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Roy Evans only managed to win one trophy during his tenure as Liverpool boss, but he brought through several superb young players at Anfield. As the Reds go to Southampton this weekend, we replay their trip to The Dell 19 years ago...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 28/02/14 11:59am
"I thought Steve McManaman had an average game. He didn't want to pass to a yellow shirt" - Roy Evans
Even in victory, there was often a feeling that the Liverpool teams of the mid 1990s were capable of more - and Evans appeared to be thinking along those lines when he spoke to the media after the Reds' 3-1 Premier League victory over Southampton at The Dell in October 1995. McManaman may have netted twice in that game, but he was certainly not exempt from Evans' criticism.
However, as Liverpool's current crop travel south for a Saturday Night Football encounter with Saints at St Mary's, their goalscoring exuberance appears almost impossible to contain. With 70 netted to date in the Premier League - one more than even Manchester City - goals are flowing freely for Brendan Rodgers' side. Rodgers has been concerned by the leakiness of his defence (only Newcastle in the top half of the table have shipped more) but with the gap to leaders Chelsea just four points going into the weekend, there has rarely been such cause for optimism at Anfield in recent times.
'Pass and Move' is still a philosophy that matters to Liverpool - their 5-0 demolition of Tottenham at White Hart Lane in December, described by Rodgers as "the most complete performance since I've been here", is a perfect example. Back in the 1995/96 campaign, Evans espoused the virtues of the system to such an extent that it even inspired the club's FA Cup Final song. And although the then Liverpool manager took McManaman to task after the win away to Saints, there was beauty in the precision distribution - much of it one-touch - and off-the-ball runs which his team produced.
As League Cup holders, Liverpool had been hugely fancied to finally get their act together that season and mount a sustained title assault. Reigning champions Blackburn looked a weaker squad on paper and Manchester United had also lost key players, while Evans had been allowed to shell out a British record fee of £8.5million on striker Stan Collymore and had an abundance of young talent like McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp at his disposal. Early defeats away to Leeds and Wimbledon stopped fans getting too carried away, however, while a goalless draw at home to Coventry in the match preceding the Super Sunday trip to Southampton left many scratching their heads. That result left the Reds in sixth spot, and needing a win to close the gap on leaders Newcastle to seven points.
Saints were struggling down in 18th under manager Dave Merrington, with just one league win to their name - although that victory had come at home to the soaring Magpies, suggesting they were capable of an upset. They got off to a flyer too, in front of a crowd of 15,245 packed into the cramped stadium, with Gordon Watson glancing home a diving header in only the second minute when Matt Le Tissier swung in a corner to the near post, the delivery just eluding John Barnes.
But the hosts' five-man midfield made the fatal mistake of sitting back and allowing Liverpool to play their football; Mauricio Pochettino, whose passion for the pressing game at the current time is well known, would have been horrified. In the 21st minute, Redknapp had plenty of time in the centre circle to spot the run on the right flank of Fowler, who cleverly eluded Francis Benali before looking up to see what options were available in the box. His choice - the fast-arriving McManaman - slotted his right-footed shot firmly past Dave Beasant. "His control, and the way he just left him (Benali) for dead, was absolutely superb play," said Martin Tyler's co-commentator Andy Gray. Still just 20 at the time, Fowler wouldn't get on the scoresheet in this match but would end the season with 28 league goals - second only to Blackburn's Alan Shearer - and the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
Southampton's slackness was almost punished further when Benali touched a hopeful Steve Harkness cross into the box back to Beasant, with the ball threatening to trickle in under the goalkeeper's foot - but he managed to clear at the second attempt.
Jason McAteer, who had signed for Liverpool the previous month in a £4.5million deal from Bolton, was playing at right-back in the absence of the suspended Rob Jones. The 24-year-old got forward on several occasions and thumped one first-half shot just wide of Beasant's post as the Reds pushed hard for a second goal. Liverpool could not be complacent though, and David James had to save well from Neil Shipperley at close range shortly before the interval, the striker having been put through by full debutant Paul Tisdale.
But nine minutes into the second period, the Reds were to nudge themselves in front and they had both McAteer and McManaman to thank. The former came infield off the flank, and took the ball past Benali into the right side of the area before smashing a low shot at Beasant, who could only parry the ball in front of him. McManaman was there to snaffle up the chance for his second goal of the afternoon.
Five minutes later, Le Tissier - in front of watching England scout Ted Buxton - was booked by referee Dermot Gallagher after he stretched for a loose ball in his own half and upended Ian Rush. Ten minutes later, the Saints hero compounded his mistake upfield with a very late tackle on Phil Babb - and received another yellow card and then a red. By this stage in his career, Le Tissier had six England caps to his name and would have to wait almost a year for his seventh, when Glenn Hoddle had taken over from Terry Venables. He would accumulate only eight in total.
Le Tissier had opened the season with a hat-trick in a 4-3 home defeat by Nottingham Forest, but had failed to find the net since then. Merrington admitted his star man was struggling. "It's nothing to do with the England squad, more to do with the fact that he's trying so hard," he told reporters. "When he's at the top of his form, everything he tries comes off, but at the moment they're not happening for him. It's frustration with himself. We've tried lots of things to help him and he's just got to get back on the training field and work it out. Sometimes when you're going through a bad spell, you have to go back to simplicity and start again." Evans also sympathised with the 27-year-old, adding: "It's sad in a game that has had no ill-feeling. He's got sent off for two bookable offences but in the old football, they were never bookable offences. It makes the game look ridiculous."
Liverpool wrapped up the three points in the 73rd minute when McManaman turned provider, passing the ball forwards down the left channel for Redknapp to run onto. He could have squared to Rush, but chose to shoot himself and found the gap between Beasant and the near post with power and accuracy.
Despite the Reds rising to fifth, Evans knew there was room for improvement. "We couldn't have won more easily, but we could have won by more," he said. "For all the possession we had in the last 20 minutes, it was a bit negative. On the back of a 3-1 win away from home, it's sensible to have a little go - then it becomes constructive criticism, rather than sour grapes. We over-elaborated but if we had kept it simple, we could have had three or four more goals."
Surprisingly, it was Saints who would fare better immediately afterwards, with Merrington's men winning four of their next six league games. The Reds thrashed Manchester City 6-0 but managed to collect just one point from their November fixtures. December began with the reverse fixture between Liverpool and Southampton, and the visitors claimed a 1-1 at Anfield, with Shipperley scoring the opener before Collymore levelled. That left Evans' Reds in eighth spot, and Saints in 14th.
Come the end of the campaign, Southampton managed to stay up only on goal difference - the beneficiaries of confusion at Maine Road, where Manchester City failed to realise a 2-2 draw with Liverpool would not be enough to survive until it was too late. City had been fed bogus information that Wimbledon had scored down at The Dell, where in fact a stalemate kept Saints up by the skin of their teeth. Merrington did not remain in his job, however, with Graeme Souness replacing him in the summer.
After ending up in third - their best Premier League performance until Gerard Houllier engineered a runners-up berth in 2002 - Evans took his white-suited Liverpool players back to Wembley to face champions Manchester United, who won 1-0 to clinch the Double for the second time.
The suits will surely be more conservative when Liverpool arrive at St Mary's for Saturday Night Football, but the Reds' appetite for goals appears far greater than that of the 1995/96 team, whose overall league tally for the season has already been matched. In fact, Liverpool need just eight more strikes to surpass the total amassed by the Rafael Benitez team that came within four points of the title in 2008/9. If they can keep on scoring at this rate, that agonising 24-year wait to be crowned champions of England once more may yet be ended.
Watch Southampton v Liverpool live on Sky Sports 1HD on Saturday, with coverage underway from 5pm.