There can’t be many supporters of the reds for whom 25th May 2005 is not the most memorable date in their footballing lives. The very mention of Istanbul makes those of us with true red blood in our veins come over ‘all peculiar’. And it’s not just Istanbul. Rome, Paris and Barcelona have been the scenes of European glory for thousands of scousers over the last 4 glorious decades, as have Amsterdam, Turin, and Lisbon, to say nothing of Bucharest and Bilbao.
No-one has revelled in our European and domestic glories more than I have and I have to admit that when Jerzy saved Shevchenko’s penalty (which he actually did on 26th May) I lost it good style and cried uncontrollably for a good five minutes. When reality finally hit me after the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, which occurred at about 11.15am the following morning (sorry, the same morning) all I could think of was getting to the welcome home party later that day. My wife and I duly presented ourselves at the mini roundabout at the entrance to the ‘old’ tunnel which turned out to be an excellent vantage point to see the conquering heroes as it is a good 18” above ground level and afforded us a superb view of the open top bus as it passed us on its way to the tumultuous reception on St George’s Plateau. The only problem was that we presented ourselves in time for the advertised procession into the city centre but such was the volume of people on the route that the entourage was a good 2 hours late. Were we bothered? Were we hell! But it did give us time to dwell on things and during the 2 hour wait my mind drifted back over half a century to a game which, from memory, took place on Easter Monday.
Liverpool v Middlesbrough on 19th April 1954 could not have provided a greater contrast to the events of that glorious night in the city centre. Liverpool actually won 4-1 and the game was significant for a number of things. Billy Liddell, arguably the greatest Liverpool player of all time, scored his last goal in England’s top division. Middlesbrough were relegated because of their defeat and Liverpool, whose relegation to the 2nd Division had already been sealed, were to slide into obscurity for 8 years.
It was an awful game, played in surreal circumstances, and each goal that we scored seemed more and more unnecessary. We were to pay for this as our tenure in the 2nd Division went on for much longer than the pundits had forecast and Middlesbrough consistently came to Anfield and put a spoke into our promotion chances (Brian Clough being a particular thorn in our side).
There were many who felt that we would bounce straight back up but even as a hero worshipping 15 year old I was not so sure. I feared that we had too much dross and not enough class. True, we had the incomparable Billy Liddell, we had Ronnie Moran and we had an up and coming winger named Alan A'Court who would go on to play in the 1958 World Cup Finals for England. But we also had players like Alan Arnell, Louis Bimpson, Tony Rowley and Brian Jackson who, frankly, were nothing more than honest tryers.
One of the many attractions of supporting Liverpool is the fact that, by and large, the club has always been well run. The directors of the day have never resorted to sacking the manager when things have not been going well on the pitch and so the hapless Don Welsh was allowed time to steer the club back into the top division. Welsh had been appointed in 1951 to succeed George Kay, whose health had deteriorated since the end of the Second World War. He never seemed to be a part of the club, having spent most of his playing career with Charlton Athletic (although he did play a few games for the reds as a wartime 'guest' player). Sadly his reliance on old hands like Laurie Hughes, Bill Jones, Eddie Spicer and Kevin Baron backed up by the aforementioned workhorses proved to be unwise and even the superhuman efforts of Liddell were insufficient to save us from the drop.
It wasn't that Welsh was a particularly bad manager but what we needed at the time was a very good manager and Welsh definitely wasn't that. It must be pointed out that in those days the manager didn't have anything like the clout that his modern counterparts enjoy. In fact Welsh didn't even pick the team for each match. The board of directors picked the team and the manager was then judged on how well that team performed! When you consider that the Liverpool board in those days included a caterer, a coal merchant and a solicitor it is perhaps unsurprising that the team underperformed. Having said that, all of the other clubs in the Football League were run the same way, with the possible exception of Manchester United where Matt Busby was very much the man in charge.
Demotion to Division 2 wasn't quite the disaster in those days that it is today, with one particular difference. We swapped places with Everton, who had just spent 3 years in the 2nd Division and who were promoted as we took the plunge. My last two years at Liverpool Collegiate School were very painful as we suffered the gloatings of our erstwhile friends who had Everton leanings (and who had been conspicuously quiet during the preceding 3 seasons).
Eventually Don Welsh had to go and is remembered by some as the only Liverpool manager to have been sacked, although I reckon that Graeme Souness and Gerard Houllier would also come into that category, both having "parted company by mutual agreement". Possibly Roy Evans as well. The board now had to make a critical decision - and they flunked it! The word was that they approached a bloke at Huddersfield to take over but he refused the job because the board wouldn't cede their right to pick the team so they appointed former captain and elegant wing half Phil Taylor to carry on in the same subservient way that had got us into the mess that we were (anything but) enjoying.
At least Phil made some decent signings. Tommy Younger, a Scottish international goalkeeper was brought in and Johnny Wheeler from Bolton Wanderers. Gerry Byrne came through the ranks and Jimmy Harrower was also recruited from Scotland. But nothing changed. We continued to finish 3rd and 4th and so avoided promotion.
Towards the end of the 50's it was obvious that 'something needed to be done', otherwise we would settle for Division 2 mediocrity and all that would follow. Fortunately the chairman, T V Williams, had the foresight to realise that the feudal system that had prevailed in football since the Football League began was no longer viable and he remembered the bloke at Huddersfield who had been approached a few years before and who had declined an invitation to become our manager because he would not have been allowed to pick the team. Thomas Valentine Williams contacted Huddersfield (through official channels) and was given permission to approach Bill Shankly with a view to him being appointed manager of Liverpool FC. Having been assured that he would have full control over playing matters, Shankly accepted the job and the rest, as they say, is history.
In many ways I am glad that I was about during those 8 awful 2nd Division seasons (actually only 7 of them were awful because once the great man got his team sorted out the promotion year was fantastic). Going on away trips to the likes of Grimsby, Rotherham, Doncaster and Lincoln really made us appreciate what we had at Anfield, even though (whisper it) our ground was itself a bit of a tip in those days.
Actually, the more I think about the 2nd Division days the more I realise that they weren’t really all that bad. We didn’t have anything like the history of success behind us then that we have built up since and, apart from the League Championship in the first season after the 2nd World War and a losing appearance in the 1950 FA Cup Final, most of our supporters didn’t actually expect success. True, we didn’t expect relegation either, but we thought that we would be back in the top flight within one or, at the very most, two seasons. Finishing 11th in the first season in Division 2 was a bit of a shocker but after that we finished either 3rd or 4th every season (with only two being promoted) until promotion was finally secured. Most of the football played was pretty awful but we only really realised that when we got a decent side together and steamrollered everybody else out of sight.
As a dyed in the wool fan rather than a journalist I didn’t keep anything remotely resembling a diary in those days but I find that as I look back half a century certain details emerge from one’s memory. A home victory against Fulham by 4-3 remains one of the most exciting games that I have seen but the final game of that same season (1956-57) also sticks with me when there were only just over 15,000 present. Promotion was impossible but where was the loyalty that we boast about today?
Just before I wrote this news came through of the death of Charlie Williams, probably remembered by most Liverpool fans as a (very funny) comedian from the 70’s but, to those of us of a certain age, a very competitive centre half for Doncaster Rovers. I have a very clear memory of Charlie. During the time that we are discussing the Easter programme was arranged in such a way that the fixtures that took place on Good Friday were reversed on Easter Monday. In 1956 the reds played Doncaster Rovers away on the Good Friday and lost 1-0. This was obviously not good but we learned via ‘the media’ (even though nobody had heard of ‘the media’ in those days) that the Doncaster centre half (Mr Williams) had given our revered centre forward Billy Liddell a fearful kicking during the game. Defeat we could take, but physical abuse of Billy would not be tolerated.
When the return was played 4 days later the reception afforded to Williams had to be heard to be appreciated but worse was to follow. Shortly after the start of the game Williams had occasion to walk towards the Kop to collect the ball and as he bent down to pick it up a table knife was thrown at him. Had the incident happened these days I imagine that the ground would be closed for a period and the club would be fined many thousands of pounds. Charlie picked up the knife and made a dramatic gesture of stabbing himself. He was instantly forgiven by the Kop and nothing more was heard of the incident.