LIVERPOOL FC remain the only English football team to have triumphed in competitive matches at the Camp Nou. Not only that, The Reds have done it TWICE.
It was on this day – March 30 – in 1976 that Bob Paisley’s Liverpool made history in becoming the first team from these shores to beat Barcelona in their own back yard, triumphing in a UEFA Cup semi final first leg match in front of 75,000.
Forty-one years later only one other English side has managed the feat – and that was Rafa Benitez’s Reds, who came from behind to record a first-leg victory and two vital away goals en route to the 2007 Champions League final in Athens.
The latter result is well remembered, Craig Bellamy’s golf-swing celebration sealing its place in football fans’ consciousness. Liverpool were rightly praised for a result against the odds.
But the first result, the game that set a record that has stood the test of time, how big was that at the time? Were Liverpool hailed then for upsetting the Catalan artisans?
Pre match, in the Liverpool Echo of Saturday March 27, 1976, Bob Paisley described the forthcoming clash as “one of the great occasions in our club’s history.”
The former boss’s honesty comes through in his words, though perhaps too much at one point, as he states: “We’re not likely to hear the voices of the few hundred Liverpool fans who will be there in the uproar the Spaniards will create. But we’re very grateful that they’re taking the trouble to travel to see us play.”
His openness continues further, as he wrote: “By the time we get to Barcelona, I’ll be fully briefed on all of them. I’ll have two reports from our own Tom Saunders, who saw Barcelona play Betis last Sunday and was watching them against Las Palmas today, a lot of information from Leeds manager Jimmy Armfield after their games with them last season and considerable help from Liverpool fans now living and working in Barcelona.”
Something that you definitely wouldn’t see in the modern day with the level of analysis that now goes into everything around football. Interesting, too, that another English club is helping with the scouting. That is surely rare in the modern day.
Paisley finishes his column by outlining his expectations for the first leg: “We’ll be going there to get a result. By that I mean a result which gives us the chance of winning the tie at Anfield in the second leg.
“Naturally, to win would be magnificent. To draw would suit us very well, particularly if it is a score draw. To lose by just one goal could be absorbed and overtaken in the home leg, but to lose by anything more than that would not be good.”
It’s interesting that Paisley speaks publicly about being able to absorb a loss, clearly showing a lot of respect towards a formidable opponent in Barcelona, whose side included the late great Johan Cruyff.
On the Monday before the UEFA Cup semi-final clash, the Echo’s Michael Charters wrote: “I think Mr. Paisley’s selection thinking for this classic clash tomorrow was to use (David) Fairclough from the start, probably resting John Toshack. But he will probably go for experience now, with Fairclough’s injury swaying the decision.”
Fairclough had scored twice off the bench against Burnley on the Saturday before the trip to the Camp Nou but was just 19 years old at the time. Toshack would of course go on to be the hero on the night, though it could have been so different.
Charters goes on to say: “Liverpool are confident that they are as good if not better than Barcelona and that over the two legs they’ll reach the final as they did three years ago.
“They will set out on their proven away game tactic of containing and holding — the pattern they have used with such success in building the finest away record in the First Division this season. It will be teamwork against individual flair, organised defence against attacking fury.”
It is clear from the reports of the time that Paisley knew how he would set up heading into the game. The Reds had lost just three games away from home, having played 18, conceding just nine times. There was concern about how the likes of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens could perform on the big stage but Liverpool were confident of keeping them quiet, while players and manager were backing Kevin Keegan to show his quality on the big stage.
Cruyff was considered the best player in the world at the time, with Pele coming towards the end of his playing days, though his form had curtailed by his standards after a row with manager Hennes Weisweiler and he was expected to return to Holland when his contract expired at the end of the 1975-6 season — though he would end up staying on a couple more seasons, with the manager departing the Catalan club instead.
On the day of the game, The Echo revealed the line-up for the big game: Clemence, Smith, Neal, Thompson, Kennedy, Hughes, Keegan, Case, Heighway, Toshack, Callaghan — with Fairclough, Hall, Jones, McDermott and McDonnell among the subs.
The rest was history. The front page of the following day’s Echo gave a nod to the victorious Reds:
“LIVERPOOL’S TRIUMPH (AND WHAT THE SPANIARDS HAD TO SAY!)”
Page 19 read: “CRUYFF BOWS TO KING JOHN — Brilliant Reds scale new heights of glory.”
And further: “Barcelona are a good team, make no mistake about that, but Liverpool’s performance was so total in efficiency, so skilful in control, so dominating in teamwork, that they made them look second rate.”
The 75,000 strong crowd at the Camp Nou made the headlines as they continuously ridiculed their team, throwing cushions at their players, while admiring the class of Paisley’s side.
“The Spanish fans didn’t like it one little bit. The second half was played in a strange mixture of jeers for the home team and cheers for Liverpool.
“The crowd really gave their team the works. They jeered and whistled almost constantly as Barcelona were forced into making mistake after mistake.
“Five minutes from the end, thousands of seat cushions were buried on the pitch and the game was delayed slightly while they were recovered. I have never seen a scene like it on a football ground.
“But the Spanish fans, so bitter about their own team’s display, stopped their booing long enough at the end to applaud the Liverpool players as they ran to the centre of the pitch and then to one end of the ground where a small group of Liverpool fans were chanting and waving flags.”
Toshack’s 13th minute strike was enough for Liverpool to leave the Camp Nou with a win and leave the Barca fans in absolute disarray.
The piece finished with: “Altogether it was a magnificent and heartening sight to see this Liverpool team playing such composed football, their control built on skill and teamwork of high quality. It was one of their finest European performances.
“They were a credit to themselves, to their club and the good name of English football.”
Page 20 featured copy from Spanish newspapers, who were effusive in their praise of Liverpool — and they weren’t the only ones.
Johan Cruyff said: “You’ve always got to hope in football. But let’s face it, Liverpool must get through now. I don’t want to talk about Liverpool individuals, but they must have great individuals to make up the great team they are.”
Even the referee on the night had this to say in the dressing room after the game: “I would like to congratulate the Liverpool players. They are not only one of the best teams I’ve seen in Europe but they are also the fairest.”
The headline shouted: “MOMENT OF TRIUMPH — Salute these men who did us all proud.”
Goalscorer Toshack said: “It was a magical night. When I retire, I think I’ll remember that goal as the best I’ve ever scored.”
It was clear that the Reds had achieved something huge on the European stage — a precedent for many years to come and a precursor for many more great European nights home and away.
“Salute the Liverpool heroes! They did Merseyside proud in the ancient city of Barcelona last night,” Charters wrote.
“Several of the Liverpool players rated this their finest performance in Europe; manager Bob Paisley called it one of their best. Mr. Paisley, the architect of this great victory, laid down ideal tactics and the players carried them through to the letter.
“He and his players have established a marvellous rapport which is a sense of togetherness rarely achieved in football. Liverpool had it under Bill Shankly and it continues now as strongly as ever under Bob Paisley.”
High praise for a great manager and a great side. Triumphant on the big stage. One of the Reds’ greatest European nights, among so many in the following 41 years. And a record that still stands proud in 2017.