Q&A: Paul Tomkins
Describe your greatest Liverpool moment between 1985 and 2005.
Without question it would be Istanbul. Liverpool went there as underdogs, but by half-time, with the score 3-0 to AC Milan, even the word ‘underdog’ was too weak. At half-time I was thinking 6-0, but the crowd got behind the team and sang You’ll Never Walk Alone. The comeback is now the stuff of legend, with the score brought back to 3-3 and the game resolved by a dramatic penalty shoot-out. I’ve never known such euphoria.
Describe your worst.
Hillsborough, and the loss of 96 lives, followed by shameful accusations and high-level cover-ups and corruption. It was the saddest day in the club’s history, and has cast a shadow on so many people ever since.
What was the greatest Liverpool goal scored between 1985 and 2005?
I wrote the following – describing a goal in the autumn of 1987 – for a book on Liverpool’s best players: “An outstretched left boot, planted on halfway-line chalk: a perfectly executed block-tackle. A spin into space, and half of the Anfield pitch opens up; new-boy John Barnes is away, running at the defence of table-toppers QPR. The ease with which, having approached the edge of the box, he jinks to his left – past a lunging tackle – transforms a great skill into something effortless. But it is the way he drags the ball to his right, and somehow readjusts his balance, that defines one of the greatest goals the famous stadium has ever seen; it defies belief, not least because he somehow manages to accelerate in the process. England international Terry Fenwick is bypassed – a Tussauds waxwork in blue and white hoops. England international full-back Paul Parker slides in, but is not quick enough. England international goalkeeper David Seaman – beaten by a Barnes curler into the top corner earlier in the half – is left helpless again, as the Reds’ no.10, with right instep, nonchalantly slips the ball beneath the man in green.” With that win, Liverpool went to the top of the table, and didn’t look back.
What was the greatest game?
Without question, the 2005 Champions League Final. It was a fantastic occasion, and unlike almost all of Liverpool’s other successes, it came out of the blue. Two other games stand out during the period in question. The 4-3 win against Newcastle, in April 1996. I was lucky enough to win a magazine competition to take penalties at half-time during that game, and I experienced hospitality before and after. I think it was voted the best game of the ‘90s by Sky. The other is the 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest on my 17th birthday in April 1988. What a present! Forest had just lost to Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final, and were second in the table, having beaten the Reds just 11 days earlier at the City Ground. After two tight games in less than a fortnight, this arguably became the most one-sided game anyone had ever seen in a clash of the titans. Liverpool were sublime, Sir Tom Finney described it as the best performance he’d ever seen.
Who has been the greatest player?
Since 1985, it can only be Steven Gerrard, seeing as that was the time Kenny Dalglish’s playing days were winding down. Even going back to the war, some might still favour Gerrard, although Dalglish had a bit more genius about him. But Gerrard has been an awesome presence for the Reds. He’s not perfect – he has his flaws – but he has been a great all-round player over the years, and scored an incredible number of important and spectacular goals.
And the greatest manager?
Since 1985 I’d say a tie between Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benítez. Dalglish did brilliant things after inheriting a great side – taking it up a notch – and Benítez took a mediocre team and turned it into the number one ranked side in Europe. Very different challenges, at times when the club’s fortunes were contrasting, but both men did very well by my estimations.
Describe how it was to be a Liverpool fan between 1985 and 2005.
The proverbial roller-coaster, with more false dawns than true ones. The period between 1985 and 1991 was obviously great for trophies, but it also included Heysel and Hillsborough. And obviously the last league title was back in 1990, so it’s been a fallow time in that sense. However, in the last 21 years Liverpool have won nine ‘proper’ trophies, plus some European Super Cups and Charity Shields. Add a handful of other finals – including the Champions League in 2007 – and it’s not been too bad by most club’s standards.
Can Liverpool FC ever regain its place among Europe’s elite?
Of course. These things tend to go in cycles, and Liverpool have the tradition and support to be a powerhouse, but it’s getting over that first hurdle of returning to the Champions League. That then becomes a virtuous circle, so long as the manager can balance his resources – otherwise you can fall straight out again. Liverpool can still attract great players, but being in the top four every year makes it a bit easier. So long as there’s a decent amount of investment and clever thinking, becoming successful again is possible. However, unless Financial Fair Play has some teeth, it will remain the case that only the mega-rich flourish.
Is Brendan Rodgers the man to lead them there?
I’m still undecided. He focuses a lot on attacking movement, and that’s been excellent at times. But Liverpool’s defending – as a team and as individuals – has been poor. Against weak teams the Reds tend to fill their boots; but stronger teams have proved problematic. Hopefully that will improve with time and practice. That’s certainly logical, even if there’s no automatic, guaranteed level of improvement in football.