Tuesday, 24 October 2017

"We Hate Nottingham Forest..."

We hate Nottingham Forest, we hate Everton too. We hate Man United but Liverpool we love you.”

Season after season we heard the refrain cascade down from the Kop, a mixture of tribal defiance and petulant rival-baiting.  Like so many of the best songs are.  But, to the fledgling Liverpool supporter of 2012, there’s something about this one that sticks out like Steve Claridge at a Mensa convention.

The disdain for our two biggest rivals lives on, propelled by geography, tradition and, it should be said, the similarities that bind us inextricably together.  But Forest? Unremarkable, underachieving Forest?  Really?   We might as well be singing about Coventry or Bradford.

As anyone with a passing awareness of our club’s history can tell you, though, it wasn’t always this way. Because, for three exhilarating seasons at the tail-end of the 1970s, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were entwined in a fiercely contested struggle for footballing supremacy, a struggle characterised by the kind of intensity, commitment and quality that top-level sport frequently strives for and rarely achieves.  There was no need for media hyperbole or the manufacture of artificial grudges.  This was a rivalry born out of genuine competition and sustained by the most basic of impulses – to be the best. 

Part of the thrill lay in the newness of the challenge.  Despite the terrace mantra, which had already been in circulation for a number of years (and which was largely centred on harmonic convenience), Forest had barely scraped the consciousness of most Liverpool fans prior to 1977.  It took the appointment of Brian Clough, self-absorbed maverick of the dugout and establishment bête noire, to change all that

For all his faults, Clough knew how to manage a football team.  He’d taken an unheralded Derby County to the pinnacle of the English game before encountering humiliation at Leeds, where outspoken attacks on exalted predecessor, Don Revie, saw his brief tenure end in resentment and mutiny.  Forest, nestling snugly amid the detritus of the second division, represented a chance to salvage his reputation.  It was a chance he seized unequivocally.

Within two seasons promotion to the top tier had been secured.  Not one to rest on his laurels, Clough set about the task of engineering his rag-tag assortment of journeymen, has-beens and rookies into a team capable of challenging Liverpool’s perennial dominance.  And Liverpool, fresh from their first European Cup triumph and bolstered by the rise of a new Anfield legend in the shape of fresh arrival Kenny Dalglish, didn’t see them coming until it was too late.

Forest won the 1977/78 league title at a canter, almost unheard of for a newly-promoted outfit.  Taken in isolation, it was possible to write this off as a freak, an irritating bump in Liverpool’s trophy-laden road to success.  But what happened in the League Cup Final that season elevated Nottingham Forest to the position of tormentors-in-chief in the eyes of the Liverpool faithful and lit the fuse on a rivalry that, at various times, saw both parties singed.


Over the course of two games, at Wembley and Old Trafford, Liverpool were frustrated time and time again by a mixture of resolute defence, outstanding goalkeeping, dubious refereeing and rank bad luck.  18 year old Chris Woods, deputising for the ineligible Peter Shilton, performed like a veteran to thwart wave after wave of Liverpool attacks; Terry McDermott, breaking from midfield in trademark style, twice saw goals harshly ruled out; and, with time running out in the replay, Phil Thompson was adjudged to have brought down O’Hare inside the area despite the offence clearly occurring some distance outside, leaving John Robertson to despatch the decisive penalty.  As Forest lifted the cup, Liverpool were forced to come to terms with the realisation that here, at long last, was an authentic threat to their habitual pre-eminence.  It was a bitter pill to swallow.

The Old Trafford defeat signalled the start of a cycle of tightly fought, high stakes battles, in which Forest more than held their own.  To some degree they established themselves as Liverpool’s bogey team, a thorn in the side across all competitions.  Indeed, in the first ten games between them following Forest’s promotion Liverpool tasted victory just once, chalking up a mere three goals in the process.  Clough, it seemed, had found a way to out-manoeuvre the great Bob Paisley, and in doing so ensured a shift in the power-base of football in this country.

Worse still, Forest began to encroach on territory that, in Liverpool eyes, was exclusively their own, personal domain.  The European Cup. 

For two seasons, the coveted trophy had resided on Merseyside, a representation of sporting greatness and a catalyst for civic pride.  Fate, and UEFA’s egalitarian, pre-seeding knockout system, decreed that in 1978/79, Liverpool’s defence of the cup would begin against their newest adversaries.  They viewed it as an opportunity to reinforce the natural order, to confirm that events of the previous season were nought but a blip and normality was ready to be restored.  For their part, Forest dared to dream that this could be a symbolic occasion, a true passing of the flame.  And no-one was better equipped to make men believe in their own ability to excel than Brian Clough.

Again, he orchestrated a masterclass in the art of smash and grab.  The first leg, at the City Ground, saw Forest race into a lead through the emerging Garry Birtles.  Liverpool, desperate to impose themselves on both the tie and the psyche of their opponents, attacked with gusto and, increasingly, a lack of co-ordination.  For once Paisley was out-thought.  Clough was content for his team to soak up the pressure and strike on the break.  It worked to perfection as, with the game drawing to a close, a swift Forest counter saw the full-back, Barrett, double their lead.  It was an advantage that would prove impossible to overturn.

In the aftermath, Paisley admitted that Liverpool had been uncharacteristically naïve, treating the game as they would a typical league clash as opposed to a European tie, where a single goal deficit was considered an acceptable result.  Perhaps it was an indication of just how much Forest had got under Liverpudlian skin, to the extent that logic and rationality were sacrificed.

The second leg saw a repeat of the now familiar pattern.  Fevered Liverpool assaults crashed against Forest’s steadfast defence.  Shilton performed miracles in the Forest goal.  The line could not be breached.  Goalless.  Liverpool’s hold on the European Cup was, for the time being at least, relinquished. 

This was a far more meaningful defeat than the previous season’s League Cup lottery.  This was the cup that meant all to Liverpool.  To see it ripped away by an egotist like Clough and his team of upstarts was a grievous blow.  Particularly in the context of a season that, as it developed, revealed this to be arguably Liverpool’s finest ever team.  Make no mistake, this hurt. 


The hoodoo was finally broken, and some recompense attained, in December 1978, when Forest’s remarkable, year-long 42 game unbeaten league record was brought to an end at Anfield, the two McDermott goals being greeted like championship deciders.  The title returned to Liverpool in thrilling style, with Dalglish scaling perfection’s heights ahead of the most powerful and complete midfield to grace the nation’s turfs and a defence that set new benchmarks for parsimony.
However, the spectre at the feast refused to be silenced.  As if to underline their status as Liverpool’s new-found nemesis, Nottingham Forest, provincial, unfashionable Nottingham Forest, went on to capture the treasured European Cup and, to add further insult to recurring scouse injury, retained the trophy a year later.  Even the most grudging Kopite was forced to acknowledge the enormity of the achievement.  It didn’t stop them resenting every second of it, mind.

With Forest dominant in Europe and Liverpool imposing their authority domestically, something was always going to have to give.  As it transpired, it was Clough who ultimately was found wanting.  He was unable to nurture the kind of continuity that all the truly great clubs exist upon.  When the time came to replace the players that had served him so well, and who he had moulded into an obdurate, irrepressible unit, his Midas touch at last failed, the veneer of invincibility faded and within a couple of years, while Liverpool strode onward to further glory, his Forest team were back amongst the ranks of the also-rans
Their last stand, perhaps fittingly, came when the teams met once again in a two-legged League Cup semi-final clash in 1980.  The well-worn plan was dusted off, Liverpool’s best efforts were frustrated and a penalty in each tie from the invaluable Robertson saw Forest through to another Wembley final, where they would taste defeat at the hands of a Wolves team captained, perhaps inevitably, by ex-Anfield legend, Emlyn Hughes.  In a further twist the two sides also met in an FA Cup tie at the City Ground, where Liverpool comprehensively defeated their declining rivals. 

The war was over.  Forest had enjoyed victories beyond their wildest expectations.  However, when the haze of battle cleared, only one team in red was left standing.  Liverpool bore the scars but they would go on to create a legacy of triumph that continues to resonate. 

For Paisley, the competition would never be quite as intense again and, after a few more trophy-laden seasons, he stepped aside, happy to see others carry his work on.  Clough was never able to work the same magic again and his career petered out amid unseemly allegations of corruption, alcoholism and ill-conceived Hillsborough accusations.  It was a sad end for a unique talent.

In the present climate, it’s impossible to imagine a team emerging from second tier obscurity and going on to compete, on equal terms, with clubs who are little more than billionaires’ playthings. The resource gap is so immense, the advantage so clearly stacked in favour of the wealthy, that the main objective of any newly-promoted team is simply to survive in the top flight.  Unless there’s a cataclysmic shift in the structure of the game, we won’t be seeing another Nottingham Forest. 

But we’ll always have the song. 

“We hate Nottingham Forest……” 

As the years go by, it’s nice to think we’ll remember just why that was.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Two Cups, One Goalie

(Originally published in 'We Are Liverpool' magazine, issue 3 - September 2014)

There are two things that, I am fairly certain, won’t come as a huge surprise.

One: Liverpool FC have won Europe’s most prestigious trophy, the Champions League / European Cup / call it what you will (except ‘Old Big Ears’, a term which should only be used as a football reference when discussing the career of Francis Jeffers ), five times.

Two: by the early 80s, Liverpool FC enjoyed the kind of dominance rarely seen outside of Madame Fifi’s Saucy Punishment Parlour.

It was a circular process.  More trophies meant a continuation of the supremacy; the aura of success acquired a self-fulfilling motion, leading to more victories, more trophies.  What a glorious time to be a Red. 

And yet, at the risk of sounding like an ungrateful curmudgeon, I have always felt that we underachieved. It sounds insane when you consider the triumphs we witnessed – title after title, cup after cup – but there are a couple of glaring omissions on our roll-call of honours that have haunted me for the last 30 years. 

For two years in succession, 1982 and 1983, we were favourites to lift the European Cup.  For two years in succession we royally cocked it up.

Well, I say ‘we’.  In reality it only took one person to trample our dreams into the dirt.  And I’ve held a grudge ever since.

J’accuse Bruce Grobbelaar.

People who say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place aren’t merely ignorant of scientific reality, they also lack imagination.  I doubt they ever saw Grobbelaar play for Liverpool. 

Sure, the spring-heeled Zimbabwean with the Scouser's 'tache was capable of gravity-defying brilliance when the mood took him, contorting his body like an Olympic gymnast to scoop balls away from his net, a maelstrom of reflexes & instinct.  He would race from his line without hesitation to plunge at the feet of an advancing attacker. He would also, with alarming frequency, eschew conventional goalkeeping techniques in favour of a more esoteric approach. Great in theory.  Often disastrous in practice.

For every spectacular save, every match-turning interception, there'd be a calamity.  A loss of concentration, a reckless charge, a ball squirting through hands or legs.

In his first season at Anfield, Grobbelaar went through the full repertoire.  It was a major culture shock to a crowd accustomed to the steady brilliance of Ray Clemence.  A nadir was reached on Boxing Day, 1981.  In a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester City, Brucie managed to display all the goalkeeping competence of a blocked sink. There seemed no way back, for both keeper and team.

And yet, just a couple of months later, his rehabilitation was almost complete. An ultimately successful title challenge was back on track, the European Cup quarter final beckoned.  Grobbelaar had started to repay the faith Bob Paisley unconditionally placed in him.

At which point, the familiar destructive tendencies once more kicked in.  CSKA Sofia were the opponents. Twelve months earlier, a consummate Souness hat-trick had inspired Liverpool to a 5-1 thrashing of the Bulgarian champions.  With wounds well and truly licked, they saw the rematch as a chance for rapid revenge.

A 1-0 Anfield home win gave few indications of the drama to come.  And for much of the second leg, Paisley’s team exercised a level of control that had long become a Liverpool trademark. Chances were created, a legitimate Rush effort was deemed invalid, penalty shouts went unheeded. There was, of course, a grim inevitability about what happened next.

With 20 minutes left, a speculative cross was punted into the Liverpool area. Like an impatient toddler keen to be noticed, Grobbelaar saw his chance. He shuffled forward with intent, carefully eyeing the flight of the ball. He readied himself to gather. As the ball sailed over his head, it occurred to everyone that, for neither the first nor last time, his judgement had been seriously awry.  I'm talking ‘Boris Johnson in a thong’ levels of awryness here.  Awryness all over the shop.

With the goalkeeper occupying the proverbial no man’s land, CSKA striker and potential Countdown conundrum, Mladenov, had the simple task of nodding the ball into the unguarded net, sending the game into extra time.  As Liverpool imploded, the Bulgarian grabbed a second, to knock the holders out of the competition. 

Now clearly, there are no guarantees in football and we should be wary of jumping to unsustainable conclusions.  But Aston Villa went on to win the European Cup that season.

Cheers, Bruce.

Fast forward twelve months.  The same stage of the same competition.  Opposition from Eastern Europe once again, this time Poland’s Widzew Lodz.  And a repeat of the same dire spectacle, played out as if to reassure those doubting the conceptual validity of déjà vu.

This time it was the first leg.  A comfortable stroll against moderate opponents transformed into an insurmountable deficit thanks to Grobbelaar’s uniquely erratic decision-making tendencies.  Again it was a high ball.  Again there was no logical need for him to attempt to collect.  But that’s exactly what he did.  One-handed.  Like the world’s worst juggler, trying to catch wet soap, blindfold, on a trampoline.  Obviously, he spilled it.  Obviously, the result was a Widzew goal.  Followed, as Liverpool poured forward to atone for their goalkeeper’s well-honed profligacy, by another.

As some kind of warped encore, in the return leg Bruce again raced from his line to concede a penalty, after an uncharacteristic Souness blunder.  There was no way back.  European glory was put on hold for one more year. 

In Rome, redemption, of a sort, was achieved.  As Liverpool secured their fourth European Cup, Grobbelaar was cast in a leading role, with wobbly-legged capers conferring legend status on the madcap gaffe magnet.  

Not for me.  I still have visions of two ruined campaigns.  Of two lost cups.

Some grudges take a whole lot of shifting.

Monday, 27 March 2017


[Originally published in Well Red magazine, February 2012]


Some seasons stick in the memory more than others.  It just depends which set of experiences you choose to fall back on. 

As anyone who followed Liverpool in the ‘70s and ‘80s will tell you, it seemed that every campaign was a treasure trove of memorable games and defining moments.  Silverware arrived with unprecedented regularity, icons were born and, when the time came, were replaced by newer, shinier models.  The juggernaut kept on rolling, leaving the Uniteds, the Evertons, the Arsenals – let’s face it, the whole of Europe – crushed in our wake.  It was a good time to grow up a Red.

In the midst of this glorious procession, it’s fair to say that I came of age as a Liverpool supporter.  From spending games perched on my Dad’s knee in the Main Stand as a giddy 7 year old, to standing on a home-made stool in the Anny Road end, craning to see anything other than the back of some oversized docker’s neck, to my Kop apprenticeship (same spot each week - just to the side of the right-hand stanchion), to the relative comfort of a Main Stand season ticket (relative to the comfort enjoyed by, say, a hostage chained to a radiator), and back to the sweaty, tobacco-fuelled embrace of the Kop.  A host of vivid memories to cling to in the wilderness years.

It was whilst happily bathing in the warm glow of such reminiscences that I was struck by a chilling, yet unavoidable realisation.  It is now 30 years since my first season as a fully-fledged regular match-goer.  30 years. How did that happen?

I’d been to my fair share of matches prior to 1981/82, odd games here and there when the opportunity arose, but this was different.  I was 14 now, old enough to single-handedly navigate the hazardous 3.6 mile journey from the mean streets of Orrell Park to Anfield.  Or, as was usually the case, blag a lift off my Dad to the junction of Walton Lane and Anfield Road.  The sense of independence, the thrill of the new, was all-consuming.  This was where I belonged, these were my people.  It was like becoming part of an elite club, albeit one with questionable toilet provisions and an admittedly lax dress code.   

Now all that remained was to settle back and wait for the LFC Class of ’81 to sweep all before them, as tradition dictated they would.  Simple, really.

Except this was to be a season unlike most others.  Alright, it culminated with Liverpool cast once more as the country’s pre-eminent team, with both the League title and League Cup safely tucked away.  No change there.  But there were to be more twists along the way than you’d get in an Eastenders Christmas special.  

Having captured the European Cup for the third time just a few months earlier, it seemed that Liverpool were entering the 1981/82 campaign in typically robust shape.  However, those supporters who observed with some alarm the team’s disappointing 5th place finish the previous year had genuine cause for quiet concern. 

The remorseless crushing machine of 78/79 was by now starting to show the inevitable signs of ageing. Players who had scaled the ultimate heights at Anfield could no longer produce the consistency or vitality needed to sustain yet another title challenge.  A staleness had crept into Liverpool’s game.  Without rejuvenation, the squad would struggle to compete with the vigour and drive of reigning champions Aston Villa (no, really) or UEFA Cup holders Ipswich (yes, I know).

Naturally, no-one was aware of this more than Bob Paisley.  His immediate response was to bolster his options with a trio of eye-catching signings.  In Mark Lawrenson and Craig Johnston, Paisley saw players of immense promise, relative youth and, above all, real pace.  In Bruce Grobbelaar, he had earmarked a potential long-term successor to the great Ray Clemence.  With prodigiously talented youngsters like Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan waiting hungrily in the wings, the foundations were in place for a gradual transition.  As it transpired the need to rebuild soon became more urgent than even Paisley had envisioned.

Just two weeks before the opening game of the season, Clemence decided to pursue the fresh challenge offered by perennial dilettantes Tottenham.  After more than a decade as Liverpool’s undisputed number one, his loss was a grievous blow.  As a result, Grobbelaar’s credentials would be tested a lot sooner than either he or Paisley expected.

As the campaign progressed, it quickly became apparent that all was not well.  Just as the new boys struggled to impose their identity on the team, so the old hands failed to recapture the consistency and level of performance that we had become accustomed to.  Seasoned internationals were making the kind of mistakes more commonly found in the schoolyard; Anfield’s reputation as a fortress was in danger of being undermined by a series of disappointing displays and results; I began to fear that my presence on the terraces was having some kind of adverse effect, an inverted Midas Touch, turning all I surveyed to cack.

Clearly, the transition was going to need a bit of gentle coercion.

The tipping point came on Boxing Day.  A calamitous home fixture against Manchester City ended in a thoroughly dismal 3-1 defeat in a game notable for a number of reasons. It was already the third reversal Anfield had witnessed (along with three draws) in just nine matches – by comparison, the previous decade as a whole had produced only five home losses.  It saw the erratic Grobbelaar reach a nadir, his handling disastrous, his decision-making bizarre and his confidence shot to pieces.  It marked Phil Thompson’s final game as Liverpool captain, with Paisley handing the armband to Graeme Souness in the aftermath, an attempt to stem the alarming dip in Thompson’s form (and a decision which was to sow seeds of long-lasting personal resentment between the pair that has never been fully resolved). 

It meant that Manchester City jumped to the top of the table, an event considerably more noteworthy in the days of the Peter Swales comb-over than it is in today’s cash-soaked times.  And it left Liverpool languishing in 12th place, disjointed and off-the pace, our title chances seemingly in tatters.
 But if we’ve learnt anything from this club’s history, it’s surely to know not to write it off when the odds are stacked against it. 

Paisley understood that the team’s prospects depended on its response to his decision to ease some of his long-serving stars out of the first-team picture.  Despite the previous stellar contributions of the likes of Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Terry McDermott, even Thompson himself, he was not one to let sentimentality stand in the way of progress.  And he was canny enough to know that, sooner rather than later, his remodelled squad would find its feet.  When it did logic, and history, suggested that the rest of the division wouldn’t be able to live with it.

The revival began almost immediately.  High-flying Swansea were clinically dispatched, 4-0, on their own turf, in a one-sided FA Cup tie.  The confidence and consistency flooded back.  The fledgling Dalglish – Rush partnership began to flourish, the revitalising effect on Kenny’s career clear to all; Whelan and Johnston brought some much-needed energy and directness to the midfield; at the back Lawrenson and Hansen forged an understanding, based on the kind of ball-playing ability rarely seen in defenders on these shores, that would come to be unrivalled in the club’s history; even Brucie managed to rein in some of his more damaging excesses.

The juggernaut was back on the road.  After the City debacle, twenty of the next twenty four league games were won (including, in one spell, eleven consecutive victories).  Devastating displays mixed with battling performances, full of character and purpose.  The League Cup was secured after another belated comeback at Wembley against Ray Clemence’s Tottenham.  Villa, Everton, United and City were blown away in front of their own supporters, the latter a 5-0 massacre that excised the pain of the Boxing Day disaster. 

One by one, the teams above us in the league were reeled in and overtaken.  Until finally, in the season’s penultimate game, with Spurs again the hapless victims, second half goals from Lawrenson, Dalglish and Whelan confirmed Liverpool as champions for the thirteenth time.  Given the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why Paisley, a man who knew a thing or two about championship success, saw this as his most satisfying triumph.

As for me, my debut season as an Anfield regular was a momentous one.

It included my first Wembley visit (which was followed by accidentally jumping a taxi queue at Lime Street station in front of an understandably miffed-looking Kenny Dalglish and Sammy Lee), my first Goodison derby (smack in the middle of the Gwladys Street End, which made celebrating Craig Johnston’s mis-hit clincher an exercise in failed restraint) and my first exposure to the talents that would sustain a new era of success. 

It ended with the intense anti-climax of being locked out of the title-decider with Tottenham, having arrived 90 minutes before kick-off, the very fact that such a game was a ‘pay-on-the-gate’ affair acting as a stark reminder that these were very different times. 

There have been lots of games, lots of trophies, lots of memories since then. I’ve grown older, wiser, more cynical, more tolerant, more inclined to treat results, good or bad, with a rationality I would have once thought impossible.  I’ve seen our club at its highest and at its lowest and realised that, sometimes, real life makes football seem irrelevant.  Sorry, it just does.

Time passes, things change, people move on.  Even the most treasured of memories eventually start to fade. 

But, 30 years on, there’ll always be a part of me that’s still back on the Kop in 1982. 

Shankly's Last Stand

[Originally published in Well Red magazine, November 2013]


Of course, none of us realised at the time.  To the massed ranks of Liverpool fans crammed into Wembley that May afternoon in 1974, we were simply witnessing further confirmation of Bill Shankly’s Midas touch.  Another trophy for the collection, following swiftly on the heels of the previous season’s League and UEFA Cup double. There were plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the Shankly Empire would continue its inexorable journey towards football supremacy.

It would be another couple of months before reality intervened, bringing the events at Wembley into stark focus. Because the emphatic Cup Final defeat of an impotent Newcastle side would herald not just an addition to Anfield’s burgeoning trophy cabinet, but, unthinkably, the end of the Shankly era.

Many theories have been put forward to explain Bill Shankly’s decision to resign that summer.  And while it’s no doubt true that there were multiple contributing factors, the football idealist in me leans towards the romantic explanation – that he saw the Cup Final performance as the culmination of 15 years work, the point where all his hopes and dreams for Liverpool Football Club coalesced magnificently in one devastatingly ruthless performance that provided a template for the club’s future success. And, as a boxing devotee, Shankly knew that the best time to go out is when you’re at your absolute peak.

In many ways, the 1973/74 season would be a defining one in terms of shaping the ethos that would eventually allow Liverpool to dominate both home and abroad.   Although Shankly was always ready to refine his approach and had long prioritised players with game awareness who were comfortable in possession, one particular opponent caused a rethink in the famous Bootroom as the campaign progressed.

In the autumn, Yugoslav champions, Red Star Belgrade defeated Liverpool in the second round of the European Cup. While Shankly was never one to accept a loss with good cheer, this felt somehow different.  Not since the defeat to Ajax seven years earlier had he seen his team so comprehensively out-thought, let alone outplayed.  It emphasised that, if Liverpool were to reach the next level, they would need to adopt the basic tenets of the continental game and blend them with their own tried and trusted methods.

With a nod to both Red Star and the wildly effective Dutch team spearheaded by Johan Cruyff, the structure of the new Liverpool would be firmly rooted on principles of retaining possession, building from the back and positional fluidity.  Traditional stopper, the previously ever-present Larry Lloyd, was sacrificed.  Players with greater technical qualities, Hughes, Smith and the fledgling Thompson, all with experience of operating in midfield, were asked to redefine themselves as ball-playing defenders.  Heighway and Keegan interchanged across the front line, Cormack, Hall and Callaghan were intelligent enough to switch roles in line with the development of play.  Students of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool can trace the origins of his much vaunted philosophy back to Shankly’s realisation, in the wake of the Red Star tie, that the need to adapt was fundamental to prolonged success.


In the domestic league, Liverpool had been unable to overhaul a Leeds team finally fulfilling its immense potential.  A second place finish was respectable enough.  But it wasn’t first; it wasn’t a trophy. 

The FA Cup, now derided, undermined and staged more as a corporate sponsorship convention than an historic sporting event, was still, in 1974, the most glamorous football tournament in the calendar.  It also held significant sentimental value for Bill Shankly; the 1965 triumph, the club’s first in the competition, would always be his most treasured memory.

Having dispatched perennial bogey-team, Leicester City, in a semi-final replay, with the Toshack – Keegan partnership in perfect synchronicity, Liverpool prepared for the challenge of an unpredictable Newcastle United at Wembley.

The build-up was dominated by talk of how Newcastle centre forward, bow-legged braggart Malcolm Macdonald, was going to destroy the Liverpool back-line.  That such talk emanated, in the main, from Macdonald’s own mouth couldn’t disguise the fact that Newcastle, at their best, would provide a stern test.  In fairness, Macdonald had notched a hat-trick against Shankly’s team on his Newcastle debut a couple of years earlier and had grabbed a brace in the semi-final with Burnley to secure the Magpies’ place at Wembley.

But if Macdonald’s bravado was a clumsy attempt to wrestle the psychological initiative away from Liverpool, he overlooked the fact that, in Bill Shankly, he was dealing with the master.   Without so much as a word, Shankly pinned Macdonald’s threats up in the team hotel prior to the game.  Effectively, his team-talk had been done for him. 

The match started cautiously, both sides probing without genuine intent, each wary of the danger posed by the other.  Gradually, Liverpool established a degree of control, though scoring opportunities were few.  There was, however, a sense that Newcastle were becoming increasingly stretched, that they were exerting maximum effort to merely keep Liverpool at bay.  Liverpool, you felt, had higher gears to ascend to.

In the second half, to tumultuous effect, all gears were engaged.  It was as if Bill Shankly had entered the dressing room at half time and said to his players, “Show them what you can do,” giving the green light for a performance of confidence, incisiveness, mobility and crushing superiority.

The nominal 4-3-3 system Shankly now employed, with defenders encouraged to carry the ball forward to start attacks and positional flexibility paramount, provided full license for Liverpool’s array of talents to be displayed.  Keegan buzzed like a hyper-active bluebottle; Heighway’s intelligent probing opened crevices in the Newcastle back-line; Callaghan offered tireless running and unerring accuracy; Thompson deposited Macdonald, mouth and all, in his back pocket and left him there for the rest of the afternoon.

It was just a matter of time.  Lindsay rampaged from his own half deep into Newcastle territory, collected a rebound and exploded a missile of a shot from an oblique angle into the roof of the net.  One of the great cup final goals.   Disallowed.  An over-zealous linesman flagged for offside, wrongly assuming the return pass had come from Keegan; replays confirmed the injustice.  As an aside, the look of utter dejection on Lindsay’s face when realisation dawns is enough to crack the steeliest heart.

But this was justice delayed not denied.  Shortly afterwards, the deluge began.  Keegan controlled on the edge of the Newcastle penalty area before lashing a fierce volley into the top corner.  1-0.

Heighway latched on to a Toshack flick, cutting in from the left wing, Keegan’s run drew two defenders away from the middle, Heighway arrowed a low diagonal drive of control and precision back in the direction he’d just come from.  2-0.

Further chances were spurned, as Liverpool put on an exhibition that was as close to the fabled ‘total football’ of Rinus Michels’ Holland as anything yet seen from a British team.  The final goal only served to emphasise it.  In a sequence of play resembling a ‘pass and move’ masterclass, during which Keegan started on the left wing, Tommy Smith toyed with the ailing Newcastle defence down the right wing and Cormack finished up as centre forward, the coup de grâce was applied from close range by Liverpool’s number 7.  3-0. Game over.


In the immediate aftermath of Liverpool’s second FA Cup triumph, all seemed well.  The club basked in the praise that came its way, as the most complete Cup Final performance in recent memory was widely acknowledged.  With a team ready to prove itself the best in the land and a manager who inspired unparalleled devotion from players and supporters, the prospects were brighter than they had been for nearly a decade.

Shankly knew the club’s future was assured.  He also suspected that the structure he had established, and the knowledge base honed over the previous fifteen years, would ensure a line of continuity long after his departure. 

And, unbeknown to most, he was tired.  Traditional Messiahs granted themselves a day on which to rest; Bill Shankly had no time for such luxuries.  For him Liverpool was an all-consuming passion – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. 

So, he felt it was the right time to step aside, safe in the belief that a secure, long-lasting framework for sustained success was in place.  And, regardless of his later regrets and the fractured relationship with the club he built (but not the supporters – never the supporters), in that he was absolutely spot on.

Shankly had the satisfaction of seeing all his work come to fruition.  The performance at Wembley in 1974, where Liverpool reached heights few even aspire to, stands as a fitting testament to everything he created.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Brookside Closed

First published in the The Anfield Wrap magazine, issue 5 - December 2013

It didn’t take long, really.

I mean, we’d heard all the talk that this was going to be a different kind of soap, that this was a bold departure from the comfortable insularity of Coronation Street or the creaking melodrama of Crossroads.  And we hoped it’d be a showcase for a Liverpool that was not usually shown in the media; a Liverpool that consisted of more than the dole and the riots and the crumbling, derelict buildings that told of a city left to rot.  In short, we wanted it to capture just a hint of our real essence, not just pander to time-worn caricatures.

Halfway through the first episode it was already obvious that, whatever we were getting, it wasn’t going be pretty.  As Barry Grant defends his errant younger brother from accusations of graffiti, on the grounds that “It couldn’t be our Damon – he spells ‘Bollocks’ with only one ‘L’”, you can almost hear the sound of tea-cups crashing to the floor across middle England.  Throw in a shamelessly glorious altercation between Damon and his endearingly gormless sidekicks which crowbars two ‘pissings’, one ‘piss off’ and a ‘dickhead’ into a 20 second exchange, and it was clear that Brookside was setting out its manifesto right from the start.

For the next two decades, it continually managed to defy expectations while too often failing to grasp just what those expectations were.  It moved from holding a mirror up on society’s injustices to feeding the same society’s craving for cheap, vicarious thrills and in the process it misplaced the very qualities that had marked it out as special.  When its end came, few cared.  And for a programme which set out to prove that soaps could, indeed should, be relevant, that was the biggest failure of all.


It had all been so different in 1982 when Brookside first elbowed its way onto the nation’s television screens, the unpolished jewel in the infant Channel 4’s ambitious new schedule.  Different in all kinds of ways. 

It looked different.  These were real houses in a real West Derby estate.  There were no studio sets with their trembling walls and restricted camera angles.  When characters went upstairs we were able to follow them; when they went round to a neighbour’s house for a chat or a barney, we went with them.  There was no convenient central meeting point where the inhabitants could congregate and interact, no Rovers Return or Queen Vic.  This meant that storylines were largely self-contained, and wherever possible, the focus was on day-to-day living and what went on within families behind their own front doors.  A bit like real life.

It sounded different.  Of course, by the early 1980s there was nothing new about regional accents on television, even Scouse ones.  Since the heady days of The Beatles, a certain cachet, a kind of rough glamour even, had been attached to the Liverpool dialect, though, ‘Boys From The Black Stuff’ aside, this was very much within the context of what the establishment was prepared to endorse.  It’s fair to say that Cilla, Tarby and Tom O’Connor were perhaps not wholly representative of a city still trying to put out the fires of Toxteth.   But Brookie changed all that.  This was the sort of language we could recognise.  Lads called each other ‘dickhead’ and ‘divvy’ every day – why shouldn’t that be reflected in a programme apparently designed to show us as we were, warts, wedges and all?

Of course, a media outcry ensured that the rougher edges were soon smoothed down and dialogue more acceptable to an early evening audience was introduced.  Though it’s interesting to note that by the time of its demise Brookside had come full circle, then pushed on a bit further just for kicks, with widespread effing and jeffing and a return to the uncompromising verbals of its early days.  It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, but it was the last flicker of a flame many thought had long been extinguished.  And, it reminded you that, at its best, Brookie was never afraid to kick against the pricks.

This was most evident in the issues and themes that ran through the programme’s early years.  And in this, the difference between Brookside and its contemporaries was clearly defined. While Coronation Street could command viewing figures in the tens of millions, it had become for many an escape from everyday existence, not an echo of it.  Though solidly written and acted, it had moved away from its kitchen-sink origins to embrace a more absurdist, cartoon depiction of working class northern life.  Brookside creator, Phil Redmond, wanted his new soap to be the antithesis of that.  And to achieve this, he placed the emphasis on social realism and the inevitable fall-out when families have to deal with the weight of everyday living.

So we got politics.  Not just the odd murmur about the cost of a pint of milk. Real politics. Discussions, arguments about the issues that were genuinely affecting the people tuning in.  The despair of unemployment, the impact of redundancy, the emasculation of trade unions, the conflicts and consequences of industrial action, the alienation of the young, the black economy, the NHS, the impact of religion on personal relationships.   All played out against a backdrop of Thatcher’s ideological war on the north, its industries and its social values.  It may not sound like a recipe for prime-time success but for a while it made for compelling television.  And it showed that a soap could be gritty and serious and issues-led whilst maintaining the personal interactions and lighter touches that viewers had come to expect.  Over at the BBC someone was clearly taking notes, as within 3 years Eastenders was launched, eager to poke its head through the door Brookie had kicked open.

Of course, it would have been easy to dismiss Brookside’s approach as patronising and opportunistic, had it not been for the quality of its contributors and the artfulness and conviction with which they brought the storylines to life.  It became a breeding ground for a generation of writers and actors who went on to achieve great things and who are rightly acknowledged among the best in their field.  People like Jimmy McGovern, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Shaun Duggan and John Godber, all of whom cut their writing teeth on the Close.  People like Sue Johnston, Ricky Tomlinson, Amanda Burton and Anna Friel, whose skills were honed and whose careers were launched via Brookie’s suburban dramas.

While we’re at it, it also threw up some of the most intriguing, well-developed, perhaps morally ambiguous, characters yet to be seen on British television.  Of course there were the staples, the Grants (the anchor and heart of the programme for its initial years), the Jacksons, the Collins’s and the Corkhills.  But even on the periphery Brookside was a treasure-trove of charismatic wannabe gangsters and loveable oddballs, encapsulated by the formidable Tommy McArdle and personal favourite, Gizzmo Hawkins, a greasy teenage mix of Roy Cropper and Bobby Gillespie.  We will never see their like again.

Inevitably, it had its faults.  At times, it was guilty of portraying a questionable attitude towards female characters.  Perhaps reflecting the struggles of a society in transition, the Close’s women were frequently defined solely in terms of their relationships with men and, as such, largely excluded from any position of economic power.  Attempts to advance beyond the traditional confines of the kitchen resulted in their on-screen ‘punishment’, through any combination of rape (Sheila Grant), guilt-tripping (Patricia Farnham), domestic violence (Mandy Jordache), accusations of infidelity (Doreen Corkhill), murder (Sue Sullivan) or the eventual side-lining and departure of the character (Chrissy Rogers).  Though this also served to highlight the insecurities of the male protagonists, its main function was only to reinforce established gender stereotypes.  It represented a chance missed.


For a programme that had blazed a trail in the 1980s, its decline and eventual demise were a symptom of both a changing political climate and a shift in the media landscape.  The introduction of the Brookside Parade, a development of shops, restaurants and bars, marked a geographical shift away from the Close and mirrored the growing national obsession with entrepreneurship.  It also marked the point at which Brookside abandoned its political and social roots and began the evolution towards increasingly outlandish, melodramatic plots.  As quickly became apparent, there’s a fine line between cutting-edge drama and gratuitous sensationalism.

Perhaps the battles of the 80s had all been fought and there was no more call for a programme documenting what were largely working class concerns, particularly when the working class was, to all intents and purposes, in retreat.  Thatcher had gone, to be replaced by John Major’s neutered, cardboard cut-out approximation of a Prime Minister.  The viciousness of Tory ideology had ostensibly softened (or rather, had gone into hibernation before brutal rebirth 20 years later), leaving in its wake a watered-down facsimile that inspired apathy rather than outright hostility.  In the eyes of the media, we were all middle class now.   And, so the premise ran, we wanted to be entertained, not preached at.

And, as the battle for viewers intensified, we got ever more ludicrous storylines.  Incest, the body under the patio, sieges, the lesbian kiss, Lindsey Corkhill the drug smuggler, religious cults, a killer virus, Lindsey Corkhill the gun-toting gangster, bombs, explosions, more sieges.  When Lindsey Corkhill (of course Lindsey Corkhill) got embroiled in a lesbian love triangle with her own mum, it was clear that Brookside hadn’t so much jumped the shark as parascended over Sea World and pissed in Flipper’s eye.  And when a police helicopter fell from the sky onto the Parade, it seemed as much an act of mercy as a desperate grab for ratings. 

So, after 21 years, it was yanked off our screens.  Oddly, in its death throes it managed to recapture at least some of the spirit that had once made it essential viewing.  In the final minutes of the final episode, with the darkness, and the credits, closing in for the last time, uber-scally Jimmy Corkhill held court in an armchair on the lawn like a Scouse Canute, raging, raging against the dying of the light.  In a scattergun polemic that could have been titled ‘Phil Redmond’s Last Stand’, Jimmy rails against all manner of power structures and cultural elites – television, newspapers, the ruling establishment, food distribution, drugs policy, religion.  Yes, it was self-pitying, self-serving and frankly all over the place ideologically, but it was also kind of thrilling.  It harked back to a time when Brookside wasn’t afraid to confront the political consensus head on and offered one of the few dissenting voices in the mainstream media. And it serves as a reminder that Russell Brand wasn’t the first drug-addled scruff to shine a torch on the failures and hypocrisies of the governing class.   Jimmy Corkhill was there ten years before him.  Face it, you never got that with Ian Beale.

But then Brookside always was a different kind of soap.  It might have moved away from its roots; it might have turned into the kind of programme it initially offered an alternative to; it might have ended up pulling its punches. 

But for a while, at least it knew who to punch.  And that’s no bad thing.