In 1989-90 two goals from John Barnes helped Liverpool to their first away victory at Manchester United in eight years, keeping the Reds on course for their eighteenth league title.
Despite Liverpool’s league dominance in the 1980s, they always struggled against United and had only won two of the last twenty league meeting between the sides. They had lost three and drawn four of their last four visits to Old Trafford, their last victory there being in 1981-82 when Craig Johnston scored the only goal of the game.
Going into this game on 18th March 1990 Liverpool were on a twelve match unbeaten league run and second in the table, five points behind Aston Villa but with two games in hand. In contrast United were in serious danger of relegation, just two points separating them from the drop zone after a terrible run of two wins in fifteen matches. Even though form seemed to count for nothing in these fixtures, this was an even worse United side than they usually faced and many of their fans were calling for Alex Ferguson’s dismissal.
The day before this game a crowd of 1,999 at Anfield saw the two clubs reserve sides face each other, Liverpool winning 2-1 thanks to goals from Mike Marsh and Israeli loan signing Ronny Rosenthal. Midfielder Neil Webb made his combeack for United in that game after seven months out through injury, but the main event was deemed too soon. There was better news for Ferguson though when Mark Hughes, who damaged a calf muscle earlier in the week, declared himself fit to play.
Shorly before kick off there was a blow for Reds manager Kenny Dalglish when Steve Nicol failed a fitness test on a leg injury, meaning Steve Staunton took his place. United tried to exploit his inexperience early on when Mike Phelan played a ball down the centre for Brian McClair to chase, but the young Irishman showed great awareness to read the ball and clear.
Liverpool soon took control of the game by imposing their authority in midfield, with Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan being far superior to Paul Ince and Clayton Blackmore in terms of both skill and physical strength.
It took just fifteen minutes for them to open the scoring as United’s defensive frailties were ruthlessly exposed. Despite having two men on him Peter Beardsley, who was on the half way line, received a pass from Ray Houghton and swivelled to play the ball into the path of Barnes, who had acres of space. He ran a full forty yards unchallenged to slide the ball under the advancing Jim Leighton for his nineteenth goal of the season.
Liverpool remained in control of the game for the remainder of the first half, their midfield acting quickly to break up any moves that United threatened to create. However there was a moment of hesitation between Glenn Hysen and Alan Hansen that gave Danny Wallace a shooting opportunity. Thankfully for the two central defenders Bruce Grobbelaar was alert and comfortably saved his effort.
The half time interval didn’t disrupt Liverpool’s momentum and just ten minutes after the restart it was 2-0 after a penalty was awarded following a foul by Viv Anderson on Ian Rush. The Reds’ striker had been put though by McMahon but although United’s defender tried to say it was outside the box, television replays clearly showed referee George Courtney made the right decision. Barnes stepped forward to send Leighton the wrong way to the delight of the Liverpool fans behind the goal in the paddock of the Scoreboard End.
Anderson was immediately taken off by Ferguson and replaced by Mike Duxbury in a double substitution that also saw Russell Beardsmore come on for Wallace. This gave Liverpool even more space in midfield to control things and United were so inept there was no possibility of a comeback, Hughes clearly struggling with his calf problem.
As Liverpool’s fans sang ‘Fergie Must Stay’ and many home fans were heading for the exits with ten minutes left Brian McClair hit a volley that Grobbelaar brilliantly tipped over the bar. It was by far the closest they had come to scoring and just a minute later they were gifted a lifeline when Ronnie Whelan, 25 yards from goal, lobbed the back to Grobbelaar and it sailed over the keeper’s head into the net.
United didn’t seize the opportunity to ensure a frantic finish, their players being no match for Liverpool who were masters of running down the clock. Hansen and Hysen took it in turns to pass back to Grobbelaar and the Reds comfortably held on for victory. They went on to collect a 18th league title at the end of the season, while nobody could have predicted how things would go on to change in terms of both club’s fortunes in the following two decades.