There was an air of destiny about the 1984 European Cup final as Italian Champions AS Roma faced treble-chasing Liverpool with the chance of being crowned kings of Europe in front of their own adoring fans, on their home ground, in the nation’s capital - the Eternal city. The problem was, nobody thought to tell Liverpool.
Ahead of the game that night the English champions appeared relaxed. Laughing, joking and even singing pop songs in the tunnel before kick-off; gallows humour you could say among a group of Christians waiting to be fed to the lions in the nearby coliseum; and even if the odds weren’t against them it seemed everyone else was.
The song they sung was Chris Rea’s, “I Don’t Know What it is But I love it,” a tune which provided a soundtrack to that cup run for Liverpool’s players. “Having been in Middlesbrough I knew about Chris Rea,” explains Liverpool’s Craig Johnston in Tony Evans’ book of the same title.
“It had become one of the team’s anthems, one of us would sing a verse and the rest would come in on the chorus clapping and chanting. As we’re going down the tunnel David Hodgson broke into a solo version of the verse. One or two joined in and by the time we were outside the Roma dressing room every one of us was singing.”
Taking the field that night the two sides were shrouded behind a dense smog generated by dozens of flares which welcomed the arrival of the hometown heroes while also warning the visitors of what was to come; except the men in Red were far from fazed.
That’s because Liverpool were European Royalty at the time while their dominance of the domestic scene meant success was expected wherever they played. They’d lifted the European Cup three times in the last seven years with Bob Paisley and under his successor, Joe Fagan, had already won the First Division title and the League Cup.
With Souness pulling the strings in midfield, a solid defensive partnership of Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen at the back, along with the creativity of Dalglish and the goal threat of Ian Rush, who would score 47 times that season, this Liverpool side was as fearless as they were fearsome.
“We were a top side,” Mark Lawrenson would later claim. “We rarely worried about the opposition. We just went out and played. And if we played, we reckoned nobody would stop us.”
In preparation for the final Liverpool’s players headed off to Tel Aviv for four days of training based around a friendly with the Israel national team knowing that having overcome Odense, Athletico Bilbao and Benfica in the earlier rounds before a bad-tempered semi-final against Dinamo Bucharest, their greatest challenge still lay ahead of them.
“The trip was, in essence, a major piss-up,” Liverpool’s Michael Robinson later told The Independent. “What followed was a series of stories in La Stampa, the Italian tabloid newspaper, which depicted Liverpool’s players acting like a gang of British holidaymakers on an 18-30s trip.”
But for many of Liverpool’s 10,000 or so fans who had made the journey to Rome it was far from a holiday as they were greeted by hundreds of Italian riot police armed with submachine guns and spoiling for a fight as they arrived at the city’s central railway station.
And if that wasn’t enough they then faced the prospect of locals mercilessly picking-off Reds fans in a practice known as “puncicate,” where opposition supporters are stabbed in the buttocks or upper leg; leading to scores of injuries.
On the pitch Liverpool looked to silence the hostile crowd, who had arrived well in advance to create the most hostile atmosphere possible, and their calculated approach soon paid off when they took the lead after 13 minutes as goalkeeper Franco Tancredi fumbled a cross and Phil Neal, hero of the 1977 European Cup final, prodded the ball home.
Liverpool were now rampant with ‘keeper Bruce Grobbelaar only really tested once in the entire first half, so it was something of surprise when Roberto Pruzzo equalized for the “home” side on 42 minutes; but apart from the odd long range effort the goal did little to inspire Roma’s players while, in the dying moments, Steve Nicol was denied a late winner by Tancredi.
Thirty minutes of extra time came and went and there was still no winner meaning the 1984 European Cup final would be determined by a penalty shoot-out and with the best part of 70,000 baying Italians hurling abuse, along with various missiles, in the direction of Liverpool’s players the advantage appeared to be firmly with Roma.
“Before we left for Rome we had a penalty competition with the apprentice kids in training,” explains Steve Nicol, who was first up for the Reds that night. “We picked our five takers and got beat, everyone else missed and I was the only one to score. Joe Fagan basically said, ‘Just pray it doesn’t go to penalties.’”
So when the normally reliable Nicol blazed his penalty over the bar with Liverpool’s first effort on the night it appeared that the Reds resistance had finally been breached. Roma captain Agostino Di Bartolomei netted the first kick for the Italians while Neal held his nerve to pull the scores level only for Conti, to blaze his shot high and wide.
Souness and Ian Rush converted either side of Ubaldo Righetti, leaving Francesco Graziani with the chance to pile the pressure on once again. But in one of the most famous scenes in the competition’s long history Bruce Grobbelaar’s jovial antics on the line appeared to unsettle the Italian, who proceeded to sky his effort. “MISSED IT!” Yelled Brian Moore commentating for ITV Sport that night.
So it was left to Liverpool’s Mr Reliable, left back Alan Kennedy, a European Cup winner in 1977 and 1981 to step forward and break the hearts of thousands – an opportunity he took with both hands as he sent ‘keeper Tancredi the wrong way to secure Liverpool’s fourth European Cup in eight years. Roma fan and journalist Massimiliano Graziani from Italy's national broadcaster RAI would later compare Kennedy's winning kick to the "eruption in Pompeii"
Unsurprisingly the result did nothing to endear Liverpool to the locals and once again it was the supporters who bore the brunt of the Roma fans’ fury, as they ruthlessly attacked them outside the stadium with bottles, knives, bricks and pretty much anything they could get their hands on.
“Rome was not a good loser,” recalls Tony Evans. “The city was angry. As the Liverpool fans waited on the elevated road above the stadium and hurled down missiles at the cowering scousers. Walking back into the Ponte Duca d’Aosta turned into a stabbing zone.”
The carnage and the extent of the injuries suffered by Liverpool’s fans was largely ignored by the British press but the following day Italian newspaper Il Corriere dello Sport reported: “The aftermath of the match brought a night of vile, blind violence that disappointment cannot justify,”
Liverpool had once again confirmed their status as the greatest side in Europe. Passing the ultimate test of nerve to not just face their opponents in their own back yard, but to beat them too against a backdrop of intimidation and violence on a massive scale in what must surely be one of the club’s greatest achievements in a competition in which they hold such an impressive track record. Even so, for some players that night the experience was far from an enjoyable one.
“They say all roads lead to Rome,” says Michael Robinson. “But after our final penalty I’d have given anything to see just one that led out of that f**kin hellhole. Most people refer to the ’84 final as the Grobbelaar wobbly-legs final but to anyone who was there it was the ‘smoke, tear gas, and flare final.’”