Monday, June 25, 2012

No matter how good or bad was 1976-77 English season, it was remarkable. Liverpool clinched the title by a point. Liverpool became the club with most titles in 1976, but in 1977 they set new record: it was there 10th title. The first English club with 2-digit number! Liverpool was the most successful English club, but this season was the real elevation of Liverpool into superclub – they also wan the European Champions Cup. In a way, finally they were ripe for real success, recognized, and firmly on the road of becoming a dynasty. Liverpool came into maturity and until 1990 they were to rule both in England and Europe. 1977 was there break through, for so far they kind of underestimated: solid and respected team, but not really famous. Liverpool came back to First Division in 1962. After that, it was steady climb, solid performance, and success: 4 times champions (1964, 1966, 1973, 1976), 2 FA Cups (1965 and 1974), twice FA Cup losing finalists. Internationally, they won the UEFA Cup twice as well (1973 and 1976) and back in 1966 lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Borussia (Dortmund). Impressive numbers, but... UEFA Cup was largely an English domain, so no big news Liverpool got it. At home there was always other teams to talk about: Tottenahm Hotspur at the beginning of the 1960s, then Manchester United, Leeds United. Even Manchester City at one point. Same with players – the greatest stars were always elsewhere. Liverpool was hardly related to the great English World Cup win in 1966: only three Liverpudians were in the squad – Ian Callaghan, Gerry Byrne, and Roger Hunt. Only Hunt was a starter; the other two did not appear even for a minute. Somehow stars and favorites were always other players and clubs, leaving Liverpool behind. Thus, it was a bit unexpected when they 'suddenly' became the most titled English club in 1976. They were really noticed in 1977 – 10 titles never happened before in England and some even though such numbers impossible.

Since Liverpool were always in the shade, only a few realized how different than the other English clubs Liverpool operated. On the surface it was the record of steadiness: since they came returned to First Division, their worst table position was 1962-63, there first season, when they finished 8th. Once they finished 7th, but after that (1964-65) they were always among the top 5 teams. No other club was among the title contenders for so long without any break. There was never a crisis, but constant march ahead, constant improvement. The secret laid in the clubs' philosophy: great teams usually are built by great managers, but as soon as there is a failure, the manager was replaced with another big name from somewhere else. In Liverpool it was different: when Shankly retired his assistant for many years Bob Paisley became manager. His assistant became Joe Fagan – and when Paisley retired, Fagan took the reins. In a sharp contrast, the retirement of Matt Busby led Manchester United to relegation. When Don Revie left Leeds United, the team immediately faded and took the slippery slope. Reliable coaches, learning from each other, and continuing essentially one and the same concept is fine, but what is it? Liverpool were hardly innovative club and their brand of football, judged by 1977 in relation to total football, was conservative step back. And their brand of attacking, energetic football hardly changed with time: essentially, in 1977 they played the same ind of football they played, say, in1972. There was something else of import: the policy of building and maintaining strong team, which was remarkably unsentimental. The example for contrast was Leeds United, for the climb to glory of both clubs started at the same time. Don Revie built a great team and then just kept it. That was the typical English way – Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, all faced deep crisis when the team aged and had to be replaced entirely. All of them lingered and procrastinated, unable to find heart to get rid of old and loved megastars, until they found themselves relegated to 2nd Division. Liverpool acted differently, even ruthlessly, when compared to traditional Englsih practices: no sentiments at all, but constant search for young talent, which as soon as shows better ability than revered stars become starters and the veterans were either benched or sold. Hunt and St. John were gone for so long, that hardly anybody associated them with Liverpool. Lloyd was gone. Lindsay, a national team player just 2 years ago, was clearly going to the bench by 1977. The days of John Toshack, arguably the biggest star of Liverpool at the beginning of the early 1970s, were obviously numbered. And so was Tommy Smith, the iron right full back and, along with Ian Callaghan, the last survivors of the team winning promotion to First Division in 1962. Another club would play such fellow as Smith, but not Liverpool – Paisley already introduced younger player. The never ending shaping and reshaping of the team was quite shrewd as well: when other clubs went for big names, especially when panicking, Liverpool preferred young unknowns and reliable, but not exactly big stars from other clubs – thus, Keegan arrived and by 1977 Liverpool had megastar for the first time. Ray Kennedy was bought from Arsenal – well known player, but no more when he joined Liverpool. With the red shirt he became a star. Jumping a bit ahead, even the 'big buys' of Liverpool – Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish – were hardly the most impressive transfer in England and, more importantly, both really flourished in Liverpool, just like Ray Kennedy. It was building better and better team, never stopping, and never bowing to famous names. Results were very good so far, but excellency was just starting.

Ten times champions in full glory: top row, from left: Joey Jones, John Toshack, David Fairclough, Ray Clemence, Phil Thompson, Phil Neal.

Middle row: Joe Fagan - coach, Alec Lindsey, Jimmy Case, Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Roy Evans (2nd trainer), Ronnie Moran (chief trainer)

Sitting: Steve Heighway, Ian Callaghan, Tommy Smith, Bob Paisley (Manager), Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott.

By 1977 nothing like 1966: 8 regular English national team players. Ian Callaghan, getting second wind, was recalled to the national team after a long pause. Well, after 1966. Tommy Smith managed to get a single cap in 1971. Toshack and Heighway played for Wales and Eyre. Clemence – Neal, Hughes, Thompson, Case – Kennedy, Callaghan, McDermott – Keegan, Toshack, Heighway: what a squad! With Smith, Lindsay, Fairclough, and new hopefuls Johnson and Jones at the bench. No need to change anything... the replacements were already here for those coming to retirement. Right? Wrong... it was Liverpool. Keegan just became the best European player – who would be crazy to get rid of the biggest international star? Liverpool. They sold him to Hamburger SV right after winning the 10th title. Without a blink. Selling Cruyff was really the end of great Ajax – selling Keegan was nothing for Liverpool: they were yet to win and dominate, and brake records.