If there was one season that Bob Paisley will be most remembered for, it is 1976/77, when he took Liverpool to within a whisker of English football’s first ever treble, and won the country only its second European Cup. With the league title wrapped up, Manchester United awaited in the FA Cup Final, and Borussia Mönchengladbach would be the opposition in Rome for the European Cup Final.
Defeat against United at Wembley — 2-1, with all three goals scored in a five minute spell at the start of the second half — was a double-edged sword. While it was hard to take, Paisley felt victory might have sated a little of the hunger ahead of something truly unique. Two other sides had already achieved the domestic double of league and FA Cup, but none had ever won the league and the European Cup in the same year; indeed, until that point, United were the country’s sole victors, in 1968. The Liverpool manager regretted his selection at Wembley, opting to leave out Ian Callaghan and play three forwards. His thinking was affected by a strange decision by the FA. Should the game go to a replay, it would be held in late June — a quite ludicrous date. After an especially long and hard season, that was the last thing his players needed, and he tried to win the game outright on the Saturday. But again he saw a benefit to his selection: Callaghan, at 35, might not have been fresh for the game four days later. Although Callaghan was approaching retirement, it shows an awareness of the limits that playing games in quick succession place on a player. In previous seasons, Bill Shankly had rested an entire team ahead of cup finals. Getting it wrong at Wembley allowed Paisley the chance to get it right in Rome.
The journey back to Liverpool after the FA Cup Final took place by train, and is seen as a key factor in the victory four days later. The players’ mood was understandably low, and a two-hour delay did nothing help their spirits. The events that followed would now be frowned upon as incredibly unprofessional: the players drank wine to help them unwind, and a food fight then broke out, with even the players’ wives embroiled in the mêlée. It started when Steve Heighway began throwing sugar. Before long a group of depressed players were enjoying themselves with abandon, and a defiance arose. Songs started being sung. An even stronger sense of togetherness was engendered in a railway carriage, in highly unusual preparations for the biggest game in the club’s history.
Paisley explained: “People who sit in the stand perhaps don’t realise the extra pressure exerted by the emotional side of the game. It’s not easy to cope with and it’s quite possible to become drunk on four ounces of wine gums! But I knew as I left Lime Street and headed for home that the players’ attitude was right. They knew they still had a job to do.”
That night Paisley picked his team: the same one that ended the game against United. John Toshack was injured, but Paisley kept him in the squad to disrupt German planning; he knew they were terrified of his aerial presence, following the UEFA Cup Final four years earlier, and he wanted them to think the Welsh striker would be playing; another example of Paisley’s canniness.
Typical of Paisley’s pre-match talks, he did not focus on the opposition. Phil Neal recalled that the main thing the manager discussed was how the previous time he’d been in Rome was on the back of a tank, liberating the city at the end of World War II. It wasn’t that the opposition were taken lightly, or their strengths hadn’t been assessed; as mentioned earlier, Tom Saunders had seen them in the flesh six times. But that was not something to worry the players with. Relaxed, they gave what Paisley described as the best performance in the club’s history. Terry McDermott gave the Reds the lead in the 28th minute, shortly after Ray Clemence had failed to hold a shot from Rainer Bonhof, only to see it come back off the post. Allan Simonsen equalised for the Germans in the 51st minute, and a little over ten minutes later, Clemence was faced with Uli Stielike bearing down on his goal, one-on-one. But Clemence won the dual, with what he rates as his most important save for the club. Then Tommy Smith, playing his 600th game, rose high to head home a Steve Heighway corner. With the game nearing its conclusion, Kevin Keegan, on 100 goals for the club, was upended in the area as he looked certain to score his 101st, and Phil Neal calmly (outwardly, at least) despatched the spot-kick. Paisley leapt up from the bench and waved his arms in triumph; unusual for a man who usually kept his emotions in check. But he had earned his delirious celebration.
Hundreds of Liverpool fans — out of the 27,000 who’d made the journey to Rome — crashed the victory banquet. Paisley, however, sat quiet and stone-cold sober as he took in the events. “I like a drink and, in common with most people, I enjoy celebrating a great victory,” he recalled. “This, though, was different. It was no ordinary triumph. The buffet at the banquet was magnificent enough to have fed my regiment throughout the war, with enough champagne to have sunk Noah’s Ark. But I wanted to remain sober. I was drinking it all in — the atmosphere, the sense of pride, of achievement, of joy and reward for ten months’ hard labour. I wanted to savour every moment.” Legacy
Has there ever been a better set of players handed on by a retiring manager — not just at Liverpool, but anywhere in England? Most sane men wouldn’t think of walking away from a team that contained Dalglish, Souness, Rush, Whelan, Hansen, Neal, Lawrenson and Nicol. But Paisley was a not young man when he took charge, and almost a decade later, approaching his mid-60s, he was entitled to put his feet up. He went out in precisely the right way — at the top, with his team English champions for the second successive season. Such was his legacy, the spine of his team would enable two successive managers to win league titles and, within twelve months, another European Cup. Transfers In
Few Liverpool managers have made as good a first signing as Paisley did with Phil Neal; and certainly none have proved to have been as successful in terms of trophies won. Neal was the sole presence on the pitch in all four of the club’s European Cup successes of the era, and was even present for the fifth final, lost to Juventus in 1985.
A clever overlapping right-back whom Paisley described as a “natural player who understood the game”, Neal had scored an impressive 27 times in 187 games for Fourth Division Northampton by the age of 23. Liverpool stepped in with a £60,000 bid with Neal set to join Aldershot. It was a big step-up in quality, and initially he spent life in the reserves, like so many of Liverpool’s signings. Then, out of the blue, he was hoisted from the reserve squad, for whom he was about to play at Anfield, and told to report to Goodison Park, where the senior team were about to face Everton. Neal, thinking he was there to sample the atmosphere, was told to get changed –– he was playing. And so began a career that spanned 650 games and amassed 60 goals. While many of his goals were penalties, including in the 1977 European Cup Final, he also popped up with important strikes having raided down the wing, not least Liverpool’s goal against Roma in the European Cup Final seven years later.
Paisley’s second signing was Terry McDermott, who had impressed for Newcastle against the Reds some months earlier in the FA Cup Final, for £170,000. The combined fees for Neal and McDermott came more-or-less entirely from the sale of Larry Lloyd, with the big centre-back asking to leave upon losing his place in the team. Lloyd moved to Bristol City for £240,000 and Liverpool reinvested wisely. McDermott, a skilful midfielder with boundless energy, had an eye for goal –– often spectacular ones at that –– and would later become the country’s Footballer of the Year. In his 329 appearances he bagged an impressive 81 goals, before being sold back to Newcastle in 1982, at the age of 30, for £100,000.
Next, Joey Jones signed for £110,000 from Wrexham, at the age of 20. He only spent three years at the club, scoring three times in 78 league games at left-back, before he returned to Wrexham for £210,000, following the arrival of Alan Kennedy. In his fairly brief stint on Merseyside, Jones became a massive cult hero for his incredible commitment. He was immortalised in the famous banner unfurled by Kopites at the 1977 European Cup Final which read “Joey Ate The Frogs Legs, Made The Swiss Roll, Now He’s Munching Gladbach”.
England striker David Johnson arrived from Ipswich in August 1976 for a new club record, £200,000. Johnson would do well at Liverpool, without ever quite reaching the heights of some of the legendary strikers before or since. He scored 78 goals in six years, playing 210 games, but the emergence of Ian Rush hastened his disappearance from the first team picture. A former Everton striker, Johnson returned to Goodison Park at the age of 30, but scored only five times in 50 games.
While Paisley rarely got it wrong in the transfer market, the year between 1977 and 1978 was his golden period. Excluding Steve Ogrizovic, brought from Chesterfield for £70,000 as back-up to Ray Clemence and who went on to be an excellent top-level keeper with Coventry, Paisley struck a quite stunning hat-trick of signings. Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness represented the kind of quality acquisitions that, by rights, should be spread out across a lifetime in the game — if a manager is both incredibly wise and especially lucky. And yet they were all procured within seven months of one another. It’s doubtful that any club in the history of English football has made three such crucial signings in such a short space of time. The trio of Scots are all now Liverpool legends; about as good as you’re going to get in defence, midfield and attack.
Hansen was the first to arrive, with the 21-year-old signed from Partick Thistle for £100,000 in May ‘77. Relatively unknown outside of Scotland, Hansen would go on to represent Liverpool for the next 13 years, playing 620 times, and eventually captain the team. Tall, elegant, and composed, Hansen was one of those defenders who opt to stay on their feet rather than dive recklessly into tackles. When he partnered Phil Thompson, the Reds’ central defence looked more like an L.S. Lowry painting of stick-men. Crucially, the two had character and ability. Mark Lawrenson, who later partnered Hansen, was only slightly more muscular, but Gary Gillespie’s intermittent appearances got the weight-ratio right back down again. Clearly Paisley had hit upon a type when deciding that the days of pure stoppers were gone, and in their stead came mobile, thoughtful and lean defenders who were comfortable on the ball. And in that regard, Hansen was the apotheosis. Even now, he is the benchmark for stylish centre-backs anywhere in England. Bob Paisley was in no doubt about his quality. “Alan Hansen is the defender with the pedigree of an international striker. He is quite simply the most skilful centre-half I have ever seen in the British game. He is a joy to watch. Alan has always been an excellent footballer, a beautifully balanced player who carries the ball with control and grace. He has a very measured, long stride and is much faster than he looks. I can’t think of more than a couple of players who could beat him over 100 metres. He has both the ability and the patience to launch attacks from deep positions.”
Next up, in August 1977, was Kenny Dalglish, signed from Celtic for £440,000. But more on ‘King Kenny’ later. As 1978 began, Paisley moved into the market once more, strengthening the midfield — or rather, signing an entire midfield rolled into one player — in the form of Greame Souness, purchased on 10th January. The combative (to put it mildly) Scot joined from Middlesbrough for £352,000, aged 24. Only Steven Gerrard, with his increased athleticism and more prolific goal rate, can arguably eclipse Souness as the Reds’ most complete midfield General. But while Gerrard possesses gifts Souness lacked, the fiery Scot was the more fearful and imposing character. Souness was an absolute bully when it came to subduing and subjugating the opposition, and a commanding influence on his own team. He played 359 times for the Reds, scoring 55 goals. With the treble of 1984 completed, Souness packed his bags for Italy. He played for two years at Sampdoria, before returning to Scotland as player/manager of Rangers.
Kevin Sheedy, another midfielder who excelled in the ‘80s, was signed from Hereford for £80,000 in 1978, in yet one more great piece of talent-spotting by Paisley and his scouts. However, the Ireland international was that rare exception: the player released by Liverpool to go on to not only do better on an individual basis, but to rival the success of those still at Anfield. To make matters worse, it was with Everton. Sheedy, who arrived at Liverpool aged 18 and was sold at 22, scored more than 100 goals for the Toffees in over 400 appearances; for the Reds his tally read two goals in just three starts and two substitute appearances. It shows that even very good players can fail if their path to the first team is blocked by even better players, while some individuals improve beyond recognition as they mature.
At £330,000, Alan Kennedy was very expensive for a full-back in 1978; it’s hardly a position worthy of many big-money deals. The previous season had seen Jones, Smith and Hansen deployed at left-back at some stage, so as a position it was proving problematic. Full of energy and character as well as a willingness to get forward, Kennedy, signed from Newcastle United at the age of 23, was hardly one of the game’s aesthetes, goalscorers or playmakers who usually warrant such a price tag (only a fraction short of what Souness had cost, which itself was the highest transaction involving two English clubs). And yet he more than repaid his hefty fee, scoring 20 times — including some crucial goals — in 359 games over the next seven years. In 1981 and 1984 he scored the goals that clinched the European Cup: the first a finish in the 81st minute to beat Real Madrid 1-0, as he burst through on goal from a throw-in, and the second the decisive penalty against Roma in the shootout.
In May 1979 Paisley once again tapped the Scottish market when buying Frank McGarvey from St Mirren for £300,000. The striker, aged 23, never settled at Anfield and left after just 10 months. With Ian Rush signed to fill the gap of promising young striker, McGarvey moved to Celtic for a small profit. McGarvey played 245 times for Celtic over the next five years, scoring 113 times.
Paisley signed Avi Cohen from Maccabi Tel Aviv
Another relative failure was Israeli defender Avi Cohen, bought from Maccabi Tel Aviv for a reasonably hefty £200,000. In his two-and-a-half years at the club the left-back only played 23 times, scoring just once — having already netted an own goal in the same game. However, it was a league-title decider — against Aston Villa at Anfield, in 1980 — and his strike at the right end put the Reds 2-1 up, and on the way to a 4-1 victory. In November 1981 he returned to Maccabi Tel Aviv, for half the original fee. Alan Hansen said he was arguably the most talented foreign player he played with, but the Israeli didn’t adapt well to English football.
The 1979/80 season saw the arrival of two more future superstars, albeit either side of another relative failure. The one who didn’t work out was Richard Money; Paisley couldn’t resist some puns on the value of the investment and the player’s surname, but in truth Money offered little more than cover after arriving from Fulham at the end of the ‘79/80 season. Bought for £50,000, he moved to Luton in 1982 for twice that amount. The first of the two major successes acquired in that campaign was Ronnie Whelan, an Irish teenager brought in for nothing from Home Farm at the start of the season. It would take Whelan a couple of years to make the breakthrough, but once he did he made a big impact, initially on the left of midfield when replacing Ray Kennedy and then, in later years, as the holding central midfielder. In almost 500 games Whelan netted a total of 73 times, including a memorable double to defeat Spurs in the 1982 League Cup Final and a superb winner a year later to overcome Manchester United to win the same competition.
Next came Ian Rush, bought from Chester in May 1980 for £300,000. The 18-year-old had just made his debut for Wales, but like Whelan it took him time to break through at Liverpool. Once he did, it was the start of a record-breaking career with the club, split over two periods. Rush spent 15 of the next 16 years at Anfield, scoring a club-record 346 goals in 660 games. He also holds the all-time record for most FA Cup Final goals (five); is the joint record League Cup goalscorer with 49 goals, shared with Sir Geoff Hurst; was the first player to pick up five League Cup winners medals; and still holds the record as top Merseyside derby goalscorer with 25 goals for Liverpool against Everton. Not bad for a player who, when his sale to Juventus and repurchase is taken into consideration, left the club up £100,000 on his transfers.
In March 1981 Paisley moved to secure the signing of 23-year-old Bruce Grobbelaar from Vancouver Whitecaps for £250,000. When Ray Clemence sought a new challenge that summer, the South African began an eleven-year stint as the club’s undisputed no.1. Prone to both eccentricity and error, he was a remarkably agile shot-stopper, and, as a former soldier, a tough character. With Clemence now at Spurs, Grobbelaar kept his place in goal from his Liverpool debut on August 29th 1981, through to August 16th 1986, playing 310 consecutive matches. It was a figure he would double in his remaining eight years at the club, leaving for Southampton after 628 appearances.
Paisley then broke the club record fee twice in succession, although the fees involved were still some way short of what those rival clubs were paying on their major deals. Australian Craig Johnston was the first, signing from Middlesbrough for £650,000 in April 1981. Just 20, Johnston was an upbeat, lively character with boundless energy on and off the pitch, but as such slightly difficult to handle. He infuriated and delighted the crowd, and his managers, in equal measure. In 1988, after 271 games and 40 goals, he quit, aged just 27, to be with his sister in Australia, who was seriously ill. On balance he was a very good player for Liverpool, if not one of the all-time greats. In 1991 Graeme Souness looked at bringing him back to the club, as it still held his registration, but it didn’t work out, and Johnston went on to invent the Predator football boot.
In August 1981 Paisley finally got hold of Mark Lawrenson, having attempted to do so four years earlier. Lawrenson, a cultured centre-back who could also play in midfield, cost £900,000 from Brighton. He would go on to form arguably the greatest centre-back partnership the club has seen — and there is some stiff competition — when he played alongside Alan Hansen. Lawrenson scored 18 goals in his 356 games for the Reds, but a serious Achilles tendon injury in 1987 led to his premature retirement a year later.
In October 1981 Paisley continued his run of inspired signings when he agreed to pay Ayr United £300,000 for Steve Nicol. Originally a right-back, he could not displace Phil Neal, and made his breakthrough on the right of midfield during the 1983/84 season. That campaign ended with him missing a penalty in the Reds’ successful European Cup Final shootout. His versalitity was recognised in 1988/89, when he won the Footballer of the Year award after playing in six different positions that season. In the previous campaign he’d scored seven goals in his first seven games — from right-back, including an incredible hat-trick from open play away at Newcastle. After just over a decade in the first team, and 46 goals in 468 games, Nicol, by then a centre-back, was released to Notts County.
Less inspired was the June 1982 signing of John McGregor, a centre-back from Queens Park. Only 19, and signed for nothing, it was no great gamble, and the Scot failed to make it into the first team. A lot more was expected of striker David Hodgson, who moved from Middlesbrough for £450,000 in August. But he was to prove another disappointment. Two reserve goalkeepers then followed: Bob Wardle, who later had to retire following an eye injury, and Bob Bolder, picked up from Sheffield Wednesday in 1983 for £125,000. Neither man featured for the first team, due to Grobbelaar’s remarkable run of over 300 consecutive games.
Paisley’s final signing was that of Jim Beglin from Shamrock Rovers, in May 1983, for £20,000. Still not 20, the player had been due to join Arsenal when the deal fell through. Liverpool moved in, and secured the player initially on a month’s loan; but ten days into it a permanent deal was struck. Having made his debut in November 1984 at left-midfield, Beglin was increasingly part of the first team picture over the next 18 months, before being given regular games in the left-back slot by Kenny Dalglish as a replacement for Alan Kennedy. After just 98 games, Beglin’s Liverpool career was curtailed by a seriously broken leg at the age of 23. He played briefly for Leeds and Blackburn, but it was clear he was no longer the same player.