1997 David James on his knees in a 2-1 defeat to Wimbledon (Michael Thomas in the net)
At the start 1997 Roy Evans looked to have found the winning formula. After a 1-0 win at Southampton on the 29th of December 1996, thanks to a fine John Barnes goal, Liverpool lead the Premier League on New Year’s Day 1997. Traditionally the team that lead the table at the start of the year would go on to be League Champions. Would 1997 be the year that Liverpool ended their ‘7 Year Itch’ to win the Title again?
1996/97 Liverpool squad
Liverpool began the 1996/97 determined to put one over their great North West rivals Manchester United. After a superb season of attacking football, thanks to the deadly partnership of Robbie Fowler and record £8.5M striker Stan Collymore, with the creative flair of Steve McManaman, Roy Evans men had reached the 1996 FA Cup Final and finished 3rd, their highest Premier League finish. Liverpool expected to add the FA Cup to the League Cup they had won the previous year. However in the infamous ‘white suits’ Final, a late Eric Cantona goal sealed victory and another Double for Alex Ferguson’s men. It was a poor final that neither team deserved to win, but Utd’s negative tactics and Roy Keane’s man of the match performance stopped Liverpool as an attacking force. Roy Evans had watched his team outplay United home and away in the Premier League, with a notable 2-0 victory at Anfield in December 1995. Both games featured outstanding performances by Michael Thomas in a holding role. In the FA Cup Final, Evans dropped Thomas for Jamie Redknapp and chose Mark Wright instead of Neil Ruddock to man mark Eric Cantona. He also gave Fergie the advantage of naming his starting line up 48 hours before the game at Wembley. The defeat left a bitter taste but it left Liverpool determined to become Champions again.
1996 New £3.25M signing Patrik Berger
Although linked with Cezch winger Karel Poborsky, who would join Manchester United, Roy Evans swooped to sign Euro 1996 Final scorer Patrik Berger from Dortmund. He would add more goals from midfield as Steve McManaman was often marked by two players. He was the main supply to Fowler and Collymore, as veteran John Barnes played in a holding role in front of the defence. Evans felt that his 3-5-2 system was well suited to the players he had available. With Mark Wright, Phil Babb, John Scales, Neil Ruddock, Dominic Matteo and Steve Harkness Liverpool had an abundance of centre backs. Crucially though, they did not have an able deputy to goalkeeper David James. Local lad Tony Warner had never started a game for Liverpool.
Patik Berger celebrates as his two goals give Liverpool a 3-0 win at Leicester
Liverpool made a bright start to the season and only lost one of their opening ten league games, including a 2-1 win over Graeme Souness’s Southampton that I saw at Anfield. They had outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford but an outstanding display by Peter Schmeichel denied Liverpool, with David Beckham scoring the winner. Liverpool thrashed big spending Chelsea 5-1 at Anfield in September, with Berger’s two goals notable in a superb display of attacking football.
1997 Stan Collymore, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler celebrate another goal
The first Merseyside Derby of the season ended in a 1-1 draw at Anfield and Jamie Carragher scored on his debut in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at Anfield in late January. The Premier League was shaping up to be a fight between Liverpool, Manchester United Arsenal (under new French manager Arsene Wenger) and Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle. In late January John Scales was sold to Tottenham for £2.6M with Norwegian Bjorn Tore Kvarme replacing him on a free transfer from Rosenborg.
1997 Liverpool’s new centre back Bjorn Tore Kvarme
In March 1997 Liverpool faced Kenny Dalglish’s Magpies at Anfield. Liverpool raced to a 3-0 goal lead after an hour with goals from McManaman, Berger and Fowler. Newcastle fought back thanks to some poor defending and goalkeeping to draw level. Then Robbie Fowler headed a dramatic last minute winner in front of the Kop. It was the second successive 4-3 victory over Newcastle at Anfield.
1997 Robbie Fowler celebrates his winner against Newcastle at Anfield
1996 Liverpool line up in the European Cup Winners Cup against Sion in Switzerland
In the Cups Liverpool had been knocked out by Middlesbrough in the League Cup Quarter Final and in the FA Cup, in a dramatic comeback live on the BBC, Chelsea defeated the Reds 4-2 after trailing 2-0 at the break. However in Europe, Liverpool had marched all the way to the Semi Finals of the European Cup Winners Cup. They had seen off MyPa of Finland, Sion and Brann of Norway. They faced French team PSG in the Semi Finals. A poor first leg display in Paris left Liverpool with a 3-0 deficit. Despite a stirring display in the return at Anfield, and 2-0 victory with goals by Robbie Fowler and Mark Wright, it was the Paris side who reached the Final against Bobby Robson’s Barcelona.
On the 24th of April Live on Sky Sports, Arsenal faced Liverpool at Highbury. I was there to witness a superb performance by Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler, who ran Tony Adams and the Arsenal defence ragged, to give Liverpool a 2-1 victory. The game was remembered for Robbie Fowler’s penalty that never was, awarded by the referee, despite Fowler’s protests. David Seaman saved his penalty but Jason McAteer scored the rebound.
The following week Liverpool faced bottom placed Coventry City at Anfield. A victory would send Roy Evans men back to the top of the table after Derby County’s shock win at Old Trafford the day before. I was there to witness a brilliant performance by former goalkeeper Steve Ogrisovic as he denied Liverpool time and again. However they still lead 1-0 but two late howlers by David James had yet again cost Liverpool, who suffered a shock 2-1 defeat.
The Title Decider would come on Saturday 19th April at 11.15 am, the ridiculous kick off time chosen by Sky Sports. If Liverpool beat Manchester United at Anfield they would top the Premier League table with just three games left. Could Liverpool gain revenge for their FA Cup Final defeat? David James dubbed ‘Calamity James’ after the game by the press was at fault for all three Manchester United goals. His awful miss of Neville’s cross allowed Andy Cole’s header seal a 3-1 defeat, that was celebrated by jubilant United fans.
Roy Evans decision not drop James after that game emphasised his weak management. With no challenge to push him or keep him on his toes, James would continue to be a liability in a Liverpool shirt. At Selhurst Park in May, I witnessed Michael Owen’s debut and first Liverpool goal, but it was not enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat to Wimbledon. In a cruel twist, Liverpool went into the final game away to Sheffield Wednesday with a two point lead, knowing that the Premier League runners up would qualify for the lucrative Champions League. They could only draw 1-1 against ten men, with a striker in goal for their injured goalkeeper. Liverpool would finish the 1996/97 in fourth place in a two horse Title race, as Dalglish’s Newcastle finished second and Arsenal third on goal difference.
Former defender Mark Wright later stated in an interview that this was the season in the 1990s that the Liverpool team truly had the talent and opportunity to win the title but threw it away: “We did come close to winning the league a few times and we finished fourth one season when we were the best team. We were better than Manchester United, better than everyone, and we finished joint second but ended up fourth because of goal difference. That was the season we should have won the title and we all know that. I remember some of the games we lost and the way we dropped points against certain sides. David James dropped a few clangers and I remember them because in certain games he didn’t have anything to do, then all of a sudden he thinks he’s got to be involved in the game. He would come rushing out and all of a sudden you would be 1–0 down”, he said.
The following season Brad Friedel was signed after he received a work permit, but a poor third place finish in 1997/98 spelled the beginning of the end for Roy Evans. After an ill fated joint managerial role, he resigned and Frenchman Gerard Houllier took over. He sold David James to Aston Villa in 1999. What would have happened if Liverpool had won the 1996 FA Cup Final? They would certainly have have won the Premier League in 1997 with a top class goalkeeper. You can’t expect to win trophies with David James in goal.