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Lesson from Liverpool: Sporting empires rise and fall - but some can be rebuilt

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Liverpool a model for dominance & consistency (1:08)

Craig Burley reacts to Liverpool winning the Premier League title after a 30-year wait. (1:08)

I don't remember Liverpool's league title win in 1990. If you were a football fan in the 1980s, Liverpool winning the league was routine; what you recall is the break from routine, like Arsenal winning it, in injury time, in 1989. Liverpool? They were expected to win it, and they usually did, eight times in the first twelve years of my footballing consciousness.

And you definitely didn't think then, in May 1990, that the next one would be 30 years coming.

Sure, there were a few cracks in what was an ageing side but they won the title by nine points and they had John Barnes and a revitalized Ian Rush; there was no danger that couldn't be tackled, no flaw that couldn't be fixed - especially with "King Kenny" Dalglish at the helm.

Ten months later King Kenny was gone, burdened by the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 when 96 of the club's supporters were killed during the FA Cup semi-final. And that was that.

Liverpool went through a succession of managers, splashed out on the biggest names, embraced their inner posh-ness and fancy suits, even had some highly successful years winning the Champions League twice. But not their holy grail. Not the league title.

Empires. The view from the top looks like forever, the horizon is full of possible conquests - but who's watching the cracks building up under the feet?

Would Clive Lloyd have thought, holding the Prudential Cup aloft on that June evening after steamrolling England in 1979, that the West Indies would never again be World Champions? How could anyone bet against a team that had Lloyd, Richards, Garner, Holding, Roberts, Greenidge... a team that would dominate cricket for the next decade but they would never again win the World Cup.

Even when they came to India in 1983-84, obviously hurting after losing the World Cup final to India, they had that aura. They were the West Indies. Seeing them on a Kolkata winter's day one believed this team could keep winning for years. They did, and often in spectacular fashion; they didn't lose a single Test series all through the 1980s - bar one, at the start of the decade - right up to 1995. Their ODI record in this period was equally impressive - P 277 W 177 Win %: 66.05%.

It's fair to say, though, that something happened to their World Cup avatar at Lord's on June 25 that they never fully processed or recovered from. They came close - one dropped catch in 1983 might have made the difference, one run-out effected instead of the sporting option in 1987 - but no cigar.

It's like the All Blacks, one of the 16 contenders in our series on dominance for their World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015. Now the All Blacks are, as my colleague Sharda Ugra will remind us, the winningest team in major world sport. They have won 77% of all matches they have ever played, across 117 years - a stunning level of dominance. And yet their World Cup record is, by their standards, disappointing - three titles, the same as (whisper it) South Africa.

The strange thing, as with West Indies, is their record between their first two World Cup titles. From 1987 to 2011 they played 246 matches and won 196 of them - a win percentage of 80.48. They were winning - often overwhelmingly - everywhere, just not in the World Cup.

Closer home the sudden and steep decline of Indian hockey has been chronicled here. Who would have thought, in 1964, that India would win just one more Olympic gold (in a depleted field) and one World Cup? And the next win in either tournament looks a very long way away.

Sometimes the decline is precipitated by reasons beyond control. Torino were Italian football champions for five straight seasons in the 1940s and dominated their country's sport, with their players making up most of the national team in that period. An aircrash in May 1949 killed the entire team, and coaching staff, and Torino have never won the league title since.

Manchester United suffered a similar fate in 1958; they were heading for their third straight league title, and were set to dominate English football for a while, when they lost most of their first-team players and support staff in the Munich air disaster. That they came back to win titles within the decade was only due to the remarkable resilience of their manager Matt Busby and some players who survived the crash.

Their decline happened after Busby retired, and it was spectacular; six seasons after being crowned European champions, United were relegated to the second tier of English football. It was another 20 years before they would win the league.

English football's more complete fall has been with Arsenal; in 2004 their Invincibles won the league title without losing a single match, a feat no other team in the modern era has equalled. Yet that title was their last; in the 16 years since they haven't looked like winning another and have fallen behind, for various reasons, to big-spending rivals.

Even Real Madrid, the aristocrats of European football, have had their lean years. After winning the first five European Cups (what today is the Champions League) from 1956-60, they won just one more, in 1966, with a long drought that was broken only in 1998. They won plenty in between, just not the trophy that they had once made their own. Even accounting for generational change and team rebuilding, that is an astonishing gap in the CV for a team with more resources than any competitor.

Sometimes the signs of decline are visible, but not the extent. Those who've watched The Last Dance on the Chicago Bulls would have heard the alarm bells for a dynasty coming to an end in that 1997-98 season. Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson were all on one-year contracts and the good times would be over soon, everyone knew that. Still, a team that had won six NBA titles in eight years not winning one again, as of today? No one could have predicted that.

Sport today is very different to what it was a decade ago, and a world away from the 1960s and '70s. It is, to some extent, geared toward ensuring continuity, shall we say. The bigger players - the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids and the Indian cricket team - are too big to fail, at least for the vast commercial networks that sustain and feed off them. Yet some basic part of sport - the kind you cannot second-guess, won't be put down - remains the same; it's the part that ensures a Leicester or a Croatia or a Toronto Raptors defies the odds and wins the big ones. It's also the part that looks at United and says, 'You may have all the money and 13 Premier League titles and a global fanbase and more corporate sponsors than most clubs have players - but you can't take the 14th for granted'.

"It was the norm for us to win," Marleen Watts, 82 years old and lifelong Liverpool fan, tells our writer Elaine Teng, of the 1970s and '80s. "That's why I didn't keep anything. I gave things away because I thought, 'We'll win it again next year.'

Now, finally, they have.

I have my United stuff from seven years ago. I was saving it up for eBay but something tells me it won't come to that.