Taken off Soccernet on Friday, May 28, 1999
By Michael Hart

Liverpool have set standard for Ferguson's men

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The victorious 1984 Liverpool team remains a benchmark for comparison for many good teams

But for the most dramatic three minutes in European club history, we wouldn't now be assessing Manchester United's place in the pantheon of great teams.

One memorable triumph doesn't make a great team, just as one indifferent performance in a Champions' League Final doesn't significantly detract from United's awesome achievements under Alex Ferguson.

But the fact is that the 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich ensures this United team a place in the game's history books.

As the first club to win the Champions' League, Premiership and FA Cup in the same season, they qualify automatically for a place of honour among the domestic record breakers.

But their ascension into a footballing heaven peopled by the Gods of the game requires the kind of enduring universal respect, both from professionals and public, that accompanied the long reigns of club sides such as Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern, AC Milan and Liverpool.

In the aftermath of the euphoria and inevitable overkill that embraced United's emotional night in Barcelona, I believe it's necessary to assign United's achievement to its proper place in history. Heroes are too easily created in the modern game, and just as easily dismissed and forgotten.

Ruud Gullit, the Newcastle and former Chelsea manager who played in two European Cup-winning teams with AC Milan, believes that United's status as a European super power in the new Millenium is by no means assured.

'AC Milan dominated for some years but we learned that you can't stand still in that time,' he said. 'You have to reinvest in the team.

'It is the purchase of quality players that ensures those already at the club maintain their standards.'

That is the challenge facing Ferguson and an Old Trafford board who can now combine unrivalled prestige with financial muscle to compete for the world's most expensive players.

'Winning it first time is the easy part,' said Gullit. 'Staying at the top is the real secret.'

No club has done that with greater success or recognition than Real Madrid, although their early successes in the European Cup were achieved in far gentler times.

Their five consecutive triumphs in the first five finals established men such as Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento among the greatest of players.

Real have since won the trophy twice more - last season they beat Juventus 1-0 in the Final - and a total of seven victories in 10 Final appearances makes them the most successful club in Europe by some distance.

The Ajax of Johann Cruyff and Johan Neeskens won the European Cup three times between 1971-73 and the Bayern of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller dominated for the next four seasons.

Then, at last, it was Liverpool's turn to extend their domestic supremacy, initially built on Bill Shankly's foundations, into the far corners of Europe.

Liverpool remain the yardstick in England for United, on both domestic and European fronts, having won the title a record 18 times and the European Cup four times in five Finals.

United's 1968 European Cup Final win over Benfica was the sole English triumph until the Liverpool team of Kevin Keegan, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes beat Borussia Monchengladbach in a classic match in Rome in 1977.

But Liverpool's team of 1984 - Lawrenson, Hansen, Souness, Dalglish, Rush and company - was for me the finest club side in English football since the war.

Busby's Babes and his later European Cup-winning team at Old Trafford, Danny Blanchflower's glamourous Double-winning Spurs side of 1961, Don Revie's awesomely efficient Leeds in the 1970s and the current Arsenal, created by George Graham and embellished by Arsene Wenger, rank among the most memorable of the post-war English club sides.

But most managers and coaches around at the time acknowledge the Liverpool side of the mid-80s as something special.

'At the time they set new standards for the rest of us,' said Tottenham manager George Graham. Their passing game was unrivalled. Their secret in Europe was simplicity itself: don't give the ball to the opposition. Manchester United need to learn that lesson.

Mark Lawrenson, who played in the Liverpool team that won the European Cup, First Division title and League Cup in 1984, was working in the Nou Camp as part of the BBC team on Wednesday night. Did he consider his Liverpool a better team than the modern day United?

'You won't get me to say one way or the other,' he replied. 'It's difficult to judge different teams from different eras. Both are good in the context of their time.

'You have to say, though, that Liverpool won the European Cup four times. In those terms, United have got to win it at least once more before they can really be talked of in the same breath as Liverpool.'

What United have, of course, is a team of young achievers. Ryan Giggs, for instance, is only 25 yet has already won the Premiership title five times, the FA Cup three times, the League Cup and now, of course, Europe's premier prize.

Others such as Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Wes Brown and the Neville brothers are even younger but most have similar experience.

If Ferguson can keep those youngsters together, there is every chance that they will eventually challenge Liverpool as the greatest of all English club teams.

For the moment, they remain in Liverpool's shadow and to describe them as the greatest team in English football history is to burden them with unrealistic expectations.

Winning the domestic Double three times in five seasons is an achievement without parallel. But I would argue that winning the Premiership title is now easier than it was when Liverpool were in their pomp, largely because there are now fewer realistic contenders among United's rivals.

On the other hand, I believe that winning the Champions' League is becoming harder, and will be harder still next season when United will need to play 17 games to retain the trophy.

It may be that their unique Treble will remain unique to them. Only time will tell whether they can truly be described as The Greatest.

In the meantime, we can place them at the very peak of the English club game and know that when the challenge comes in Europe they, like Liverpool before them, will not be found wanting