The Five Nights in May

BETWEEN 1977 and 1985 English clubs appeared in eight European Cup Finals, winning seven, including a run of six successive final victories. It is the longest period of dominance by one country in the competition’s history, including its current rebranded corporate guise, The Champions League. If one nation dominated Europe’s premier club competition during this time, then one club more than any other dominated England’s representation in those finals.

Liverpool FC appeared in five finals in nine years, winning four of them. For football mad youngsters growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in towns without a professional club to support, the chances are they were a self proclaimed Liverpool fan. Indeed this period of sustained European dominance by one club, gave rise to the now popular term within the English lexicon of the; “Glory Supporter.”

This is not a tale of how one club seduced young football fans into supporting them, albeit from a distance. This is a story which recalls five wondrous nights in May that saw Liverpool win the European Cup each time and keep the ‘Big Eared’ trophy all for themselves.

It is a tale told by a football mad youngster who grew up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in an unnamed town on the East coast of England, who, while not a fully committed glory supporter, was for a time seduced by Liverpool and who 21 years after their fourth European Cup win, witnessed them as an adult win a fifth final in the most spectacular of circumstances.

Liverpool 3 v 1 Borussia Mönchengladbach (25th May 1977 – Rome)

This was not Liverpool’s first foray into the European Cup competition, however it was their first final. The previous season had seen Bob Paisley’s men win the UEFA Cup final, so the prospect of a major European final was not a daunting one for the men in red. Going into the final Liverpool were about to lose their talismanic forward Kevin Keegan. If ever there was a memory to leave the Liverpool fans with, this was it.

Despite the cavernous gap between the stands and the pitch, which was symptomatic of the large club grounds on the continent, the Liverpool fans seemed to monopolise the ground. Red and white was the dominant colour in the Stadio Olimpico.

In the 24th minute Rainer Bonhof saw his scuffed shot hit the post and rebound to the safety of the Liverpool defence. Then came the breakthrough Steve Heighway, cut in from the right wing and Terry McDermott went beyond his Liverpool compatriot. A perfectly weighted pass and a thumping finish across the keeper and Liverpool were 1-0 up. Seven minutes into the second half and a misplaced pass from Jimmy Case, which went behind Phil Neal, allowed Allan Simonsen to advance to the corner of the 18-yard box and unleash a drive past Ray Clemence into the top corner. Then the pivotal moment the Germans broke quickly, Simonsen played a cross-field ball into the path of Uli Stielike who was clean through one on one with Clemence. The Liverpool keeper advanced smothered the shot and the chance was gone and with it Mönchengladbach’s hopes.

Two minutes later Liverpool took the lead with a towering header from Liverpool stalwart Tommy Smith direct from a corner. With Liverpool now in control, Keegan was brought down in the penalty area in the 82nd minute. The Liverpool right back Phil Neal stepped up and calmly sent Wolfgang Kneib the wrong way.

Game over, and so began an enduring relationship between the red half of Liverpool and the ‘Coupe de Clubs Champions Européens’  

Liverpool 1 v 0 Club Brugge  (10th May 1978 – London)

Winning a competition for the first time is difficult; the real challenge is defending that title. To Liverpool’s credit a summer of upheaval including the departure of Kevin Keegan and the arrival of the Scottish triumvirate Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness, did not cause even a ripple in their progression through Europe’s premier club competition.

For the second year in a row Liverpool were looking to maintain their title as the kings of Europe. This time the Belgian side, Club Brugge stood in the way, but Liverpool had as near to home advantage as possible. The game was being held at the ‘old Wembley stadium’

The final was a dour affair, which was lifted only by a piece of brilliance by two thirds of the Scottish contingent. In the second half a headed clearance from the Brugge defence fell to Souness. The midfielder chested the ball, shifted the ball with his left foot to his right foot and stabbed an angled pass to Dalglish.

The Liverpool number 7 held his run perfectly allowing the ball to run across him away from goal, Birger Jensen came out to narrow the angle. Like two gunslingers at high noon daring each other to make the first move, the keeper blinked first and started going to ground. Dalglish lifted the ball over the Dane and into the far corner. Dalglish’s momentum took him over the advertising hording and towards the delirious Liverpool fans. Its not about how you win, it is just about winning. Liverpool had done it again and with a piece of impudent brilliance.

Liverpool 1 v 0 Real Madrid (27th May 1981 – Paris)

If Liverpool where becoming the new dominant force in European club football, then Real Madrid were definitely the ‘old masters’. Eight finals, in the first eleven editions of the tournament, winning six. 1981 was the Spanish giants first final in 15 years. It was truly a clash of Master versus Apprentice.

As with the Wembley clash three years earlier, the fans at the Parc de Princes endured another cautious and tense final. Both sides tactically negated their opponents strengths, resulting in chances being few and far between.

What was evident was that Liverpool’s fans were happy to be back on their European tour of football’s cultural capitals, having witnessed Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest take over the mantle of European Champions, with their back to back tournament wins, the Kop faithful were revelling being back on the continent.

As the game entered the last 10 minutes, and extra-time seemingly inevitable, the Kennedys linked on the Liverpool left. A quick throw by Ray caught the Madrid defence flat-footed. Alan raced into the Real Madrid penalty box and struck the ball past Austín Rodríguez at his near post and into the net at the far side of the goal.  As with Dalglish’s goal at Wembley, Alan Kennedy’s momentum took him off the pitch and towards the delirious Liverpool fans.

Liverpool comfortably saw out the last nine minutes despite the Spanish side committing to all out attack to try and rescue the game. At the final whistle Liverpool had cemented their place as the kings of Europe, with Real Madrid watching from the pitch-side, as Bob Paisley became the first manager to lift the European Cup three times.

Liverpool 1 v 1 Roma a.e.t 4-2 penalties (30th May 1984 – Rome)

By 1984 the genial genius that had taken Liverpool to the summit of European football, Bob Paisley, had taken his leave from the top job at Anfield. The club turned to another graduate of the fabled boot room and appointed Paisley’s assistant manager, Joe Fagan. As with all recent shifts in key personnel at that time, Liverpool’s change of manager barely registered in terms of form and success.

Fagan guided Liverpool to their fourth European Cup final in eight years. The final was to be held in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, the scene of Liverpool’s first European Cup Triumph against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Only this time the Reds were facing Italian champions AS Roma, whose home ground was the very same Stadio Olimpico. If ever a team were walking in to the proverbial lions den, then this was it.

Liverpool started the game conservatively trying to take the fervour out of the Italian support. After 13 minutes Liverpool did the unthinkable and scored. A hoisted cross from Craig Johnson saw Franco Tancredi the Italian keeper drop the ball under pressure. Michele Nappi tried to clear the ball only for it to hit his prostrate goalkeeper and ricochet into the path of Phil Neal, who reacted quickest to put the ball in the back of the net.

The game brought out a more attacking mindset from the Spanish and duly equalised just before half time. In the second half, Roma started to exert their control in midfield, but despite edging the midfield battle, the winning goal just wouldn’t come. The 30 minutes of extra-time brought no real threat to either goal and with the crowd transmitting their nerves and tension to the players, penalties seemed almost a blessed relief. The advantage of home territory now turned to unbearable pressure as Roma went into a penalty shootout in front of their own fans.

Steve Nicol went first and blazed his penalty over the bar. Di Bartolomei scored Roma’s first penalty and put the Italians in the ascendency. Then it all started to unravel rapidly for the Italian side as Neal, Souness and Rush all scored, while Righetti’s penalty was sandwiched between Conti’s and Graziani’s misses. The mercurial Bruce Grobbelaar had played his part with his spaghetti legs impression on the goal line as the Italians approached to take their kick.

So it came to Alan Kennedy who had the opportunity to win a fourth European Cup for Liverpool, in Roma’s backyard and present Joe Fagan with his first European Cup and Phil Neale with his fourth cup winners medal. The result was inevitable, Kennedy sent Tancredi the wrong way and once again Liverpool hoisted the European Cup. It seemed there was no end in sight to Liverpool’s dominance in Europe.

On that warm sultry night in Rome no one would have believed it would be 21 years before Liverpool were once again champions of Europe.

Liverpool 3 v 3 Milan a.e.t 3-2 penalties (25th May 2005 – Istanbul)

So we come to the fifth and final night in May. 28 years after Liverpool won their first European Cup, the Reds had returned to the summit of club football. Just about every aspect of the competition had changed. No more was the competition a closed shop to league winners and holders’ only. No more was it a straight knockout competition over two legs. No more were the Liverpool side made up predominantly of English players with an English manager and no more was it called the ‘European Cup’. The only aspect that had stayed the same in the close to three decades since that first success was the fans. Still fervent, still obsessive, still loyal, still prepared to do whatever it took to get a ticket for the final.

As first half’s’ go, it was a disaster. Liverpool were 1-0 down after one minute. They were 2-0 down after 39 minutes and with the best goal of the game; Liverpool were 3-0 down before half time. AC Milan had been irresistible; Kaká and Hernán Crespo were unplayable. Liverpool’s invincible aura of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s counted for nothing.

As the two sides left the pitch at half time, fans and viewers were reminded of the ‘comedy and tragedy’ theatre masks. One team were laughing and joking with each other; the other team sloped of the pitch. Their faces a mixture of shock and accusation as to what had just happened.

During the half-time team talk the sounds of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rumbled around the stadium until it reached such a crescendo that it could be heard in the bowels of the stadium, while Rafa Benitez was trying to resurrect his team.

As second half’s go it was breath taking. Liverpool approached the second 45 minutes with renewed vigour. Inside six incredible minutes Liverpool had wiped out Milan’s lead, scoring three quick goals to leave the Rossoneri stunned. From then on the game was akin to two heavyweight boxers trading blows. The slugfest continued into extra-time with Jerzy Dudek pulling off an incredible double point-blank save from Andriy Shevchenko. If ever there was sign that this was to be Liverpool’s night, surely that was it.

From a position of seemingly invincibility, Milan had been dragged into a penalty shootout. Any semblance of belief the Milan fans still had must have disappeared as Serginho and Andrea Pirlo missed the Italian’s first two penalties, while ‘Didi’ Hamman and Djibril Cissé calmly dispatched theirs. John Arne Riise missed his penalty to give the Milan fans the slightest respite from the unfolding nightmare. Jon Dahl Tomasson and Kaká scored their penalties, as did Vladimir Smicer.

After 120 minutes of football, six goals, the combination of stratospheric highs and abject lows for both sets of fans, it came down to one strike of the football from 12-yards. Shevchenko versus Dudek. The Ukrainian fired his penalty down the middle; Dudek was going to his right but stuck out a left hand and made the save. Liverpool were champions of Europe again. Because it was their fifth success, the team from Anfield got to keep the iconic European Cup and cement their place as one of the great European clubs.

Looking back now it is easy too see how Liverpool seduced youngsters in to following their cause, world-class footballers and world-class managers, playing football in exotic locations. Much of my formative footballing education was spent watching the men in vivid red kits, take on and dominate the best that European leagues had to offer. It was only in 2005; after 21-years between the fourth and fifth cup victory did I truly appreciate how great those nights in May truly were.

By Stuart Horsfield with artwork by Matthew Shipley
        

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