In 1977 Liverpool stood on the brink of history as they set about achieving something that no English club at the time had accomplished before, embarking on a three-pronged assault on silverware both at home and abroad in what is still regarded by many as the greatest season in the club’s history.
The 1970s were far from the most glorious when it comes to English football. The nation’s excitement at having won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 had quickly waned thanks to a semi-final defeat to West Germany four years later and failure to qualify for both the 1974 and 1978 tournaments was nothing short of a humiliation for the former World Champions.
Domestically the game was marred by hooliganism, those attending matches lived in constant fear of violence as groups of supporters fought pitched battles the length and breadth of the country. It was so bad that then Manchester United Manager, Tommy Docherty, even called for the birch to be used on persistent offenders.
But rather like the punk rock explosion, which was making all the headlines in the mid ‘70s, no side divided opinion and got people talking quite like Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, who set about conquering all before them thanks to a group of players and a style of play that would soon cement their place as the greatest side in Europe.
“It was all about Liverpool for me,” remembers journalist, author, Evening Standard and ESPN columnist Tony Evans. “I was 16 and completely focused on the team. Hooliganism was in the background but didn't particularly worry me and we were all heartily entertained when there was a fight at the match. It was part of the theatre of it all. England barely made an impression on me either. I remember Romeo Benetti levelling Kevin Keegan at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier the same year but that, like them failing to qualify, was amusing.”
Despite a domestic and European double the previous season the 1976-77 campaign is to many still Liverpool's finest ever, while underpinning an era of unparalleled success for the club who would go on to dominate both domestically and abroad for the next decade and a half.
“We wanted to win the league and the European Cup”, explains Evans. “They'd won the league title and the UEFA Cup the season before and this was as good an opportunity as we'd ever had. It felt like our time had come.”
And sure enough Liverpool began the season in commanding style; winning 11 and losing just two of their first 16 games they topped the table with 23 points, as their ruthless form meant they were soon looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack.
Approaching Christmas Liverpool were five points clear of their closest challengers before an unexpected blip - including three defeats in four games – meant that going into the New Year several sides were suddenly in with a shout of the title.
Seven defeats in 13 games would eventually scupper the chances of Bobby Robson’s plucky Ipswich Town, though Manchester City would still prove a real threat. However, a springtime resurgence not only saw Liverpool put a little more daylight between themselves and the rest, but also rejuvenated their stuttering campaign.
And if one game epitomized just what that Liverpool side was about it came on March 16, 1977, when they faced Saint-Etienne at Anfield in the European Cup quarter-final, second leg – a game that didn’t just revive their fortunes but one which it could be argued has moulded the club’s identity ever since.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, the Reds needed to win by two goals and an early Kevin Keegan strike appeared to calm the Anfield nerves, but a stunning Dominique Bathenay effort meant that Saint-Etienne were once again ahead in the tie.
Needing to score twice without reply Ray Kennedy smashed the ball home from 18 yards before, in the 84th minute, he sent through a fantastic ball that split the French defence and allowed substitute David Fairclough to drill a low shot under the Saint-Etienne 'keeper.
That goal and the nature of the victory that night not only provided one of the most emotional and memorable nights ever witnessed at Anfield, but also acted as a springboard to propel Liverpool forward just as it appeared they were about to come to a juddering halt at the worst possible moment.
Having overcome Everton in an FA Cup semi-final replay - after Everton felt they had a perfectly good goal ruled out in the first game - Liverpool now faced the prospect of a title showdown with Manchester City, an FA Cup final and a European Cup final in a week that could see them become the first English club to win all three top honours in one season.
A draw at home to West Ham on the final Saturday of the season ensured they retained their league crown with a game in hand and as a result set-up probably the biggest few days in the club’s history as Liverpool prepared for two cup finals in five days; something which Tony Evans feels wouldn’t have fazed this talented bunch of individuals who also played brilliantly as a team.
“It was a great side,” he says. “There was Ray Clemence in goal, while Emlyn Hughes is still one of the most underrated players in the club's history. Three quarters of the greatest midfield ever were in place that season too. Players like Jimmy Case, Terry McDermott and Ray Kennedy, then, of course, there was Keegan's dynamism; and they all worked really hard for each other.”
And with the world treble now on a country’s eager lips (if not those of the Liverpool players), this seemingly all-encompassing side would face Tommy Docherty’s free-flowing, yet somewhat under-performing, Manchester United in the FA Cup final at Wembley a week later in the ultimate showdown.
The Doc had somewhat unfairly become known as the most successful failure in football, thanks to a Wembley record which had seen him lose there as a player with Preston, Scotland on three occasions, while as a manager his Chelsea side were defeated in 1967 and most recently, as United boss, just 12 months before.
After that shock defeat to Southampton in 1976 Docherty had bullishly promised United’s fans outside Manchester Town Hall that his side would be back next year to win the cup and, unfortunately for Paisley’s men, he was true to his word.
Despite two of the biggest names in the game competing in the season’s showpiece game the match was a cagey and rather disappointing affair and only burst into life during a frantic five minute spell shortly after half-time.
Stuart Pearson put United ahead in the 51st minute but as John Motson so accurately predicted in his commentary at the time: “There’s a saying in football that Liverpool are their most dangerous when they are behind,” and he wasn’t wrong. With United fans still celebrating, Jimmy Case controlled a long ball from Joey Jones perfectly on his thigh, turned and fired the ball past Alex Stepney, who could only grasp at thin air.
But just moments later it was the Liverpool fans who would have their celebrations cut short as Lou Macari burst through the Reds’ defence, scuffing a shot which flew off Jimmy Greenhoff’s chest and looped past the helpless Clemence.
Liverpool had been denied the treble in the cruellest way but didn’t have time to dwell on their loss, there was a European Cup final in Rome against Borussia Monchengladbach to prepare for the following Wednesday in a week of contrasting emotions for a young Tony Evans.
“The disappointment of Wembley still rankles, Liverpool were flat and United nicked it. Then there was another disappointment: watching my mother and brother get on a train for Rome and I was stuck at home doing O levels.”
That night in the Italian capital Liverpool put the heartache of their treble demise firmly behind them, convincingly defeating the German champions in one of the most impressive displays of the season thanks to goals from Terry McDermott, Tommy Smith and Phil Neal.
The match was to be Smith and Kevin Keegan’s last for The Reds; the former retiring while the latter followed in the footsteps of The Beatles and headed to Hamburg having stated his intention to leave the Reds at the beginning of the campaign.
This was the first of Liverpool’s European Cups and would confirm their place as one of the top sides in the game as they set about an extraordinary run of success in the continent’s elite club competition, while also dominating on home soil.
So what of that young lad who was left behind in Liverpool to do his homework as 30,000 of his fellow fans descended on Rome to watch their side cap surely the most dramatic and successful season in the club’s long and illustrious history?
“The Wednesday night was brilliant”, he recalls “Tommy Smith, who went to our school, even scored the decisive goal. Like a sad git, I ran up to my Evertonian mate's house to gloat. What a year 1977 was. The Pistols, The Jam, The Clash... a glorious, glorious time.”
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