Saturday, March 24, 2012

They were bested by Liverpool. Bob Paisley managed the Reds since Shankly stepped retired in 1974, and it was the first title for the former assistant of the great Scot. The pupil was to outshine his teacher, as it turned out, but nobody envisioned that yet. Liverpool won their 9th title, although the numbers were not great. QPR won more games than the champions. Four teams scored more goals then them. Actually, Liverpool was the lowest scoring champion since 1924! They shared the implausible fame with Leeds United – 66 goals in total, but Leeds was so low scoring champion twice: in 1969 and 1974. On the other hand Liverpool had wonderful squad and unusual for English club policy.
Crouching, from left: Case, Boersma, Callaghan, Smith, Hughes, Bob Paisley – manager, Hall, Cormack, Neal.
Standing: Lawler, Heighway, Keegan, Lindsay, Kennedy, Clemence, Thompson, Toshack, McDermott, Jones.
In fact, Chris Lawler does not belong here – he was transferred to Portsmouth in 1975 – but he exemplifies Liverpool’s approach: nobody was holly. The English clubs followed terrible pattern – once strong team was built, it stayed until dying from old age. Then frantic shopping spree took place – big names, one after another, all pretty much old and rather finished as players. Transitions were painful and convulsive, inevitably leading to sharp and sometimes long decline. Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea were the most recent example and now Leeds United was making first steps in the same direction. Liverpool acted differently: players were hardly kept until retirement, but constantly replaced with new ones. There was hardly a crisis and transitional period – instead, the team was constantly refined and young brooms made almost instantly big names redundant. There was hit and miss, of course, but Liverpool generally made fine transfers. Thus, smooth continuity was ensured, Liverpool stayed among the top 5 English clubs since the early 1960s, and won titles. There was no panic, just shrewd application of Shankly’s philosophy – and when he retired his little known, but long serving assistant, Paisley became manager. And jumping ahead, Paisley’s assistant, Joe Faggan, stepped in when Paisley retired. The policy remained unchanged and Liverpool – famous. And since the best years were yet to come, it is hard to consider the 1975-76 squad the ‘canonical’ one, although the key figures were already stars. But the policy: 14 players were internationals already. Including Lawler, our test specimen here. He was sold and there were more to go soon – Toshack, Lindsey, Cormack, Boersma. If Cormack and Boersma were pretty much reserves, Toshack and Lindsay were quite a names – but their days were numbered… Case and Neal were already firm starters, and there was more – McDermott and Ray Kennedy. The former was good example of Liverpool’s managerial eyes: Kennedy was bought from Arsenal, a respected player, but not exactly a star. He flourished in Liverpool. It was not the name Liverpool was looking for, but who was needed for particaular position in the team – the team came first. Kennedy was just the right man and so was McDermott, and many others. But if there was a way to make the team better, there was no hesitation to bench the star and introduce someone new and unknown. This year it was a guy not at the picture above.
Fairclough was just 18 years old and Liverpool had plenty of stiking power, but Paisley did not hesitate for a second. The yougster played mostly as a substitute, but he scored a lot, becoming something like regular 12th player of the team. Super-sub: coming in the second half and scoring. A new Keegan already? When the real Keegan was only 24 years old? Looked like it, for Liverpool sold Keegan to Hamburger SV soon enough, but Fairclough proved to be one of the ‘hit and miss’ cases. His fantastic beginning did not soar to greatness – Fairclough quickly faded away and his long career was rather insignificant. Liverpool eventually got rid of him, but no harm to the club – there were plenty of other players.
So, at the end, it was football as usual – some clubs declining, some ascending. Those, who were late to change aging stars suffered soon enough – they were already suffering in 1975-76: Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, and Derby County, Manchester City, and Leeds United followed the path. Going up were the ‘unusual’ clubs: those, who were building their own squads from relatively unknown players – Ipswich Town, Queens Park Rangers, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, and especially Liverpool. Looks like 50-50: something bad, compensated by something good. But, Liverpool excepted, none of the ‘unusual’ clubs became real revelation – none was ‘ripe’ yet in 1976, but QPR faded away as quickly as the next season; Manchester United returned to traditional patterns and truly changed much, much later. Ipswich and West Brom reached their peak by the end the 1970s, yet, without becoming truly mighty. Only Liverpool… in a way, the great Reds amplified the decline of the English game: from 1976 the Red monopoly started and lasted until the end of the 1980s. Unchallenged… and, sadly, England became a country of one club. Fantastic club, but… only one.