The Forgotten Full-Back

John Barnes, John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley dazzled, but Steve Nicol was key to Liverpool's 1987-88 title.
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Out on the left, John Aldridge earned himself a free kick. John Barnes ambled up to take it, tapped it to Peter Beardsley and insouciantly sauntered off down the wing, whistling, twirling a cane. Beardsley held the ball up, threatened to bustle goalwards, drew two men, then clipped a pass forward to Barnes, who suddenly turned on the jets and worked space to cross. Barnes stood one up into the middle, where Aldridge rose to guide a header into the top right. Arsenal nil, Liverpool one. Nine minutes was all it took.

Aldridge, Barnes and Beardsley. The three names synonymous with Liverpool's most freewheeling side. That 1987-88 team was arguably the club's greatest ever, although the lads of 1946-47, 1978-79 and – all hail glorious imperfection – 2013-14 might want a word. Their Barclays League title success is so storied it seems preordained now. Aldridge, Barnes and Beardsley? How could it fail? Well, it didn't, but it wasn't as clear-cut from the outset.

History is written by the winners, but thankfully they can never take their pens to the previews. Before the big kick-off, the Guardian's chief football correspondent David Lacey picked Everton as his champions, with Arsenal most likely to finish as runners up. Easy to find fault now, but Lacey never claimed to be a soothsayer and pulling at threads three decades on is poor form. In any case, his analysis was sound. Everton had cruised to their ninth league title the previous season under Howard Kendall, their second in three years, and there was no reason to suspect anything other than continued success under new boss Colin Harvey, who had been promoted from the backroom staff in a manner which hadn't done their neighbours too much harm in recent times.

Arsenal meanwhile were on the up under a fresh-faced George Graham. Their new manager was quietly and quickly building a team as sharp, if not quite as clean, as his immaculately tailored blazer. They'd led the league for a brief period, then won the Littlewoods Cup, their first trophy in eight years and only their second in 16. The Gunners were on the rise again.

Liverpool, by contrast, had been disappointing by their own lofty standards. Arsenal's win in the Littlewoods Cup final had come at their expense, a result which had the vague whiff of a changing of the guard. Liverpool's defeat was the first they'd ever suffered in a match in which Ian Rush had scored, a badly timed end to a remarkable seven-year run. Sure enough, with the precision scheduling of a London bus route, Rush scored the following week at Norwich City and Liverpool lost that one too.  And then at the end of the season, Rush left for Juventus. Jan Mølby, the creative driving force of the 1986 double win, was crocked. The high-profile, record-breaking purchases of Barnes and Beardsley offered hope for the future, but the suspicion was that a more proactive game-plan might take time to implement; Liverpool had deployed their notoriously patient style since the early 1970s, after all, and old habits die hard. If Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge, the New Rush, didn't click quickly, the 16-time champions might be in trouble.

Jack Charlton, writing in the Express, plumped for Tottenham Hotspur, which reads now like a wantonly left-field pick, but again there was method. Spurs had come a healthy third the season before and had just played their part in the most entertaining FA Cup final for decades, plus a couple of rip-roaring Littlewoods Cup semis with Arsenal. David Pleat's side were the prettiest in the country, and while they'd lost Glenn Hoddle to Monaco, they gained Johnny Metgod from Nottingham Forest, the Dutch star's signing considered quite a coup. Metgod, argued Big Jack, "hasn't got all Hoddle's deft touches" but "is a better competitor than Hoddle" and would give the side "the bit of steel in midfield that was lacking last year"

If you really wanted left-field, the Observer were on hand airily to wonder aloud whether the Cup winners Coventry City, fresh from landing David Speedie, could be the "surprise packet". Or how about Manchester United who – and this is so easy to forget now – appeared cursed, condemned, hexed, destined to be stuck in 1967, on seven league titles, for ever more. No pundit risked their reputation to back Alex Ferguson's side, so United's box-fresh boss was forced to talk up his charges himself, desperately insisting, "It's wide open!"

Liverpool were quick to slam the door wide shut in poor Fergie's face. Ah well, another time, maybe. And, indeed, in everyone else's. And after nine minutes on the opening day of the season, it was abundantly clear that Aldridge, Beardsley and Barnes weren't hanging around. Arsenal-Liverpool was a match seen that day as a summit meeting between two title contenders, with Arsenal highly fancied to make an early-season statement and perhaps assert themselves as favourites. Anticipation levels were high. Highbury welcomed its biggest crowd in the league for three years. The attendance of 54,703 was 26,000 above Arsenal's average of the previous season. Paul Davis equalised eight minutes after Aldridge's opener, and the two teams huffed and puffed in the summer sun. Then with three minutes to go, Barnes won and took a free-kick near the left-hand corner flag. Arsenal only half cleared and from outside the area the left-back Steve Nicol rocketed a header into the top right corner.

A case could be made that Liverpool won the title right there and then. Nicol's astonishing intervention gave the team an instant sense of destiny, offering belief and momentum they would never lose. It was doubly crucial, as Liverpool wouldn't play again for another fortnight. Home fixtures against Charlton Athletic and Derby County had been postponed when a 100-year-old sewer collapsed under the Kop. Flash floods then compounded the problem, delaying repair and causing a game against Watford to be called off as well. Though how intense the reconstruction work had been in any case was a moot point. The BBC's Football Focus transmitted a lovely shot of the works project: a few blokes milling around on the terrace, a couple of them casually tossing around a plank of wood, another in a hard hat having a bit of a think. Delightfully, one of the engineers has a fag on. Compare and contrast with the recent earnest tweeting of roof trusses being ceremonially craned into place on the new Main Stand at Anfield. Different times. A certain charm's been lost.

Liverpool's home league fixtures were not their only early-season postponements. The club had arranged a friendly against Atlético Madrid, scheduled 10 days after the start of the season (!) but the FA withdrew permission a fortnight before the match was to be played. It turned out Everton were also due in the Spanish capital, the English champs slated to play a prestigious friendly 24 hours later with their Spanish counterparts Real Madrid. The idea of four sets of rival supporters all milling about Madrid at once was too much to bear, especially during an era in which hooliganism was still a very real threat, and so Liverpool were ordered to do one. How Everton must have wished their match had also been nixed. Real beat Harvey's side 6-1, Emilio Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez scoring two apiece, Paul Power with the consolation for the Toffees. We'll just take the opportunity to run through those Bernabéu goal scorers again: Emilio Butragueño, Hugo Sánchez, Paul Power.

So back in Blighty, Aldridge, Barnes and Beardsley were the poster boys as Liverpool stormed to the title. The landmarks of the campaign are well known. Barnes sashaying straight through the middle of surprise early leaders QPR, an elegant slalom that won the hearts of the Kop. Barnes springing Everton's offside trap with a backheel, Beardsley lashing into the roof of the net with venom. Steve McMahon's absurd touchline gather against Arsenal, disappearing into the crowd then returning to produce arguably English football's first recognised assist: still unsurpassed. The Tom-Finney-approved 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest. And of course the FA Cup final defeat to Wimbledon, but hey, nothing in this world is perfect.

Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge scored the lion's share of the goals, so raced off with the lion's share of the plaudits. And yet the man who enabled it all was Steve Nicol. The full-back would win the hacks' version of player of the year in 1989, but this was surely his most influential season. His singular header against Arsenal gave a team in its infancy some instant momentum, and he kept it going as the new boys got to know each other and worked into their groove. It was his spectacular antics - all from full-back, though this Liverpool boasted a dynamism and interchangeability that'd allow him to spend half of his time as an ersatz winger - which gave the team an instant sense of wonder. Liverpool were capable of coming at you from all angles. The opposition, thus spooked, spent the entire season on the back foot. It was Nicol's early fearless foraging that planted the seed. A masterstroke in rebranding.

Nicol scored six goals in New Liverpool's first seven games of the season. That winner against Arsenal. Two goals from left-back at Coventry City. A driven half-volley hit on the turn at Blackburn in the League Cup. But the great virtuoso performance came at Newcastle, live during Sunday lunch on BBC1. It was a display which announced New Liverpool's brilliance to the entire nation. Nicol – from right-back this time – was single-handedly responsible for making sure everyone got the message.

Beardsley, making an immediate return to his alma mater, sent Barnes away down the right. Barnes looked for Aldridge in the middle. John Anderson got in ahead of Aldridge, but could only cushion the ball back to Nicol, on the edge of the area. He calmly sidefooted into the bottom corner. He was clearly in the mood as well because not long after he was sprung clear by a high Ronnie Whelan diagonal ball from the left. On the penalty spot, he guided a looping header towards the top left corner. Gary Kelly in the Newcastle goal pawed it out brilliantly. From the resulting corner kick, Nicol had a good claim for a penalty turned down as he was bundled over by Kelly while the pair chased a loose ball.

The incident wouldn't be Nicol's only grounds for official complaint. His next act was a moment of delicate genius, a goal that, were it scored today, would be all over social media, with at least one or two rash comparisons made by excitable teenagers to Lionel Messi. With New Liverpool now 2-0 up – Aldridge had made it eight goals in eight starts – it was time to stroke the ball around in an expansive style previously never been associated with the club, even in their European pomp. Barnes strode down the middle, drawing Anderson forward and infield. He slipped the ball right to Nicol, who cut inside. Anderson chased back, but Nicol dropped a shoulder as he entered the box from the side, tapping the ball to his left. Anderson skittered away on the seat of his pants, foot down as he drove the engine of the Puskás-Wright Fire Service. Nicol, now in space, 12 yards out, floated an exquisitely placed effort over Kelly. It was one of the great goals.

Correction: it was one of the great disallowed goals. Aldridge had been standing in the middle, minding his own business, an inch or two offside. By the letter of the laws of the day, it was a correct decision. By the spirit of the game, it was a dreadful shame. Nicol responded by screaming "fuck" twice and throwing in a "prick" for good measure. On the bench, Dalglish rasped in exasperation, after a perfectly timed Pinteresque beat: "Aw, fuckin' hell!" Nobody on the BBC bothered to apologise for Dalglish's televised Sunday sermon, which is exactly as things should be. We're all adults. And your kids swear more than us.

Nicol didn't let the disappointment take the wind out of his sails. He tapped home an unselfish Beardsley cross from the left three minutes after the start of the second half – the move instigated by some Beckenbaueresque work coming out from the back by Mark Lawrenson – and finally the piece de resistance that'd have to do seeing as the chip hadn't stood. Aldridge released Nicol down the right with a clever reverse pass, allowing the Scotland international to draw the keeper and float another chip home. A hat-trick from full-back. This was New Liverpool. Watch out.

The prevailing wisdom suggests the subsequent, late-season, five-goal tonking of Forest as the signature match of this side. But perhaps Nicol's Game at Newcastle might actually be the one. The Forest procession came about when the league was done and dusted, the peace accords were being signed and everyone already knew how good New Liverpool were. Forest was the artistic high point of what would prove a four-season experiment at Anfield with total-football stylings – Kenny Dalglish, painted as a tactical eejit nowadays, gets little to no credit for the fluidity and intelligence of his team's play during this period – but Nicol's Game was the first rumbling that something special was happening. It set the tone for one of the most famous campaigns in English football history. Epochal at the time – and now weirdly undervalued.

On the same day, Ian Rush was making his debut for Juve. They lost 1-0 at Empoli, Johnny Ekström scoring the only goal. Rush touched the ball 17 times.

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