I FIRST got a season ticket in 1982. Main Stand, somewhere between the half-way line and the Anny Road penalty box. Not yet 16 and already leaving the tumult, the chaos and the ever-present threat of damp feet that marked The Kop’s unique appeal way behind.
The hope is that you find yourself seated alongside like minds, kindred souls. The sort of people you can celebrate with, commiserate with, argue with. People you look forward to catching up with every fortnight.
I ended up next to an ageing, miserable, monosyllabic racist from Bootle with questionable personal hygiene. And — contrary to popular belief in the age of Paul Nuttall — ageing, miserable, monosyllabic racists from Bootle with questionable personal hygiene do not make the best companions.
There were two things that could rouse my Neolithic acquaintance from his grunting torpor. That transformed him into a twisted ball of spittle-flecked rage, spraying invective and stale cheese and onion crisps over anyone in a half-mile radius.
One was the presence of non-white players in the opposition line-up. Unfortunately, in 1982 this was still a depressing feature of the English game and it can’t be denied that Anfield had its share of tiny-minded knuckle-draggers. It took the arrival of John Barnes five years later to finally render this kind of attitude unacceptable. By that time I’d moved on to pastures new, but I’d have loved to see matey’s face as Barnes sliced teams apart for fun in front of him week after week.
The other thing that could get him foaming at the mouth was Sammy Lee.
This fella hated Sammy Lee. No matter what Lee did, it was never enough. He was too slow, too safe, too small. From first whistle to last, he never let up. Grumbling under his breath, exploding with rage, flicking the Vs. Presumably that constituted a cracking day out for him. It didn’t really do a great deal for my enjoyment of the game, like, but we play with the hand we’re dealt and at 15 I wasn’t mature or confident enough to offer any riposte other than an exaggerated sigh or a disapproving head-shake.
But I was desperate to see Sammy prove him wrong. And, all things considered, that’s exactly what he did.
It’s impossible to overstate how good Liverpool’s midfield quartet was between 1978 and 1980. Ray Kennedy, Jimmy Case, Graeme Souness and Terry McDermott were the ideal combination, an amalgam of power, composure, vision, steel and self-belief. The finest midfield in Liverpool’s history, no question. One of the best ever to grace the game. Imagine how daunting it was to try and break into that set-up. Enough to make you consider your future, to look for an easier career path.
Sammy Lee was 21, 5ft 4in, and looked more like a schoolkid with a taste for spam than an elite athlete. He also had drive, determination and the will to improve, to be better than his peers. He may not have possessed the silky skills of a Souness or the dynamism of a Case, but he had a dream and he’d do whatever it took to make it real.
His big chance came towards the end of 1979-80. An injury to McDermott saw Lee come into the side for the epic four-game FA Cup semi-final saga with Arsenal, and he impressed enough to keep his place when the be-permed lager fancier returned. Now he’d made the breakthrough, he wasn’t giving his place up lightly.
Ultimately, it was Case who gave way. It became clear that, as his game developed, Bob Paisley saw Lee’s natural role as being on the right of a four man midfield, operating in tandem with the league’s most consistent right-back, Phil Neal. In that role, he clocked up a staggering 229 games over the next four seasons, a crucial cog in a team that sucked up three championships, two European Cups and four League Cups. In the treble winning season of 1983-84, he played in every match, 67 in total, a staggering achievement.
Lee was never a spectacular footballer, never one to catch the eye for his individual ability or his capacity to grab a game by the throat and shake it into submission. He was the ultimate team player, a man who would do the job he was given to a very high standard, and in doing so facilitated the genius of some of his more illustrious colleagues. He offered the team perfect balance and necessary width, covering for Neal when he ventured into the opposing half, providing an outlet when Liverpool attacked with intent. Unassuming, unobtrusive; terms not always synonymous with a successful player at the highest level. But Lee’s teammates acutely understood the value of his contribution. More importantly, so did his manager.
Paisley saw a lot of Ian Callaghan (Lee’s idol) in him. They were both models of commitment and hard work. They kept the game simple when simplicity was required, and they’d run till their legs fell off. And while, like Cally, he may not have been the most prolific goalscorer the club has seen, when he did find the net it was often significant. The winner in a closely-contested European Cup semi-final first leg with Dinamo Bucharest in 1984 (a towering header, if you can believe such a thing); a strike that helped secure a draw at Goodison; and, most memorably, a 35-yard free kick away at Manchester City that sped into the top corner like a guided missile.
His finest hour, though, came in Munich. In the second leg of the 1981 European Cup semi-final. The game remembered for Howard Gayle’s electric intervention and Kennedy’s striking instinct. For perhaps the only time in Liverpool history, Paisley’s tactics were set out to nullify one man; Bayern’s talisman, Paul Breitner. Lee was told to track him wherever he went, to sacrifice his normal job in order to negate Breitner’s substantial threat. The instructions were followed to the letter, with Lee harassing, niggling, closing down and battling the German all over the pitch. With Breitner marginalised, unable to affect the game, Liverpool had the platform to secure the away goal they needed. It was a masterstroke. But it could never have happened without Sammy. And no-one but Lee could have carried it out with such discipline, awareness and bloody-minded determination.
The departure of Souness in 1984 changed everything. The finely-honed machine spluttered and hit the kerb. The balance in the midfield was gone, new additions like Jan Molby and Kevin MacDonald found it hard to adapt, and performances suffered. Lee, in particular, struggled. As results turned, his form nosedived. The Anfield crowd, never slow to let a player know when he isn’t hitting the standards they expect, got on his back. When he was substituted in a dismal 0-0 draw with West Brom, the decision was met with rapturous applause. The bloke next to me hadn’t been so excited since Jim Davidson was a lad.
He never really got his place back. In Kenny Dalglish’s double-winning season, Lee became a squad player, filling in for injuries and suspensions, always reliable, always guaranteed to give everything for the badge on his chest. At just 27, in the summer of 1986, he left for QPR, later enjoying spells at Osasuna, Southampton and Bolton. But he could never recapture the form that took him to the heights, that saw him glimpse the dream and, for a few years, live it.
Lee returned to serve under successive Liverpool managers in a coaching capacity, from Souness right through to Dalglish’s second spell. He became a familiar presence on the bench, his enthusiasm undimmed, his will to win burning as strong as ever.
But you always got the feeling that, deep down, he’d still be happy to do a job on the pitch if called, patrolling the right flank, a bundle of energy and controlled passion. The way he had in the glory days. The way he had when dreams took flight.
Sammy Lee may not have been the best player in the Liverpool team but, for a good while, he was the right player.
Sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, it’s more than enough.