Liverpool appeared unusually vulnerable as they made the visit to White Hart Lane on Sunday March 3, 1986. After losing 2-0 to Everton at Anfield the week before, Kenny Dalglish’s team were grimly trying to stay in the title race, trailing their Merseyside rivals by eight points with twelve matches remaining.
The glimmer of hope for the visitors was the form of their opponents. Under new manager Peter Shreeves, Tottenham had been contenders in the league during the previous campaign. But second season syndrome well and truly kicked in, as Tottenham’s fortunes slumped in 1985/86.
Locked firmly in mid-table, Shreeves’ team had lost 13 out of the 29 league matches, including six defeats at White Hart Lane. With gates dropping – 13,135 had recently attended the match against Coventry – and Shreeves’ past signings Chris Waddle, Paul and Clive Allen, and John Chiedozie all struggling, the pressure was mounting on Tottenham’s boss.
Another man under scrutiny was Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. His recent performance against Everton was a microcosm of his time at the club; stunning saves with the occasional clanger thrown in. Allowing Kevin Ratcliffe’s 35-yard shot to somehow squirm through his body, Grobbelaar had seemingly hammered a nail in Liverpool’s coffin.
“The fact is, when he’s at his best, he’s unbeatable,” Nigel Clarke wrote in the Daily Mirror. “But too often these days his concentration cracks and errors stud his game.” There would be no hiding place at White Hart Lane for Grobbelaar, with the match being shown live on BBC1. As Arctic conditions continued to sweep across the UK, the heat was definitely on Liverpool’s keeper.
Unfortunately for Grobbelaar, another error did little to silence the critics. Palming a Glenn Hoddle corner straight up in the air underneath his crossbar, Grobbelaar could only look on in horror as Waddle prodded the ball over the line. Hands on hips, staring at the ground, Liverpool’s keeper cut a dejected figure as he contemplated his latest mistake.
“I have had a week of publicity and to start the game like I did today was a poor show,” Grobbelaar admitted. A goal behind after just two minutes, Liverpool’s title credentials were now being tested. Dropping points would surely spell the end of any championship hopes.
It would take a half-time ear bashing from Dalglish to kick start Liverpool’s surge to the title. “Sometimes a lot of noise works wonders,” Grobbelaar informed the press. “Kenny is a hard man and you have to go and play for him.” Whatever was said in the dressing room obviously had an impact. In the second half, Liverpool were a different beast.
Swarming over Tottenham, there was an inevitability that the equaliser would arrive, the only surprise being that it took until the 66th minute for the goal to come. Before then, Tottenham keeper Ray Clemence did well to thwart Steve McMahon and Craig Johnston, and Jan Molby hit the bar, as the red machine worked through the gears.
It would take a Molby drive from the edge of the box to level matters, and the momentum was firmly behind the visitors as Liverpool searched for the winner. McMahon struck the woodwork, and Clemence saved superbly from Ian Rush, yet as the clock ticked down, Grobbelaar’s error looked like it had cost Liverpool dearly.
However, before you could say “never write off Liverpool”, Rush struck a pivotal goal in the 1985/86 campaign. As Steve Perryman misjudged the bounce of the ball on the halfway line of the rock hard pitch, Ronnie Whelan swept forward before playing a delicious through ball to Rush. The Welshman poked the ball past Clemence to send the travelling supporters wild as the television pictures cut to a jubilant Dalglish.
“Bruce was the most relieved man in the ground when I scored the goal,” Rush revealed. “I'm glad for him that I got the winner.” A relieved Grobbelaar blew a sigh of relief. “Fortunately the lads were able to pull it out for me.”
If Liverpool were ecstatic, the agony for Tottenham continued. Losing their fourth home league match in a row, Shreeves was struggling to find answers to Tottenham’s problems. When Everton ended Tottenham’s last chance of silverware just two days later in the FA Cup at White Hart Lane, Shreeves’ was on borrowed time.
The end would come on May 13, the Tottenham board acting due to their disappointing tenth place finish. Just three days earlier, Liverpool had completed a remarkable double, the result at Tottenham the start of something special that saw Dalglish’s men recover from the brink at half-time to somehow overhaul their city rivals.
Alan Hansen recalled the 1985/86 title triumph with fond memories on Match of the 80s. “Looking back that was probably one of the best ones of the championships of my eight, because at no stage until quarter to five on the Saturday that we played Chelsea did I think that we would win that championship.”
Including the Tottenham match, Liverpool took 34 points from a possible 36, taking advantage of an unexpected Everton slip-up against Oxford to win the first part of their double. Dalglish’s team talk, and Rush’s injury time winner, proved a significant turning point for Liverpool’s season and history.