Ronnie Rosenthal played an implausibly important role in Liverpool’s last title success
It was the last goal that Liverpool scored in a championship-winning season. It came in the final game of 1989-90 at Coventry, in a 6-1 victory. 25 years ago. A star-studded team collected its 18th and last title with an unlikely hero. Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s player-manager that season, thinks credit and thanks belong to one of the team’s forgotten men. “Without him we wouldn’t have won it,” he told me. “He was fast, he scored goals and he was different. He justified the gamble on him 100%. He was vital in us winning the championship. He changed games, scored vital goals and disrupted the opponents. When he was brought on during games it galvanised the fans and they pushed the team forward.”
That player was the Israeli striker Ronnie Rosenthal. He played only eight games (three as a sub) and scored seven goals, but teammates and the two managers involved in the championship race believe he was the key player when weary Liverpool needed something special.
Five months earlier, Rosenthal, then 26, was thrown out of Standard Liège and was desperately looking for a new club. Just when his career looked like it had reached a dead end, he was asked to join the most famous club in the world and for a brief spell he couldn’t do wrong.
It was a difficult season after the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool, club and city, were just adjusting to life after the deaths of 95 fans (another fan died later of his injuries in 1993) during the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forrest the previous season. The powerhouse of English football had to deal with the shock, pain and anger and, although they were leading the league, they were running out of energy. “Of course Hillsborough affected the team,” said Graham Taylor, the manager of Aston Villa, Liverpool’s main title rivals that season. “How could it not affect them?” How do you still play football as if it is much bigger than life and death when you’ve just learnt in the most horrific way that it is not?
After weeks of funerals, bereavement and the loss of the championship, Liverpool was traumatised. “You keep on going and try to play but it never really leaves you,” said John Aldridge. “It’s in the background, even today. I guess it did have an effect on my career.”
“There are some players that were affected by the disaster,” said Bruce Grobbelaar, who had heard fans appealing to him to save their lives. “Some were less affected. Some grew because of it and some didn’t, some became withdrawn and didn’t play in the same way as before. Something in their play became frightened whereas before they’d played in a creative and assured manner.”
“Before Hillsborough, I had always tried to keep things in perspective but what happened on the Leppings Lane terraces made me question so much in my life,” John Barnes said in his autobiography. “When I struggled to get in the team at Liverpool and then Newcastle United, I said to myself, ‘Does it really matter? I’m alive, my family is alive. That is all that matters.’ Hillsborough crystallised my priorities. Football lost its obsessive significance, it was not the be all and end all… Football is a game, a glorious pursuit, but how can it be more important than life itself?”
The players had also to cope with losing the championship to Arsenal in the final minute of the previous season, an event that in any other season probably would have been described as traumatic. 1989-90 was tough.
Ronnie Rosenthal grew up next to Haifa’s Kiryat Eliezer Stadium and became a Maccabi Haifa star thanks to his pace and penetrating runs, winning a historic first championship with the club in 1985. He moved to Club Brugge in 1986, won the championship in 1988 but was sold to Standard Liège that summer. His debut season was his best in Belgium with 14 league goals and six more in the cup. He was about to complete a dream move to Udinese when the Italian club back-tracked after the local ultras made it clear they wouldn’t have a Jewish player in the team. Rosenthal not only had to face that disappointment but also learned that he wasn’t part of the new Liège manager’s plans. In December 1989 he was told to find a new team.
Pini Zahavi, an Israeli journalist-turned-agent who had been behind the deal that took the Israeli defender Avi Cohen to Liverpool in 1979, came to his rescue. It took Israeli chutzpah and English weather to bring him to the attention of Liverpool. “From an early age I was mad on English football,” said Zahavi. “I used to go to England and watch football. I was a Liverpool supporter and one year I went to see the Christmas fixtures and on the way back home got stuck at the airport due to the weather. The airline took us to a hotel in central London until the weather improved and there I saw Peter Robinson, Liverpool’s secretary. I approached him and said that there was a fantastic player in Israel that I thought could help the team.”
Luckily for Zahavi, Bob Paisley was looking a defender to challenge Alan Hansen. Zahavi, still working as a journalist, armed with personal charm and boxes of the finest Jaffa oranges, started networking in the close world of English football. “Avi’s deal opened the doors for me,” he said, and by the late eighties he was close to many managers in the English League.
Rosenthal, who was close to signing for the Spanish club Espanyol, left a good impression with Luton Town but the first division club didn’t have the money to buy him. He also took part in a training match between Hibernian and Rangers but neither was willing to take a gamble on the out-of-work striker. In March, though, just before the transfer window shut, Rosenthal received a call from Zahavi telling him come to Liverpool to take part in training.
Liverpool were exhausted, physically and mentally. In November, Liverpool lost a 23-game unbeaten run at home to Coventry City, then went down to Queens Park Rangers before an emotional return to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday.
The fans and captains of the two sides laid flowers and scarves on the empty Leppings Lane terrace before Liverpool lost 2-0. “It was hard,” Dalglish said. “The sight of the empty stand with the scarves and flowers was ghastly. We didn’t have a chance of winning and I wasn’t angry with the fans. It was a burden coming back to that stadium.”
To add to the fatigue, the team made it to the FA Cup semi-final and Dalglish was looking for some fresh legs to ease the load on his squad. He called Zahavi, an agent and a friend, and told him that he was looking for a fast, physical player, a fighter. “When I heard that I immediately offered Ronnie to him,” said Zahavi. “I knew he was looking for a team and I thought that he was the right player for Kenny. He left an excellent impression during the training session. He was fresh and lively while they were totally knackered.”
Rosenthal wasn’t influenced by the psychological difficulties that hampered other Liverpool players but he could relate to them. In his last game in Israel, Maccabi Haifa lost the championship to Hapoel Tel Aviv from a goal scored in the 89th minute. A year later, Maccabi’s outstanding young talent and a close friend of Rosenthal, the goalkeeper Avi Ran, was killed in a ski jet accident on the Sea of Galilee during the summer break. The team didn’t come to terms with the tragedy for the whole season. Still, Rosenthal was unaware of the turmoil engulfing the city he came to play for. “I had mad motivation,” said Rosenthal. “I was desperate to succeed after not playing for three months.”
Rosenthal played for Liverpool’s reserves three times and scored in each game. That was enough to convince Dalglish. Rosenthal was signed on loan until the end of the season. His first league game was on 31 March 1990, the 30th match of the season, against Southampton at Anfield. Liverpool had lost their previous game against Spurs and Dalglish wanted to rattle some players he felt hadn’t contributed enough. Liverpool led from a Barnes goal, but a former Liverpool hero, Jimmy Case, scored and provided an assist for another as Southampton took a 2-1 lead. With 20 minutes to go, Rosenthal was given his debut, coming on to replace Steve McMahon. His first action in the red strip was a typical run that led to a corner from which an own goal was scored. Ian Rush added a winner seven minutes from time.
Three days later, Liverpool played again at Anfield, producing a laboured performance but beating Wimbledon 2-1. Rosenthal didn’t take part in the game or the next one – the semi-final against Crystal Palace. Liverpool had beaten Palace 9-0 and 2-0 in the league, but despite twice taking the lead were beaten 4-3 after extra-time.
The next league game was at Selhurst Park against Charlton Athletic, who were fighting desperately against relegation. Dalglish had been irritated by Peter Beardsley’s performance in the Cup defeat so gave Rosenthal his debut in his place. “An hour before the game he told me that I would be in the starting eleven,” said Rosenthal. “I was hoping to be a sub at the most, I never thought that I would start and when he told me that, it was like a cold shower. I told myself this is my chance and I just wanted to show myself and justify the decision.”
“It was a relief to see the team sheet and to find out that Beardsley was not there,” said Lenny Lawrence, the Charlton manager, “Instead they started with somebody we didn’t know. The relief turned very quickly into sheer horror. They set Ronnie on us and he tormented us that day.”
After 26 minutes, Grobbelaar kicked the ball deep into Charlton’s half. Barnes headed the ball toward Rosenthal, who left behind two defenders and from a tight angle scored his first goal for Liverpool. It was a goal based in excellent team work and personal decisiveness with a great touch. Steve Staunton shouted at him, “You are fucking magic.” More was to follow.
In the 51st minute, Staunton found Rosenthal who broke into the box and hammered the ball into the top left corner. Yet that wasn’t his best goal that night. Thirteen minutes later the ball was played into Charlton’s 18-yard box. Rosenthal, with a delicate touch, headed the ball towards Barnes who advanced down the flank and crossed the ball back to Rosenthal who headed it, this time emphatically, to complete his perfect hat-trick - right foot, left foot, header. Barnes added a fourth goal and Rosenthal was surprised to have the match ball given to him. The ball, adorned with the players’ autographs is displayed in Rosenthal’s study at his London home amongst framed shirts from each team he played for. “You’re worth a million now,” wrote McMahon but Rosenthal’s impact was worth even more. “He helped us a lot to get over the defeat to Crystal Palace,” said Dalglish.
“Suddenly I felt a part of the team,” Rosenthal said. “Until the Charlton game there was some distance but then the communication became much warmer. On the bus there were celebrations and Dalglish told me to use the phone on the bus and to call anybody I knew and tell them about this match. I’m not the emotional type. I am calm most of the time but I couldn’t stay calm after this kind of match. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Rosenthal was the most unemotional player to play in the most emotional team in England in one of its most emotional times. “Ronnie is a different type from me,” said Lior Rosenthal, Ronnie’s younger brother and a former footballer himself. “He doesn’t get too emotional and he can adjust very fast. When he sets targets he will reach them even if he has to overcome many obstacles.”
Three days later Liverpool played against Nottingham Forest, the day before the first anniversary of Hillsborough. 95 red balloons were released before the game and the players wore black armbands. Rosenthal started and ten minutes into the game scored again with a close-range volley from a Barnes pass. McMahon added another in the 15th minute but Liverpool then lost their rhythm. It was the whole season in a nutshell, some bursts of good football but none of the energy and the overwhelming determination that had made Liverpool such great team in the past. Forest got back into the game and scored twice to earn a point. “I’m sure Ronnie can contribute more than he did today,” said Dalglish after the game: Rosenthal was expected to do things by then.
Liverpool led the league by one point from Aston Villa and with a game in hand. The next game was a midweek trip Highbury, where a win would have put Arsenal back in contention. This time Rosenthal was left on the bench. “Only in a team like Liverpool can you score four goals in two games and get dropped,” he thought. It was the return of the title decider and for an hour Arsenal played like champions, taking the lead through Paul Merson. Rosenthal was brought on in the 65th minute.
Rosenthal turned the game on its head. A foul on him a few minutes after his introduction earned Tony Adams a booking and Liverpool took control of the game. He led the attack with decisive runs and four minutes from the end found Steve Nicol with a great cross. Nicol passed the ball to Barnes who scored the equaliser. The game ended with a 1-1 draw that ended Arsenal’s hopes of retaining the title. Rosenthal played only a quarter of the game but was chosen as man of the match. “There’s no doubt that Rosenthal’s introduction has lifted Liverpool’s game and eventually led to the equaliser,” said Ron Atkinson, the television pundit.
“Ronnie Rosenthal,” said the report in The Times, “who has made huge impact since his arrival to Liverpool, brought them closer to the championship. Although John Barnes scored the goal, the Israeli international was the one responsible for the turnaround in the game… for an hour, Arsenal were more lively, coherent and dangerous than Liverpool but Rosenthal’s entry brought breathtaking speed to a match that lacked it until then.”
Rosenthal was the star of the match programme of the next home game, against Chelsea. On the pitch he scored his first goal in front of the Kop and helped Rush score the fourth in a 4-1 win. In Israel the papers were following closely and in Belgium and Italy some writers wondered about the reasoning behind Standard’s and Udinese’s decisions regarding the new star.
Liverpool beat QPR 2-1 in their third-last game of the season which, with Villa drawing 3-3 at home against Norwich, was enough to secure their 18th title. “Every championship is sweet but to win it in England with Liverpool was the peak of my career,” Rosenthal said. “Especially after what I went through that year. I felt like I’d earned the right to enjoy it.”
“Ronnie Rosenthal had a big effect, giving Liverpool a kick in the backside,” said Graham Taylor. “He moved them on all of a sudden. There we were, chasing the championship, looking as good if not better than Liverpool on many occasions but not in one respect, having the experienced players to put it on. I saw this fella, and at that time my view was that I pretty well knew every footballer in the world – who was this Rosenthal? For that short period of time towards the end of the season he actually lifted our major rivals to the title. So the name Ronnie Rosenthal went into my brain. He gave them an unpredictability which helped them win the championship.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say Ronnie won the league for us that year but Liverpool needed something,” said Barnes. “We were a very good side, the best in England but we got a bit complacent. We needed a spark. We were winning games and sometimes we weren’t playing well, dropping points and we needed a spark, something to ignite us again and that was Ronnie. Doing things that surprised a lot of people. Maybe people weren’t used to Ronnie, they were used to people like Rush, Beardsley, Aldridge. Ronnie was a different type of player, very aggressive running with the ball. Rush was good off the ball, Beardsley was a good dribbler and passer but wasn’t a powerful runner. Aldridge didn’t run with the ball at all; he was just in the right place at the right time. So when we were playing games where they could control that situation, Ronnie was something they couldn’t control. We were going through a bad time and Ronnie came, he was in the right place at the right time, at the right club at the right season, not just for the player but for the club. Not to say that Ronnie was better than Ian Rush or Peter Beardsley but at that particular time he gave us something extra.”
Two games remained. The trophy was presented at the last home game, against Derby County, and Dalglish came on as a substitute in his last professional game. Liverpool won 1-0 with a goal Rosenthal assisted, and he then got the fourth and the sixth in the last game of the season, a 6-1 win at Coventry: the last goal of their last championship.
Few believed that day that Liverpool wouldn’t win another championship for 25 years – but the signs were there. The disaster took its toll for years to come. Dalglish was exhausted and stepped down in the middle of the following season after the 4-4 cup derby against Everton in February 1991. “We were like a ship without its captain,” said the defender Gary Gillespie. The squad, for generations the best in England, deteriorated and new forces, most notably Manchester United, took Liverpool’s place.
Liverpool lost their way as an organisation too. It was a club run like a local shop, a club almost proud not to use its worldwide fame commercially while clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal embraced the Premier League’s new and global brand of football. Liverpool were knocked off their perch in every way.
Today Rosenthal is remembered outside Liverpool mainly for that miss. In a game against Aston Villa at Villa Park on 19 September 1992 he rounded the keeper but managed somehow, in front of an empty net, to hit the crossbar. It was crowned as miss of the century. “Oh come on, he missed from six yards!” said Dalglish. “You can’t be blamed for such a miss. I don’t think he could miss something like that again even if he tried but he still gets credit for what he has done for Liverpool and I’m sure he’s laughing about it today.”
“That moment, it bothered me, a lot,” Rosenthal said. “I was embarrassed and in the dressing room the other players didn’t let me forget but it happens and it will happen. Today it doesn’t bother me at all. Every time there is a big miss I get a call from a journalist but I really don’t have a problem with it.”
Rosenthal had some great games with Liverpool, Spurs and Watford, but never such a sustained spell of top performances, goals and impact. “The amazing thing for me about Ronnie was how good a substitute he was,” says Barnes. “I can’t be a substitute, I’ll always be a bad substitute. I come on and even with half an hour to go I can’t get into the game. That’s what always amazed me about substitutes, they can come on with five minutes to go, score goals, and do something. That’s what always surprised me about Ronnie, you could give him two minutes and he could come on and do something in those two minutes.”
This article appeared on Episode Fifty Eight of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.