Uncharitable Beginnings

On the afternoon of 10 August 1974, Bob Paisley must have wondered what he’d let himself in for by agreeing to take the reigns as manager of Liverpool Football Club from his old friend Bill Shankly. He was sat on the bench at Wembley Stadium beside Shankly (who’d shocked everyone in British football by handing in his resignation and announcing his imminent retirement from the game just a week earlier) and across the way from new Leeds United boss Brian Clough.

Shankly had led Liverpool out onto the pitch for the last time ever just minutes earlier. Clough had led Leeds United out for the first and only time he ever would at Wembley- his tenure at Elland Road would be infamously short and ill-considered.

Paisley could only look on as his soon-to-be charges very literally ‘did battle’ with Leeds for the new season’s first silverware: the F.A. Charity Shield. It would go down in history as the nastiest, least charitable Shield game ever played.

Stuck right in the forefront of the ‘battle’ was Kevin Keegan. The whole war had kicked-off literally seconds into the game when Leeds’ striker Allan Clarke had left Phil Thompson writhing on the floor with a nasty late challenge. From there, it went downhill rapidly, with Clarke getting repeatedly clattered by Tommy Smith and Alec Lindsay while Keegan felt the force of several meaty challenges from Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter.

By the end of the half, Keegan was sore and angry, despite his side leading through a rare goal from Phil Boersma. He’d been kicked “black and blue”, had his hair pulled, been punched by Johnny Giles (Keegan, ironically, famously pleaded for leniency from referee Matthewson for the Irishman after that incident) and generally been prevented from playing any meaningful part in proceedings by what he perceived to be very unfair means.

After an hour’s play, things came to a head. Another late challenge from Bremner saw Keegan completely lose his cool and throw a punch at the fiery little Scot. They ended up trading several punches before referee Matthewson sent them both for an early bath, Bremner ripping his shirt off in disgust at himself as he went down the tunnel. The match had been screened on television to a national audience for the first time in history; it certainly wasn’t the image that the Football Association wanted to portray of the game in England.

A Suspended Start…

It also wasn’t the start to life under a new manager that Kevin Keegan would have dreamt off. After appearing in Liverpool’s first league game of the season a week later, a 2-1 victory at Luton Town, he would serve a lengthy suspension from the F.A., leaving his team-mates to shoulder the burden of getting Liverpool’s league campaign off to a good start without his help.

Keegan was enduring a difficult period in his footballing life. He’d just returned from an end-of-season Eastern European trip with England. That trip had seen him arrested and wrongly charged with sexually assaulting an air stewardess on a flight from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia, despite the fact that he’d been asleep during almost the entire flight. Whilst under arrest at the airport in Belgrade Keegan had been physically assaulted by security guards, before Football Association officials managed to convince them that he was “not their man” and the charges were dropped. Keegan later repaid their “kindness” by scoring for England to secure a 2-2 draw and deny the Yugoslavs a victory they would have been keen to boast about.

He was also shaken by the news of Shankly’s sudden exit from Anfield. Kevin Keegan admired Bill Shankly in the way a young boy would look up to his war-hero grandfather. Both hailed from coal mining families, and the old master had been instrumental in shaping and influencing the young man’s career since he’d arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 1971. It was a relationship that Bob Paisley, for all his world-class abilities as a football manager, could never hope to emulate.

In fact, it would be the first day of October before Keegan returned to the Liverpool line-up, for the second leg of the Reds’ European Cup-Winners’ Cup tie against Norwegians Stromsgodset. By then, his mates had made a strong start to the season, winning six of their first seven games, but they crucially lost three of the next five, including a 0-1 home defeat by Burnley. Arguably Keegan’s enforced absence from the squad during that period in September 1974 was pivotal in Liverpool’s eventual failure to secure the Division One title, so narrow was the margin of Derby County’s triumphant title-winning campaign by late April 1975.

Ray Kennedy scored the only goal in Oslo to complete a 12-0 aggregate victory over the Norwegian minnows on 1 October.

Struggling to Make an Impact

Thereafter Keegan was virtually ever-present, opening his goal-scoring account for the season in a 2-0 win against Jack Charlton’s Middlesbrough at Anfield on 12 October. However, despite starting every game he was fit to play, it wasn’t a vintage season in front of goal for the man from South Yorkshire. In the end, he notched a modest total of 12 goals in all competitions, 10 of those in Division One.

One of them was the only Liverpool goal over two legs against Hungary’s Ferencvaros in the Second Round of the Cup-Winners’ Cup, but since that goal was scored at Anfield in a game that ended at 1-1, Paisley’s men crashed out of Europe on the away-goals ruling.

Indeed, that first season under Bob Paisley’s leadership at Anfield fell a little flat, certainly compared with what was to follow. Trailing Dave Mackay’s Derby County side by two points (but with a superior goal difference) going into the penultimate weekend of the season on 19 April 1975, the Reds had conspired to lose 1-0 at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough to a goal by former Manchester United striker Alan Foggon. That result rendered a subsequent 3-1 home victory over Queen’s Park Rangers academic, since the Rams had secured a draw to hold an unassailable three-point lead going into the final day of the season.

The cup competitions couldn’t rescue the campaign for Liverpool either, as they had the previous season. Middlesbrough (clearly a ‘bogey’ side that year…) had knocked Paisley’s team out of the League Cup, 0-1 at Anfield; Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town had won by the same scoreline at Portman Road in the F.A. Cup Fourth Round on 25 January.

No Panic Here

For his part, Bob Paisley wasn’t overly perturbed by the side’s failure to win silverware that season. They had been very close, and his lone addition of Wrexham left-back Joey Jones to the squad that summer was an indication that the boss felt he had a competitive team for 1975-76. He was right. The continued emergence of Phil Neal, Phil Thompson and Ray Kennedy provided an increasingly solid base on which the Liverpool attacks were launched from.

Mind you, an opening day 2-0 defeat at Dave Sexton’s Queen’s Park Rangers on 16 August was far from an ideal start to the new campaign. However, Rangers would go on to shock a lot of pundits that season, eventually finishing as Division One runners-up, their highest ever league finish.

Proving Hard to Beat…

Kevin Keegan, who had long since made the number seven shirt his own, started every game for his club, just as he had done under previous manager Bill Shankly. His first league goal of the new season, a penalty, came a week later at Anfield as Tottenham Hotspur were beaten 3-2.

Whenever Keegan wasn’t scoring goals, the likes of John Toshack, Jimmy Case and Steve Heighway invariably were. Above all, though, Liverpool were hard to beat, a solid defensive unit who gave little away. They had players in keeper Ray Clemence, Neal, Thompson, and Emlyn Hughes who often formed the defensive backbone of Don Revie’s England side too.

This solidity was borne out in the side’s results as the season progressed. Following that early setback at Loftus Road, Liverpool only lost another four league matches all season, and only conceded more than two goals in a single game on three occasions, one of which was a shock 1-3 defeat at Anfield to Norwich City, their biggest loss of the campaign.

Just Like The Battery: Ever Ready

Keegan led the line in every single game except a home 1-1 draw with Coventry City on 22 November. However, his final tally of 12 goals in 41 Division One games is testament to a team that shared its goals around rather than having a single prolific goal-getter. John Toshack was more regularly on the scoresheet (16 goals for the season) than Keegan, but arguably offered less to the team as a player than his English strike-partner.

Perhaps this lack of cutting edge contributed to the Reds inability to shake off the chasing pack as the season wore on. Liverpool didn’t move to the summit of the table until just before Christmas 1975, with successive victories over Tottenham Hotspur (4-0 at White Hart Lane) and Queen’s Park Rangers (2-0 at Anfield) carrying Paisley’s men to the top.

Tight at the Top…

Thereafter, it was the Reds’ aptitude for avoiding defeat, rather than any prolificacy in front of goal, that counted for more in maintaining their lofty position. Indeed, by the time the UEFA Cup competition resumed after its winter hiatus with a tough trip to Dynamo Dresden on 3 March 1976, several sides such as Q.P.R., reigning Champions Derby County and Tommy Docherty’s exciting young Manchester United team were ‘breathing down Liverpool’s neck’.

A hard-fought 0-0 draw in East Germany took its toll. The following Saturday, 6 March, Liverpool lost 0-2 at Anfield to ‘bogey’ team Middlesbrough, who had a tenacious young Scottish midfielder called Graeme Souness starring for them; he caught Bob Paisley’s eye that afternoon. That defeat allowed Q.P.R. (who remained undefeated at Loftus Road after 17 home games) to leapfrog Keegan’s team into pole position. It was already clear that the title race would go right down to the ‘wire’ this year.

Europe? We Like It!

Keegan proved his worth to the side when Dynamo Dresden made the return trip to Anfield on 17 March, scoring what proved to be the decisive second goal just after half-time in a nervy 2-1 win. That victory took Liverpool into a two-legged UEFA Cup Semi-Final clash with Spanish giants Barcelona, who had a certain Johan Cruyff in their side.

Before that, though, two important league victories at Norwich City and at home to Burnley arrived via the finishing of David Fairclough, often unfairly labelled in hindsight as a “super sub”, but who contributed important goals as a regular starter too.

Keegan played his part in a superb 1-0 win at Camp Nou on 30 March, working his socks off as a ‘first line of defence’, though it was John Toshack who scored the only goal of the game (which the big Welshman later described as “one of the most important goals” of his career) to set up a titanic tussle at Anfield in the 2nd leg.

Days later, Fairclough produced a late winner in the Merseyside Derby at Anfield after coming on for Toshack on 64 minutes. Phil Neal, who now shared penalty-taking duties with Keegan, missed a spot-kick on 90 minutes, but that 1-0 win over Everton kept the pressure firmly on Q.P.R. at the summit.

Foxing With The Villa…

Three days later, 6 April, Kevin Keegan scored a vital goal to seal a 1-0 victory over Leicester City at Anfield, and keep Liverpool’s title hopes alive. Those two points left the Reds level with Q.P.R. on 53 points but having a marginally worse goal difference. Manchester United and Derby County were both on 50 points, and could only hope the two sides above them slipped up, though Docherty’s youthful United had two games in hand.

The Saturday brought a trip to a packed Villa Park… and a hugely frustrating 0-0 draw. Aston Villa were developing into a very good young team under wily boss Ron Saunders, with fine players like John Gidman, Dennis Mortimer and prolific striker Andy Gray integral to the side, but they were desperate for points to avoid relegation trouble and fought hard for a share of the spoils.

Q.P.R. had won their game to move a point clear at the top, though both United and Derby had lost, so it looked increasingly like a two-horse race for the title.

Conquering Cruyff!

However, Paisley and his men had no time to worry about that just yet: Barcelona were coming to town. In front of a packed house of 55,000, Keegan again led the line with Toshack on Wednesday 14 April, and when Phil Thompson scored a rare goal on 50 minutes to give the hosts a deserved 2-0 aggregate lead, it must have seemed plain sailing.

Two minutes later Carlos Rexach reduced the deficit with a stunning strike after good work from Dutch maestros Cruyff and Neeskens, a warning that the Catalans were dangerous opponents. However, it was the visitors’ goalkeeper who was much the busier man as time wore on, with Keegan, Heighway and Toshack seeing chances saved as Liverpool confidently booked their place in the two-legged Final with Belgians F.C. Bruges.

Vital Victories…

There was no time to celebrate that famous victory, though. Mid-table Stoke City came to Anfield on the Saturday 17 April with nothing much left to play for, but therefore nothing much to lose by ‘having a go’… and have a go they certainly did! With a young Peter Shilton in goal, and wily Jimmy Greenhoff in midfield, the Potters were a more than decent side. They played full part in a rip-roaring game which eventually ended in a pulsating 5-3 Liverpool victory. The only surprise was that Kevin Keegan didn’t find the net that afternoon at all, the Reds’ goals coming from Neal (pen), Toshack, Kennedy, Hughes and Fairclough.

It was a vital win, because it took Liverpool to the top of the table on 56 points. Q.P.R. had surprisingly lost 3-2 at Norwich City; only an inexperienced Manchester United team, in third place on 52 points but with two games in hand, could prevent Liverpool winning the title should the Reds win their remaining two fixtures.

The first of those fixtures was at a packed Maine Road just two days later, against a strong Manchester City team that included England international stalwarts such as Colin Bell, Joe Royle and Dennis Tueart. It should have been a very stern test of Paisley’s side. However, the Blues were destroyed by young David Fairclough, who created the opening goal for Steve Heighway before scoring twice himself in the dying minutes to give the visitors an improbable 3-0 win.

Going Down to the Wire…

Down in London, Q.P.R. had beaten Arsenal 2-1 thanks to a Gerry Francis penalty winner, whilst United had won 1-0 at Burnley with a superb Lou Macari goal; it was all going down to the final day.

However, three title contenders quickly became two. Manchester United, crippled by unfortunate injuries to key players Steve Coppell and Stuart Pearson during the win at Burnley, suffered heartbreak in a late 0-1 defeat at home to Stoke City on Monday evening, and with that defeat their chance at the title had gone.

The final day of Q.P.R.’s season arrived on 24 April. That day, Dave Sexton’s men defeated Leeds United 2-0 at Loftus Road to complete their programme on 59 points, one ahead of Liverpool. However, Bob Paisley’s side weren’t scheduled to play their final game, at relegation-haunted Wolves, until 4 May, so Q.P.R. just had to wait and pray for a Liverpool slip-up.

Comeback Kings…

Thoughts at Anfield had turned to the UEFA Cup Final 1st leg with Bruges. Led by the legendary Austrian manager Ernst Happel, Bruges were a very good side who had a number of Belgian internationals in their line-up and had overcome Lyon, Ipswich Town, A.S. Roma, A.C. Milan and S.V. Hamburg to reach the decider. They came to Merseyside on 28 April and were 2-0 up within 12 minutes, the goals coming from Raoul Lambert (after a dreadful back-header by Phil Neal left Ray Clemence stranded) and Julien Cools.

A stunned 50,000 capacity Anfield crowd wondered if Keegan and his team-mates could claw their way back into the game, because the visitors were utterly dominant during the opening 45 minutes and probably should have had an even bigger lead. That question was answered dramatically in the second half, though not before substitute Jimmy Case scuffed a great chance wide from the edge of the area just minutes after the interval and Keegan saw a good effort well saved by Birger Jensen.

Ray Kennedy was instrumental in the comeback, scoring a left-foot howitzer from the edge of the area to half the deficit on the hour-mark. When his fierce drive from a Keegan lay-off again beat keeper Jensen two minutes later, only the post saved Bruges- but Jimmy Case was on hand to steer the rebounded shot into the empty net for 2-2.

It was left to Keegan to grab the match-winning glory just three minutes later. Under severe pressure, Bruges right-back Bastyns tripped Steve Heighway as he weaved his way into the left side of the penalty area, and it was (perhaps surprisingly) Keegan who slammed the resultant penalty kick home, not Phil Neal.

Keegan should have made the remarkable comeback victory even more emphatic ten minutes from time, but his stooping header from a David Fairclough cross lacked enough power to cross the goal-line before being cleared by a last-gasp desperate Belgian boot.

A Wolverhampton Wonderland…

So, the scene was set for a truly dramatic end to the season for Keegan and his team-mates. On Tuesday 4 May they travelled south to Molineux, knowing at least a point would guarantee a ninth Division One Championship. By contrast, the hosts knew only a victory for them would stave off relegation to Division Two; the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Not surprisingly, Wolves came out fighting, and got what they dearly wanted on 13 minutes: an early goal. It came via striker Steve Kindon, after a terrible mistake by Phil Thompson allowed him a clear run on goal. However, instead of galvanising the men in old gold shirts, the goal shook the men in all-red to life. After an hour of intense but fruitless pressure on the home goal, the equaliser Liverpool desperately went in search for finally arrived- 14 minutes from time. It was Kevin Keegan who provided it.

Veteran centre-half Tommy Smith, who’d been solid as a ‘converted’ right-back for most of the season, floated a long diagonal ball into the Wolves area, where Toshack rose to flick it on for Keegan, who ran clear and slotted home to send the travelling hordes into a frenzy.

Two further late goals from Toshack and Ray Kennedy (who had his goal “laid on a plate” for him by a superb dribbling run from Keegan) rubber-stamped the title for the Reds, condemned Wolves to the drop, and left Q.P.R. with nothing but heartbreak to show for nine months of great football.

Bedlam In Belgium…

There was plenty of time for the squad to celebrate their league title success too, since the return leg of the UEFA Cup Final against F.C. Bruges wasn’t until 19 May. On that evening, a large contingent of Liverpool fans made their way to Belgium. They didn’t have to wait long to see their side’s narrow 3-2 advantage over the hosts crumble, either. Ten minutes into the game, Smith was penalised for handball in the area and Lambert gave Clemence no chance from 12 yards.

However, knowing they were now behind on the away-goals ruling, Paisley’s men surged forward in search of an equaliser. It arrived just four minutes later…. through Kevin Keegan. Captain Emlyn Hughes played a short free-kick to Keegan on the edge of the Bruges area, and he thumped a low shot, through a forest of legs, into the Belgian net.

It would prove decisive. Though Bruges pressed hard for an equaliser which would have won the trophy for them on away-goals, hitting the Liverpool woodwork through Lambert in the second period, it simply wouldn’t come. Emlyn Hughes lifted the weighty trophy towards the sky later that evening, and Kevin Keegan had another winners’ medal to add to his rapidly growing collection.

Medals Galore, Caps Aplenty…

It had been a truly wonderful end to the season for the little man from Armthorpe. He’d scored the decisive goals in the final league game of the season and in both legs of a major European final to win trophies for his club. He now boasted two Division One title winners’ medals, an F.A. Cup winners’ medal and two UEFA Cup winners’ medals.

He was a hero to the fans on the Kop, a dynamic striker whose game was about a whole lot more than simply scoring goals. To testify to that fact, Kevin Keegan was unanimously voted the Football Writers’ Association “Player of the Year” for 1975-76, recognition from the pundits that his contribution to Liverpool’s success that season had been absolutely crucial.

He had also become a ‘fixture’ in Don Revie’s England side. He held over 20 caps by the close of the domestic season, though his experiences with the national team hadn’t been entirely enjoyable. England had ultimately failed to qualify for Euro ’76 after crashing to a damaging 2-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia in Bratislava the previous Halloween. In a true horror show, in which the Czech substitute goalkeeper had been sent off whilst still sat on the bench (perhaps the only time this has ever happened in professional football?!), Keegan was as anonymous as his team-mates in the face of widespread brutal hostility from the hosts, both on and off the pitch. It marked the beginning of the end for Don Revie as England manager.

Join me again next time as we take a look at 1976-77, another dramatic season on Merseyside. It was one which would, very unexpectedly to a watching football public, be the last in a Liverpool shirt for Kevin Keegan.