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.

And Smith Must Score! Brighton v Manchester United 38 Years On

Most football fans have a ‘worst misses of all time’ list.

In my lifetime, a few are memorable, mainly because I watched them live on TV: Ronnie Rosenthal’s botched tap-in for Liverpool v Aston Villa in 1992 and Geoff Thomas’s awful chip for England v France in the same year particularly come to mind.

But Gordon Smith’s last-minute miss for Brighton v Manchester United during the classic 1983 FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, taking place 38 years ago today, always seems to get a mention too.

If he’d slotted the ball home, it would have given his club their first (and, to date, only) major competition win. Brighton lost 4-0 in the replay five days later.

The match holds a special place for me: I was there. It was probably only the second time I’d visited the grand old stadium. My dad was a proud Brighton fan, and the sight of a packed Wembley and deafening chants of ‘Seaweed! Seaweed!’ from the Man United fans will linger long in the memory. It was also a tremendous game, one of the great Cup Finals.

But back to Gordon Smith. Is it one of the worst misses? BBC radio commentator Peter Jones certainly thought so: his famous ‘And Smith must score!’ commentary gave a title to a Brighton FC fanzine and is oft quoted to this day. Smith apparently frequently thinks about the moment, but has retained a very dignified outlook.

Decide for yourself. You could argue that he went with his wrong foot – maybe he should have hit it first time with his left – but you could also praise Gary Bailey’s fast narrowing of the angle and take into account the awful state of the pitch. But still… if only…

15 Great Goals From The 1980s

So it looks like the football season is ending with barely a whimper, and we may not see any tennis or cricket at all this summer.

So there’s time to indulge in a little nostalgia. Here are some memorable goals of the 1980s, in no particular order, a decade during which this writer cared passionately about the game, unlike now… (Favourite players: Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson, Ray Houghton, Matt Le Tissier, Gordon Davies, Steve ‘Headband’ Foster.)

Ray Wilkins and Jimmy Case’s strikes have special significance, as I was present at the games, and I certainly would have been watching Ricky Villa, Steve MacKenzie and Norman Whiteside’s wondergoals live on the TV. But all of the below still deliver a frisson of excitement.

(And for those who can’t stand football – and I kind of sympathise – normal service will be resumed shortly…)

15. Jan Molby: Liverpool v Manchester United, 26th November 1985

14. Ray Wilkins: Manchester United v Brighton, 21st May 1983

13. John Barnes: England v Brazil, 10th June 1984

12. George Best: San Jose Earthquakes v Fort Lauderdale Strikers, June 1981

11. Norman Whiteside: Manchester United v Everton, 18th May 1985

10. Jimmy Case: Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday, 16th April 1983 (at 1:40 below)

9. Diego Maradona: Argentina v England, 22nd June 1986

8. Marco Van Basten: Holland v Soviet Union, 25th June 1988

7. Ricky Villa: Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City, 14th May 1981

6. Glenn Hoddle: Tottenham Hotspur v Watford, 24th September 1983

5. Justin Fashanu: Norwich City v Liverpool, 9th February 1980

4. Cyrille Regis: West Bromwich Albion v Norwich, 13th February 1982

3. Graeme Sharp: Everton v Liverpool, 20th October 1984

2. Steve MacKenzie: Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur, 14th May 1981

1. Kenny Dalglish: Scotland v Belgium, 15th December 1982

Any great 1980s goals missing from the list? Get in touch below.