In the Beginning was ‘the Big One’... | Liverpool FC European Cup Nostalgia

In the Beginning was ‘the Big One’... | Liverpool FC European Cup Nostalgia

LFC’s first Controversial European Campaign

To do this story of the first steps into Liverpool FC’s momentous European story a modicum of justice would require a decent sized book – maybe I’ll write it if Tony Evans doesn’t beat me to it – who knows? However, that’s not really on under the ongoing circumstances of an Anfield Index article, so I’ve decided for reasons of scale to split this story into two digestible parts.

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Part One: Getting there…

Real Madrid have 10 European Cups (I never did like this ‘Champions League’ misnomer), Liverpool have five. It’s worth remembering that the first five of those they won back to back from the late 50s to the early 60s, were at a time when there were very few clubs taking part (only Manchester United pre-Munich from England), only 6 games, 3 home and 3 away got you to the final and three of those 5 early wins consisted of 2 against the Mighty Stade Reims and one against Eintracht Frankfurt. In other words, it was a far inferior competition to that which Liverpool entered even for the first time in season 1964-65. Therefore, talk of ‘La Decima’ makes me rather sniffy – all of Liverpool’s, Bayern’s, Ajax’s  and AC Milan’s wins happened in the tougher, more ‘modern’ formats that developed later, so the occupants of the Santiago Bernabeu can do one as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, enough of that –  Bill Shankly, along with his friends Matt Busby (former Liverpool Captain and the man who ‘sold’ the idea of Shankly to LFC director, T.V. Williams) and the soon to be appointed Manchester City manager Joe Mercer, harboured a dream of pan-European success in defiance of the FA who wished to stay out of European football. These three men and one or two others most definitely wanted ‘in’. In the end, the brass-button blazered, harrumphing xenophobes of the FA grudgingly withdrew their objections. Liverpool of course, still a second division team under Phil Taylor the first time Manchester United entered the European fray, would first have to get promoted and then win the league to take part in what Shankly referred to as ‘The Big One’. Under Bill’s guidance, the team achieved this in what even now looks like remarkably short order.

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Only four years after promotion, Liverpool won the league in 1963-64 with the first great Shankly team in place and on its mettle. The great man could not wait to test ‘my boys’ against the cream of Europe in the now expanded competition. It was to be a glorious chapter in the club’s history that ended in controversy that still rankles with us older fans today….more of which, later. Only League Champions could take part in the European Cup back then, and English teams had to pre-qualify.

When Liverpool played their first game, an away qualifier tie against the Icelanders Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur on a windy evening of intermittent drizzle, Monday the 17th August, 1964, the Beatles were still cramming them in at cinemas globally to watch ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, the Vietnam War was becoming ever more real and it was only four days after the last two people had been hanged having received the death sentence in the UK. Liverpool kicked their first ball in anger in the European Cup on a rock-hard Reykjavik pitch, trundling out easy 0-5 winners, and 6-1 winners in the return leg at a much warmer Anfield. The most notable thing about this tie is the curious fact that the Icelandic team contained three brothers. As a result of this 11-1 aggregate win, Liverpool were now in the European Cup proper.

In the next round, Liverpool were to take one of the big teams of the era. The Belgian champions Anderlecht.  The first leg was on a crisp, clear night at Anfield on Wednesday November 25th and Liverpool, for the first time wearing their now world-famous all red kit, came out of the blocks flying with wave after wave of attacks led by Hunt, Thompson and Callaghan which culminated in Ian St John beating two defenders before drilling the ball into the bottom right-hand corner on 10 minutes. The Kop, then standing and swaying 20,000+ strong burst into ‘we love you, yeah, yeah, yeah’ as clouds of human steam rolled out onto the pitch obscuring the upper reaches and fogging the lights of the new, cantilevered Kemlyn Road stand. Roger Hunt added a sharp second on 43 minutes and on 50 minutes the tie was as good as over when big Ron Yeats nodded in a third – Anderlecht looked dumbfounded – Liverpool had arrived in the ‘big one’.

The away leg 3 weeks later on December 16th was played at a place that would become synonymous with one of the darkest days in the club’s history, Heysel. The stadium, built of inferior ferro-concrete was not in the best of condition even then and yet another cold night with bursts of snow and sleet in the air, a tight game in which the best chances and better, higher-tempo football was played by the men in red.  Anderlecht pressed hard for about half an hour until Liverpool slowly took a firm grip on the game and the fight went out of them. Although the tie was long since lost by Anderlecht, the game was won for Liverpool in the last minutes of injury time by a low, raking shot from the great Roger Hunt – a man who was already my personal Liverpool hero and remains so to this day.  With a 4-0 aggregate win, Liverpool’s confidence was understandably high – and the earlier dismissive press of Europe had begun to take serious notice. Next up were the quarter-final opponents in the shape of the excellent German Champions, Cologne (Köln)… and now it began to get really interesting.

The first leg was on a bitterly cold 10th of February with light snow scudding in off the Rhine at Köln’s Mungersdorf Stadion (since substantially rebuilt and now a rare, very fan-friendly environment), the many travelling Liverpool fans astounded the Köln fans both with their numbers and their non-stop support and singing. Many friendships with the Germans were made that night which endure to this day and the German club still sees itself as Liverpool’s oldest friend in Europe.   With Köln dressed in all white and Liverpool in all red, it was a hard-fought game in which Liverpool repeatedly came closest to breaking the deadlock. It ended 0-0 making Liverpool the favourites in the very impressed German fans’ eyes.

The return leg at Anfield on March 3rd turned out to be a white-out, with snow falling, the players were already out on the snow-laden pitch doing their best to warm up when the referee, having managed to kick the ball a whole 6 feet before it turned into a good foundation for a snowman, called the game off. The next day the game was rescheduled for March 17th, which thankfully, turned out to be a much more clement evening.  Liverpool attacked, attacked, and attacked again, but Toni Schumacher in the Köln goal in a pattern that was to become familiar to Liverpool match goers over the next half-century, had the game of his life, making a string of vital and impressive saves (20 years later, Köln’s then keeper, the notorious Harald Schumacher (no relation) would be nicknamed ‘Toni’ in his honour). This game too, to everyone’s surprise, ended 0-0. Of course, nowadays, this would require extra time and maybe even penalties, in the past – even a replay. In the dying days of the 1964-65 winter, it required a replay at a neutral ground…and so one week later on the March 24th, the two teams and their legions of fans reconvened in Rotterdam to go for it one more time at the ground of the Dutch club, Feyenoord.

In decent weather, yet on a rather soft, damp pitch that began cutting up almost at once, St John scored for Liverpool through a scrambled in short cross from the left touchline on 22 minutes; a lead doubled on the deteriorating pitch in the 37th minute when Gordon Milne beautifully headed an Ian Callaghan cross onto the bar from the edge of the box with Hunt reacting fastest to prod in the rebound. Köln  managed to get one back on 40 minutes and in the second half, finally found their football and equalised in the 48th minute. Köln’s Wolfgang Weber suffered a fractured fibula and missed the rest of the season, recovering just in time to be a vital part of West Germany’s 1966 World Cup run. With the remainder of the 90 minutes and extra time producing no further goals on the now very tired looking pitch, Belgian referee Robert Schaut called the two captains into the boggy centre circle. The tie would be decided on the toss of a coin. Ron Yeats later recalled:

‘I got in first to the referee and said: ´I’ll have tails.´ Lucky for me the referee said OK. Liverpool tails, Cologne heads. Up it went and Christ didn’t it stick in a divot. I said to the referee: ´Ref, you’re going to have to re-toss the coin.´ and he went: ´You’re right, Mr. Yeats.´ I thought the German captain was going to hit him. He was going berserk because it was falling over on the heads. He picked it up, up it went again, came down tails. We were coming off and who is standing there but Bill Shankly. I was first off the pitch and he went: ´Well done, big man. I am proud of you. What did you pick?´ I said: ´I picked tails, boss´. I was waiting for the adulation but he just went: ´I would have picked tails myself’ and just walked away.´

Liverpool were now through to the semi-finals of the European Cup in their very first campaign. Internazionale awaited in what would become a legendary and ultimately controversial tie that would leave a very bitter taste in the mouths of all those connected with Liverpool football club.