Football: Liverpool Story Part 4 (1901 - First Title Win)

Just eight years after entering the Football League, Liverpool Football Club rose to the pinnacle of the English game with a title triumph that set the tone for future generations at Anfield.

The seeds of this success were sown in 1896 when the legendary Tom Watson was recruited to take charge of team affairs. The impact he was to have on the club cannot be under-estimated. One of his first major signings was the inspirational Alex Raisbeck two years later and it was around him that Liverpool’s first team of champions was constructed.

With Raisbeck leading by example from the back, the dependable Bill Perkins between the sticks, Scotland international Billy Dunlop at full-back, flying winger Jack Cox and promising goal-poacher Sam Raybould in their ranks, the Liverpool team that kicked of the 1900/01 season was considered to be their most formidable yet.

This was the era of the handlebar moustache, when Liverpool players changed in the nearby Sandon public house and travelled to away games by train or horse-drawn wagonette. Anfield held just 20,000 and during the week goats grazed on the grass-covered terraces, while the Boer War in South Africa and the impending end of Queen Victoria’s reign dominated the newspapers

Goals from Robertson, Satterthwaite and Raybould got Liverpool’s season off to a perfect start when Blackburn Rovers were defeated 3-0 at Anfield on the opening day before a crowd of 20,000.

The Reds were to set the early pace and following a 2-1 victory at Stoke City, West Brom were emphatically beaten 5-0 to make it three wins out of three for Tom Watson’s men, although Aston Villa, by virtue of having played more games, topped the table.

Centre forward Sam Raybould, along with Tommy Robertson, had scored in each of the first three matches and he netted again in front of packed Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby. His 46th minute strike cancelled out a first half Everton opener but there was to be no further goals and Liverpool’s one hundred per cent record came to an end.

The following week title favourites Sunderland inflicted on the Reds a first defeat of the season when they triumphed 2-1 at Anfield, thus ending our unbeaten start. For manager Watson, losing to his former club was a bitter pill to swallow but it was he who would have the last laugh come the end of the season.

Notts County and Wolves were to repeat the feat of the Wearsider’s as Liverpool temporarily slipped out of the chasing pack at the top but an impressive 5-1 hammering of fellow title challengers Aston Villa restored faith around Anfield.

Despite that encouraging performance though inconsistency plagued the Reds around this time and further setbacks against Sheffield clubs Wednesday and United were suffered before a confidence-boosting 4-3 victory in a thrilling clash with Manchester City, Andy McGuigan snatching the all-important final goal after the home side had gone in at half-time 3-2 ahead.

By the turn of the year however even the most optimistic of Liverpudlians would have thought the title was out of reach and although the new century began with a 3-1 home win over Stoke but successive league defeats at home to Everton and away to Bolton seemingly killed off any last lingering hopes.

By mid-February Liverpool languished in eighth place, nine points adrift of leaders Nottingham Forest. But, with what was to become a trademark of championship winning Liverpool teams in the future, an impressive late surge saw them emerge from the wilderness to gatecrash the title race.

On 23 February, Watson took his team to his old stomping ground of Roker Park and no doubt returned home with a wry smile of satisfaction on his face after a lone Jack Cox goal secured a crucial 1-0 win that was to prove the catalyst for formidable unbeaten run.

Wolves, Villa and Newcastle were then all defeated as the Reds slowly made their way back up the table and Raybould’s 75th minute winner against second placed Notts County at Anfield on 8 April was crucial.

It moved them to within five points of new league leaders Sunderland and with three games in hand the title pendulum was swinging ominously towards the red half of Merseyside.

Victory over Sheffield United, thanks to another goal from leading marksman Raybould, on Easter Monday saw Liverpool draw level with the Rokerites at the top as the season boiled down to an exciting climax.

Also still vying for the leadership were Nottingham Forest but when they visited Anfield on the last Saturday of the campaign goals from Cox and Goldie ended their title ambitions and maintained the Reds pursuit of the crown.

Three days earlier Sunderland had completed their programme with a 2-0 win over north-east rivals Newcastle and still topped the table courtesy of a slightly better goal average so the destiny of the 1900/01 championship hung on the outcome of Liverpool’s final game away to West Brom on Monday 29 April.

Just one point would be sufficient for the Reds against the already relegated Albion. The doomed the Baggies were expected to roll over and hand Liverpool the title on a plate but that could not have been further from the truth.

Straight from the first whistle they fought as if their lives depended on it and Liverpool were relieved to go in at the interval one ahead, the vital goal coming via Walker after a Raybould shot had been parried by the Baggies keeper. The second half saw the home side bombard Bill Perkins in the Liverpool goal but the Reds held out to clinch the points and more importantly their first Division One title.

It was a deserved triumph and a perfect riposte to those who had written off Liverpool’s chances earlier in the season. Perkins, Goldie and Robertson were ever-presents, Raybould topped the scoring charts with 16 goals and Raisbeck led by example as the inspirational skipper of the side.

In summing up the season the Liverpool Echo wrote: "It was a tussle between Liverpool and Sunderland up to the last day of the season, but the Anfield men never faltered. Since the beginning of the year they have only twice gone under. The Liverpool men are the only team who have scored more goals on opponents’ grounds (23 to 22) than the home side. This is a great achievement.

“In away games they won seven times and drew five times, which secured them 19 points out of 34, more than half on opponents territory. Their goals at home were nearly 3-1 against the opposition, when they won 12 times and drew twice. The facts mentioned point to the all round excellence of the Liverpool team, their defence having the best record of the whole division. Liverpool are also credited with the most goals in the tourney, 59 to Sunderland’s 57.”

After the win at West Brom the newly crowned champions returned to Central station later that evening where thousands of fans were waiting to greet them. Raisbeck was carried shoulder high through the crowded streets, while a drum and fife band provided the perfect soundtrack to the moment with a rousing rendition of ‘The Conquering Hero’.

The players and directors eventually made their way back to Anfield by horse-drawn carriage and the League Championship trophy was proudly placed in the trophy cabinet for the first, but by no means the last, time.