just about remembered in time that he wasn’t supposed to head it in, but apparently forgot altogether that he was supposed to be marking Rush.
Leeds regained the advantage just before half time when they were awarded a free kick that can only be described as ‘generous’ after Wallace went down in the general vicinity of Mark Wright. Some training ground jiggery pokery ensued before Tony Dorigo leathered a shot into the wall that cannoned past Bruce Grobbelaar off Rosenthal’s backside. Still, it’s not like the Israeli’s season would get any worse…
Shortly after the hour mark, Mark Everton Walters unleashed a powerful effort from range that was blocked but nevertheless caught John Lukic in the Leeds goal off guard, allowing Dean Saunders to nip in and slam home Liverpool’s second equaliser. 2-2 was how it stayed until the last 15 minutes, when Leeds scored perhaps the afternoon’s best goal. Dorigo floated in another free kick to Cantona in the box, who headed on to Wallace. When the ball came back to him, he showed marvellous technique in sweetly hammering the ball into the bottom corner with the outside of his boot.
The decisive goal came with four minutes remaining. Substitute Gordon Strachan’s whipped in ball from the right evaded everyone and looked to be heading into touch. But while the Liverpool defence stopped, Wallace kept going, and when the ball instead struck the corner flag and stayed in he was again left with bags of room to exploit. Now it has his turn to cross, only for Grobbelaar to spectacularly miss the ball, leaving Cantona to complete his hat trick by heading into an empty net.
There was still time for the game’s piéce de resistance. A Liverpool outswinging corner found Wright, whose shot on goal was surely heading in but for the presence on the line of good, reliable old Strachan. But the wee man got himself into a right mess. Attempting to control the ball first with his left foot, then his right, he succeeded only in effectively okey-cokeying the ball through his legs and over the line. It was a moment of purest comedy that proved so popular with Liverpool fans that Djimi Traore paid homage to it 13 years later.
So what went wrong from here for two top teams who’d put on such a show?
Conventional wisdom seems to point at the decision to sell Cantona to bitter rivals Manchester Utd in November as the catalyst for Leeds’ downfall, but it was arguably not quite the unfathomable brainfart at the time that history now paints it as. Cantona’s impact in Yorkshire was not actually as great as many remember, and in his eight months at Leeds he only started 10 games. He did not display his magnificent talent at Elland Road with anything like the consistency he would under Sir Alex Ferguson, and the no-nonsense, tactically inflexible Wilkinson was no Ferguson, incapable and at times unwilling to accommodate the Frenchman in his rigid 4-4-2. The maverick’s languid style and unhappiness at ‘Sgt Wilko’’s rigorous, fitness-based training sessions brought him into conflict with his manager and with harder working, less talented team mates. With an unsettled Cantona causing unrest, perhaps Wilkinson’s decision to sell him to Ferguson (a conversation that famously started with Leeds enquiring about Denis Irwin) made a certain amount of sense. Although Cantona’s replacement Frank Strandli (despite a debut goal) – ultimately proved a chubby disappointment, the team hardly struggled for goals, Chapman ably assisted by perhaps the best midfield in the league – Speed, Strachan, McAllister and (don’t laugh) Batty.
What got Leeds into trouble was their away record. This was the season when the backpass rule was introduced, and The Whites’ ageing back line struggled with it more than most; not so much at home, where the team lost just once, but away, when the defence came under more pressure, there was a real problem, and only four teams conceded more. Lukic – who made his debut in 1978 – was particularly affected, making several costly gaffes. Leeds didn’t pick up a single win on their travels all season, although having to perform in this ceefax vomit monstrosity, perhaps it was a fate they were doomed to from the off.
Souness’ problem was that he appeared not to learn from the previous season’s mistakes, continuing to dismantle an ageing but still strong squad with indecent haste. Perhaps the cup win masked the impact of losing the likes of Peter Beardsley and Steve McMahon, as the following season saw him ship out players such as Barry Venison and, bizarrely, Ray Houghton, fresh off a season that had seen him make the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. The likes of Grobbelaar and even Rush would find themselves marginalised at various points throughout the season.
This wouldn’t have necessarily proven so damaging had Souness found suitable replacements, but his transfer business at Anfield was the stuff of infamy. That season, the considerable sum of £2.3m was spent to bring in Paul Stewart from Spurs, but the industrious, goal-scoring midfielder/forward they were expecting never materialised, in his place a chunky, injury-prone sloth who managed just one goal in 32 appearances. Much-hyped Next Big Thing David James arrived from Watford to claim the number one shirt, but this was an incredible amount of pressure to pile on a young goalkeeper, and an uncertain start saw the first ‘Calamity James’ headlines arrive. Then there was Torben Piechnik, who arrived for £500,000 from FC Copenhagen following a summer of European Championship triumph. On paper it was a savvy signing and the Dane was a tryer, but he was just two slow for the pace of the English game.
To his credit, Souness did put a lot of faith in youth, and under him Steve McManaman’s development continued, while Jamie Redknapp emerged and Robbie Fowler’s name would appear in matchday squads before the season was out. The likes of Don Hutchison, Nicky Tanner and Steve ‘rock with no eyes’ Harkness would prove less successful however.
The mess he made of his transfer dealings was perhaps embodied by Dean Saunders. Souness had broken the British transfer record to bring Saunders to Anfield the previous season. Yet the Welshman’s game was based on pace and counter-attacking; he wasn’t suited to Liverpool’s passing game and was uncomfortable having the ball played to feet. He nevertheless managed a very decent 23 goals in all competitions in his first season, only for his manager to sell him weeks into the following campaign to raise money to sign Piechnik. Saunders left complaining of being “just another cog in the Anfield machine” and went to Villa (for around half a million less than the £2.9m Liverpool had paid). He scored twice on his debut…against Liverpool. He, Houghton and Steve Staunton, another player Souness had jettisoned, formed the spine of a Villa side that engaged Man Utd in a thrilling title race. Liverpool meanwhile, got off to their worst start for 28 years.
Souness had already erased much of supporters’ goodwill in April 1992 after giving an interview to The Sun following his heart bypass surgery – published, with the paper’s customary sensitivity, on the third anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy. Bad football results are trivial in comparison, and Souness would later admit that he should have resigned immediately.
Yet defeats to Wimbledon (twice), Coventry (5-1), Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Sheffield Utd, among others, only cranked up the pressure on him further. The Reds had also exited the all cups by February. They survived a potential League Cup humiliation to fourth tier Chesterfield (who led 3-0 at Anfield before being pegged back to 4-4) before losing to Crystal Palace, while Bolton, one league below The Reds in the pyramid, knocked them out of the FA Cup. Spartak Moscow ended their European hopes.
The manager was ultimately forced to bring back the senior players he’d tried to phase out. Grobbelaar was recalled from the indignity of a loan at third-tier Stoke. Rush returned and hit a goal-laden run of form, firing 9 in 11 games to help drag Liverpool up the table in the final two months. It was a fine end to the season, but overall it was a campaign that marked beginning of the end for Souness.
While Liverpool and Leeds floundered, the players they’d rid themselves of (Cantona, Houghton, Saunders) battled for the Premier League without them. Liverpool wouldn’t contest another Charity Shield for nine years. Leeds haven’t since.