Let me take you back to a time where football was a little bit different.
I know we have all overindulged on the World Cup and probably engaged in many a conversation around how 1990 was better, or 1982, 1986 or even, dammit, 1974 even if England did fail to qualify. Hell, 1970, despite the hurt for many old enough to watch it, was considered one of the finest tournaments ever for a long time, probably due to Brazil and their brilliance.
Football in the 1970s was not something I was personally brought up on, yet it is something that fascinates me – hence, I guess, this piece of scrawl that does actually have a point (if you remain patient enough).
You see, the title of the piece does give you a little clue as to what we are going to be looking at here and, if I am lucky enough to maintain your attention for a little while, there is every chance you might join me and Pete Spencer in our little podcast bubble where we spend an hour just talking about what was a wonderful game of football, the 1977 European Cup Final between Liverpool and the German champions, Borussia Monchengladbach.
I turned to Henry Muldrew, a writer of such talent, to let me know what England in 1977 felt like leading up to this event.
He reliably informed me, in a way only Henry can, that Silver Jubilee mania was gripping a country in depression, a country looking to anything possible to lift itself out of the doldrums. The masses were feeling disenfranchised, something that might sound familiar in today’s society or even, in fact, society in any era and as a result, the street urchins known as the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren’s boy band of a certain sort, were storming the charts with ‘God Save the Queen’ a song, if you are not familiar with, has nothing to do with the Queen being saved in any way, shape or form.
Red Rum had just won the Grand National at Aintree for the third time. Virginia Wade was yet to do the unthinkable and be a British tennis player winning Wimbledon. The Yorkshire Ripper had just started to get a taste for the work that would make him both infamous and notorious for generations to come.
Tommy Docherty, ‘The Doc’, was the current man failing to live up the hopes and dreams of Manchester United, continuously on that search for the new Matt Busby that would only end nine years later when Alex Ferguson headed south from Aberdeen. Docherty was about to be sacked for having a fling with the wife of the team’s physio.
And then there was Liverpool FC, still searching for their very first European Cup win, heading off to Rome hoping to end the season with, at the very least, the Double of sorts having seen the near-impossible treble slip away from them in their FA Cup Final defeat the previous Saturday.
Many, including myself having researched the match, felt that Liverpool had had the easier route to the final with only AS Saint-Etienne proving to be much of a test for Bob Paisley‘s team. Monchengladbach had had to work far harder playing Torino, then a true force and Kyiv which was never an easy away day.
Those who know far better than I will recall that it was the Saint-Etienne tie that launched the moniker ‘super-sub’ in the direction of David Fairclough. It was a label he was never happy with but the facts showed that he had more of an impact coming into the game late than he did when starting.
Liverpool’s team was a mix of old Shankly (Tommy Smith was about to play his last ever game for Liverpool and Ian Callaghan had played in midfield during Liverpool’s first ever European Cup tie 13 years earlier) and Bob Paisley’s newer version, with Ray Clemence in goal, Kevin Keegan (albeit for the last time) up-front and Terry McDermott in midfield. Admittedly, Shanks had signed Clemence and Keegan but it was under Paisley they had their finest Liverpool moments.
It was a team built relatively cheaply as many of the players had been unknowns before finding themselves under the spell of first, Shankly, and then Paisley.
And they had a score to settle with the European Cup.
The scene was set and Rome was waiting for the biggest game of the season. The fixture was delightfully narrated by the excellent Barry Davies, a man who has only just completely hung-up the microphone retiring from his Wimbledon duties this year. The genius of Davies was evident in an era which had to be considered his prime. His wording, so simple yet so effective, set the tone for a fine ninety-minute affair.
Straight away I was launched back into my youth, which I admit didn’t really get going until the 1980s, as Davies painted the words on the screen down something that sounded very much like an Eastern European telephone line. The advertising hoardings were equally nostalgic as companies paid good money at the time to be seen on TV only to undoubtedly be out business a generation later – the exceptions being Skol, Stella Artois, Canon and, of course, Spar. After all, we still need lager, food and, well, photos in our lives.
Five minutes into the game, Davies observed something that ended up being utterly inaccurate: “At this early stage, there is no obvious sign of Keegan being man-marked”. A lot of the build-up had been around how the Germans planned to cope with the threat of Mighty Mouse in his final game before leaving Liverpool for the German side Hamburg. From the moment that phrase left Davies’ lips, it was almost as if Berti Vogts remembered what is assignment had been and he never left Keegan’s side for a moment. Indeed, by the 15th minute, Barry was calling Vogts Keegan’s ‘shadow’.
Borussia Monchengladbach were not here for the ride, this much was clear. Here was a side that had won five of the previous seven West German Bundesligas, all of which happened in the 1970s. Titles though, titles do not guarantee great goalkeeping attire – as we saw from the German shot-stopper donning a green jersey, naturally, but with what can only be described as a big, fat black tyre mark down the middle and, incredibly considering this was May in Rome, tracksuit bottoms. We were safe to presume this was not for the cold, given the temperature that was reported that night.
Something that struck me watching my first game of 1970s football for a long time, if not ever, was the pace of the game. It was slow, slow, slow and then pang, a step up in pace as the side with the ball emerged into the final third of the field. And it was exactly this tempo that saw Liverpool take the lead.
Steve Heighway, playing in what was back then a very unusual role of a centre-forward loitering wide most of the time, picked up the ball on the right wing, darted infield before playing that pass to Terry McDermott who, as was his want, had timed his run to perfection to slot it home.
Liverpool led and continued to control the game. Their 442, as I have already alluded to, was not the 442 that ended up giving England a bad name across the world. The back four of Neal, Smith, Hughes and Jones as a solid unit, particularly in this match, with Neal and Jones rarely foraging forward. In front of them was a narrow midfield of Case on the right, Callaghan and McDermott in the middle and Ray Kennedy on the left – but with Case and Kennedy sitting so narrow and Callaghan screening the back four it freed McDermott to attack space at will. And the space was, of course, created by the clever movement of Keegan, almost playing in midfield and dragging Vogts out of position and Heighway, who was almost never in a central position.
Yet, for all their control and tactical superiority, Liverpool conceded. Monchengladbach’s equaliser from nowhere and moments later they should have taken the lead.
Was the pain of a Wembley defeat to their biggest rivals, Manchester United, coming back to haunt them?
As the second half grew, Ray Clemence made one of the finest saves ever seen. Those that have watched the game might be scratching your collective heads, trying to recall any save by Clemence in that match that could warrant such a tag. I urge you to listen to the podcast where I completely validate my opinion on such a statement and I assure you, you will agree with me.
The second half, as is often the way, was the half that sealed the game. If football scripts do actually get written in the stars, then Tommy Smith certainly filed his well in advance in the hope of it being delivered in time. For all the German man-marking, for all their defensive discipline, they messed this one up in grand style.
We have just come out of a World Cup in 2018 where goals from corners became as fashionable as flares in the 1970s. We have people blocking runs, making shadow runs, shadow blocks even. But not in Rome. The corner came in, Smith (criminally unmarked) ran in a straight line and headed home at the near post to give Liverpool the lead for the second time. It is worth reminding you, Smith did not do this very often. Far from it. So for him to score what turned out to be the winning goal, the goal that sealed Liverpool’s first ever European Cup after Bill Shankly had sent them on their way 13 years earlier, the goal that provided the perfect end to his career, well that was kind of fitting.
Despite there still being 25 minutes left, plus stoppages, you could tell the Germans were done. Liverpool controlled the game from here and it was almost as fitting as Smith scoring the winner that Kevin Keegan won a late penalty for Liverpool, making a trademark darting run into the box where Vogts had to pull him down.
Surprisingly, however, and I go into this in detail on the podcast as well, Keegan did not take the penalty. The responsibility remained with right-back, Phil Neal. Venturing over the halfway line for only the second time in the game, Neal slotted the penalty home and the trophy was confirmed.
13 years of hard work went into winning Liverpool’s first European Cup and it was, if not the continuation of a dynasty, the beginning of a new one.
Are you still with me? Fantastic. Now, I urge you to go and listen to the podcast – our first ever retromatch podcast. We go over this historic game in more detail than I have just shared and you get the remarkably well-informed insight of Pete Spencer. We’ve been told that it is worth an hour of your time.
You listen to “RetroMatch: The 1988 European Cup Final” by searching for it on iTunes, Soundcloud and many others, or you can just listen to it here.