ONE of the things about a birthday, a thing no-one really warns you about as you surf the waves of youth, is the feeling of existential dread it can trigger. The more birthdays you have, the greater the sense of impending doom. Mortality becomes a series of fading memories, a comfort blanket unravelling as you hurtle headlong towards oblivion.
There’s a reason for my transformation into a slightly less feel-good Ian Curtis and it is this. I turned 50 two days ago. That was tough. But there’s nothing like hitting the half-century for a bit of reflection. For looking back at the good and the bad and finding the perspective required to be comfortable with both.
As is the way of these things, my thoughts turned to the Reds. The highs and the lows, the trophies and the Bournemouths. I took to Google and to You Tube, to remind myself of all manner of obscure players, goals and games from my formative years.
The mystery of Frank McGarvey and his ket wig from the future.
The end of the marvellous 1982-83 season, when Liverpool failed to win any of the last seven games, lost five, and still won the league by 11 points.
The preposterous Keegan volley which sealed the 1974 semi-final replay with Leicester. (Not so smart in your all-white, glow-in-the-dark kit now, are you, Shilton?)
And I came across something I hadn’t previously been aware of. The first Liverpool match to take place during my lifetime. A bit of a landmark game for me, really. And, it transpires, for the wider world of football.
Because on December 7, 1966, 50 years ago today, Liverpool travelled to Amsterdam to play Dutch Champions, Ajax, in the second round of the European Cup and lost 5-1.
It was a game that passed into folklore for any number of reasons, yet as the years go by has been reduced to a footnote in our history. Perhaps now the pain has subsided enough to allow us to talk about it, to consider the implications of the night a legend was born and a blueprint was established which came to define an entire nation’s approach to football for a generation.
The context. Liverpool were in their third season of European competition, having reached the semi-final of the European Cup and the final of the Cup Winners Cup in the two previous campaigns. A few months earlier they had secured the club’s seventh league title, the second in three seasons. With ‘Sir’ Roger Hunt fresh from spearheading England’s historic World Cup triumph, Shankly’s first great team was firmly established as the finest in the land.
By contrast, Ajax were still relatively unknown outside their homeland. That was all about to change and two men, above all others, would be the catalyst.
A year earlier former player, Rinus Michels, was appointed head coach. He would go on to revolutionise the game, creating a model based on the flexibility and adaptability of his players and an aversion to imposing fixed positions on the pitch. This ‘Total Football’ policy would ultimately take Ajax to three consecutive European Cup triumphs and, with Michels at the helm, saw the Dutch national team of the 1970s become one of the most revered in World Cup history.
The jewel in Michels’ crown, for club and later country, was a 19-year-old novice when Liverpool came to town in December 1966. But a buzz was already building about Johan Cruyff. Bill Shankly had marked him out as a potential danger before the match, but even the Great Man could have had no inkling of the impact Cruyff would make on both the forthcoming tie and the wider game.
For those with long memories, the first thing to come to mind when talk turns to Ajax will inevitably be the fog. Amsterdam was enveloped in a thick pea-souper, the kind you’d typically find in an ITV drama about grisly murders in Victorian London featuring actors you partially recognise, possibly from The Bill.
The Liverpool contingent felt the game could not go ahead, but Shankly was conscious that any 24-hour postponement would affect preparations for the clash with Manchester United due to take place three days later.
Ultimately, the decision to play fell to the referee. Although it was impossible to see from one end of the stadium to the other, he judged that the game should proceed. What followed at times bordered on the farcical, with the reactions of supporters on opposite terraces often the only barometer of what was occurring on the pitch. At one point, Shankly took it upon himself to enter the field while play continued, issuing instructions to his team, unseen by the referee and his assistants.
The fog couldn’t save Liverpool. Two down within 16 minutes, trailing by four at half-time. For a team accustomed to overpowering opponents, grinding them down through intensity, work-rate and force of will, this was a rude awakening.
And it was no fluke, no accident of circumstance, no fog-assisted freak. Liverpool couldn’t cope with Ajax’s fluidity or the surgical precision of their attacks. And they couldn’t cope with young Johan Cruyff, pulling the strings like a veteran conductor orchestrating the perfect symphony.
Despite a second half rally, there was no way back for the Reds. A late Lawler goal provided the scantest consolation, with Ajax running out clear and deserved 5-1 winners.
Shankly’s reaction was a typical mix of defiance, motivation and bluff. “We never play well against defensive teams,” he raged. “Ajax got lucky. Next week, in Liverpool, we’ll beat them 7-0.”
But underneath the bluster, he was rattled. His Liverpool didn’t get taken apart like that. His Liverpool could not be outplayed and out-thought. His Liverpool were unbeatable.
The repercussions from that night in Amsterdam were vast. Shankly had seen the future and it was murder. It was his job to make sure Liverpool were part of it. It affected his thinking, his ideas on the game, his entire approach. Where once he had been suspicious of the European game, he began to open up more, embracing the possession-centred, inter-changing, pass and move philosophy that Ajax excelled at.
And, eventually, Liverpool became the masters, the first English team to fully blend the best of the continental game with traditional home-grown traits. Look closely and you can trace a clear line of evolution from the Dutch fog to the glory of Rome eleven years later.
In the return leg (above) Cruyff cemented his standing as a genuine star-in-the-making. Although Shankly’s team gave their all, twice hitting the woodwork early on, Cruyff’s two goals on the counter-attack confirmed the inevitable. A 2-2 scoreline may have been a disappointment to the 54,000 inside Anfield convinced by Shankly’s stirring rhetoric, but they had been privileged to see a superstar take his first steps on the big stage.
He would go on to enchant the football world and leave a legacy as rich as anyone the game has produced.
Fifty years on, it’s strangely comforting to know that I was there at the start, that the first Liverpool game I was around for had such an impact.
I’m not sure I can claim all the credit, but I like to think there’s some weird connection there, some mysterious energy at play, some realignment of the stars. Because otherwise this is just an old fella banging on about the past again, shouting at his own reflection in the mirror.
As if that would ever happen…
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