I SOMETIMES wonder what went through Bob Paisley’s mind.
This was the game that was meant to propel his Liverpool team into the European elite. A place in the last four of the European Cup up for grabs. Kevin Keegan’s goal inside two minutes had wiped out Saint-Étienne’s narrow first leg lead, lighting Anfield’s touchpaper and setting the scene for what would surely be another show of dominance, another box ticked on the procession towards glory on three fronts.
Five minutes into the second half, everything changed. The French champions’ elegant midfielder, Dominique Bathenay, picked the ball up just inside his own half, shrugged off the attentions of Jimmy Case, advanced at speed and unleashed a ferocious, swerving left-footed effort that left Ray Clemence clutching thin air. It remains one of the most stunning strikes to have ever graced Anfield.
Liverpool needed to score twice or face elimination. What do you do now, Bob? How do you regain the initiative? How do you harness the raw power and energy of this unique Anfield occasion?
Paisley was never one to panic. He’d seen too much, been through it all before. He had unstinting, unwavering belief in his players and trusted them to find the answers, just as they had done so many times before. Men like Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan, Steve Heighway, Ray Kennedy, Clemence and Keegan; players of character, of substance. They knew exactly what was required. They also knew it was never going to be easy.
On the hour, Kennedy levelled the aggregate scores. The clock ticked on, the tension escalated. Just one more. That was all. One more goal and we could start planning the route to Rome. Because no-one was stopping this Liverpool team, no-one was killing this dream. Just give us one more goal. That’s all.
With 15 minutes remaining, Paisley told 20-year-old substitute, David Fairclough, to get ready. It was time…
Forty years on, it’s easy to overlook the context surrounding Liverpool’s assault on three trophies in the spring of 1977. The whole ‘five times’ legacy was still a long way off. Their nine league titles represented one more than Arsenal had accumulated, two more than both Manchester United and Everton. Anfield had yet to witness Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush crafting magic in red. Umbro made the kit, and it would be another two years before the country’s first shirt sponsorship deal saw ‘Hitachi’ splashed across the players’ chests, akin to scrawling a false moustache and comedy glasses on the Mona Lisa.
It was Paisley’s third season as Liverpool manager. The reluctant, nervy figure who agreed to take over from the great Bill Shankly chiefly because he couldn’t stomach the idea of the job going to an outsider, someone with no feel or understanding of the ethos, traditions and history he had helped build in his 37 years at the club, was now established as one of the continent’s shrewdest tacticians.
The previous season had seen him take Liverpool to a thrilling last-game title win and an impressive UEFA Cup triumph. With a squad comprised of seasoned professionals, emerging talent and established internationals, and with the league’s only true superstar, Keegan, having announced his intention to leave at the end of the campaign, they were ready to go all out for the big one. Even Shankly’s team had never managed to capture the European Cup; for all anyone knew, there would never be a better chance to bring it home.
This was a Liverpool on the rise, equipped to make the transition from domestic heavyweight to international force. The direction of travel seemed assured, it was just a question of timing. But if anyone could derail the journey, could stand between Liverpool and their perceived destiny, it was, without any question, Saint-Étienne.
It was widely held that the French champions were the best team in the competition. They had been narrowly defeated in the previous year’s final by the great Bayern Munich team of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier and Uli Hoeness, a match many felt they deserved to win. With Bayern now past their peak, Saint-Étienne seemed their logical successors. They combined uncompromising defence and flowing, expansive attack. In Bathenay and Dominique Rocheteau, they possessed two of French football’s most promising talents, supported by French internationals, Gerard Janvion and Christian Lopez, and future Tottenham boss, Jacques Santini. Like Liverpool, they believed that this was their year.
It was a tie fit for a final. The shame was it came two rounds too soon.
Liverpool gave a textbook European away performance in the first leg, before a vociferous French crowd. Making light of the loss of the injured Keegan, they were resolute, disciplined and threatening on the break. With the game seemingly under control, and Saint-Étienne increasingly frustrated, Bathenay’s late winner came as a major setback. Although a 1-0 defeat was far from decisive, the tie was on a knife-edge.
But for thousands of Liverpool supporters, one thing was true above all else. At Anfield it would be different.
On March 16, 1977, The Kop was close to full two hours before kick-off. Expectation, excitement, electricity hung heavy in the air, crashing down to earth in a tumult of noise, song and the famous guttural roar. With an hour to go the gates were shut, leaving thousands locked outside to huddle around transistor radios, vicariously sucking up the atmosphere that permeated every alleyway and crevice of L4.
This was special. The supporters were ready to do their job. Could the Liverpool team do the same?
Keegan’s opener, a cross from near the corner flag misjudged by the Saint-Étienne keeper, Curkovic, suggested that they could. The noise inside Anfield intensified, the conviction strengthened. This was going to be easier than anyone expected. Allez les rouges.
Not quite. Saint-Étienne responded by biting into every tackle, gaining a foothold, making it clear that they were too good a team to simply roll over without a battle. For the rest of the first half they were sharper, more incisive, unafraid to take the game to the hosts. Clemence was forced into a number of saves, as Liverpool searched for a way to impose themselves on the contest.
Bathenay’s wonder-goal brought their task into stark focus. Two goals or you’re out. That was the reality.
So Liverpool dogged and they fought and they dragged the impetus away from the French. Jimmy Case, perpetual motion down the wing, winning every fight. Keegan, fizzing, lively, popping up all over the pitch, pulling defenders away from their station with each shimmy and dart. Callaghan, calm and composed, ever probing, nearly 20 years’ experience poured into every pass, every movement.
Kennedy, the model of reliability and big-game temperament, struck low, right-footed, under Ivan Curkovic’s body. The intensity went up another notch. Scrambles, crosses, pressing, but no clear chances. Saint-Étienne always a danger, never wilting, never prepared to give up on their dream. Who’s blinking first?
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) March 16, 2017
Fairclough removed his black training top and waited for the referee’s signal.
It was time…
What happened in the 84th minute has passed into Anfield folklore. It is firmly embedded as part of the club’s mythology; alongside Istanbul, Rush’s Goodison derby quartet in 1982, Barney Rubble’s Paris winner, Shankly’s salute on the steps of St. George’s Hall and a million more moments that have forged a special place in Liverpool’s illustrious history.
Kennedy, aware of the high line favoured by the Saint-Étienne defence, lofted the ball in behind for Fairclough to chase. A fight to get there first and to bring it under control. Advancing on goal, holding off two defenders. And then, as everything else disappears from view, all that remains is Fairclough and the ball at his feet, frozen in time, ready to have his moment, ready to make himself a legend. Keeping his head when all about him are losing theirs, forcing heart and nerve and sinew to serve his turn.
The ball despatched into the goal, as if there was ever any doubt. Chaos. Bedlam. An explosion, of relief, of defiance, that shook the old stadium to its foundations. We shall not be moved, louder than bombs.
Finally, conclusively, Saint-Étienne are defeated. They had given it everything, gone toe-to-toe, but ultimately fallen short. There was no shame in that.
Liverpool negotiated a straightforward semi-final tie with FC Zurich before, again, reaching the heights in Rome. The club’s first European Cup triumph arrived in style, with Tommy Smith bringing comic strips to life and Keegan, in his final game, running a marathon for the cause.
But it couldn’t have happened without Saint-Étienne and without David Fairclough. As he surveyed the scene of triumph at the Olympic Stadium, satisfaction, pride and sense of achievement merging into one, I’m pretty sure that went through Bob Paisley’s mind, too.
– Look out for a special show on memories of St Etienne released later today, only for subscribers to TAW Player