The European Champions’ cup was the forerunner of today’s Champions’ League but there the similarity ends. The same trophy (replacing a smaller one in the early 1960’s) which has been presented to the winners for nearly 40 years is still in place today but for over 35 years the premier European club competition was only for the champions of each country. Real Madrid’s early domination (they won the first five tournaments from 1956 until 1960) saw the entry rise from 16 clubs in 1955-56 to 27 in 1959-60. Against the advice of the Football authorities in England, Manchester United & Wolverhampton Wanderers competed in the early years but by the time Liverpool qualified by winning their 6th First Division championship in 1964, the trophy had become widely-respected and much sought-after throughout the continent.
The club’s baptism was gentle enough. They were paired with KR Reykjavik from Iceland in the preliminary round and won both legs comfortably by five goals. Given that the tie had already been won in the away game, a good crowd of just over thirty-two and a half thousand attended Anfield’s first European night. But the crowd-figures increased as Liverpool progressed and better opposition were drawn in subsequent rounds ‘“ 44,000 against Anderlecht, 48,000 against Cologne and over 54,000 for the visit of the holders Inter-Milan in the semi-final. The Belgian champions included several of the national side which had just held England to a draw at Wembley but goals from St. John, Hunt and Yeats provided a comfortable lead which was added to by Roger Hunt’s last-minute winner in the return game in Brussels three weeks later. Two goal-less draws with Cologne followed as Winter turned into Spring but in the days before away goals and penalty shoot-outs a third game was necessary in neutral Rotterdam, although the bulk of the 45,000 crowd had made the much easier journey from Germany. The Reds took a two-goal lead but Cologne hit back to equalise and then had a goal disallowed. With no provision for a 4th match, the tie was bizarrely settled by the toss of a coin. Skipper Ron Yeats called correctly but only after the first ‘˜coin’ had stuck in the mud and had to be tossed again ! It was a cruel way to go out and a strange way to go through but those were the rules at that time. The semi-final was one of Anfield’s greatest-ever nights, coming as it did just three days after Liverpool had won the F.A. cup for the first time in its long history. Gordon Milne (who missed the final through injury) and Gerry Byrne (injured in the final itself) were sent out to parade the famous trophy before the game and the players took to the field in a cauldron of noise. The Italians seemed unnerved despite their experience and being used to playing in front of hostile crowds. But this was different. They had probably never played in front of a crowd that was so close to the pitch and seemed unprepared for the emotion that greeted the F.A. cup winners. Roger Hunt’s brilliant early volley and a superbly-worked free-kick finished off by Ian Callaghan unnerved them even more but in between those two superb goals an error by Ron Yeats had seen Mazzola strike an equaliser past Tommy Lawrence into the Kop goal. Lawler had a goal disallowed before Ian St. John restored the home side’s two-goal advantage a quarter of an hour from the end. But would it be enough ? Inter were experienced European campaigners and were not only defending the trophy they had won by beating Real Madrid in Lisbon the previous year but were also holders of the World Club championship, another trophy they would ultimately successfully defend in 1965. In an extremely hostile atmosphere, all the good work done at Anfield was cancelled out by two controversial refereeing decisions early on in the San Siro. Having appeared to signal an indirect free-kick on the edge of Liverpool’s penalty-area, a goal was allowed to stand despite fierce protests when the kick was curled straight in. Before Liverpool had time to recover from that blow, the aggregate lead had been wiped out. At a time when goalkeepers were usually protected and got most of the 50/50 decisions in their favour, Tommy Lawrence was bouncing the ball on the edge of his area ready for a clearance when it was kicked past him into the net. If you see footage of this game, there is no clear foul on Tommy but if goalkeepers were impeded from distributing the ball, a free-kick was usually given in their favour. Not this time though. Liverpool tried to recover their composure but their first European campaign ended in bitter disappointment, though there was no dispute about Fachetti’s brilliant third goal in the second-half which took the Italians through to the final again, which just happened to be played at their own stadium !
Having failed to retain their domestic crown, Liverpool entered the Cup Winners’ cup a year later and again enjoyed a marvellous run ‘“ all the way through to the final in fact. Juventus provided very tough opposition in the first round but first-half goals at Anfield from defenders Lawler and Strong overturned the narrow 1-0 defeat in Turin. Lawler scored twice in the next round against Standard Liege (Peter Thompson adding the third in a 3-1 victory) and the second leg was also won in Belgium in the face of extreme provocation on the pitch. A goal down at half-time, the players showed remarkable composure and strikes from the forward pairing of Hunt and St. John early in the second-half paved the way for a comfortable 5-2 aggregate victory. The quarter-final was not played for another three and a half months and by now more used to the tactics of the European game, Liverpool quietened the crowd in Hungary and took a 0-0 score back to England with them before defeating Honved 2-0 with Chris Lawler again being on the score-sheet. The two semi-finals with Celtic were played only five days apart yet Liverpool still had to fit a First Division fixture with Stoke City in between the two dates. The Celts came down from the North in their thousands, expecting to see their favourites progress through to the Hampden Park final but a blistering free-kick from Tommy Smith equalised Bobby Lennox’s first-leg goal and then Geoff Strong, despite limping severely from an incident earlier in the game, somehow climbed to reach an Ian Callaghan cross and headed it past Ronnie Simpson to put the Reds into the lead on aggregate. A late Celtic goal was disallowed and caused a bit of crowd trouble with several items (mostly empty bottles !) being thrown onto the pitch by the visiting fans but it was Liverpool who just went through to their first European final. Playing in Glasgow should have been an advantage but atrocious weather plus the fact that many Glaswegians shunned the event once Celtic had been knocked out kept the crowd down to under 42,000 in the vast bowl with enormous terraces that Hampden Park was at the time. Siggi Held, who would appear later that summer for West Germany in the World Cup final, gave the Germans from Borussia Dortmund the lead but another man who would also appear in that famous Wembley final of 1966 (Roger Hunt) equalised midway through the second-half, even though it appeared that Peter Thompson had taken the ball over the goal-line before crossing for Hunt to turn and strike his goal. Coming from behind should have given Liverpool an advantage in extra-time but once again (as in Milan a year previously) Fate conspired to deny them their moment of glory in the most cruel way. Tommy Lawrence came sliding out of his goal to clear but the ball only fell to Libuda about 40 yards out. He tried a speculative lob seeing the opposition goalkeeper stranded and the ball hit the bar before glancing into the net off Ron Yeats who had rushed back trying to clear the danger. That proved to be the winning goal and once again the European season ended in great disappointment. But reaching a semi-final and then a final in the club’s first two European campaigns was still a terrific achievement.
For their second crack at the European cup, Liverpool had to face the unknowns from Petrolul Ploiesti in the first round. A 2-0 home win was followed by a 3-1 defeat away. In subsequent years the away goal scored by Hunt would have been enough to see the club through but ‘“ as with Cologne two years before ‘“ a third game was necessary in neutral Brussels to decide the outcome. Before half-time St. John and Thompson had given Liverpool a lead that they never looked like surrendering. Dutch champions Ajax were pretty unknown too but they tore Liverpool apart in foggy Amsterdam and carved out a massive 5-1 lead, Liverpool’s only success coming in the very last minute from Chris Lawler. The tie was effectively over by half-time with the home side being four goals up and at one stage Bill Shankly even went onto the pitch unnoticed to give some instructions to his players (!) but even his bravado before the second game on Merseyside could not disguise the fact that this had been a severe thrashing against a club that would soon go on to win the Champions’ cup for three successive seasons. Hunt scored twice at Anfield but so did a young Johan Cruyff and Liverpool were out.
The great side of the mid-sixties had reached its peak and over the next few years Bill Shankly had to say goodbye to many players who has served him so well during a golden period in the club’s history and rebuild for the future. With no more domestic success in the 60’s, the club had to content itself with participation in the European Fairs cup, previously the Inter-Cities Fairs cup and subsequently (from 1971) the UEFA cup. There were massive wins against 1860 Munich (8-0 in 1967) and Dundalk (10-0 in 1968) but no repeat of the long runs which the club had enjoyed in its first two years of European competition. The 1968-69 season was the last one on which a toss of a coin would decide a winner and this time Liverpool were unlucky as they went out to Athletic Bilbao. A year later the away-goals rule came into force but many confused Anfield spectators stayed in their places expecting extra-time after very late goals by Alun Evans and Roger Hunt had given Liverpool a 3-2 win over Vitoria Setubal. It took a tannoy announcement to confirm that those two away goals were enough to see the Portuguese through after their 1-0 victory in the first leg !
Shankly’s new team was taking shape. Although not quite ready yet to make a sustained challenge for the League championship, the club reached the F.A. cup final in 1971 and also progressed through to the semi-final of the Fairs Cup, the last time that particular trophy would be played for. A stunning strike from Emlyn Hughes in Budapest gave a narrow 2-1 aggregate over Ferencvaros and some sort of revenge for defeat to the same club in the 1967-68 competition. Hughes also scored against Dinamo Bucharest in the second round before two wins against Hibernian saw Liverpool through to the quarter-final, where they were paired with Bayern Munich. The Bavarians would also soon win the Champions’ cup three years running and had many players who would win the World Cup for their country on home soil in 1974. But this was Alun Evans’ night. A wonderful hat-trick gave the Reds a clear advantage for the second-leg, for which Shankly gave Ian Ross the specific task of shadowing Franz Beckenbauer in Munich. The under-rated Scotsman did such a good job that he even found time to stroll upfield and put Liverpool in the lead ! The game finished one-all and another European semi-final was secured, this time against opponents Liverpool knew only too well. Liverpool & Leeds United had emerged at much the same time under Bill Shankly and Don Revie respectively. There has been some titanic clashes in the late-60’s following Liverpool’s F.A. cup win over the Yorkshiremen in 1965 but this time Leeds gained revenge as Billy Bremner headed the only goal of the entire tie in front of over 52,000 spectators at Anfield.
Back in the Cup Winners’ cup in 1971 as beaten F.A. cup finalists to Double-winners Arsenal, Liverpool only lasted until the second round. Victory over Servette Geneva was followed by defeat to a stronger Bayern side, for whom Gerd Muller scored twice in Munich. But success was only just around the corner. The club’s ninth season in Europe would at last bring tangible proof of all they had learned in previous years. The players and management were now much more astute about how to play the European game, particularly in the away legs where it was important to quieten the partisan home crowd and then look for a goal on the break. Eintracht Frankfurt and AEK Athens were beaten comfortably enough in rounds one and two before the club was drawn to play another German team (this time from East Germany), Dynamo Berlin. A goal-less draw away paved the way for a comfortable 3-1 home win. East German opposition also awaited in the quarter-finals in the form of Dynamo Dresden and after Brian Hall and Phil Boersma had given the Reds a decent lead from the home leg, Liverpool produced one of their finest away performances to date a fortnight later when Kevin Keegan scored the only goal of a tense match. An all-English semi-final against holders Tottenham Hotspur followed and Alec Lindsay gave Liverpool a narrow advantage to take down to London for the second game. For 45 minutes everything went according to plan but then Martin Peters scored to make the score level on aggregate. If Liverpool could score though that could be crucial and Steve Heighway obliged with the crucial away goal. A second strike from Peters made the last quarter of an hour extremely tense but the Reds held out to reach their second European final.
Borussia Monchengladbach, a club Liverpool would soon meet again in a more important final, were ‘“ along with the Bayern Munich of the same period ‘“ one of the best club sides ever to come out of Germany. They had some wonderful players like Gunter Netzer, Jupp Heynckes, Ulrich Stielike, Rainer Bonhof and the brilliant Berti Vogts. The first leg was played at Anfield on the 9th of May at Anfield but monsoon conditions forced the referee to abandon the game after less than half an hour. Liverpool made the immediate decision to allow spectators in for just 10 pence the following night, a decision which Peter Robinson admitted gave him a sleepless night in case it attracted a larger than capacity crowd although in the event the attendance was slightly below that which had turned up for the abandoned game ! Shankly made one crucial change for the re-arranged game. He had spotted a weakness in the Germans’ defence and played John Toshack in place of the diminutive Brian Hall. Toshack cause havoc in the Borussia defence and laid on two goals for his strike-partner Kevin Keegan. But Keegan also missed a first-half penalty which would have given Liverpool a surely unassailable lead ? Larry Lloyd headed in a corner early in the second-half before Ray Clemence brilliantly saved a penalty from Heynckes. How important that save would turn out to be ! In Germany, Borussia tore Liverpool apart in the first period on a sodden pitch and Heynckes scored twice to leave Liverpool’s hopes in the balance. But the Germans had run themselves into the ground and never posed the same problem in the second-half. But with Liverpool only a goal ahead there was always the danger that a third Monchengladbach goal would force extra-time. Resilient defending throughout the second-half finally brought its reward and the final whistle was greeted with amazing scenes of joy as hundreds of Liverpool fans climbed over the fences to salute their heroes on the pitch. That invasion delayed and spoiled the presentation somewhat as a tired Tommy Smith lifted the huge cup towards the skies but the ‘˜new Liverpool’ now had something special to celebrate, its first European trophy to go with the League championship which had been clinched at the end of the previous month. That meant Liverpool would not be defending their UEFA prize because once again they would be back in the most prestigious competition of all as a new season (1973-74) dawned.