Interview: Gary Gillespie on Liverpool’s last title win and shedding a tear when they clinch it this season
It would be easy to see Liverpool’s impending capture of the title as the culmination of a quest that for three decades has time and again put the club through the emotional wringer. As far as Gary Gillespie is concerned, though, that misjudges the mindset woven into the fabric of the Merseyside club.
The former Scotland defender was a member of the last Liverpool team to win the league, back in 1989-90. It brought him a third title winners’ medal in five seasons, with the European Cup triumph of 1984 having provided him with his first taste of trophy success at Anfield. Such an honours stash was de rigueur for those who represented the club throughout the 1970s and 1980s. And the 59-year-old believes that is why there will be no sense of mission accomplished when the Premier League is clinched.
That could come as early as Wednesday. If Jurgen Klopp’s men prevail against derby rivals Everton at an empty Goodison this afternoon then win at home to Crystal Palace on Wednesday, the title will be theirs. What will be denied them in that instance is the ability to celebrate with abandon because of the social distancing restrictions in place to quell the Covid-19 pandemic, from which English football has emerged following a three-month pause. Gillespie believes the Liverpool faithful should simply look on it that proper such celebrations can be reserved for future such successes.
“A championship win has been a long time coming but the close calls under Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers came in different circumstances,” he said. “They were so painful because, the way it was then, you couldn’t say for definite when the next challenge would come. The set-up under Jurgen is different. They way they have gone about their business has not been about creating a team that just wins one league, or one cup. That’s why there was no great despondency when they couldn’t get over the line in the league a year ago, never mind that they lifted the Champions League then.
“I’m not saying they can be the dominant force of old, as Liverpool were in the 70s and 80s, and Manchester United were in the 90s and the noughties. I don’t think you can do that the way the game is now. It is something when you think in my eight years after joining in 1983 we never finished outside of the top two in the table. But I’m sure this current crop can have serial success.”
The first title Gillespie had a playing role in came in 1985-86, after he took time to settle following a £325,000 move from Coventry City. It was the club’s tenth league crown in 15 years. Little wonder that he cautions against such a glorious era being replicated. In more recent times, the Stirling-born Scot has covered Liverpool as a broadcaster. He has done so for almost two decades; firstly for local radio and, since 2007, on the club’s own media platforms. He recognises what an outpouring that their league coronation will bring among the Liverpool fans, but doesn’t see that being diluted by their inability to attend games at the stadium or hold street parties.
“I might shed a wee tear, I must admit,” said Gillespie. “And when they do it – and they will win two of their last nine games, that is a given – the circumstances won’t take anything away from the achievement. What an achievement it is, too. I don’t think they get enough credit for the fact they have only lost one league game this season, and only lost once in the last one. They haven’t always been at their best in this campaign, but they have found a way to keep themselves in games. Whether that is relying on [goalkeeper] Alisson, Virgil van Dijk at the back, or Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino pinching goals, they have had match winners. And Jurgen’s system makes the full-backs so important for their attacking threat. It is amazing that only Kevin De Bruyne in the league has more assists than Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Andy Robertson isn’t far behind him.”
Gillespie feels the players shouldn’t be too perturbed at the health crisis denying them an open-top bus tour-of-the-city celebration in the next month. When considering their confrontation with Everton today, he says nothing could match the bizarre one he experienced in 1986.
“Jurgen has said this will happen, and if that has to be next January, so be it,” said the former centre-back, who left Anfield for Celtic in the summer of 1991. “I’ll never forget the one that followed our FA Cup win in 1986. We beat Everton in the final, having pipped them in the league that year too. Both teams travelled back from London into Speke airport – as it was called then – and got into our respective buses. It meant that as we wound our way round the city driving behind us was the Everton bus. But I remember hearing from some of their players that they were so hacked off by the situation, most of them sacked the bus journey and just went home.”
If Liverpool’s superiority was difficult to stomach then, it might not be any more palatable now. Should Klopp’s team avoid defeat, the German will be the first Liverpool manager to be unbeaten in his opening 11 Merseyside derbies.
“Jurgen has racked up all these little milestones along the way but I don’t think adding this one will be foremost in his mind this afternoon, in all truth,” said Gillespie. “Put it this way, if they lose this one, he won’t be losing any sleep over it. It will just put a slight delay on sealing the championship.”
With Scotland captain Robertson such a crucial performer in Klopp’s set-up, a proud connection with this country and successful Liverpool teams will be maintained. Whether in terms of on the pitch, or the bench, only two of the club’s 41 major honours in the post-war period have been achieved without Scottish input.
Gillespie was part of a five-strong tartan army that helped the Anfield club reel in silverware at home and abroad in the 1980s. He featured alongside Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Steve Nicol in his early days at Liverpool.
“I always used to say to people down here that you need a group of Scots to win things at Liverpool,” he said. “It isn’t a group now with only Andy Robertson at the club, but you can’t underestimate his importance. I would say that van Dijk was the game-changing arrival but Andy is the next level down in terms of signings that have made the difference. He might have struggled to get into the team initially after the £8.5 million move from Hull three years ago, but once he got his chance he made it count and has been a revelation.”
The feats of the current Liverpool squad will mean that the status of Gillespie and his contemporaries will inevitably be altered. They have been on a pedestal as the last Liverpool league winners. But with the “no ego” playing philosophy that Gillespie maintains was central to the club’s silverware-strewn era, he says all players of that bygone age are desperate to see Liverpool at the top of the English game once more.
“There is only one downside,” he offered, with tongue firmly in cheek. “I will no longer be seen as a great Liverpool player and just become an old has-been.”
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