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Unarmed combat - analysis of LFC’s friendly games 1892 to 2021


Liverpool on their way to play an Edinburgh Select in August 1958. Taylor, Molyneux, A'Court, Moran, Wilkinson,
TV Williams, Melia, White, Wheeler, Morris and Harrower.

Note: ‘Friendlies’ in this article are those matches which are non-competitive and non-testimonial. All friendly matches can be found under Games for each season beneath the competitive games in a special table.

For most of the Victorian era, all football was based on the notion of ‘friendliness’, and the willingness to participate was born out of the love of the game. It was competitive only in the non-formal sense, solely within the match being played.  From 1888, with the creation of the football league and the introduction of professionalism, the automatic assumption of friendliness disappeared, but anyone playing football as an adult in the 1890s would remember a time when ALL matches were friendlies.  (A commemorative friendly was played against Everton on 20 August 1938 for the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Football League.)

Occasionally, we get reminders of the basic premise.  Guest players (i.e., legitimate ringers!) can be used, but rarely can any crowd have seen shining lights like 40-year-old Tom Finney and 37-year-old Nat Lofthouse playing together against LFC for New Brighton on 29 October 1962!  Our own Jan Molby played against LFC in a friendly with a Danish XI on 30 July 1986.  Damien Henderson of Leeds United played for Shelbourne in our friendly of 22 January 1993.  Friendlies have also benefited from the absence of the formality of the competitive game in the use of substitutes.  Liverpool sides playing matches overseas in the 1950s were met with subs ten years before they were allowed in England.  LFC reporter Harold Yates described the position  as ‘farcical’ when R. H. Brno used four substitutes.  Servette used five in 1981/82.  A year later, Khartoum used one when the referee was not looking.

By the 1990s, however, multi-subs became so commonplace that a reporter on the Dundalk match (1996/97) remarked that the expected flood of changes did not happen!  It soon became a free for all as we realised the advantages of being able to field large numbers in order to assess and develop their fitness pre-season – we even used eight ourselves when we played Crewe Alexandra in 1997/98.  In the last twenty years, we have taken for granted that eleven substitutes or even more can be used, effectively making friendlies into two 45-minute games.  By 2021/22 the logical extension was used at Bologna, with two separate games of one hour each, but that contravened the very definition of a football match so it (or they) are not classed as an official ‘friendly’!  The category is still clearly evolving.

It is the very flexibility of friendly matches which can throw up some intriguing consequences.  For example, two of Liverpool’s friendly games were decided on extra time and penalties.  Pardon?  Extra time and penalties?  Why should a friendly match involve either, let alone both?  The earlier one was against St Mirren on 12 December 1977, and you can solve that puzzle for yourself via Michael Charters’ report here. On 10 August 2000, the second such phenomenon happened at Valerenga, Norway.  The teams decided on penalties in order to give an interesting bonus for the spectators when the game had to be shortened because of travel problems.

During LFC’s first twenty years, in an older world not yet shattered by 1914, why did they continue to play friendlies?  In the new era of professional football, why risk valued and valuable players for no points in the league?  Why bother to put on events which bring in smaller gates than usual?  Sure, there were rivalries, many of which continued, and there was a strong residue of amateurism which was maintained alongside the new, fiercer, competitiveness generated by the league system.  Two purposes justified keeping these vestiges of the old world.  The first was a genuine attachment of individual fixtures to worthy causes which took over a century to disappear.  The game against Preston North End on 25 April 1893 was in aid of the Butchers’ Benevolent Fund.  The third time we faced Newton Heath, in 1893/94, benefited Stanley Hospital, our 3-0 win somewhat tempered by the opposition having only ten men – the others were in court helping Newton Heath sue the Birmingham Evening News for its description of the way they played.  Northwich Infirmary’s funds were boosted by our match there in 1896.  The Theatrical Gala Fund benefited from a match against Burnley in 1913/14, and the Jubilee Fund and the Lord Mayor’s War Fund from three games against Everton in 1940-43.  In more modern times, the Sudan Lifeline Fund (against Blackburn, 21 Oct 1986), and the Hillsborough Disaster Appeal (against Celtic, 30 Apr 1989) have both benefited.

The second purpose was a desire for the new club to become known among the footballing fraternity, and LFC appears to have been very successful in that endeavour.  Evidence from contemporary testimonials identifies Liverpool as one of the most attractive clubs in the country.  Indeed, it might be the very success of our first decade which apparently lowered our desire to play friendly matches, only six being played from 1903/04 to 1908/09 inclusive.  However, as our present era of mass communication developed, the ‘desire to become known’ has taken on a different significance, with some matches in the Far East drawing much larger crowds than back home, and world-wide commercial income more than double that from home gates. In 2016/17, ‘the wisdom of playing a friendly within a day of a game against Barcelona had surprised many - but it seemed the rebranding of the Opel Stadium and the return of Klopp to his former club [Mainz05] was a marketing exercise that Liverpool couldn't turn down.’


Liverpool line up in Gothenburg in 1914: The players: McKinlay, Terris, Longworth, Miller, Lacey, Campbell, Ferguson, Banks,
Speakman, Fairfoul and Sheldon


A not-uncommon motive for mounting a friendly was in celebration of some event, often to do with the stadium of a club which had invited LFC to participate.  As with many others, a minimum sum was guaranteed, (£20,000 to play at Glentoran in 1981/82) so Liverpool knew in advance that it would not lose money.  The arrival of floodlights was marked at Dundee 1959/60, New Brighton 1962/83, Roda 1975/76, Shamrock 1982/83, and Lansdowne Rd 1993/94. New stands were celebrated at Tranmere 1968/69, Crusaders and Rangers 1981/82, Celtic 1998/99, and Espanyol 2009/10, and a whole new stadium at Chelsea 1905/06 and Moenschengladbach 2010/11, Linfield losing their Kop 1996/97, and so on.  Other friendlies marked various anniversaries at AIK 1950/51, Dortmund and Charlerloi 1984/85, Holbaek and Cork 1986/87, Motherwell 1986/87, Aalborg 1987/88, Bayer Leverkusen 1991/92 (with fans let in free), Dublin 1994/95, Shelbourne 1995/96, Boulogne 1998/99, Bournemouth 1999/00, and Chester 2002/03. 

The friendly at Scunthorpe (Ray Clemence’s old club) on 4 August 1981 marked his departure from Liverpool to Spurs.

One unexpected feature in a few of our friendlies is that they were sometimes part of a player transfer to LFC; such were arranged for (?) Jones from Buckley Town (1898/99), Tom Robertson from Stoke, (1900/01), Jack Tennant and Alf Gray from Torquay, (1934/35), Synan Braddish, Derek Carroll and Brian Duff from Dundalk, (1980/81), Brian Mooney and Ken DeMange from Home Farm, (1984/85), Glenn Hysen from Fiorentina, (1990/91), and Tony Cousins from Dundalk (1991/92).

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The monthly distribution of friendly games suggests a significant policy change across the decades, with Shankly as the instigator of a new approach.  Our first year of existence was understandably exceptional in this regard, having played twenty-nine (including two against Scottish teams, Queen of the South Wanderers and Rangers).  No fewer than ten were played in April 1893 alone when only one Lancashire League match was still left to play.  It was a fixture list unparalleled since, with an average of seven per season during the remainder of the 1890s.  (Only the 1939/40 season came anywhere near, with 17 friendlies.)

No friendlies were played during May, June, July and August, which appear to have remained sacrosanct for cricket for twenty years.  The only exceptions were in 1909/10 when four were played in May on a Scandinavian tour (during a decade in which only five other friendlies can be found).  In the ‘teens and into the 1920s, the length of the normal league season was extended, with the result that the dates of friendlies were pushed forward.  League seasons ended about mid-April before the First World War, but by 1922/23 they were running into May.  In our first fifty years of existence, we played only two friendly games in August, and none in July.

Until the 1960s, friendlies can be seen dotted through the league season.  Shankly changed that in a clearly deliberate change of policy, and while he remained manager all except two friendly matches were played during May (17), June (4) July (7) and August (10).  The two friendlies he did allow during September to April were to celebrate New Brighton’s floodlights in October 1962, and to get ‘much needed’ match practice in Dublin four months later. Shankly’s purpose in playing friendlies was quite different from that of his predecessors, and was almost entirely related to preparation for the following season.  The period of friendlies became what we now call ‘pre-season’.  His immediate successors took a slightly more relaxed view, allowing several friendlies interspersed among the First Division fixtures. The arrival of Benitez in 2004 saw a return to Shankly’s policy of avoiding playing any friendly matches during the league season, which has continued to the present day. Since 2003/04, only two matches have been sanctioned outside the summer months – against Rangers in October 2011 and Blackpool in September 2020 – whereas eighty-seven have been played in May to August.

From a manager’s point of view, therefore, the overriding concern during and since Shankly’s reign is one of fitness.  You can add in all the altruism, the sentiment, the commercialism, the interest in seeing new players on parade being bedded in you like – at the core is the physical shape of the players, ready to face a new season at the top of their game.  Thus, we can get apparently conflicting reports by commentators trying to assess the teams’ performances.  Were they looking for ‘a full-scale rehearsal for the coming season’ (Edinburgh 1958/9) or did they conclude that pre-season friendlies are a ‘notoriously poor guide to later form’? Are they simply, as Bob Paisley claimed, ‘only practice games and they don’t count’?

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Carragher and Gerrard showing off the European Cup before a friendly at Wrexham in 2005.

The complete list of opponents (totaling some 240 clubs) is extraordinary, not only for its length, but also its variety. About three quarters appear only once in the 548 matches. Other countries in the British Isles are found from the very first season, especially Scotland for obvious reasons.  The earliest European matches were in 1910 (see above).  We’ve played Blackburn (1893 to 2020, our longest association), the London amateurs Corinthians (1893 to 1934) and Crewe Alexandra (1939 to 2007) each eight times, Tranmere ten times (1968 to 2019, including annually since Klopp’s first year) and, friendliest of all, Everton 13 times (1894 to 1944). This last, if excuse or apology were needed, included five games during the Second World War when choice of opponents was restricted geographically. Manchester City occurs twice in the list (1901, 1999), but we’ve not had a friendly against Manchester United since 1918/19, when we played them twice for the Footballers National War Fund. However, they had featured three times earlier as Newton Heath in 1893/94.

It has been quite common to play the same opponent twice (home and away) in the same or adjoining year – even in the same month.  Stoke was played twice in February 1893. Indeed, our very first game as a club was against Rotherham Town, when Councillor Holding kicked off on behalf of the visitors, and we had a return match there, appropriately on St Valentine’s Day 1893. (We’ve not played them in a friendly since.)

Many well-known clubs appear only once (e.g., Aberdeen, Bayern Munich,  Dundee, Galatasaray, Leeds United, Olympiacos, Porto, Real Madrid, Red Bull Salzburg, Saint-Étienne, Sevilla, Tottenham Hotspur) but harder to spot are those who have never played us in a friendly fixture  - Ajax, Barcelona, Benfica, AC and Inter Milan, Juventus, PSG. We’ve had friendlies against whole countries or teams representing them – Austria, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, Northern Ireland (Ulster), Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, and the USA. (I always fancied LFC v rest of England in our heyday forty years ago.)

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Reliable statistics for the pre-WW1 era are not available, but it would appear that friendly matches lived up (or, rather, down) to people’s expectations. A crowd of less than 1,000 watched a friendly with Everton in 1899/00 compared with 15,000 who turned up for a Lancashire Combination game. In April 1905, 1st Division Millwall drew only 1,000, whereas the competitive match average gate at Anfield that season  was 14,888.  Between the wars, however, friendlies grew more popular, and in 1933/34 the match against Austria was watched  by 16,000 (competitive season average gate 32,483).  After WW2, our descent into the second division scarcely affected the number of spectators. Division 1 Newcastle United’s friendly at Anfield on 24 January 1959 drew a gate of 18,449 (season average gate 36,663). ‘A very fair crowd considering this was not a League engagement.’ (Michael Charters’ report)

However, there is no doubt that friendlies do not attract the same number as normal, competitive games, one of the reasons, perhaps, that the home venue fell out of favour. In August 2000, 31,359 watched us play Parma; the average gate for the 2000/02 season was 41,057, but at least Parma had drawn a bigger crowd than later watched Slovan Liberec in the second round of the UEFA Cup, and twice as many as for Fulham in the League Cup!

In the 2018/19 season, the only friendly match at Anfield (v Torino) brought in 40,278, comparing well with the average home gate that season (52,680).  Clearly, discerning crowds are now more anxious to see new faces, young faces, and exciting imports, and of course the popularity of the Premiership, and the ever-present radio and TV pundits are grist to the mill.  Sadly, the debutants themselves are unlikely to be seen first at an Anfield match.  Alisson first donned his new shirt in Dublin against Napoli, twitchers wanting to see the first Salah-clad Liver bird had to visit Wigan, Firmino at Swindon, and Mane at Prenton Park.  Many others – e.g. Bruce Grobbelaar, Didi Hamann, Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson, Yossi Benayoun – had their debut games away from Liverpool; Peter Cormack’s was in Liverpool, but behind closed doors! 

Only 89 of the 548 friendlies (c16%) have been played at Anfield, and of those, only 22 have been since World War 2.  In the last twenty years, the twelve friendlies at Anfield have each been games at the end of a series of other, pre-season matches, usually overseas.  62 were played before WW2, of which 44 were before World War 1.  Neither Shankly nor Paisley ever had a friendly match at Anfield.


Liverpool fans get their first glimpse of Alisson against Napoli in 2018

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In 2006, Pepe Reina found himself used as an outfield player against FC Kaiserslautern, a second sub for Robbie Fowler, but I think the oddest story of all featured none other than Bob Paisley who, on 22 May 1969, had to learn a very hard political lesson about General Franco’s Spain. He saw Real Mallorca use ten substitutes while he had been refused permission to use two; his protests were countered by the Civil Guard who marched him away to the dressing room. 

If you think such violence would not normally be mentioned in the same breath as ‘friendlies’, think again – LFC’s history is littered with cases which, while not as political as in Mallorca, nevertheless had serious consequences. Much of the overly aggressive play is to be found in the 1950s to the 1980s. At Rouen (24 May 1956) our boys lost patience with rough handling by the French and sixteen fouls followed in half an hour. The ironically-named St John and an opponent were sent off when the Meiderich game in Vancouver (6 June 1964) had developed into a brawl, with a background of fighting and arrests in the crowd. (Shankly’s reaction? ‘I have never seen such abuse of rules and agreements…. It is impossible to forgive this disgraceful conduct.’) Crazy Horse was sent off in a friendly against Cologne (4 August 1967) for retaliation after he had been fouled. Keegan also felt the shrill whistle of the ref on 6 August 1974, sent off for violent conduct in a friendly match with Kaiserslautern when retaliating to a foul on Ray Kennedy. (He later, incorrectly, claimed mistaken identity.)

Perhaps Bayern Munich was an inappropriate choice of opponent (8 August 1978), the match becoming ‘more competitive than friendly. There was prestige and personal pride in this clash between the old and the new European champions, and it showed.’ Three days later, LFC played its first ever game in Austria, ‘and hopes it will be a long time before they go again’, (Michael Charters) ‘What was supposed to be a friendly turned into a trial of strength. The Austrians could hardly have been more aggressive had the game been a vital European Cup tie.’

The ban on European competition for English teams, following the Heysel disaster, did not cover friendly matches, but I think it was no coincidence that LFC limited friendlies to home soil during the following season (1985/86). Half a dozen were played on the continent in 1986/87, when rough play was resumed. Injuries, the last thing a manager wants going into a new season, resulted from neither LFC nor Hamburg giving an inch during their ‘friendly’ on 8 August 1986, which we had started with a squad of only fifteen fit players. Three players were booked, and one ‘hobbled off’. Luckily, an answer to the problem of defusing unarmed aggression was found by Sweden in a giant referee, disarmingly called Bo Helen, for the Karlstadt match (3 August 1987). ‘No player on either side dared argue with such a formidable figure, whose presence helped to ensure the friendliest of encounters.’ (Ian Hargraves).

Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net - ‘In memory of my cousin Dennis Rogers 1942-2021, an LFC fan to the end and a helpful critic of my articles’.

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