Reds from the Past – Stan Collymore
A lot of players have come to and gone from Anfield and while a select group made it to the pantheon of Liverpool FC legends, there were many who can excite for a short period of time before moving on. Stanley Victor Collymore certainly fit the bill. His career as a Red lasted only 2 seasons, but it produced some amazing football, a ton of goals and, in keeping with Liverpool’s modus operandi of the last 3 decades, a ton of heartbreak. However, in his short time, he combined with the legendary Robbie Fowler and several other strong, young, and talented players to make the Redmen a serious title contender under Roy Evans’ management.
A strange place and time
As a club, the mid 90s were the first of Liverpool FC’s many false dawns. After quite a few forgettable seasons, Liverpool signed a former Red, Roy Evans, as manager in the middle of the 93-94 season. The club was, needless to say, in a weird place when Roy took charge, as his squad had a mix of glory-day veterans like Ian Rush, John Barnes, and Jan Molby on one hand and emerging talents like Steve McManaman, Jason McAteer, and Robbie Fowler on the other. Roy’s first full season was relatively successful as he won the 94-95 League cup (qualification for UEFA cup), but the club had finished 4th in the title race (Only the winner qualified for Champions League). Now, many of you may wonder as to how this made for a good start to Roy’s time, but it was because the UEFA cup meant a lot more back then than it does now, and the Champions League (Then European Cup) was only meant for the title winners. This gave Evans the solid ground he needed to bring in a top of the line striker for the 95-96 title push.
Stan the Man
Collymore arriving at Anfield was straight out of central casting. I was going through a lot of change at the time as I had just graduated from high school in Bahrain to attend college in India. But Stan was at the height of his powers at Nottingham Forest during this time. He was part of the post-Brian Clough renaissance at Nottingham Forest and partnered with the Dutch striker Bryan Roy to help Forest finish 3rd in the 94-95 season and qualify for the UEFA cup.
Collymore passed the eye test with flying colors, and he had an exuberant personality. It was a treat to watch him play football with grace, speed, and power at a time when the most talented players were in Serie A. If he had not taken up football, he could very easily have been a part of the Showtime Lakers, running the floor and finishing lobs from Magic Johnson. Everything – the physique, the style, the clinical finishes – just gelled together to make one of the most gifted players in European club football at the time. His trajectory had Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, and Liverpool, but it would have been a surprise to no one if he had moved on to Juventus, AC or Inter Milan. However, with the grace, also came a physical and mental toughness. I recall numerous instances when would be tugged and pulled by defenders but would stay upright to clinically finish. His debut goal for Liverpool against Sheffield Wednesday is one that immediately comes to mind. He evaded two Wednesday defenders, who seemed to think that some judo moves would stop him, and then let rip a shot into the bottom left corner of goal with the power and precision of an Agassi return of serve. My personal opinion is that his box office appeal, if he sustained that level of play, would be on par with Roberto Baggio or Gabriel Batistuta. Many of us Liverpool supporters likened his signing to that of Blackburn Rovers signing Chris Sutton the season before and going on to win the title.
Man and God
Liverpool had uncovered the mother lode of goals by pairing Stan the Man with Robbie “God” Fowler. With due respect, the great Ian Rush was still a force to reckon with, but he had lost a step and Liverpool needed fresher legs and stronger wills to push the club towards its lofty ambitions. His haul of 14 goals in the 95-96 season, combined with 28 banged in by Fowler ensured that Liverpool were in striking distance of the two lead horses – Manchester United and Newcastle – that season. Numerous young talents at Anfield were finally beginning to come into their own, like McManaman, McAteer, Jamie Redknapp, and David James. The club had also invested wisely by bringing in John Scales to provide support to Neil “Razor” Ruddock at the back. Leadership, talent, courage – all the ingredients were there for an exciting season.
Highs and Lows
This season is one of those rare few where any loyal Liverpool supporter could tell you, with exact precision, about their most memorable game and forgettable game.
Let us get the painful part out of the way first. A league or any kind of loss to Manchester United is painful in and of itself. So, a loss to them in the FA cup final is probably a 10 on the torture scale from 1 to 10. Given a choice between watching the Redmen lose to Fergie’s Red devils or having pins stuck into my eyeballs, I would pick the latter. From Stan’s point of view, it was probably more frustrating, because the game was scoreless when he was substituted late, and Liverpool then went down to what would be the winning goal while he was on the bench, and could only look on helplessly. That substitution probably cost Liverpool a trophy and Collymore a medal he could show for his time at Anfield. The fact that he left without any team honors only made this final more depressing in retrospect.
Now that we have got that bit of Chinese water torture out of the way, let us move on to Liverpool’s most memorable win of the season, and arguably, the most entertaining game in Premier League history. If Stan is to be remembered for his time in Anfield, it should be for his starring in this shootout for the ages. Two “salt of the earth’ clubs with two of the most passionate fan bases in England. Both teams were at the height of their attacking powers and the match was made all the more interesting by the strong Liverpool connection at Newcastle – with Kevin Keegan as their manager, and the tireless Peter Beardsley scampering about like he did for Liverpool in the glory days of the 80s. Newcastle FC were in the middle of a title chase with Manchester United and their attack had the nuclear-footed Les Ferdinand, French wizard David Ginola, and Colombian legend Faustino Asprilla. Keegan had managed to combine the power of Ferdinand with the flair and creativity of both Ginola and Asprilla to form a multi-dimensional offense that could beat opponents in multiple ways. Both teams had attacks that were chomping at the bit to prove themselves at the fortress of Anfield.
The game ended up having everything you would want in a premier league game. The lead went back and forth and all the attacking players were at their absolute best. Stan scored the tying goal at 3-3 in the 68th minute, and then scored the winner 2 minutes deep into stoppage time to seal the 3 points. My fondest memory of this game would be Collymore’s running celebration along the sideline after scoring and the Kop breaking every possible decibel level in its reaction. That game deserves as much credit as any for the popularity of the Premier League today.
Turn off the lights, the party is over
Collymore’s 2nd and final season with Liverpool was hard to describe. It was another season of unrealized potential in terms of results. Stan continued his good form, but the overall inconsistency of the team led to him and several others taking the blame for the club’s inability to seal the deal. Liverpool finished runners up after leading the league as late as New Year’s Day. They fell short again to Fergie’s titanic United side, and were, fairly or unfairly, criticized for partying harder than they played. Losses in the later stages of the Cup Winners’ Cup and FA Cup also did not help matter. It still boggles the mind when we think about that particular generation of Liverpool players coming up empty handed in what was otherwise a spectacular season. Stan would move on to Aston Villa, and I would be proven wrong in my internal predictions that he would end his career as an England great and with a successful stint at a European giant under his belt.
But nevertheless, he was an amazing player who could match the best of them in that era. He brought a lot of joy to me and countless other Liverpool fans in his short time at the club, and it would be nonsensical to classify his time at Liverpool as a failure. He was a great footballer, who deserves credit as an early Premier League star, and a player who could have taken his country to International glory if the England management of the time had shown more understanding and patience for temperamental geniuses like him, Matthew LeTissier and Paul Merson. He has been critical but fair of the club in his post-playing life as a man of opinion. He has been critical of Suarez’s diving, but also generous with praise towards the Liverpool side currently marching to Premier League champion glory. I hope English football finally figures out a way to make the best use of his knowledge and honesty.