Liverpool. Real Madrid. Paris. We’ve been here before.
Before Mo Salah, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Virgil van Dijk there was Kenny Dalglish, Santillana, Terry McDermott and Juanito. 1981 was the year of the first London Marathon, NASA’s first space shuttle mission and Muhammad Ali’s retirement from boxing. And on May 27, Liverpool and Real Madrid met in a European Cup final for the first time at Parc des Princes.
Unlike the current era, the late-70s and early-80s were truly a time of English dominance in the competition. Liverpool had won back-to-back European Cups in 1977 and 1978, then Nottingham Forest had repeated the feat in the two seasons that followed. In ’81, though, the Merseysiders were taking on the biggest name in the footballing continent.
It was Madrid’s first final in 15 years. Long gone were the days of Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas but still Los Blancos had been dominant in Spain.
Three-time reigning La Liga champions, they had won six league titles in a decade but had fallen short in Europe. Thirty years prior to the 12-year wait for La Decima, La Septima was proving far more elusive. Three times they were semi-finalists, but it wasn’t until Paris in ’81 that they finally found themselves back on the biggest stage.
This was one of those rare occasions when Real Madrid were underdogs. Some tried to claim they were favourites simply because of the mystique surrounding the club, but Liverpool themselves were taking over as the kings of the European game.
They did it with a local flavour too. Seven of the 16-player squad on matchday were Scousers, four of them starters. This was a Liverpool side truly made in Liverpool, with a captain from Kirkby in Phil Thompson.
It wasn’t the greatest of finals, as it turned out, but the conditions weren’t what would be considered acceptable in the modern day. “When you get to a final, winning is all important,” Thompson told Off The Ball some years later.
“You do want a decent game, but the pitch wasn’t conducive to good football, the grass was too long and it was dry so you couldn’t pass the ball. The white lines were like lime, and the line set rock-hard and was about an inch high, so when the ball rolled it just jumped up all the time.”
Some of Madrid’s tactics didn’t make for a spectacle either. While Santillana, Juanito, Laurie Cunningham and future Blancos managers Jose Antonio Camacho and Vicente del Bosque were among those who had the ability to play great football, that wasn’t their main focus according to Thompson.
“They were so physical to us – and we could handle ourselves – but until we scored with eight minutes to go they went to town on us, they were booting us all over the place,” he claimed. “That’s really when the game opened up and we should have scored another two or three goals in the last few minutes of the game.
As it was, Alan Kennedy’s solo effort, pouncing on a completely air-shot of a clearance by Rafael Garcia Cortes to slam home past Agustin, was all Liverpool would need. They became the first English side to win three European Cups, and they’d done it all in a 48-month period.
“I was the manager of a Sunday League team in Kirkby on Merseyside, and all the lads were on the very front row of the upper tier,” Thompson added. “And I could see them because they had a flag there from the Kingfisher, which was a pub just down the road, so I knew where all the lads were sitting and that’s where I pointed the cup to when I actually lifted it.
“I’d got them all their tickets, but there must have been about 15 tickets but there were about 30 people sharing those 15 tickets, but you tried to help as many people out as possible.”
They’d be back on the winners’ podium three years later in Rome, a fourth continental triumph in seven years underlining their place in the pantheon of European greats, but the identity of the opposition made the win in Paris that little bit special for Thompson.
“For us to do it in 81 was massive, because this was Real Madrid. But we were the biggest team in world football at that time, so it was them who had to take on the mighty Liverpool.”
When the two iconic clubs reconvene in the French capital on Saturday, Madrid fans might be hoping for more of what they saw in Kyiv four years ago, but the Reds will be looking to rediscover the spirit of 81, when they truly were the ‘mighty Liverpool’.
*18+ | BeGambleAware