Spring 1970 and Graeme Souness sits in the Tottenham Hotspur youth team changing room with his head in his hands in despair. Across the corridor, Dennis Mortimer of Coventry City does the same. The two teenagers have been sent off in the final of the FA Youth Cup for fighting and are in disgrace, while their teammates are left to battle away ten-a-side.
Fast forward 14 years and both men have more than somewhat overcome this shame and have morphed into not just title-winning captains, but European Cup-winning ones, too. Souness, of course, was an integral part of the all-successful Liverpool side of the 1970s and ’80s that regularly conquered Europe, while Mortimer was the skipper of the Aston Villa side that followed up 1981’s league title success by capturing the European Cup the following year.
English sides’ most successful spell in Europe coincided with my footballing awakening in the 1970s and ’80s and is worthy of a nostalgic look back through rose-coloured spectacles, perhaps.
In 11 seasons from 1975 through to 1985, English sides participated in no less than nine European Cup finals, with Old Big Ears making its way back to England’s shores on seven occasions, In addition, the UEFA Cup was secured three times, and the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup reached three times with one victory.
It was a golden age for English football on the pitch, yet it was also a dark era in terms of hooliganism that, of course, culminated in the tragedy and horrors of Heysel.
Given that the 1974-75 season was also the first in my footballing consciousness, here seems a logical starting point for our trawl through the archives. It was the season that Brian Clough arrived at League Champions, Leeds United, with the intention of taking the club to European Cup success. However, he managed to get himself the sack before a ball had been kicked in the competition that 1974 autumn.
Instead, it was his successor, Jimmy Armfield, that steadied the ship and guided Leeds through to a Paris final against holders, Bayern Munich. An edge of the seat 3-2 aggregate victory over Barcelona in the semi-final was among the highlights of Leeds’ run to the final and hopes were high that the Elland Road side could emulate Manchester United and become only the second English club to take Europe’s premier trophy.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. On a shameful night in France, Leeds were beaten 2-0 in a match that has gone down in the annals of infamy. Some truly shocking refereeing decisions went against Leeds, but they were no excuse for the rioting that erupted from large sections of their support that night.
This wasn’t the first time English supporters had sullied themselves in Europe, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The following season saw Liverpool and West Ham battle through to the finals of the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ Cups respectively. Liverpool prevailed 4-3 on aggregate over FC Bruges in the days when the UEFA Cup Final was played over two legs, while West Ham went down by a 4-2 scoreline to Anderlecht at Heysel.
The next season, 1976-77, saw the start of English sides’ six-year unbroken reign of success in the European Cup when Liverpool followed up their UEFA Cup success with their first capture of the European Cup. A 3-1 defeat of Borussia Mönchengladbach in Rome proving decisive.
In those days, of course, there was very little live football on television, and so the radio was such an important means of following the games. At this stage, I was still too young to be allowed to stay up and listen to the entire game on the radio, so I usually had to make do with going to bed knowing the half-time score and catching the final result the next morning.
It was in this way I learnt of Liverpool’s 1977 quarter-final 3-2 aggregate victory of St. Etienne and the 6-1 victory over Zurich in the semi-final.
1978 and Liverpool retained the trophy courtesy of a 1-0 victory in a dull Wembley final against old foes Bruges, after other previous sparring partners, Borrusia Mönchengladbach had been defeated in the semi-final 4-2 on aggregate. Therefore, eight years after his teenage shenanigans Souness made up for missing out on an FA Youth Cup medal by winning the first of three European Cup ones.
The next two seasons belonged to Nottingham Forest and Brian Clough. Promoted in 1977 in third place behind Chelsea and Wolves, Forest embarked on a fairytale under the guidance of Cloughie and his assistant, Peter Taylor. Winning the First Division by six points at the first attempt, Forest then swept all before them in Europe not once, but twice.
Starting their first campaign in Europe, they defeated holders Liverpool 2-0 on aggregate in the first round before going all the way to a Munich final and single goal success against Malmo. Their two-year odyssey culminated in spring 1980 with another 1-0 victory. This time in Madrid against Kevin Keegan’s SV Hamburg.
Also in 1980, Arsenal battled their way through to the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and a date with destiny against Valencia of Spain, also at Heysel. Unfortunately for Liam Brady, his miss in the penalty shoot-out following a goalless draw proved costly and Valencia prevailed.
1980-81 also saw two English sides make the finals of European competitions as Liverpool were back for the European Cup Final, while Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town were left to contest the two-legged UEFA Cup Final against AZ Alkmaar.
This time, both English sides were successful as a single Alan Kennedy goal did the trick for Liverpool in Paris against Real Madrid, while Ipswich overcame their Dutch counterparts by a 5-4 aggregate scoreline in a rollercoaster UEFA final.
A personal highlight this season was listening to Liverpool’s semi-final victory over Bayern Munich. A scoreless draw at Anfield in the first leg had led to the Germans going into the second match full of confidence of making the final. Prior to the second-leg, some ill-advised comments leaked out of the German camp regarding how poor Liverpool were, how dull and unimaginative English football was in general, and how the second-leg was nothing more than a formality.
A 1-1 draw was enough to send Liverpool to the final on the away goals rule much to their satisfaction and the Germans’ chagrin.
During these years the English national side was not doing particularly well, failing to make successive World Cup tournaments and crashing out at the first stage of the 1980 European Championships, and so it was a major talking point as to why the club sides should be so supreme. The club sides were of course supplemented by non-English players, but it was a conundrum as to why club and national levels of success should be so diverse.
Also of contentious debate during this period was the worsening spectre of hooliganism that was truly becoming a blight on the game both at home and abroad. Following the riots in Paris in 1975, there had been more trouble in 1977 when Manchester United had been temporarily expelled from Europe after clashes in St. Etienne, and West Ham had been forced to play a home game in the 1980-81 European Cup Winners’ Cup behind closed doors following similar trouble in Madrid.
Into 1981-82, and as Liverpool crashed out of the European Cup in the quarter-final stage, it was left to league champions, Aston Villa, to carry the flag for English sides. Unfortunately, more crowd trouble marred their semi-final success over Anderlecht and UEFA decreed that Villa must play a game behind closed doors the following season.
Bayern Munich once again fell victim to the unimaginative English as they went down to a single goal in the final. Incidentally, Munich also lost to English sides in 1983-84 (Spurs) and 1984-85 (Everton) as well as Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1982-83.
Anyway, England finally gave someone else a chance in 1982-83 as neither Liverpool nor Aston Villa made it out of the European Cup quarter-finals, and the UEFA and ECWC finals were left uncontested by English sides.
The semi-final line-ups for the following season’s competitions threw up the possibility of all-British finals in all three. Liverpool and Dundee United were kept apart in the draw for the European Cup semi’s, as were Aberdeen and Manchester United in the ECWC and Tottenham and Nottingham Forest in the UEFA Cup.
As it transpired, only Liverpool and Spurs successfully negotiated their way to their respective finals where penalty shoot-outs meant Roma and Anderlecht were left empty-handed. More crowd trouble took place that year in Rome where Liverpool played the hosts, and in Turin where Manchester United met Juventus in the ECWC semi-finals.
Both these clashes played a part in the build-up to Heysel a year later.
1985 saw the end of the dream for English sides in more ways than one. Although Everton won the ECWC in Rotterdam, the events at Heysel a fortnight later spelt the end for English sides in Europe. The shameful scenes that night will never be forgotten, forgiven nor excused, and it was to be six long years before England had another representative in the European Cup, and 14 years in total before the trophy was once again brought back to England’s shores.
Last season’s all-English finals in both Champions and Europa Leagues perhaps brought back some of the memories of the time when English sides seemed to have a monopoly in Europe, but thankfully without the hooliganism that never seemed too far away.