On Wednesday April 13, 1988, Liverpool faced Nottingham Forest at Anfield. Two of England’s top sides at the time who were about to meet for the third time in less than a fortnight and what took place was a performance which the great Tom Finney would later describe as: “One of the finest exhibitions of football I’ve seen.”
Despite being fourth in the First Division table Nottingham Forest were some 14 points behind their opponents that night with just seven games remaining while Liverpool, managed by Kenny Dalglish, were 11 points clear at the top with two games in hand; but that didn’t mean they had any intention of taking their foot off the gas – far from it.
Forest were no mugs. Under the guidance of Brian Clough they had been beaten by Liverpool in that season’s FA Cup semi-final the previous Saturday and boasted some of the game’s greatest talents such as, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Neil Webb; what’s more they had become only the second side to beat Liverpool that season just 11 days earlier.
But any Forest optimism going into this third encounter of an exciting trilogy was quickly extinguished as Liverpool set-about putting their opponents to the sword in the most convincing and at times humiliating way possible – quite simply they played them off the park.
The home side attacked relentlessly from kick-off with John Barnes in mesmerising form, turning the Forest defence inside out at will while Peter Beardsley took up a deeper position than normal to allow the Liverpool midfield to make the most of the space created while John Aldridge lurked menacingly, looking to pounce on any opportunity created – and there were plenty.
What was surprising was that it took 18 minutes for the Reds to get on the score-sheet, something which Forest ‘keeper Steve Sutton can take much of the credit for, but after a neat one-two with Barnes on the edge of the box Ray Houghton finally found himself through on goal and opened the scoring.
Surprisingly Liverpool’s second came from a rare Forest attack and when Gary Ablett won the ball deep in his own half it triggered a quick counter attack which saw Aldridge through on goal and he comfortably chipped the ball over the advancing Sutton.
Two goals down at half-time, which could have been much more had it not been for the woodwork and an inspired Steve Sutton in the Forest goal, Brian Clough and his players must only have hoped that their opponents would ease off in the second period but that’s not what this Liverpool team was about – as they were about to learn the hard way.
A sign of any great side is their ability to score goals from anywhere on the field and Liverpool’s class of ’88 was no different, something which was highlighted with just over half an hour remaining as John Barnes took a quick corner to Ray Houghton, who then pulled the ball back to Gary Gillespie to rifle the ball into the roof of the net to make it 3-0.
Probably the finest goal that night came in the shape of Liverpool’s fourth, not least for some brilliant work out on the left from John Barnes after he’d been set free by Nigel Spackman thanks to a perfectly placed pass.
Seemingly running into a cul-de-sac by the corner flag Barnes calmly slipped the ball through Steve Chettle’s legs before completely deceiving the onrushing Neil Webb, and after gliding into the penalty area picked-out the onrushing Beardsley; whose first time shot flew into the bottom right corner.
By now Forest resembled a heavyweight boxer, punch drunk and clinging onto the ropes hoping to be saved by the bell, but Liverpool were relentless and went for the knockout blow and sure enough that came in the 88th minute when, after a fine run, Nigel Spackman squared the ball to Aldridge six yards, he couldn’t miss.
In all honesty if it had been ten nobody would have been surprised, such was Liverpool’s ability to attack at will and create chance-after-chance for almost the entire 90 minutes. It was Champaign football at its very finest from a side who were at the peak of their powers.
So much so that the BBC showed a special highlights show the following night while the club actually included the full 90-minutes of the game on the Liverpool FC Official History video at the end of that season in the days before Sky Plus or YouTube.
And those who were there that night were fully aware of what they had witnessed. “It was tremendous,” claimed Tom Finney, one of England’s greatest ever players. “The skills and the speed the game was played at was absolutely tremendous. You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil. The moves they put together were fantastic.”
Alan Green, writing for the BBC World Service wrote: “Reporters are often accused, rightly, of being too glib using words like brilliant, fantastic, fabulous. Liverpool deserved all these adjectives tonight.” Meanwhile praise even came from Forest Chairman Maurice Roworth, who claimed: “It wouldn’t have made any difference who the opponents had been that night, no team in Europe would’ve stood a chance.”
Inevitably Liverpool were crowned champions for the 17th time just 10 days later thanks to a season which had seen more than its fair share of brilliant performances; but the game against Nottingham Forest on April 13, which many referred to as “the match of the century,” would go down as one of the greatest exhibitions of football in living memory for those fortunate enough to experience it.