Book Review: Red Machine (Liverpool FC In The 1980s) by Simon Hughes

If Liverpool weren’t your favourite football team in the 1980s, they were probably your second or third team.

They set new standards with their ‘pass and move’ philosophy, brilliant goalscorers (Ian Rush, John Aldridge etc), probing wingers/midfielders and a famously tight defence (Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson et al).

But of course the team saw more than its fair share of tragedy during the decade too, the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters looming large to this day.

Simon Hughes (namesake of the ex-cricketer/journalist) has interviewed many of the key players from that fabled 1980s Liverpool unit, plus notoriously strict coach Ronnie Moran, to create a candid, funny, sometimes touching account of the decade.

Aided by Hughes’s crisp, witty scene-setting, ‘Red Machine’ is chock-full of amusing anecdotes (frequently homesick Ian Rush’s nickname amongst the team was ‘E.T.’ – he was always phoning home…) and pithy observations.

It’s fair to say that many of these players have intriguing backstories. Bruce Grobbelaar (lest we forget, the most decorated goalkeeper in the history of English football) talks about fighting in the Rhodesian Bush War before his time at Liverpool, while John Barnes and Howard Gayle discuss their experiences of racism inside the game and outside it.

Craig Johnston’s life story would make a great movie, and many probably don’t know that he retired at the peak of his footballing career to care for his chronically-ill sister.

Heysel and Hillsborough are discussed in detail by all who were present, with player/manager Kenny Dalglish emerging as a hero. Margaret Thatcher’s regime and Liverpool’s social, economic and racial divisions are regular talking points.

Football-wise, Graeme Souness is frequently named as the team’s greatest player of the era (indeed many describe him as Europe’s best during the 1980s).

But ‘Red Machine’ also scores highly by offering the views of players who didn’t quite ‘make it’ – Michael Robinson, Gayle, Kevin Sheedy – and also exploring what it was like for a true southerner (Nigel Spackman) to establish himself on Merseyside.

I had also been looking for a decent history of English football in the 1980s – ‘Red Machine’ does that very nicely too. It’s highly recommended, and spawns memories of a great time to be a football fan, despite the obvious issues.

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