FIRST things first. I’m struggling to accept it was 40 years ago today that Liverpool won the first leg of this final at Anfield. Sorry, but it’s not possible. It just isn’t. Because that means I am hurtling through middle age at a rate Mo Farah would struggle to keep pace with, and, frankly, I don’t think I’m ready to deal with it yet. Come back to me later, when I’ve taken up golf or watching Countryfile and no longer feel the urge to ritually disembowel Michael McIntyre every time I see his stupid rice pudding face banging on about the latest thing he’s noticed because that never ever gets old, does it, and maybe, just maybe, we can talk honestly about the inevitable sting of time’s poisoned arrow.
But until then, the memories of 1976 and FC Brugge and one of Anfield’s great forgotten European nights are fixed in my mind. And they’re going to take some shifting.
Bear in mind, this was pre-St Etienne, pre-Rome, pre-Dalglish. Liverpool had yet to become established as a dominant force in Europe. But the signs were there. In only his second season in charge, Paisley was in the process of reshaping the team he had inherited. A more patient, possession-based approach, with Keegan the fulcrum on which all else turned, seemed perfectly-suited to continental success. To no-one’s surprise, it was also the catalyst for a period of sustained domestic superiority.
It was said by some that the UEFA Cup was a sterner challenge than its more illustrious sister competition, the European Cup. Whereas the latter consisted solely of the previous season’s league winners, the UEFA Cup acted as a vital development stage for the up-and-comers, the teams of tomorrow. And, as we all know, when tomorrow came it was wearing a red shirt.
The Barcelona of Cruyff and Neeskens had been impressively dispatched in the semi-final. In the process, Liverpool became the first (and still the only) English team to win at the Camp Nou (a feat repeated by the Reds in February 2007) and substitute, Joey Jones, narrowly avoided inciting a riot when he interpreted the onslaught of cushions being hurled on the pitch by disgruntled Barcelona fans as a personal slight and set about flinging them right back where they came from.
What a guy.
So, on to a two-legged final with Brugge. Granted, that may not sound the most intimidating prospect to the casual observer of 2016, with his iPad machine and his haircut, but Brugge, above all else, were handy. They’d already seen off Ipswich (yes, I’m asking you to accept Ipswich were a decent team now, too — just go with it, ‘kay?), Roma, Hamburg and AC Milan, and were on the verge of securing the first of three consecutive domestic league titles. They were far from a pushover.
Anfield was the stage for the first leg. An Anfield not yet established as a place of European legend. We’d had the tumult of Inter Milan in 1965, Celtic in 1966 and Moenchengladbach in the final of this competition three years earlier, but the mythology we now recognise was still to take hold. This night, though. This night was special. This night, more than any other, pulled me in and refused to let go.
They say it’s been 40 years. To me it’s been both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. So much has changed. Nothing has changed. It depends what you’re looking at.
Nine years old. The Main Stand. Not ready for The Kop. Not yet. That would come 12 months later, teetering on a home-made stool three days after St. Etienne, one small voice among 56,000. I’d been to matches before, typically perched on my dad’s knee having been lifted over the turnstile with the tacit approval of the gateman, a tactic I fully intend to employ next time I take my 16-year-old son to Anfield. I was at the 11-0 v Stromsgodset in 1974. That wasn’t bad. I’d seen league games, although if I’m honest the precise details are a bit sketchy now.
But this is the first occasion; the first time I’d witness Liverpool in a bona fide big game. A cup final, no less. Bring it on.
Fifteen minutes gone and its 2-0 to Brugge. A ropey Neal back-pass intercepted for the first; a slick move culminating in an explosive half-volley from the impressively-named Julien Cools for the second. I don’t believe I signed up for this. I’m nine years old. I want the world and I want it now.
Paisley’s starting 11 betrays a desire to get the cup won in the first leg. Toshack, Keegan, Fairclough and Heighway, with Callaghan and Kennedy behind. Effectively a 4-2-4. That’s an incredibly bold move. It is also one that doesn’t pay off, with Liverpool outnumbered in midfield and exposed on the break. It requires a half-time rethink.
And here’s where the parallels kick in.
Brugge. Istanbul. Dortmund. There’s an invisible line running through them, the repeating of themes, ultimate triumph in the face of adversity.
First off, Case replaces Toshack, to provide both solidity and width in the midfield. The game is immediately transformed. Liverpool buzzing, pressing, alive, as if they’ve thought it through and have come up with solutions. Brugge are wobbling under concerted pressure, hanging on, barely. Heighway is rejuvenated and causing absolute mayhem, skinning the exposed right back with such clinical regularity it’s like he’s fashioning a crazed flesh-suit before our eyes. In truth, no-one would mind if he was. It’d probably be a first-class piece of workmanship.
And the dam bursts, and the waters pour through.
An explosion from Kennedy’s left foot tears the net asunder. One.
Keegan twists, Kennedy mishits, Case bundles the rebound over the line. Two.
Heighway, the world’s most polite serial killer, surges into the area and is felled. Keegan buries the penalty. Three.
Three goals in six minutes. In a European final. A European final that was slipping away. As if that could happen. As if that could happen twice.
Meanwhile, I’ve never heard a noise like it. A cacophony of joy and release. I am standing on my seat belting out We Shall Not Be Moved. To this day, it’s the song that best captures the euphoria of a glorious comeback. A million decibels of raw defiance. At this moment, this precise moment, it is everything. I hear you call my name and it feels like home.
We roar them through the remaining minutes. And, at the final whistle, celebrate a team that doesn’t know when to lose, a team hewn in Shankly’s image. Taking a one-goal lead into a difficult second leg is never a comfortable experience. But I don’t imagine anyone inside Anfield that night doubted for a second that the UEFA Cup was as good as won. A 1-1 draw in Brugge three weeks later was enough.
Now we’ve got the chance to do it again, and if we need to do it the hard way, so be it. We know how it works. We’ve been there, done it. Think of the memories we’ll have. They’ll still be there 40 years down the line. And it’ll still seem like it happened just yesterday. Like Dortmund. Like Istanbul.