Steve Heighway was a lightning rod for my attention from the earliest days of football enveloping me. A lot of that stems from the 1971 FA Cup final. It was not a game where he had excelled, but I remember the effect his opening goal had on me. It was classic Heighway. The TV camera angles of the time all add to the lustre of it. From high up we see Peter Thompson sending the ball into space on the left, yet you can’t see to whom the ball is going. Once Heighway has it he is off, high on the free space he has but with the ball at his feet.
Then, televisually unusual in those days, the next shot you have of him is at ground sniper-level, heels rotating in that great running style. It was like aerial combat cinematography on the deck and created the same thump on the viewer. The contrast of distance, space, proximity and then threat was emphatic. For next we are back up in the photographic air as we see him fire past Arsenal’s Bob Wilson and his unprotected near post. It was like a Spitfire coming out of the sun at you. Dead before you knew he was there. But you did know he was there! Steve Heighway running at full pelt at you or beyond you was one of the exhilarating sights of the seventies’ decade. All that was missing sometimes was a red smoke canister attached to his heel.
There was always a sober steadiness that emanated from him. In a decade that saw some excitable cranial presentations, he more or less had the same type of haircut which seemed to centre around the Beatles 1965, certainly in the first half of the next decade. Not quite along the Pat Jennings level but whilst tipping a hat to the times, nevertheless relatively tame. The moustache was a big feature of him as well. It balanced those sharp eyes and of course that brain, football and otherwise. That steadiness manifested in other ways. By and large you always got a fairly subdued goal celebration, nothing too exuberant or ostentatious.
In attaching ‘the scholar’ as a loose sort of ‘handle’ for him, it is not to highlight the fact that he had a 2:1 degree from Warwick University. That had already been put on him for simple academic reasons. It is more to do with great football intelligence. That degree tended to attract much commentary in the still far-off chat rooms of the time that surrounded stereotype. Team colleague Brian Hall had a degree also. Indeed the story of rough and ‘Scouse ready’ tough Tommy Smith roaring at Heighway for costing him his bonus on the team coach following a match grew legs, as scribes tried to dig into the social background of the exchange.
But then he had only joined Liverpool for the year from Skelmersdale to get the £40 a week pay that Liverpool offered. That would have been more than teaching would have given him and was useful just prior to his impending wedding. Bill Shankly had to work very hard to persuade him all the same; something he was not used to doing with prospective players, never mind those not even playing league football. He did indeed take time to mesh with the rest of the team, preferring his book to the card schools always bubbling.
But that brain which initially was a social handicap was highly apparent on the pitch for such a long time. That longevity needs mentioning. In my intro to this series, I drew attention to the death of the out and out winger due to their supposed flakiness with regards to ongoing productive effectiveness. We’ll recognise the euphemism in there I’m sure. Routine duty week in week out, as against occasional brilliance now and then was always the issue. Heighway, like Eddie Gray had both brilliance and duty. He had two good feet and could play on either side of the field but he was as much a teeth arm as logistic supplier. He has said though that the team in the early days needed him to be individual. His naiveté allowed him to try and get away with some interesting pieces of play and then he learned and adapted as defenders got wiser to him.
He will argue though that it was all done within the framework of the team, and that he was able to change his game to the various demands of the side through the years. But it was a tough first few years and defeats were taken badly, especially in the AK47 atmosphere of a Shankly dressing room.
His ability to cover the ground at serious speed was the thing. As he said himself he was there to take people on. Whilst Liverpool could pass you to death he was a permanent counter-attack in red. His long legs enabled him to take balls around flying defenders in such a smooth motion it made you wonder why they ever decided to launch at him in the first place. Even in heavier traffic, he maintained a pace that was just hard to stop in the broadest sense of the phrase, footballing or otherwise. If Eddie Gray was athletic in that he was imbued with natural fitness, Heighway could perhaps have had a singlet rather than a football shirt on him. Watch the footage of him jog onto the Wembley pitch in the 1978 European Cup Final to replace Jimmy Case; arched forward as if the power in his legs held him that way.
But he was a man for the big occasion more than many other wingers. Brian Moore’s commentary in that ‘71 Cup Final was interesting.
“The man who has done so little in the game has done it with one big strike”.
It was of course to count for little in that game but not elsewhere. His opener in November 1970 to start the comeback two down against Everton was indeed a forerunner to the Wembley goal at the season’s end. The opening goal v Newcastle in the 1974 Cup Final resonates strongly as well. Let us not forget his exact placement from the corner flag for Tommy Smith to have Roman glory in the club’s first European Cup win. More memorable I feel was the divine pass for McDermott to open the scoring in the 28th minute.
But for me it was no coincidence that he had such a part to play in one of my favourite all-time goals scored by anyone anywhere. At the end of a romp in the September sun against Spurs in 1978, once again he powers in to view. Flitting between shadow and light he lazily sends over left-footed eruption from Liverpool’s main stand for McDermott to put a cherry on the run from Marathon. Rarely has visual casuality looked so effective. It had just a hint of Pele and Carlos Alberto eight years earlier in its topping and tailing of the match. I suppose Pele gets it for not bothering to run. It simply was one of those goals that was the equivalent of the fancy umbrella in your drink.
He only made 28 appearances that season but I felt he was as dangerous as ever when that Liverpool team only let in 16 goals. It is fitting that the ‘Heighway on the wing’ line gets in on one of Liverpool’s famous Kop songs, – ‘The Fields of Anfield Road’. Holding the line for nearly a decade for Liverpool with such whirlwind flourish, continues to leave red legacy along that left hand highway.