It may be coincidental or, more likely, it might be symbolic of how they have been unable to maintain the peerless recruitment that underpinned their success in the 1970s and 1980s, but Liverpool have not won the league title since they last had a great left back in their ranks.
For Steve Nicol, who occupied that position and numerous others with distinction, there is mixture of pride that he is still revered for the role he played and disappointment that the standards he and his team mates set during that era have not been maintained.
Among those who have tried and failed to fill Nicol’s famous size 11 boots over the last 25 years are David Burrows, Steve Staunton, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Christian Ziege, Andrea Dossena, John Arne Riise, Paul Konchesky, Fabio Aurelio, Andrea Dossena and, most recently, Alberto Moreno.
Some fell short spectacularly while others were decent without ever being totally convincing – Aurelio due to brittleness, Riise due to one footedness – but none have come close to matching either the value or quality that Nicol provided.
To this day the position remains a problem for Liverpool with Moreno out of favour and James Milner, a midfielder, having to play there despite admitting he would prefer not to.
“It’s strange that it’s been like that over the years,” Nicol admits. “But the thing is you can look it that way or you can say they were so lucky that not just at left back but everywhere else we just kept going and going. Is that phenomenal that they did that or is it unlucky now that they cannot find a left back? If you think of all of the players that they replaced with someone good or even better it’s amazing but it had to run out some time.
“With Moreno, It depends what he’s being told to do. What’s his actual job? My job was always to defend first and then after that I’d try and help out going forward. When you know what your job is you then have to make sure you’re the best at it by just doing the basics and if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing someone has to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
“If we lost a goal after a cross came from my side the first person Ronnie Moran would go to would be me. It didn’t matter who was supposed to be marking in the middle, he went straight to where it started and would ask how the cross came in. Then it would be about getting closer to the man, making sure the cross didn’t come in, all the basic stuff. Nobody does that any more though, getting to within ten yards seems to be acceptable these days.
“If I’ve got a team and there’s a guy doing something continuously wrong it’s my job to either fix it or get someone else in who can do it. So he’s got to be able to do it as well. If the ball keeps coming from your side and you keep conceding goals eventually you’re going to have to think ‘hold on a minute, is it me?’ But it doesn’t seem to be like that these days.
“Ronnie would be the first one to pull you up but he wouldn’t just turn around and say ‘blah blah blah’. He’d actually make you figure it out for yourself by talking to you. He’d ask what you were thinking and you’d tell him. Then he’d ask you if you’d do the same thing next time. It wasn’t someone filling in the answers for you, you were understanding what you had done and learning how you should do it. When the game’s going on you have to be able to figure it out for yourself.”
Sat in the restaurant of Liverpool’s Shankly Hotel, Nicol is back in the city where he enjoyed the best years of his career ostensibly to launch his autobiography, Five League Titles And A Packet Of Crisps, the title of which celebrates both the honours he won and the eating habits that were anything but the diet of champions.
Nicknamed “Chips” by his Anfield team mates, Nicol somehow managed to become a key and versatile component in the teams of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish despite his fondness for fried potatoes of whatever form.
“Dietitians would be horrified at the amount he ate,” Alan Hansen once revealed. “He could eat for Britain. He and I and our families once were on a Norwegian cruise together and he probably consumed more than the rest of us put together. It was not unusual for him to go through six or eight packs of crisps in one go. But he never carried any excess weight, hardly missed a tackle and gave the impression of being able to bomb up and down the touchline forever.”
The days of players being able to eat – and, in many cases, drink – whatever they liked in the days leading up to a game have long gone with sports scientists, nutritionists and various other fitness experts holding sway at clubs. The move towards greater professionalism and increased self-awareness is one that Nicol accepts was both inevitable and necessary but there is also a feeling that it has gone too far, particularly with young players who he believes are losing too much of their mental and physical toughness by being looked after too well.
“I’ve got no doubt that is the case. 100 per cent,” Nicol says. “I was 19 when I came to Liverpool and I went straight into the reserves. My first game was at Old Trafford two days after signing. My first wage was £250 per week and Tom Saunders took me to my new house. I walked out of Anfield with him and I was looking for the car that was going to take me to where I would be living. We turned left out of the ground, walked 20 yards and that was my digs, a place called Bunty’s right next to the ground. It was just a normal terraced house with landlords where new signings and players on trial would stay.”
Nicol’s next home was on Liverpool’s Croxteth Park estate, a humble housing development a mile or two from the club’s Melwood training ground. Unable to drive at the time, he would often be spotted using his wife’s chosen mode of transport until Hansen did him a “favour.” “My missus had a 50cc moped,” he recalls. “I used to nip up the shops on it. It had a basket on the front.
“I didn’t pass my test until maybe a year after I got to Liverpool. The first car I got was bought off Hansen. He stitched me up big time. Him and I were going on a cruise with the wives, I’d just bought it that summer and my and the missus were driving to Tilbury docks. Halfway there the car’s shaking and we had to get out. The amount of smoke. “What the fuck’s this?”
“We took it to the garage and the guy there asked about the tyres. I didn’t know anything about cars. He said you shouldn’t be driving with those – I had to buy a whole new set. The ones that were on it when I bought it were all remoulds. Even the spare was a remould! Hansen said “what do you want for £1200?”
At the same time as Nicol was eating the wrong things, drinking at various establishments, usually the Cattle Market pub favoured by butchers where he was able to pick up cheap cuts of meat, driving dodgy cars and being the butt of many a dressing room joke, he was also emerging as an increasingly influential member of a Liverpool side that is now looked upon as one of the greatest in English football history. So great was their dominance that an MP suggested they should be docked points at the start of the season to give other clubs a chance of competing.
How they went from that to being a team that would have needed to be given a head start on others in order to end a title drought that is now in its 27th year has been well documented. That Liverpool’s decline in the early 1990s coincided with Manchester United’s rise under Alex Ferguson has prompted no little debate about whether they were knocked off their perch as Ferguson claims or if they jumped. The most logical answer is that it was a combination of the two as United bought and produced better players than Liverpool who lost the secret of their own success under Graeme Souness.
Nicol, though, feels not enough importance has been attached to the toll that the Hillsborough disaster took on Liverpool as a club. It is a delicate subject, particularly as he has no wish to contrast sporting failure with a tragedy that cost 96 lives, but given the emotional suffering that played a significant part in Dalglish’s resignation in 1991 and which affected a number of other players, Nicol also believes the impact of Hillsborough cannot be ignored.
“Before Hillsborough every single thing that happened at Liverpool was geared towards the game on a Saturday. There wasn’t one thing that wasn’t geared towards that,” he says. “The only thing that mattered to anyone was what happened on a Saturday afternoon and that totally changed after Hillsborough. It was such a strange atmosphere around the place in the period afterwards. “Personally I wasn’t thinking the stuff I was thinking before it. You kind of think that everybody lost the plot but I can only speak for me – I lost the plot. So I’m pretty sure there must be a few others as well. The doctors would give it a name now. You just get through it and carry on. You grow up with the culture at Liverpool of facing things right down. That’s all we did. But something happened. We lost the focus. I know I was way off where I was. I can’t have been the only one.
“The lads won’t talk about it. We never have done. We never will. It’s in everybody’s head. It’s a constant in your head. Previously you couldn’t wait to drive in in a morning. That all changed. Something was sucked out of us. It’s always going to be on your brain, in your head. But at the same time, you’ve got to add on the players situation. If you keep on replacing Kevin Keegan with Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush with Robbie Fowler and so on eventually it’s going to stop and unfortunately it stopped in a big way in the early 90s.”
On Saturday, Nicol will return to Anfield “for the first time in ages” to watch Liverpool play Leicester City, the Premier League champions. A flying visit to Merseyside from Connecticut, USA, where he lives and works for ESPN, has coincided with the unveiling of his former club’s redeveloped Main Stand and the event will allow him to renew acquaintance with old surroundings and old friends. Representatives of the Hillsborough families will be attendance and Nicol, who was the first player approached by referee Ray Lewis when the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was brought to a halt, cannot hide his admiration for the way they have conducted themselves for the past 27 years.
“I don’t know how they’ve managed to keep their mouths closed and go about it the right way for so long. I don’t know whether I could’ve done that if it was my kid. Somewhere down the line you would’ve lost it, somebody would’ve got it,” he says. “How they’ve managed to control themselves for so long when it’s so blatant what’s gone on. You cannot imagine the frustration, going to bed every night knowing someone is there looking at you and lying through their teeth. I don’t know what you’d want to do to them but how they did that I have no idea. To stay as calm and focused and to get to the end of it……..I just don’t know.”
All of which puts Liverpool’s ongoing wait for the league title in the starkest perspective imaginable but football remains as important on the banks of the Mersey as it did in the days when Nicol played there and he is hopeful that a new era of success could begin under Jurgen Klopp.
“He reminds me of a Kenny and Bob,” the former Scotland international says. “He’s straight to the point. He knows what he’s talking about, he knows his football. If they get him good players he’ll get them playing. There’s none of the bullshit speak of some managers today.
“He still needs more players. They score goals, you can’t argue with that, but they need to keep them out. I’m not sold on a couple of the centre backs and they could do with a new left back.”