From obscure unknown to undisputed hero: the Israeli who won Liverpool's last title
Margaret Thatcher was still at No.10 and mobile phones were the size of a small one-bed flat in Toxteth when Liverpool last won the title. The hero of their First Division (remember that?) title run-in wasn’t Peter Beardsley, John Barnes or Ian Rush, however, but a 26-year-old on loan from unfashionable Belgian outfit Standard Liege who would become synonymous not with title glory but perhaps the most glaring miss in Premier League history.
It’s a measure of how long ago Liverpool’s last title was that when FourFourTwo catches up with Ronny Rosenthal, he’s in Belgium watching his son play for the country’s U18s. Time flies. But when the former Israel international looks back on that golden spring 24 years ago, his memories are as clear today as they were when he first wandered star-struck into the Liverpool dressing room in March 1990.
“I was unknown and coming from a far smaller league,” he tells FFT. “When you’re given a chance at a big club as a completely unknown player, there’s something special about it. If Manchester City or Chelsea sign a player now, everyone knows everything about them before they start a game. Back then things were a lot different. I came as an unknown player and made an impact which boosted my career in England.
“To walk into that dressing room was fantastic because the club was absolutely dominating English football at the time. I was playing with great international players like Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes.
“Liverpool had been successful for a long time and Kenny (Dalglish) was very intelligent, he knew what he wanted from his players. Don’t forget that clubs at that time didn’t have a fantastic scouting systems. Generally, you really had to rely on the best players from the league you were playing in.
“Liverpool, financially, were better than other clubs so they would always bring in the best players. But everything’s relative – compared to today the sums involved were very small.”
When Rosenthal arrived from across the North Sea, Liverpool were knee-deep in a three-way tussle for the title with Arsenal (then the holders) and Aston Villa.
The destination of the trophy – lost by Liverpool to George Graham’s north London side in heart-breaking fashion at Anfield in the final seconds the previous May (see Fever Pitch for more details) – was still very much in the balance as the man from Haifa prepared to make his full debut against Charlton under the Selhurst Park floodlights on April 11.
What happened next had the travelling Merseyside contingent blinking in disbelief.
Making an impression
“Ronny Rosenthal used his right foot, left foot, and finally his head to claim three inspired goals which not only illuminated Selhurst Park but maintained Liverpool’s lead at the head of the league last night,” wrote Louise Taylor in The Times.
Then it was Liverpool, rather than Manchester City, who enjoyed the benefit of a game in hand, and Rosenthal’s three-card trick had put his new side three points clear on course for the title. At the post-match press conference, Kenny Dalglish told the awaiting hordes that he wouldn’t “be racing against Ronny in training”.
That was probably a wise call, because Ronny – the original rocket – had pace to burn in a team that, he readily admits, would probably look more than a little pedestrian in today’s Premier League.
“The players are more athletic now than they were 20 years ago,” says Rosenthal. “Before, if you were a talented player that was enough. If you did not have the pace then you would still do okay. Today? That would be impossible. Clubs are all looking for athletic players, there has been a massive change.
“Football is also more professional now. People talk about the drinking culture back then I don't think Liverpool's top players were going out every night and having a few beers. Maybe they drank more than the players of today but now football has become so high profile and enjoys so much coverage in the media that players can’t just go out and do what they want.”
If Liverpool do win the league this season, there will certainly be no shortage of fans raising a glass to the miracles performed by Brendan Rodgers’ side. Liverpool will know, though, that staying at the pinnacle could be far more challenging than reaching the peak in the first place.
When the club won the title 24 years ago it was their seventh First Division gong since 1980. No one could have anticipated that it would be their last for a generation.
“Clubs needed to find ways of finding the best players and this is where Liverpool, who were dominating in the 1980s, really fell behind,” says the Israeli. “Manchester United and Arsenal were really ahead of the game in going out and finding young players who could really make a difference.”
More than a misser
Rosenthal’s heroics against Charlton weren't his final contributions in the title run-in. Draws against Nottingham Forest at Anfield and Arsenal at Highbury had put the championship back in the balance as Liverpool entered the final four match of the season.
“I remember we had three home games in a row and then finished the season against Coventry away,” he says. “In the end we ended up winning four out of four and finished about nine points clear of Villa. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds, though.”
Rosenthal would score four more in that run-in, including the opening goal in a 4-1 hiding of Chelsea that preceded the 2-1 win against QPR which finally brought the First Division title back to Anfield. He netted twice on the final day as Liverpool crowned their season with a 6-1 demolition of Coventry at Highfield Road.
So if Liverpool repeat the feat this season, would it be an even greater achievement given the sums sloshing around a sport that has changed beyond all recognition since Rosenthal first wore red?
“There are a lot of old Liverpool fans telling their kids how Liverpool used to win everything,” he says. “If they did do it again it would be fantastic for the city and for the fans. It would be a remarkable achievement, probably more so now than back then because nobody really saw it coming.”