By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (November 16, 2006) — Liverpool would never have won its first European Cup in 1977 if the club had not been comprehensively defeated by Red Star Belgrade in the early stages of the same competition three seasons earlier. The two 2-1 defeats in 1973 led the coaching staff to conclude that they must adopt a more continental style of play.
As the manager of the 1977 side, Bob Paisley, later explained, “Our approach was a bit frantic. We treated every match like a war. The strength of British football lay in our challenge for the ball, but the Continentals took that away from us by learning how to intercept. We discovered it was no use winning the ball if you ended up on your backside.”
Liverpool’s players learned to vary the pace of matches and pick their battles more wisely. They had to learn when they should break from defense and launch counter-attacks, when they should concede possession, and when they should maintain possession for long spells. Paisley thought that the key was the first pass. Instead of throwing caution to the wind, “We had to learn to be patient like that, and think about the next two or three moves ahead when we had the ball.”
Liverpool was still willing to play directly at times, but, more than the other English clubs, emphasis was increasingly placed on making short passes and maintaining possession. The fabled British commitment was still there, but instead of tirelessly working to chase the game, they tirelessly worked to make themselves available for passes.
Perhaps the best embodiment of this ideal, especially in the 1977 final against Borussia Moenchengladbach, was Kevin Keegan. He was a superb all-around forward, who never stopped running, to the point that he covered every inch of the attacking half. His marker, on the fated day, was Berti Vogts, the German terrier who gradually subdued Johan Cruyff in the 1974 World Cup final. Keegan proved far more irresistible.
Keegan’s strike partner Steve Heighway was almost as industrious. Their constant running pulled Gladbach’s man-marking defense apart and created space for Liverpool’s midfielders to advance. Consider the first goal, which came in the 27th minute. Ian Callaghan intercepted a pass in his own half, without ending up on his backside, and quickly played the ball forward to Heighway on the right touchline. While Heighway gradually angled in towards the goal, Keegan pulled Vogts to the left. This created a huge gap in the middle of Gladbach’s defense, which Terry McDermott ran into. Heighway threaded the ball through to him and he powered the ball low inside the left post.
Completely unlocking Galdbach’s defense was no small accomplishment. The German club had won five of the last eight Bundesliga titles, including the last three, and had several world-class players in addition to Vogts. Allan Simonsen, who was subsequently voted the 1977 European Footballer of the Year, and Jupp Heynckes were supremely versatile forwards. Rainer Bonhof, and his explosive right foot, which he used to cannon a ball off the post in the first half, had played a major part in turning around West Germany’s 1974 Word Cup campaign. And midfielders Herbert Wimmer and Uli Stielike were both the kind of all-around midfielders Germany was, and still is, famous for producing.
Gladbach, a small club, would never have been able to assemble such a squad in this day and age. Most of their players (the Danish Simonsen being a notable exception) had come through the club’s youth system, where they had been taught to constantly attack. The person responsible for developing them, Hennes Weisweiler, had once famously remarked that he would rather lose 6-5 than 1-0. God bless him! He was not managing the team by ’77, but his spirit seems to have influenced their tactics. Stielike normally played sweeper, but he was pushed forward to midfield, where he enjoyed complete freedom to attack.
In fact, he very nearly won the match for them. Gladbach equalized early in the second half. Simonsen pounced on a casual pass by Jimmy Case, raced into the left side of the penalty box, and rocketed the ball into the upper right-hand corner of the net before Liverpool’s defense or goalkeeper Ray Clemence could react.
Liverpool was clearly stunned and Gladbach looked like they might win the match for the next 15 minutes. The defining moment occurred when Simonsen, now every bit as influential as Keegan, drifted to the right touchline and lofted a delightful ball over the top of Liverpool’s defense to Stielike, who got behind the defense but failed to beat Clemence.
A few minutes later Liverpool won a corner. For reasons no one has ever explained, Heighway played the ball towards the near post, which he normally doesn’t do, and defender Tommy Smith came forward, which he normally does not do. The result was a superbly taken header by the player least likely so score. It was Smith’s 599th and last match with the club, but the goal was more ironic than fitting. Smith may very well have been the hardest man in British football, the kind of man who intimidated players before they ever set foot on the field. He was the embodiment of the idea that soccer is war and yet helped win the craftiest match by taking up a completely unpredictable position.
The fitting goal, the one that put the seal on the match with eight minutes left, came from Keegan. He picked up the ball around 45 yards away from goal and proceeded to torment poor Vogts while he worked his way towards goal. Vogts finally fouled him in the box and was so undone that he did not even bother to protest. Right fullback Phil Neal took the penalty. He normally shot to the keeper’s left, but he changed his mind on the way to striking the ball and placed the ball low in the right corner.
Keegan transferred to Hamburg after the season, in part, because he wanted to prove himself in Europe, where critics doubted he was truly world-class. He achieved great success. He was named European Footballer of the Year in 1978 and ’79, and led the club to the 1980 European Cup final, where they lost a close-to-the-vest match against Nottingham Forest 1-0. He had proved his point, but his accomplishments paled in comparison to what Liverpool accomplished after his departure. The three subsequent European Cups they won during the next seven seasons proved that they were, by far, the best club on the continent.