Football can be an extremely black and white game at times – goal or no goal; transfer or no transfer; injury or no injury. The butterfly effect can be tracked easier than in many other walks of life. Potential legacies thrown away because of one loss; sport-wide evolution in style disappearing on the back of a mishit shot.
Liverpool’s board could have easily been forgiven for passing on Bill Shankly in 1959 – they had already done it once eight years before, and his record, a few promotion pushes aside, wasn’t impressive. Had they made a different choice, Liverpool could have continued their middling finishes with an average squad, never progressing in the shadow of their blue neighbours. Instead, over 15 years, Shankly took the club to the top of English football, cultivating the Boot Room culture with Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders and Ronnie Moran that sustained Liverpool after he left.
Nevertheless Shankly wasn’t around for Liverpool’s golden age, and for most of his tenure Liverpool played a more traditionally British style than they would become known for, although he was the one who initiated the change.
After exiting the 1973-74 European Cup in the second round at the hands of Miljan Miljanic’s Red Star Belgrade, the coaching staff retreated to the Boot Room. Having lost the away leg just 2-1, Shankly had every reason to be optimistic about progressing to the quarter-finals, but an impressive counter-attacking game by the Yugoslavians ensured they went through. “The Europeans showed that building from the back is the only way to play,” he said.
“We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside,” said Bob Paisley. “The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”
That they even spotted a problem is a testament to the quality of coaches Liverpool had at the club, given they were at the top of English football and had won the UEFA Cup the year before. As English football was becoming firmly entrenched in the ideals of kick-and-rush thanks to Charles Hughes and Charles Reep, Liverpool made the decision to shun it for a more patient style of play.
Thanks to the backpass rule not being implemented until 1992, the idea of a passing keeper didn’t appear until much after this Liverpool side, so there was no need to switch from Ray Clemence in goal. Eventually he was replaced by the thoroughly mad Bruce Grobbelaar, who wasn’t as good a goalkeeper and wasn’t any better with his feet but was happy – arguably too happy – to rush out of his box, which could be useful if Liverpool’s defenders had ventured far up the field. Still, the goalkeeper played a key role in the Liverpool system: he was basically the reset button. If a move broke down, Liverpool would simply roll it back to the keeper and start again. It’s mainly remembered as time-wasting, which it often was, but it had another purpose that didn’t exist in the kick-and-rush template most other teams were playing.
It was in defence where the changes were most keenly felt, shifting from the “mountain” Ron Yeats-like stoppers that had previously impressed in their backline to more cultured passing players. Not long after the loss to Red Star, Larry Lloyd tore his hamstring, so midfielder Phil Thompson was moved back to accompany Emlyn Hughes, originally a midfielder, in the centre of defence, leading to greater fluidity. “The main aim is that everyone can control a ball and do the basic things in football,” said Shankly. “At the back you’re looking for someone who can control the ball instantly and give a forward pass. It gives them more space and time to breathe.”
At the end of the season, Bob Paisley, whose espousal of pass-and-move football was arguably greater even than Shankly’s, replaced the Scot and carried on in this direction. In came Alan Hansen, whose humble claims that he barely ever crossed the halfway line are far from true – a cultured centre-back not too different from some of the best Italian liberi, the Scot was the paradigm of what Liverpool wanted. Even his lesser defensive partner Mark Lawrenson was at odds with the typical British defenders of the time; an enduring memory of Lawrenson is his goal in the 1982 Merseyside derby, where he finished off a move he started. At full-back, the brutal Tommy Smith and pretty mediocre Alec Lindsay were replaced by Phil Neal and Joey Jones, another more traditional defender who was moved on to make space for Alan Kennedy soon after.
With more technical players in defence, they didn’t have to launch it all the time, so the style was more considered for those in front of them too. “At Liverpool we don’t have anyone running into no man’s land,” explained Shankly. “If you get the ball in the Liverpool team, you want choices… you want at least two people to pass to, maybe three, maybe more… You might not be getting very far, but the pattern is changing. Finally, somebody will sneak in.” The solid pairing of Peter Cormack and Brian Hall was upgraded, with Terry McDermott improving on Cormack’s tempo-setting and Jimmy Case offering more dynamism than Hall’s ball-winning role, albeit doing so on the right of midfield as the aging Ian Callaghan moved into the centre.
When Callaghan’s time at Liverpool finally came to an end, he was replaced by Graeme Souness – one of the most complete players to have ever played the game, he mixed the monstrous tackling of Smith with the passing of Europe’s finest playmakers – and another passer, Ronnie Whelan, would replace McDermott after a spell on the left. When Case’s off-field behaviour became too much, he was replaced by Sammy Lee – an energetic and far more clever player than his stubby body would do his reputation justice. Lee played with a greater subtlety than Case, who was still more of a box-to-box midfielder than a proper winger, meaning Liverpool were essentially playing with three central midfielders.
When the mazy Steve Heighway, closer in style to Yossi Benayoun or Peter Beardsley than the classic English winger, grew too old he was replaced by forward Ray Kennedy. A burly striker bought from Arsenal, he initially didn’t fit in at Liverpool, but a switch to the left changed his game. He didn’t have the dribbling ability of Heighway but powerful running and a sweet left foot shot made up for it.
The telepathic big man-little man partnership between John Toshack and Kevin Keegan was split up when Keegan wanted to try his luck at Hamburg, yet Liverpool had little problem replacing him, bringing in Kenny Dalglish – widely considered the greatest player to have played for the club. With an emphasis on passing play now, Toshack’s replacement didn’t need to be a big strong target man who could compete for long balls, so instead they got Ian Rush – a poacher who made a habit of being that man Shankly had wanted to “sneak in”.
Above all, they were probably the most complete team to have ever played the game. Like many of the teams based on the principle of universality, most of their players were interchangeable, all capable of passing, dribbling and dribbling as well as one another – defender Lawrenson just as happy to move into midfield as forward Dalglish if the situation called for it. What separated them was that they were far more resilient than those other sides. Johan Neeskens aside, the likes of Ajax defended mainly through pressing. Having to play against British teams forced Liverpool to be dogged too – a battling mentality was instilled in them on top of the technical quality present in the continental teams.
Heysel may have ended the supremacy of English clubs but Liverpool were already starting to stutter. The slow evolution of the side that owed much to their longevity was a bit too slow, leading to an aging, stale team in 1985. Fortunately, Dalglish completely revamped the squad, creating one of the most attacking teams English football has ever seen, nevertheless the actions of fans at that European Cup final meant we never got to see how they really compared to the vintage side from a few years earlier.