When Liverpool hoisted the league championship trophy aloft at the end of the 1989-90 season, it was a special moment—but it was also a familiar one. Between 1979-80 and that latest title win a decade later, Liverpool won the title no less than seven times.
And, as the trophy was held aloft, it would have been almost impossible to believe that 23 years later, the Reds would still be waiting for their next title win.
Silverware has still found its way into the Anfield trophy cabinet, some of which have been extraordinary victories. But there can be no doubt that Liverpool's domestic dominance well and truly ended after the '89-90 season.
Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish again and now Brendan Rodgers have all attempted, and failed, to bring the league championship trophy back to Liverpool.
Twenty-three years and counting, and right now the Reds appear as far away from the title as ever since their last triumph.
What Happened Post-'90 Title?
The year after that last title win, the Reds were top for much of the season, but Kenny Dalglish resigned as manager midway through the campaign.
Stress had taken its toll on the Liverpool legend. Dealing with the aftermath of Hillsborough was an unbearable strain in addition to the pressures that came with managing such a great and successful club.
Souness came in, but the Reds ended the campaign in second place, seven points behind Arsenal. The following summer, ahead of the last campaign under the old Division One name, Souness embarked on a major restructuring of the playing staff, offloading the likes of Peter Beardsley, Steve Staunton, Gary Gillespie, Gary Ablett and Steve McMahon.
Those players had been part of one of the most successful Reds sides ever, and the players they were replaced by simply weren't up to scratch.
Mark Wright and Michael Thomas were far from flops, but Istvan Kozma was another matter altogether. Mark Walters and Dean Saunders had ability, but not the real quality and consistency needed to succeed at the top level.
And so the last great title-winning team of Liverpool was dismantled, and a new one has yet to be put together.
Liverpool ended sixth that season, and the next after the Premier League started, before sinking as low as eighth in '93-94.
New Faces, New Challenges, New Lows
Lee Jones. Torben Piechnik. Paul Stewart. Julian Dicks. Michael Stensgaard. Mark Kennedy. Liverpool's incoming transfers over the next few seasons read not so much like a Who's Who, but merely a Who?
Intermittent successes, or at least part-time fan favourites, such as Neil Ruddock, Stan Collymore and Nigel Clough provided welcome respite, but their lack of contribution towards silverware showed how far the Reds had fallen already.
The money and the brand of the Premier League had changed the face of football in England, and Liverpool had already started to fall behind in the race to take advantage.
Trophies still came, as they always have; Liverpool won the FA Cup in 1992 under Souness, beating Sunderland 2-0 in the final at Wembley, while Roy Evans guided the Reds to the 1995 League Cup triumph over Bolton Wanderers.
Up until the turn of the century, the highest Liverpool had finished in the Premier League was third, and even then they were always at least 11 points off the summit.
In came Gerard Houllier, the first "outsider" to manage Liverpool, and the club entered a new phase. Houllier would restructure the training ground, modernise the training and care of the players, place new demands on the young, newly rich squad members of the Premier League and drag the club, kicking and screaming at times, into the new foreign players era of the game.
A New Millenium, and a Bunch of the Same Old Problems
Liverpool improved immeasurably under Houllier.
While many loved the smooth, exciting, attack-minded football under Roy Evans, the club essentially won nothing of note in his reign. A solitary League Cup win, a third-place finish in the league and a turgid FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United were the tangible output of Evans' reign.
Houllier took sole charge for an entire campaign for the first time in the 1999-00 season, and in his first three full seasons the Reds went from strength to strength.
Fourth, third, second; steady, sustainable progression in the league was the key. Liverpool ended 2001-02 seven points behind winners Arsenal, having also reached the Champions League quarterfinals that season.
The year before was the magnificent treble-winning campaign, when the Reds made a clean sweep of cup competitions domestically and abroad. Houllier's team won five trophies in just six months during 2001, including the UEFA Super Cup and the Community Shield.
But then a new pattern emerged.
Liverpool would reach second, identify areas to improve, and go no further.
Bruno Cheyrou, Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf were the three men added ahead of the 2002-03 season. Needless to say, they did not tip the balance and make Liverpool a title-winning team.
Two more seasons under Houllier yielded another League Cup win, but illness and misjudgement seemed to have robbed the Frenchman of his ability to motivate the team to great heights.
A Rafalution, A Mistake, A Legend Returns
Rafael Benitez; His name will live forever in the annuls of Liverpool FC after he came in and guided the Reds to a UEFA Champions League triumph in his first season in charge.
The expectation then, of course, was that Benitez would be the man to finally find further glory. But despite a lot of money spent, another upgrade and update of the training and science side of the club and one or two close calls, Liverpool only managed second, again.
Just four points separated Liverpool from Manchester United in 2008-09, at a time when English football boasted arguably four of the best half-dozen sides in all of Europe. It was a great time for the English game, but disappointing for Liverpool that their best campaign coincided with it, and they fell just short.
Once again, a pivotal summer proved a letdown. Alberto Aquilani never settled, Soto Kyrgiakos was a backup and Glen Johnson, though he has proved himself a good servant over the past four or five years, was not the type who could make a team go from second to first by himself.
The wheels came off Benitez's ride amid boardroom unrest, the threat of liquidation hanging over the club and a general hatred of the fanbase toward the two split sides of the ownership.
And to top things off, Roy Hodgson was appointed the new man in charge.
If ever there was a case of wrong place, wrong time, this was it.
It lasted barely six months, cost the club a packet, and Paul Konchesky had to stick around until the following summer to escape the ire of supporters. Two summers on, he rarely manages to escape "worst signings" arguments, lists and articles.
It fell to Kenny Dalglish to make an emotional return to the club, two decades after departing, as Liverpool went full circle in their latest attempt to rediscover the secret of what made the club such a force for so long—but by now, also so long ago.
Repetition of Mistakes and a Vow to Change
Liverpool hire boss, boss makes many signings, boss wins at least one trophy—except Roy—boss fails to win Premier League, Liverpool hire new boss.
That's basically the story of the Reds over the past quarter of a century.
King Kenny didn't even get the luxury of a runner-up finish before his services were dispensed with, as new owners FSG decided on a more long-term, sustainable growth model which didn't sit well with either Dalglish's tactics, his transfer record since returning or his age.
The club and the owners want to compete at the top, and the recent unbearable culture of quick fixes and changing tact had to go.
In came Brendan Rodgers a year ago, with the task handed to him of restructuring the Liverpool squad entirely, recruiting sensibly with a long-term view, incorporating youthful quality into the team from the Academy system and, in a period of a couple of years, getting the club back into the Champions League.
After a seventh-place finish from the Reds last season, Liverpool will now start the 2013-14 campaign without Champions League football for the fourth consecutive campaign.
It can't go on.
Rodgers took a season to bed in his ideas, add some new faces to the squad and identify areas which needed significant improvement—and that doesn't just go for on the pitch, but also the training ground and the changing room.
How Long Do We Have?
What does Rodgers have to do? Finish in the top four? Merely "challenge" for it, whatever that means?
It's clear that to take significant steps back toward winning the league title, Liverpool have to first break their way back into the top four.
In fact, despite all those near misses and false dawns, Liverpool are likely to have to make it back to the runners-up spot first before going one better and finally winning the title; all other Premier League winners have come runners-up beforehand.
The latter will be a hugely difficult task with the Portuguese boss already extremely close to the top four this season, but Spurs and Liverpool changed managers at the same time. They are the yardstick against which Liverpool must measure their progress for now.
Even after that, one of Chelsea or Arsenal also need to be overhauled to take a top-four finish. That's the task facing Rodgers this summer as he looks around the transfer market to find the quality which can make a significant difference.
Philippe Coutinho. Raheem Sterling. Suso. Martin Kelly.
That's Liverpool's future: bringing in young talent and making the most of the homegrown ability at the club. Those youngsters are all Premier League-quality. The attacking ones are match-winners; there can be little doubt about it.
Coutinho is arguably the youngster that Rodgers should already be looking to build his team around, though he might first look to bring in one or two more quality players for depth before he has to look at which first XI name is most important of all.
Time will dictate whether they have the mentality and luck with injuries to become not only regular players for Liverpool but also strong enough to take the team back towards the top. Fans will continue to believe it will happen, this year or next, but there are certainly reasons for optimism.
What the owners have to do is back the manager, believe in his methods and make reasonable judgements on what constitutes success and progress, year upon year. Of course what is deemed acceptable this season might not be next year, but Rodgers knows the expectations on him anyway and he'll be determined to help the team push on for more.
Seventh last year, fourth this? It's a stretch, but there should be funds enough to get in several very good players who, collectively, can make up a 15-point improvement. That should be enough to reach the top four once more, and from then on it's anybody's game.
And a first league title since 1990?
Liverpool are a long way off it right now. In two months' time, with new names in and out of the club once more, we might be able to reconsider that statement...but there is little point in looking so far ahead.
Once the first barrier is broken down, others will follow.
It's always been the way at Liverpool that success is worked for, earned, achieved. Rodgers will win silverware and will get the team back into the top four. Taking that final, biggest step of all has eluded many before him. But Rodgers backs himself to be the one to turn things around.
Liverpool are heading in the right direction so far, but it's a big summer all around. Consistent, sustainable progression is the key.
The tactical building blocks are presumably in place, the plan is in place, the staff are there. Now is the time to add real quality and see how far this latest edition of Liverpool can go.
A new Liverpool dynasty has been more than two decades in the making and breaking. It's Rodgers' turn to try and be the one who launches it one step further than anyone else. And given the changes elsewhere and the standard of the league in general over the past three years or so, he couldn't have asked for a better time to take his opportunity.