Almanac Champions’ League: Liverpool and their long and winding road

On Sunday morning two of the great football clubs of Europe will meet in the final of the Champions League, the old European Cup, in Kiev in a match that should be everything we expect it to be and more. Real Madrid, a 12-time winner of the competition faces a Liverpool side that has swept all before them during the 17/18 season, scoring a record amount of goals and getting great service from the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. Liverpool last tasted Champions League success in 2005 against AC Milan in Istanbul. Coming back from 0-3 down Liverpool, with inspirational captain Steven Gerard lifting the Reds over the line worked back to 3-3, then kept their nerve during a tense penalty shoot-out to secure their fifth title. It was a memorable, remarkable victory in a long line of outstanding nights in Europe for a club that’s ethos was always simple, yet effective. Pass and move, pass and move.

 

Training sessions were never more than a five a side game. Bill Shankly, the modern father of Liverpool walked into Anfield in the late 1950s and set about reshaping the club to be a force not only at home but abroad too. He put in place the famous boot room at Anfield, a small pocket under the stands where coaching staff would discuss tactics, players they’d seen and liked and strategies. The boot room became a thing of myth, although the truth was probably never as interesting. While opposition managers and players heard all about this famous meeting place, few knew its true value. There were never any great secrets to success; just hard work and fine team play. And recruiting players who could keep hold of the ball and bring others into the game.

 

Liverpool’s journey back to the top began once Shankly took over. He removed the dead wood, and brought in players like Kevin Keegan, Ian Callaghan, Emlyn Hughes, John Toshack and Ray Clemence in goal. This was the backbone of successive title winning Liverpool sides. Shankly saw the possibilities for Liverpool in Europe, perhaps for the first time in the club’s history while still firmly concentrating on winning the league title every season.

 

By the time Shankly retired, shocking Liverpool fans and football fans alike in 1974, Liverpool had become the biggest club in Britain. Liverpool sides had a potent mix of fierceness, skill, creative flair and a resilience that would serve the club well down the years. As their stocks rose and the success came the Reds were often found battling all-comers in different competitions at once. They won the FA Cup for the first time in 1965 and followed up in 1974. They won league titles and started to make an impact in Europe, losing out to Borussia Dortmund in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1966. They went on to win the UEFA Cup soon after and in 1977 they collected their first European Cup, beating the classy Germans Borussia Monchengladbach in Rome. It was the culmination of everything Liverpool had stood for under Shankly and a glorious moment.

 

But they weren’t done there, and in many ways that was just the start.

 

The following year, with the inclusion of Kenny Dalglish from Celtic Liverpool again won the European Cup against FC Bruges, this time in England at Wembley. They won 1-0 against a Bruges side to scared to really commit to playing free flowing football for fear of what Liverpool would do to them on the counter attack. In 1981, with new recruit Ian Rush watching on from the sidelines Liverpool again lifted the trophy after an Alan Kennedy goal in Paris against Real Madrid. By now Liverpool were the best club in the world, having won another league title and dominating at that. Rush’s development as an ace goal scorer gained traction as his partnership with Dalglish became the envy of football. Rush simply couldn’t stop scoring goals, both in Europe, at league level and in the FA and League Cup campaigns. It was his goals during the 1983/4 season that took Liverpool to another league title, and another European Cup final against Roma in the eternal city. This was a watershed match for many reasons, not least as a backdrop for what would occur the following season in Belgium at the ill-fated 1985 final.

 

Liverpool won their fourth European Cup on penalties after finishing 1-1 after extra time. Phil Neal, Bob Paisley’s first major signing after taking over from Shankly in 1974 scored the first of the game but the Italians equalised. Bruce Grobbelaar and his on-the-line antics helped put the nerves into the Italians and Liverpool held on. But it was the treatment of the Reds fans by the Roma counterparts that was the prop for more disturbing behaviour at the Heysel Stadium in 1985. Liverpool fans had coins thrown at them in Rome, were abused and bashed and a more hostile atmosphere was hard to find. They vowed, rightly or wrongly that they wouldn’t cop the same again the year after. As it happens their opponents in the 1985 final were Juventus, hoping to win their first significant European final and featuring the incredible talents of French midfielder Michel Platini.

 

The Heysel Stadium in Brussels was in no fit state to hold a major football final, with broken fences and no real secure seating on the terraces meaning Liverpool and Juventus fans mixing dangerously close to each other with only chicken wire separating them. It was a recipe for disaster. Ticketing issues meant neutral fans in one section behind the goal had a mix of both sets of fans, and about two hours before the kick off trouble started. Liverpool and Juventus fans first started throwing insults, then punches and rocks and the Italians looked for a quick exit. A wall at the end of the terracing buckled as too many fans moved quickly away from the Reds fans and it collapsed. 39 people died before a ball had even been kicked. The game went ahead, mainly to avoid further bloodshed and turmoil, but the result meant very little to either side. It was a devastating tragedy for the lives lost, but also for Juventus who missed out on celebrating a win properly that they had been waiting for for years. And the game suffered. What should have been one of the great games in the history of the competition was ruined by poor behaviour, a rubbish crumbling stadium and ineptitude from the Belgium police who seemed frozen when they were needed most. It was a dark night and a sad end to the managerial career of Joe Fagan, who had taken over from Paisley and kept the trophies coming at Anfield.

 

He returned to England a broken man, astonished at the level of violence that was now enveloping English football both at home and abroad.

 

Liverpool were booted from European competition for five years, thus wrecking a chance for them to win further European Cups with a side that was destroying all-comers in England each week. Fans and officials even now still wonder just how good Liverpool could have been in Europe with the likes of Rush, Beardsley, Aldridge, Houghton, Barnes and Hansen at their disposal. And how good some of those matches against emerging European powerhouses likes AC Milan and Barcelona would have been. We’ll never know.

 

Liverpool re-emerged in the early 1990s back in Europe but had to wait until 2005 to shine once again on the grandest stage. Against AC Milan Liverpool fought back against the odds to not only tie up the match 3-3, but to hold their nerves again in a penalty shoot-out to lift their fifth European Cup, or Champions League Trophy as the competition had now become known.

 

In a few hours’ time Liverpool will again try to re-live past glories and make some new European memories in Kiev against a startling Real Madrid side that knows all too well what it required to win. It won’t be easy. But Liverpool have shown throughout this campaign that where there is a will there is a way, and while Salah and Firmino continue to score goals at will there is a chance; a big chance.

 

And if Liverpool can win their sixth Champions League trophy it will probably go down as their finest ever such is the overall quality of teams taking part these days. And there will be a chance for Liverpool to confirm yet again, as they have done so many times over the years that they are the best team in Europe, and the world at football.

 

CHRIS MICHAELS

Twitter – @chrismwriter

 

Comments

  1. Stainless says:

    A nice potted history of LFC’s great years, but not so easy to read after this morning’s events. The Reds looked the better team early but the loss of Mo Salah robbed them both of their genius and, I suspect, their self-belief. (Unbelievable that the chicken wing tackle that ended his night wasn’t even penalised.) That said, they didn’t drop their heads, even after the first of two goalkeeping howlers by Karius gifted Madrid the lead. Mane equalised shortly after and it took a Gareth Bale wonder-strike to break the deadlock permanently. Laughable really that Madrid can virtually carry a player of that quality for most of the season as a super-sub. Oh well, as you say, it’s been a long, winding road and at least the prospects ahead look pretty positive.

  2. Peter Fuller says:

    Some great memories here, Chris, even for someone like me hostile to the Reds.
    I recall that when I first took an interest in English football in the late fifties, Liverpool were in the 2nd Division, which you reference with Bill Shankly’s arrival.
    Your allusion to Ian Rush reminded me of that probably apochrypal story of the Liverpool church notice-board with the words “Jesus saves”, which supposedly prompted the written rejoinder “but Rush scores on the rebound.”
    That had a Hawthorn late 1960 equivalent – again, I assume apochcrypal – “What would you do if Christ came to Hawthorn?” This inspired the response: “Move Peter Hudson to centre half-forward.”

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