1978/79: By Far The Greatest Team
By Dave Houlgate and Steve Kelly
Frm Issue 44, Autumn 1999
First love never dies. That’s a line from a thousand songs, but the one I always remember is the Walker Brothers – probably because it’s the title! It’s the truth though, isn’t it? First band – Roxy Music, never been bettered. First girl (well, that’s between her and me). First Liverpool team – 1978/79.
I was 19. There’s another line about love, I forget who said it, but someone compared it to the Measles – it’s all the worse when it happens late in life. It wasn’t a glory hunter thing at all. If I’d gone regularly for the first time when I was 13, like most of my mates, I’d have been watching Cormack, Keegan and Toshack clinching a league and European double – the first of many. They did it twice more before my life changed for the better. That bolshie streak that rebelled against my father and his love of the Reds was to cost me dear. Wembley 74, Bruges, Molyneux, St Etienne, Rome, Wembley again. Stories told to me instead of cherished anecdotes, vague shadows instead of emblazoned memories, minute sparks instead of scorching flames. What can I say? I was young and foolish, I was…… ….oh, what’s the phrase………….oh yeah – thick as pig shit.
My cousin visited, and he wanted to go to Anfield. God knows why. Standing in the Anny, cramped and far too hot, with a squawking brat sitting on the barrier, blocking the view of a game I didn’t want to see anyway. If it was keeping our Andy happy, then okay – but I wouldn’t be making this mistake again. 90 minutes later, London’s Fancy Dans had been put across the knee and soundly spanked. Hype (World Cup winning hype, but hype nevertheless) would never triumph over total class. Liverpool 7 Tottenham Hotspur 0. An afternoon that changes lives.
Even as a novice, I could sense something important was happening here. Like a duck to water, I picked up on minute details immediately. Jimmy Case was an unsung hero, but it should have been shouted from every corner of Anfield – the man switched to right back as if he had played there all his life. When he left, he became every other team’s central midfield playmaker, but here he was ‘just’ Jimmy Case.
I knew that this was a team that hated to lose. Ray Clemence took a player out, as blatant a professional foul as you will ever see, then grabbed the ball and went back to his line in case Spurs tried to pull a fast one. After all, anything can happen when you’re five goals in front! Look at the mess Man U get in when they lose Roy Keane – we lost Emlyn Hughes after 10 minutes, and got even better. Dalglish could give a fluke goal grace and beauty, while Souness could chest a ball to the exact spot he wanted it and thrashed it towards goal. The Terry McDermott goal was voted the best that Liverpool FC ever scored, and no one argued. No one. That’s how good it was.
Andy and I had such a buzz from that game that we walked the whole way home to Netherton. We couldn’t stop talking about it. I knew enough to realise that it wasn’t always like this, but then concerts weren’t always Kraftwerk at the Court and LP’s weren’t always Marquee Moon. You still went to gigs, you still went to Probe and spent £50 on mostly shite records. Greatness is at a premium, it’s never on tap. Even so, the tickets that I bought for the home season of 78/79 still represent the closest I have ever come to the perfect purchase.
Hungry for another game, I had to wait for the second leg of the European Cup grudge match with Forest. We didn’t win. It didn’t seem possible that this bunch of brickies in their budgerigar yellow could keep out the supermen of the 7-0. They could, and they did. I was devastated. Early in the game, a badly hit pass was sailing out of play before Case did an overhead kick that defied gravity and kept it in. I defy anyone who was there not to remember it. The roar that greeted it can make me shudder at the thought of it. How could we lose when there were men prepared to break their backs to win for us? The result was wholly unfair, and yet thrilling in it’s own way. This wasn’t going to be the Harlem Globetrotters, we weren’t just there to watch our players rack up a cricket score. This was no exhibition. I knew that now. As an introduction to Football, few fans could have been better prepared for the twenty exhilarating years to come. Pete Wylie once said, “if a rollercoaster didn’t have ups and downs, it would just be a train ride”.
This wasn’t one of the ‘double’ years, but in a way that only makes it more special. I used to laugh at the bluenoses and their pathetic claims of having a “fatal flaw” to excuse a catalogue of failure, but thinking about it again the seasons I loved the most weren’t the massively successful ones. 78/79, 87/88, 95/96. Oh, and 85/86 (well it was special for some reason!). I think of the treble year, and the low crowds. The Mancs will never shut up about last season, and all I can think about for our Treble year is how we slipped into the bottom three in the Autumn of ’84 and saw Everton go top. Liverpool’s average attendance rose that season by 5,000 – because they needed us. 4 years later, Man U were playing in front of 22,000 at home to Wimbledon because their team just couldn’t hack it and ours could. That’s the difference between us and them.
So what was the ‘flaw’ in the 78/79 team? Like the 87/88 team, maybe they were too good? Complacency can sabotage even the greatest of teams, and when you think about it that season saw three body blows; the first league defeat against the shite for 7 years, knocked out of Europe by Forest and the FA Cup semi final by the Mancs. It sounds dreadful, but only four other teams beat us. Sheffield United, Arsenal, Bristol City (thanks to a goal from Big Fat Head) and Villa. Anfield was the fortress; 19 league wins out of 21, and here we are already having lost three out of the first four. It makes you weep.
There wasn’t a weakness in the team. Barney’s more scatterbrained moments were still to come, but he and Phil Neal formed a defence that, with Thommo and the new boy Hansen, provided whatever cover the world’s greatest goalkeeper could possibly need. The midfield is now the stuff of legend, and can be named without even thinking; Case McDermott Souness Kennedy R. I shall listen to arguments from Brazilians (Rivelino Gerson Pele Jairzinho) or the French (Tigana Fernandez Giresse Platini) – but not from anybody else. We had the greatest club midfield ever, of that I am certain.
Whatever quality you would most associate with any of the players, the others were no slouches either. Case had the hardest shot, but the other three could strike the ball with power and accuracy. Souness was the Pass Master, I certainly never saw a better player, but who put the ball through for Ray Kennedy at Derby for the BBC’s goal of the season? Terry Mc, picking out a dazzling forward run by Ray. The kind of run, in fact, that McDermott almost had patented. Kennedy was a superb footballer, Paisley’s favourite, in many ways the archetype Liverpool player. Gifted, strong, passionate, without any noticeable weakness – he could do it all.
Never a year goes by without regrets that Kenny Dalglish is anywhere but here. While we must all appreciate his Celtic connections, without which we never would have got him in the first place, the man should be here. Anfield is his home, and I still haven’t given up hope of his return. As a player, 78/79 saw a display of the striker’s art that few have equalled. The predatory instincts of a Rush, the passion of a Smith, the genius of a Barnes – all wrapped up in the one body. Shankly once called us “cocky”, and we had every right to be. When we were clinching the championship against Villa, we sang “what a waste of money” to the biggest bargain of the century. His goal in the Maine Road semi final was a masterpiece, but there were many others. The irresistible cheek that fooled Tony Godden at the Hawthornes, the strength vision and accuracy at the Baseball Ground, the luck against Spurs (even a genius needs it sometimes). Maybe I should stop before I start crying again.
We will never see their like again. I’ve let go of that particular hot potato. It would be greedy and wildly optimistic to keep hoping for it. Perhaps I should curse them all, for filling me with a love so deep that it can even suffer the slings and arrows of our current outrageous fortune. But I know I never shall. I will drink to their good health, especially to Ray Kennedy’s, and simply hope that I will see another Liverpool team even half as good.
So what was our best ever championship team? Not easy when you’ve 18 to choose from. Each one has its merits, and each is a wonderful achievement in itself, but certain ones stand out from the rest. No one would argue (for long) that our last success in 1990 was anything like as impressive as their 1988 predecessors. Though most of the players were actually the same, the ’88 team is regarded as the best by a lot of fans. I still believe the majority would choose the 1978/79 team, and 20 years on it is time to pay tribute to our record-breaking Reds.
Now at the time, I was too young to travel to Anfield and had to be content with getting my LFC fix either on the wireless or through the cathode ray tube in the corner of the room. The Reds were featured on ‘Match of the Day’ 9 times (exhaustive research, see?) throughout the season, though ITV’s regional programmes on a Sunday showed, er, some games too (okay, there’s only so much research you can do!).
What makes this particular Liverpool side so damn special? Basically because they won an awful lot of games, got an awful lot of goals, got an awful lot of points and conceded very, very few goals. And they did it using only 15 players. One of them, David Fairclough, played in 4 games and Sammy Lee played in just two. This was the year of the perm, with half the team wearing the Anfield Afro. The team were permanently on top of the league…..well, for 33 consecutive weeks to be exact.
In scoring 85 goals, the Reds also met the challenge set by the Sun (would you believe) for a team to average two league goals a game at the end of the season. As a result, the players bagged 50 grand between them which was a lot back then (what am I saying? It’s a lot now!). How times change; all Paul Ince had to do to get money from that rag was to appear in that stupid advert. “Dignity and class”, indeed.
It’s an appropriate time at this juncture to mention the Dalglish/Johnson partnership, which would prosper for another two years. It has often been overlooked as the finest in favour of Hunt/St John, Keegan/Toshack or Dalglish/Rush. Kenny, with 21 goals, was far more the goalscorer than the provider he would later become. He was at the peak of his goalscoring powers. Johnson missed two significant parts of the season, yet still netted 16 times and would be even better in 79/80. Steve Heighway also partnered Kenny but his appearances were dwindling. In midfield Ray Kennedy, Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott and the criminally underrated Jimmy Case scored 33 goals between them.
Equally important, and increasingly relevant to today, were the back four. Hughes featured in 16 games only, mostly at left back, and he would eventually be off-loaded to Wolves. That left Neal, Thompson, Hansen and Alan Kennedy in front of Ray Clemence. Time for a bit of perspective methinks. Over the past ten years the Arsenal back four has become sort of a modern legend. If you’re still looking for the silver lining in 98/99’s huge black cloud, it was Jimmy Floyd Havawank’s late goal against Arsenal that all but gave the league to Man U. It was the 17th goal Arsenal had conceded, and in a season of 38 games not 42. That would have mattered little to the modern propagandists.
The Arsenal back four is legendary, but it isn’t as good as the Liverpool defence of twenty years ago. Clemence kept 28 clean sheets – job offers from nursing homes were received by the sackful. If you can’t remember or you weren’t there, use your imagination and think of the current team conceding 16 goals all season. Imagine them conceding just 4 at Anfield – no, not in one game! Clem let one in against West Brom (one of our title rivals, would you believe) and then went 6 hours without letting another in until Andy King equalised for the slime (I’m not making this up, but they were title rivals too). Ray then thought “that’s quite enough” and went another 5 hours without conceding a goal. One goal in 11 games. Not bad for a defence that never put their arms up (obviously you’re forgetting Emlyn! – ed).
Liverpool won 30 games and drew 8, resulting in a points total of 68. The final game of the season was at Elland Road. The significance of the opposition was obvious: it was Leeds who held the then points record of 67. They were absolutely desperate to hang onto their record, but failed miserably as The Mightiest Reds won 3-0. The 68 points under the old system is still the record, even when converted to the current ‘3 points for a win’ system. In an age of television interference with fixtures, it’s also worth pointing out that Liverpool went EIGHT WEEKS without a home league game – but what a pair of games they were; the 2-0 against Forest (“at Anfield the Forest will fall”) and the 2-1 against Albion. Both championship rivals had been vanquished.
Managed by the incomparable Bob Paisley, and playing for the very last time without the stain of shirt sponsorship – Hitachi would feature on the pristine Red for non-televised games in 1979/80. We won the league that season too. Liverpool’s Finest, the Class Of ’79.
“London Bridge Is Falling Down”
Throughout the season Liverpool handed out a fair number of hammerings. Man City, Norwich and Bolton were all beaten 4-1 on their own grounds, Derby let in 5 at Anfield while Norwich (again) were blitzed 6-0 in front of the Kop (and John Bond heh heh).
It’s the Tottenham game that everyone will remember. On 2nd September 1978, the Londoners arrived with their World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa, along with some chap called Glenn Hoddle. The game has had a rather tight-fisted 10 minute segment featured on a few videos like Best & Marsh The Perfect Nightmare and Greavie’s 70’s Memories (short tape, that) but it is to be hoped that our link with Granada will ensure that treasures like the St Etienne 3-1 and the Bruges 3-2 will once more see the light of day. For those who simply cannot remember that brilliant day, here are the goals again.
ONE NIL: Liverpool were kicking towards the Kop first half. Presumably the Spurs captain won the toss and decided to defend at the Kop first to take the sting out of our attack. Oops! Jimmy Case tries a long-range shot, mis-hits it to Kenny, brilliant turn and shot under Barry Danes from twelve yards.
TWO NIL: Another mis-hit shot by Case to Dalglish who deliberately re-directs the ball into the net.
THREE NIL: Deep cross from Terry Mac, Ray Kennedy rises majestically to head and, er, Lacey makes no mistake helping it in. It gets better, believe me.
Second half, with Liverpool now attacking the Anny Road end. FOUR NIL: Dalglish shot saved by Danes but Johnson (on as sub) blasts in the rebound.
FIVE NIL: Kenny puts Johnson in for his second, a left foot shot under Danes from the edge of the box. Bit of a girlie goal celebration, but you can’t have everything.
SIX NIL: After constant Liverpool pressure, Heighway is fouled in the area and Danes saves Neal’s initial penalty. So the referee, quite rightly, decided 5 isn’t enough and gives Phil another crack at it. The Kop starts to sing “We’re going to win the league” to the tune of Boney M’s ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’……..Puts ‘Go West’ into perspective, I suppose!
SEVEN NIL: Along with the third at Wembley in 1974, the goal that most accurately epitomises The Liverpool Way. It was voted the best goal that the Reds have ever scored, and you will not find me arguing the point. An apology is due in advance, as the written word will never do any goal justice, certainly not this one. Ray Kennedy heads the ball clear on the edge of our box. Dalglish collects, turns and passes to Johnson on the right side of the centre circle. He sweeps the ball diagonally forward to the left touchline – they would canonise Beckham for such a pass, and this is David Johnson. Heighway meets the ball on the run and he crosses it first time to the far post. Terry McDermott has taken 8 seconds to get from the edge of his own box to the opposition six yard box (Linford Christie knows the secret) and heads emphatically home.”Poetry in motion, tra la la la la”. DH
“Have you ever heard 50,000 people purr with pleasure? Well, the Anfield spectators were doing that constantly as Liverpool stroked the ball around with one-touch moves of staggering accuracy. This display confirmed for me, particularly after the splendour of their wins at Ipswich and City the previous week, that the current Liverpool team is playing better, more exciting, attacking football than any side I’ve seen since the war”.
MICHAEL CHARTERS, LIVERPOOL ECHO, 4/9/78
On May 8th 1979, Bob Paisley celebrated a significant day in his life. It marked the 40th anniversary of his arrival at Liverpool, and it also saw the Reds clinch the championship against Villa. Bob’s third, putting him on a par with the great Shankly. Of course, he was already two European Cups ahead by then. Recent debates on just who is the greatest manager of all time have once more tried to deflect away from the great man, so when the Shankly day in December is in full swing, do not forget the man who actually served us for 40 years (and more) with dignity, class and distinction.
BOB PAISLEY R.I.P.