Liverpool’s remarkable season has now come down to this.
For all the talk of Everton doing their neighbours a favour when they host Manchester City on Saturday, the Reds will have to win at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park on Monday evening in order to maintain a hope of winning the Premier League title.
With Palace having impressed everyone since Tony Pulis took over at the club in late November—as the Welshman subsequently steered them comfortably to Premier League safety—the Eagles will now be looking to overhaul one or both of Newcastle and Stoke to secure what would be a stunning top-half finish.
Many have claimed that Pulis’ heroics ensure that he deserves to be recognised with the Manager of the Year award ahead of the likes of Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, but while that remains to be seen, what is clear is that this will be the most significant meeting between these two clubs since the 1989/90 season, the campaign in which the Reds last won the league title.
In the fifth game of that campaign, Liverpool recorded their biggest ever top-flight win when they hammered newly promoted Palace 9-0 at Anfield, as eight different Reds players got on the scoresheet—including John Aldridge in what was his final game for the club.
A much more routine 2-0 win at Selhurst Park the following January (Ian Rush and Peter Beardsley) kept the title bid on track, and by April, the likelihood of the Reds winning an 18th English crown meant that all thoughts had turned to the possibility of a second league and FA Cup double in five years.
Swansea, Norwich, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers had been beaten along the way—three of them via replays—and when the Reds arrived at Villa Park for the semi-final against opponents who they had beaten 11-0 on aggregate in the league that season, plenty expected another walkover. Plenty were wrong.
Whereas the Liverpool side contained household names such as Rush, Beardsley, John Barnes, Alan Hansen and Bruce Grobbelaar and was managed by Kenny Dalglish, Palace’s players were young, hungry and desperate to back up what was by now a likely stay of execution in the old Division One, in which they eventually finished 15th.
Manager Steve Coppell—Liverpool-born but once a part of the Manchester United side which denied his boyhood club a treble by beating them in the 1977 FA Cup final—had certainly got his side motivated for the occasion, but that motivation always seemed likely to lose out to Liverpool’s extra quality. So it seemed from the beginning anyway.
A year on from the Hillsborough disaster during their previous FA Cup semi-final, Liverpool dominated from the off and took the lead in just the 14th minute when a fine through ball from Steve McMahon—who had intercepted a pass from a certain Palace winger Alan Pardew, more of him later—was expertly finished by Rush for the arch goal-getter’s sixth strike of that FA Cup campaign, and one of the 26 he’d manage in all competitions that season.
A routine win and participation in the FA Cup final for the fourth time in five years now looked like a given, but the first hint that this wasn’t to be Liverpool’s day came when Rush was forced off with an injury 15 minutes after his goal, to be replaced by Steve Staunton.
Perhaps buoyed by that, Palace now sensed their chance.
A remarkable start to the second half saw the Eagles win the ball directly from a Reds kick-off, with John Pemberton’s surging run down the right-hand side ending with a cross, the ball bouncing around the Liverpool penalty area and then Mark Bright smashing home a remarkable equaliser to send the Palace fans behind the goal wild.
The favourites were stunned, and with Palace sensing that crosses into the box would be their best chance to trouble Liverpool, they kept on making them.
Twenty minutes from time, a free-kick from Andy Gray resulted in even more confusion in the Reds penalty area, with defender Gary O’Reilly lashing a loose ball beyond Grobbelaar to send the Palace fans into delirium and, they hoped, to Wembley as well.
But this Liverpool side weren’t regarded as the best in the country by accident, and they soon emphatically roared back with two goals in two minutes.
A clever free-kick from Staunton and his fellow substitute Barry Venison ended in the ball being cut back for McMahon to blast home the Reds’ equaliser, before Staunton was tripped by Pemberton in the penalty area and Barnes fired home from 12 yards.
The semi-final had suddenly, dramatically tilted the other way, and Liverpool were 3-2 up and headed for Wembley; their supporters singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in celebration. Palace wouldn’t be denied, though.
In the dying minutes, again a cross came into the box, and with the defenders and goalkeeper Grobbelaar simply unable to deal with it, Gray popped up to nod home after Geoff Thomas had seen his initial header cleared off the line. Extra time was going to be needed after a stunning 90 minutes.
With Liverpool shattered at the late concession—and fortunate not to have lost the game in normal time when Andy Thorn’s header hit the bar—all of the momentum was with Palace, who were causing problems every time they crossed the ball into the box, and none more so that with what proved to be the winner in the 109th minute of the match.
A corner from the Palace left was flicked on by defender Thorn, and Pardew was there to bundle the ball home ahead of Grobbelaar and his stunned teammates.
Palace held on for the most remarkable of 4-3 victories and a place in the FA Cup final against Manchester United, who played out their own dramatic semi-final that same day when they drew 3-3 with Oldham Athletic before beating them in a replay.
In a vintage year for the FA Cup, United and Palace would draw 3-3 in the final before Lee Martin’s solitary goal won the replay and a first United trophy for Alex Ferguson.
Despite their Wembley loss, that semi-final at Villa Park still remains written large in Palace history, with the defeat still one of the most regretted in Liverpool’s.
The cast of characters from the day have all gone their various ways—television studios, brief managerial stints and, in the case of Pardew, one or two FA disciplinary hearings—but perhaps the biggest impact from the match was felt by Dalglish.
A year after the stresses and strains of Hillsborough, the Scot was put through the wringer in a match which was then echoed 10 months later in a crazy 4-4 FA Cup draw with Everton, after which Dalglish sensationally resigned.
This Monday’s meeting between the two clubs has a lot to live up to then, but as the two sides who have arguably overachieved the most in the Premier League this season, the pair will be eager to put on a show and perhaps echo April 8, 1990.
Liverpool will be relying on a better result, though, of course. Title ambitions depend on it.
But as Palace have shown in the past, they won’t care about that.