Heading into 1978/79, Liverpool were locked in a fierce battle with Nottingham Forest, with Bob Paisley leading the club to a new benchmark with the First Division title.
It’s Tuesday, May 8, 1979. We’re at Anfield and the floodlights are burning bright. The players have long since left the field to the triumphant roar of the Kop, after completing a glorious lap of honour. Liverpool have won their 11th league title after vanquishing a hard-working Aston Villa side 3-0, with two games to spare. They are the undisputed kings of England and their entire first team would walk into any side in Europe. Yet the Kop want more.
Deep inside the Main Stand, in the home dressing room, celebrations are underway, but they’re interrupted by a noise from outside. It’s low at first but it builds to a crescendo. It cannot be ignored, though the object of its cry is reluctant to listen. The mighty Kop is bellowing, “we want Paisley! We want Paisley!”
It’s been just five years since Bob Paisley took over as Liverpool manager, replacing one of the most legendary and iconic managers of all time, Bill Shankly. He hadn’t wanted the job, the attention, and now he didn’t want the praise. He would later tell Michael Charters of the Liverpool Echo that it was the players who won the title, and therefore it was they who should take the accolades.
The men he led would hear nothing of it, and they pushed him towards the tunnel and onto the pitch. The roar of 50,000 people is deafening as the supporters honour the man who had just set a new benchmark in English football. Still, he could only advance 20 yards, wave, and then walk back into the shadows.
This was a man who had led his team and his club to new heights, establishing them as the darlings of English football and winning Europe’s biggest prize in successive seasons in 1977 and 1978. He has now masterminded the greatest domestic season in the club’s history.
Brian Clough, the man whose crown Paisley had taken away with that victory over Villa and the pretender to Bob’s empire, would refer to his rival as “the Frank Sinatra of football,” a manager without equal. Yet to the man who was now king, it wasn’t about him, it was about the team.
Liverpool’s 11th title was, in numbers, unparalleled in the history of the club. On that Anfield night, they had reached 64 points (at two points for a win). They would go on to hit 68. That is the equivalent of 98 in today’s game. They were invincible at Anfield and had only lost four times all season.
Astonishingly, they had shipped just 16 goals in 42 matches, scoring 85. That gave them a mesmerising goal difference of +69, and they had set a record of averaging more than two goals per game.
At the end of the 1977/78 season, after Liverpool had retained the European Cup but conceded the championship to Nottingham Forest, Bob’s mission was clear. He had to restore the Reds to the pinnacle of English football, and he had delivered in spades.
In the summer of 1978, Britain was in the grip of political strife and was a matter of months away from the now-infamous Winter of Discontent, a reference to widespread industrial action that broke out across the country in opposition to caps on public sector pay.
Meanwhile, at Anfield, there was little more than mild irritation. Liverpool had, of course, retained the European Cup the season before, but a new pantomime villain had emerged in Brian Clough. His Nottingham Forest team had snatched the league title from the Reds the previous season and had the temerity to beat Liverpool—controversially, it has to be said—in the 1978 League Cup final. So as pre-season training got underway, Bob Paisley and his red machine had scores to settle.
In August, a stalwart of the Shankly era and hero of Rome in 1977, Tommy Smith, would leave for John Toshack’s Swansea City. He would be joined by Ian Callaghan a month later, in September. Meanwhile, Joey Jones who, as a famous banner had once declared, had been “making the Swiss roll and munching Gladbach,” shuffled off to Wrexham in October. However, despite the challenge to his crown from Nottingham, Bob saw no need to abandon his policy of slow, steady squad evolution.
Liverpool added Kevin Sheedy and Alan Kennedy to their ranks for a combined outlay of £410,000. Sheedy never made the cut at Anfield, despite being a decent player. Alan Kennedy, who had faced Shankly’s Liverpool alongside Terry McDermott in the 1974 FA Cup final, would become a Reds legend. Another Liverpool great of the previous era, Emlyn Hughes, was coming to the end of his time at the club. ‘Crazy Horse’ would leave before the season was out, though he would start it as captain.
He would surrender the armband first, to Kenny Dalglish. However, this would be the season when a young lad from Kirkby, Phil Thompson, came of age and began to lead the team. Tommo would experience the unrivalled joy of becoming the first Liverpool born player to lift Europe’s greatest prize as captain, in Paris in 1981.
At the start of the 1978/79 season, Paisley had a formidable team at his disposal. They were in fact possibly the most complete Liverpool side ever. There are those who will point to the 1987/88 side, who were certainly more flamboyant, though that team had never been tested in Europe. The current squad have the potential to match the 1978/79 season for sure, but by 1978, Bob’s side was an established trophy-winning machine.
Their rearguard was almost impregnable, consisting of Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Phil Thompson, Emlyn Hughes, Alan Hansen and Alan Kennedy. The midfield was as hard as nails, but it also possessed genuine skill and footballing intellect. Men like Steve Heighway, Terry McDermott, Ray Kennedy, Jimmy Case, Sammy Lee and Graeme Souness epitomised the archetypal Liverpool player.
They could play, fight and, if things were going wrong on the pitch, they could work it out for themselves without intervention from the dugout. These players alone would have been enough to guarantee success. However, when the firepower of Kenny Dalglish, David Johnson and David Fairclough was added into the mix, the resultant brew was nothing short of explosive.
Paisley’s task was to complete a decade of near-complete dominance and set the club on course for the next 10 years. Liverpool’s emerging rivals were Clough’s Nottingham Forest. By now, Everton were no longer a serious competitor and despite robbing Paisley of a treble in 1977 by beating the Reds to the FA Cup, few Liverpool fans felt threatened by Manchester United.
The Reds got off to a flyer in the league and went unbeaten in their first 11 league fixtures. It was a run that included an incredible 7-0 mauling of Tottenham at Anfield. After gaining promotion that year, Tottenham fancied themselves and had invested heavily in two Argentinian World Cup winners, Osvaldo Ardilles and Ricky Villa. There was much anticipation surrounding the game, as Anfield got ready to welcome these international superstars, and players young fans like me had previously seen as merely the subject of Panini football stickers to be bartered over in the playground at school.
The pair would be given a rude awakening at Anfield on September 2, 1978. In the dying embers of the summer sun, the Reds lit a bonfire under Spurs dreams and the Kop would chant “what a waste of money” (it wasn’t as cliched and hackneyed back then, honest). Tottenham were simply destroyed and the crowning glory of that game was a goal Bob Paisley described as the greatest he had ever witnessed on home soil. Terry McDermott’s headed stunner from a Steve Heighway cross, after a flowing move involving just three passes and starting in our own half, remains one of the finest pieces of football I have ever witnessed.
The joy and pride of that hypnotic display were matched only by the despair of seeing the Reds crash out of Europe to Clough’s Forest, in the first round of the competition. Liverpool had slumped to a 2-0 first-leg defeat at the City Ground and could only manage a goalless draw in the return match. The sound of the Forest fans taunting the Kop, after we had surrendered our crown, haunted me for a long time.
The Reds would avenge this defeat with a 2-0 league victory at Anfield at the start of December, thanks to two goals from Terry McDermott. The glee on the Kop was palpable as Reds felt they had finally shut Clough up. The Forest manager, known for his rants, was lampooned by newspaper cartoonists and Tommy Smith accused him of “mouthing off too much.” Nobody at Liverpool liked a ‘big head’ and Clough was the antithesis of the Liverpool way under Paisley.
However, before that, there had been more misery and a fair amount of incredulity the following month when Everton ended an eight-year wait to beat the Reds. A 1-0 victory at Goodison ended their Liverpool curse, thanks to an Andy King goal. The player would become an instant Everton legend and the sight of Blues in school wearing ‘Andy is our King’ badges for the rest of the year was both galling and comical. The win had ended Liverpool’s sequence of 11 games without defeat and the Blues were in second place and no doubt dreaming of a power shift.
The Reds were now out of Europe and the League Cup, after succumbing to Sheffield United in the second round. They were now fighting on two fronts and were hellbent on recovering their league crown. December would see them wobble a little with a 1-0 away defeat to Arsenal, which preceded a two-legged Super Cup tie against winners of the UEFA Cup, Anderlecht.
The first leg took place at Stade Emile Verse in Belgium. Liverpool slumped to a 3-1 defeat, with Jimmy Case’s 27th-minute strike scant consolation. Amazingly, in hindsight, with a back line consisting of Clemence, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, Emlyn Hughes and Alan Hansen, Paisley would bemoan the quality of his team’s defending, and even refused to rule out signing another defender.
In truth, Kennedy was just adjusting to his new club, Hansen was a 22-year-old centre-back who had joined Liverpool the season before and Hughes was in the twilight of his Liverpool career. Paisley was, undoubtedly, merely sending a message to his defenders. And with Phil Thompson, already an accomplished centre-back, not even featuring that night, there was clearly no need to reinforce their rearguard. Their 16 goals conceded in a 42-game season would mean that Bob would leave things well enough alone, only adding Richard Money for £50,000 from Fulham the following summer.
Liverpool won the second leg at Anfield 2-1 two weeks later, on December 19, in a game more memorable for the weather than the football. Emlyn Hughes, back after two months out injured, put Liverpool in front, but the visitors levelled midway through the second half. With the game tied at 1-1 heading into the last five minutes, Steve Heighway gave the Kop hope with a late strike. However, it wasn’t enough and Anderlecht took the trophy, but controversy raged over whether the match should have even taken place.
Thick fog meant visibility wasn’t so much poor as virtually non-existent. Amazingly the referee agreed to allow play and what followed was both comedic and historic in equal measure. At one point the Kop was asking the Anfield Road end for score updates. Someone asked Paisley about a save Clemence had made, despite the fact the ‘keeper had missed the game through injury, and after the match, the Liverpool boss had the following to say:
“You can’t play football in conditions like that, it’s ridiculous. I’m not complaining about the result but it was never a real match.
“I couldn’t make any substitutions if I’d wanted to because I couldn’t see who was doing what. Someone asked me what I thought of a save made by Clemence–and he wasn’t even playing.”
Nevertheless, a UEFA representative would single out the Liverpool supporters for praise, with more than 23,000 turning out despite the impossible weather. He would laud their love for the game, sportsmanship and generosity towards the winners.
The Reds made up for their disappointment with a 3-0 thrashing of United at Old Trafford on Boxing Day and quickly got back into their stride on the league front. January saw them ease through the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup, with victories over Southend and Blackburn Rovers. After a historic fight by Southend at Roots Hall, which resulted in a goalless draw, Liverpool would need a replay to eventually see them off 3-0 at Anfield.
However, January would see no league football played at all, due to the fact that much of Britain was locked in a deep freeze. With one of the coldest winters on record, the two FA Cup ties would be Liverpool’s only two games of the month, with the Rovers game coming on January 30. It would lead to fixture congestion at the tail end of the season, but miraculously the league would still be concluded on May 17.
By the end of March, Liverpool’s position at the top of the table was deeply entrenched. They were five points clear of neighbours Everton and had two games in hand. They were also now in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Standing in their way were north-west rivals Manchester United.
The game was played at Manchester City‘s Maine Road ground and it had everything. Liverpool took the lead through Kenny Dalglish but United hit back within two minutes through Joe Jordan. Then Terry McDermott crashed a penalty against the upright and Souness failed to score after Dalglish had recovered and squared the rebound. Both sides went for it, with tackles flying in and free-kicks galore.
In the second half, Jimmy Greenhoff put United in front, but Liverpool roared back with the Manchester side resorting to a goal-line clearance before, amazingly, a rare Alan Hansen goal earned Liverpool a replay in the 82nd minute. The two teams would meet again at Goodison Park four days later, on Wednesday, April 4, 1979, and infuriatingly Liverpool would go out thanks to a Jimmy Greenhoff strike in the 77th minute.
For Liverpool, the target had narrowed. No longer pursuing a historic double, they were laser-focused on getting the title over the line. Liverpool won nine of their remaining 12 league fixtures, drawing two and losing just the once, away to Aston Villa. The championship would be sealed on the night Villa came to Anfield, with the Reds avenging their 3-1 away defeat and scoring three without reply. The final two games of the season saw Liverpool win away to Middlesborough and Leeds.
They had finished nine points ahead of their nearest rivals, West Bromwich Albion, and 10 points clear of Clough’s Forest. Everton had slumped to fourth place. The power shift had been cancelled, but Andy was still their king.
As I reflect on this team, I can only say that they had everything. Iconic players, defensive solidity and a potent strike force.
They possessed what I still believe is still the greatest midfield in the history of the club, a defence without equal and the greatest player this football club has ever known, a man at the peak of his powers, Kenny Dalglish.
Of course, they were also led by the greatest manager in the history of the English game. Not that he would want me to remind you of that.
Total games: 54
Games won: 35
Games drawn: 11
Games lost: 8
Clean sheets – league: 28
Clean sheets – overall: 34
Total goals: 98