Rush’s Mersey Paradise

THE sight of the all red machine mercilessly dissecting defences across England and Europe under Jurgen Klopp evokes memories of a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when English clubs were held in as high regard as the Spanish duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid are nowadays. Throughout the 1980s red equalled danger and during Liverpool’s all conquering decade Ian Rush equalled goals.

Agile, clinical, quick and composed, Rush ended his career at Anfield as top goal scorer with 346, 60 goals ahead of his nearest rival, Roger Hunt. However had the frustration at not being given first team action during his formative years gotten the better of him he may not have had the trophy-laden career on Merseyside he ultimately had.

Trials for Wrexham, Burnley and Chester City were successful but he chose Chester, his reasoning was their welcoming, family atmosphere and at 14 years old they suited his shy personality. He made 34 appearances and scored 14 goals for Chester before drawing interest from Manchester City and Liverpool. His move to the big time nearly didn’t happen as City manager, Malcolm Allison, passed up the opportunity to sign Rush and the player himself only really harboured ambitions of playing for Chester as a lack of confidence stunted his potential, at least in the short term. Eventually Rush agreed to spend the day with Liverpool where he and his father were introduced to legendary manager, Bob Paisley, and first team players Greame Souness and Alan Hansen. Upon his return to the club his manager and mentor, Allan Oakes, encouraged him to sign for Liverpool and so in April 1980 he completed his move for a then record fee for a teenager of £300,000.

After his December 1980 debut he made sporadic appearances and although he had requested to leave because of a lack of first team action he soon learned the way of the world for a young reserve team player trying to break into the senior squad. More first team games came gradually but it wasn’t until a European Cup game in September 1981 against Oulun Palloseura at Anfield that he scored his first goal. That goal sparked his confidence and he finished the season as Liverpool’s top goal scorer as they won the First Division championship and the League Cup. His impressive tally of 32 goals in 49 appearances that season was just the beginning and the following two seasons were almost carbon copies on the pitch as they brought Liverpool successive First Division and League Cup wins, with Rush again finishing as top goal scorer in each of those seasons. They completed a triple trophy win in the 1983/84 season as they won the European Cup, their fourth such triumph. Rush played in the final and scored his penalty in the shoot out against AS Roma. That season Rush added the European Golden Boot to his growing collection of awards.

In 1985 Liverpool had the opportunity to retain the European Cup and emulate the 1978 Liverpool team who were the first, but not the last English team to do so and Rush was part of the starting line up who faced Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Liverpool lost that evening but this is merely an irrelevant footnote as the night is mainly remembered for a pre-game incident when a wall separating opposing fans collapsed and resulted in the deaths of 39 fans, the majority of whom supported Juventus. There are conflicting reports of how much the players knew about the events in the stands but the game went ahead and Michel Platini scored the only goal of the game via the penalty spot. As a result of the incident English clubs were banned indefinitely from European competition, with Liverpool forced to serve an extra year-long suspension once the ban was lifted.

The 1985/86 season was arguably the peak of Rush’s Liverpool career as he helped to guide them to the League and FA Cup double, surprisingly, their only such double to date. Rush finished as top scorer with 31 goals in all competitions and their league title win was sealed on the final day of the season, with a goal by player-manager, Kenny Dalglish, during a 1-0 win away to Chelsea. The FA Cup Final saw Liverpool come up against Merseyside rivals, Everton. The teams were two of the best, if not the two best, teams in Europe, as Everton had been enjoying European success too with a European Cup Winners Cup victory the previous season. Rush scored two second half goals to hand Liverpool their third FA Cup trophy.

Predictably, interest in Rush from other major European clubs grew and Liverpool accepted a then British record fee of £3.7m for the 25 year old from Juventus. Rush agreed to join them in July 1986, although he spent a year on loan at Liverpool and finished as the club’s top scorer once again before completing his move to Turin. The opportunity to play in European competition arguably contributed to Rush’s decision to leave the English club and the same can be said of other top players such as Chris Waddle, Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes and Glenn Hoddle who made the journey overseas in the mid-1980s.  Although Rush’s time in Italy is commonly viewed as a disaster he did score 14 goals, as many as Marco van Basten at AC Milan. He later admitted he became a more well-rounded player in Italy and this contributed to his successful second spell with Liverpool. Had he stayed at Juventus longer than one season and continued his integration into Italian football he could have made his name as a real Juve legend, however the stringency of Serie A defences meant his style of play was largely nullified in Italy and in the end his continued relationship with Kenny Dalglish was a huge part of his decision to move back to England. He rejected offers from Everton, Manchester United, Roma and Bayern Munich to return to Liverpool.

Liverpool had already bought John Aldridge during the Welshman’s final season at Anfield and they signed Peter Beardsley shortly after Rush left for Italy. Upon his return for the 1988/89 season Rush competed with them to start up front and this increased competition brought out the best in Aldridge as he finished as First Division top goal scorer. Rush himself had only scored nine goals in all competitions before scoring twice in extra time during the second all-Merseyside FA Cup final in four years as they lifted the trophy once again.

The season will be remembered for the first FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough where 96 Liverpool fans died during a crush in the end where their supporters were enclosed, it was apparent there were problems at that end of the stadium well before kickoff and the game was eventually abandoned just six minutes into the game to allow the emergency services to attend the scene. The replayed game was played at Old Trafford and Liverpool won, 3-1. As a result of the aftermath of the incident at Hillsborough Liverpool’s season overran past the usual close of season FA Cup Final, the second of the two games after the Cup Final was the dramatic league decider versus Arsenal at Anfield. Needing two goals to secure the title, the Gunners scored an injury time winner to gift them the championship.

Rush’s last league title at Liverpool, his fifth, the club’s 18th and last one to date was the 1989/90 championship. The season was notable for the departure of Rush’s striking partner, John Aldridge, who left for Real Sociedad. This move was partly down to Rush’s renaissance after he rejoined the club and Aldridge was left to start from the bench more often than not. This left Rush, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes to spearhead the Anfield attack, they did so and charged to the title with an eventual nine point advantage over runners up, Aston Villa, with Rush netting 14 league goals. Their defence of the FA Cup looked to be all but secure when they faced Crystal Palace at Villa Park in the Semi Final. Palace were thrashed 9-0 at Anfield earlier in the season, however Liverpool lost a thrilling game, 4-3 after extra time after being 3-2 up with just a few minutes of normal time remaining. Rush opened the scoring that day but was substituted due to injury after just half an hour.

The 1990/91 season saw the turning point of Rush’s Liverpool career as Dalglish resigned in February 1991, Beardsley was sold to Everton, club captain, Alan Hansen announced his retirement and they failed to win a trophy despite not losing a league game until December. Champions, Arsenal, only lost one game all season.  Rush collected his seemingly annual leading goal scorer award at the season’s end after scoring 26 goals. It would be five seasons until they finished in the top three in the league again, however they and Rush won the FA Cup in 1992 and League Cup in 1995. By now Liverpool’s turn to dominate football was coming to the end and their bitter rivals, Manchester United, rose up to become the new force of English football. Rush himself finished Liverpool’s top goal scorer in successive seasons between 1992 and 1994, but the emergence of local-born, Robbie Fowler, and British record signing, Stan Collymore, limited Rush’s first team chances as his Liverpool career started to wind down. In February 1996 he announced he would be leaving on a free transfer that summer and he scored his final goal at Maine Road on 5 May 1996 a game, which saw hosts, Manchester City, relegated.

For a player who by his own admittance only had ambitions to play for Chester City had a legendary career at Liverpool. Rush was arguably the greatest striker of the 1980s and was synonymous with that fearsome Liverpool side of the era. Not merely a one season wonder, he consistently scored goals throughout his career and his transfers to and from Juventus broke the records for fees paid and received by English clubs. He won 14 trophies at Liverpool and had English clubs not been banned from European competition he would surely have added to his 1984 European Cup winners’ medal. Given the way in which football has grown into a worldwide, financial behemoth and is now under the microscope 365 days a year it is worth pondering just how Ian Rush’s career would’ve progressed had he played today.

By Dave Long with artwork by Henry Cooke (@LWIMTH) who’s work can be found on his site here.

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