PHIL Neal is Liverpool’s greatest ever full-back. He just is.
In any discussion of our finest Liverpool 11s his name is usually cemented into the number two shirt, even by those who didn’t see him play. It’s just a truism. If you’re tempted to compile a list, write him into the left of the goalkeeper’s name. In pen. Underlined.
And yet despite that and a trophy haul which makes him the most decorated player in our history, his name is rarely called to memory when the legends – the real legends – are discussed. In the 2006 poll of 100 Players Who Shook the Kop he stood in 20th place. Come the follow-up ranking in 2013 he fell 10 places to 30th – behind the likes of Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt.
That’s not to slate Xabi and Dirk. Such polls and popularity contests are always geared to include the contemporary team so shouldn’t be read into too much, but it’s staggering that he should fall so far down the totem pole given his medals and European Cup final goals.
The stats then. They just look like a bunch of meaningless numbers but imagine the sweat and toil that went into this lot.
- Four European Cups
- Eight League Championships
- Four League Cups (in consecutive years)
- One UEFA Cup
And all hewn from 650 games. There are 59 goals in there too – two of them quite important.
Signed from Northampton Town in October 1974, Bob Paisley’s first season, Neal spent the first few weeks in the reserves as was the custom at the time. The club found digs for him near the training ground so he would hang around Melwood in the afternoons. Bill Shankly also lived nearby and he too would find himself at a loose end in the middle of the day as he struggled with the concept of retirement so the two men would chat. Neal cites those conversations while they sat on a bench overlooking the pitches as both inspirational and confidence building. Shankly would tell him that he was good enough to be at ‘the greatest football club in the world’ no matter what club or division he’d been at and that he would make the grade once the opportunity arose.
It did so in November when he was brought in to make his debut at left-back in a goalless draw at Goodison. He had no idea he was playing and even walked across Stanley Park with his boots wrapped in brown paper under his arm to the game, rather than travel with the first team. Such was his anonymity that the only people who spoke to him outside the ground were fans asking for spare tickets.
He later told LFChistory.net: “I was marking John Connelly on the day so this was one of those days, you thought, come on, this is one of those days you start to come of age. I was 23, not a teenager. Cally was brilliant on the day: ‘I’ll be around always for a pass even if it’s tight. I’ll give it back.’ It was great really. I remember towards the second half I actually had a shot that whistled over and I thought I can handle this. That was that spirit that kept me through that game that really got me into the team lock, stock and barrel. They saw that I could play.”
He missed the next three games but became a fixture afterwards.
From October 24, 1976 to September 23, 1983, Phil Neal broke another Liverpool record. Between those dates he didn’t miss a single Liverpool match – a run of 417 games. There were only two near misses – one when he broke a cheekbone and, on another occasion, a toe. He played nonetheless. He also didn’t miss a day’s training as he saw playing for Liverpool as an enjoyable experience rather than work, and didn’t want to miss out on a single session.
In that team of stars, culminating in the great 1979 side, Phil’s role was more of reliable and consistent player while the likes of Dalglish and Souness became the stars. People didn’t go to Anfield specifically to see Phil Neal – he was just always there, stopping and scoring goals for Liverpool.
It’s difficult to compare him with modern players as the role of full-back has changed significantly over the years. His goal record – including 38 penalties – shows how much he liked to get forward and join the attack. The system allowed this as it’s a myth that the classic Liverpool sides only played 4-4-2 with regimented roles for the full-backs. Souness would often drop back between his centre-backs while Neal and Alan Kennedy pushed up on either flank. This was a clever move by Paisley as neither were shot-shy. Between them they top-and-tailed the scoring in Rome 1984. In fact, full-backs scored in three of our first European Cup finals.
But most of all he was a defender. Not a speed merchant or a colossus as such, but an excellent reader of the game who knew when to sit and when to push up. He could press as well as anyone in the modern side and cut off runners. An intelligent full-back rather than the gung-ho lads who he saw at left-back over his time. Even back then Liverpool would have one sensible right-back and a somewhat erratic/occasionally maddening left-back.
So why isn’t his name hallowed as much as it should be? Well, a couple of incidents stand out.
Firstly, he claims he was offered the manager’s job when Joe Fagan retired after Heysel and went public about it when Kenny took over instead. According to Roy Evans’ biography, Neal refused to call Dalglish ‘boss’ for a while, though Kenny still played him at right-back at the start of the 1985-86 season.
Phil’s apparent ascension to the dugout was not an unlikely scenario. He was 34 at the time and club captain with impressive leadership skills. When Alan Kennedy scored the winning goal in Paris in 1981 and finally returned to his own half for the kick-off after his elaborate celebrations, Neal told him that he should really have passed to David Johnson, who was better placed. An example of how Neal liked to keep the game simple.
His autobiography, Life at the Kop, pulls no punches on his treatment by the club in the summer of 1985. He could never win a public spat with Kenny and more than a few Kopites turned their backs on him following publication. He would leave the club before Christmas to become player-manager at Bolton.
The other reason – and a more comical one — was his appearance in the Graham Taylor documentary The Impossible Job – the story of England’s disastrous 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign. Neal agrees with everything- absolutely everything Taylor says with the words ‘Yes, boss’ to such an extent that those words followed him around for years afterwards. Suddenly the plain-speaking Neal was painted as a ‘yes man’ who did little to help his country. It’s fascinating to watch and highly quotable, but it paints two fundamentally good men in a poor light.
Added to this was the incident in 2005 where he refused to give an interview about Heysel unless he was paid. He told a reporter “People who want my views pay,” adding: “I’d rather forget that night. It was an ordeal. But why should I help you out? I’m helping you pay your mortgage [by talking to you about Heysel]. When people ask me for my view, they usually have to pay for it. You’re asking for my help for nothing.”
Crass, certainly, but I think that was borne out of the horror of the night. After all, Neal was on the pitch that night, in front of a microphone appealing for calm so it’s understandable that he would resist on re-visiting it every May when he, as captain, was asked to recall it. Personally, I’m not sure why a journalist would go public when he/she must have been refused an interview hundreds of times, but there we are.
Neal could have handled it better, though.
The problem with Liverpool and its legends is that we have so many that some of them are not given the light as they deserve. Had Phil Neal played for, say, Manchester City, there would be statues dedicated to him. Stoke City might have named a stand after him had he won with them what he did for the Reds. You could say the same of Ian Callaghan, Phil Thompson and a whole host of others.
Today is the 66th birthday of Liverpool’s greatest right-back and our most decorated player. The media can say ‘Yes, boss’ and snigger as often as it wants whenever his name comes up. I don’t care. For 11 years, Phil Neal was synonymous with the greatest period in our illustrious history and played in every single game.
Happy birthday, Phil.