Gareth Bale’s spectacular overhead goal on the way to Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory in the 2018 Champions League Final 2018 not only broke Liverpool hearts, but contributing as it did to his fourth victory in the competition also ensured that a long-standing British record was equalled.
Additionally, Bale’s wonder-goal enabled him to join the exclusive club of British players to have scored in two Champions League or European Cup finals.
So, whose company was Bale joining in such achievements?
Step forward, Phil Neal.
No one player amassed more career trophies or honours in the pre-premiership era than Phil Neal, who in eleven years at Anfield won no less than 17 major trophies (Super Cups and Charity Shields excluded).
That four of the 17 pots were European Cup winners’ medals means that Neal still holds the record for most won by an Englishman. Similarly, the fact that he scored in the 1977 and 1984 versions ensures his place in the hall of fame.
Signed by Bob Paisley in October 1974 from Northampton Town, initially as a replacement for Chris Lawler, Neal made his debut in the white-hot atmosphere of the Merseyside Derby a month later and it’s fair to say he never looked back.
While players signed from lower-league clubs could often initially look forward to little more than a year or two in the reserves at Liverpool, Neal quickly nailed down a regular spot.
On 14 December 1974, he was named in the starting line-up for a routine 2-0 home win over Luton Town. Almost nine years later, on 28 September 1983, Neal next missed a Liverpool match when an injury picked up against Manchester United the preceding Saturday forced him to miss Liverpool’s first-round European Cup clash with Odense.
In the meantime, he had played 417 consecutive matches for Liverpool, 365 of them in the league. A remarkable run of consistency.
Yet, there was a time when Neal seriously considered giving up full-time football. He had been plying his trade at Northampton for some time, and despite some alleged interest from scouts of First Division sides, there had been no firm offers and Neal was getting frustrated.
Not earning a great amount at Northampton, he was afforded the chance to go part-time with local non-league team Kettering Town, whose manager, a certain Ron Atkinson, offered Neal the same wages and the possibility of supplementing his income outside the game.
Just as Neal was seriously considering the offer, Bob Paisley decided to act on a tip-off and go and scout Neal personally at a Northampton game. The 23-year-old chose the game to display the tendencies for which he would become known for in the coming years; reliability, dependency and astute professionalism.
Paisley was impressed and put in an offer.
The fact that for 70 of the 90 minutes Paisley watched Neal played in goal following an injury to the Northampton ‘keeper was immaterial in his thinking.
As the years went by and the trophies rolled in, Neal’s value to the team was both acknowledged and under-rated at times. While those at Anfield certainly knew and valued his worth, credit was sometimes slow in forthcoming from outside.
Although he won 50 caps for England in a seven-year period from 1976 onwards, his style of play for England was sometimes criticised. At club level, he was known for getting forward as much as possible and supporting Liverpool’s midfield and attack, but with England and under Ron Greenwood particularly, his remit was more of a defensive one.
This resulted in Ipswich’s Mick Mills often being preferred and indeed in the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, Neal’s only appearances came in the dead rubber group match against Kuwait and a comical 10-second cameo against France in the opening match.
Time waits for no man, and notwithstanding Neal’s fantastic service at Liverpool, the end when it came was both painful and acrimonious.
In 1983, with his career seemingly about to start winding down, Neal was offered a new three-year contract. As he signed on the dotted line, he was informed by Liverpool’s Chairman, John Smith, that he ‘would have a job for life’ at Anfield. This, Neal assumed, meant he was being groomed for at least a coaching position once his playing days were over.
This view seemed to be reinforced when he was named as Liverpool captain in the summer of 1984 following Graeme Souness‘s departure to Sampdoria. According to some sources, rather than going some way to consolidating his position at Liverpool, this period actually marked the beginning of the end for Neal.
It was said by some that Neal was not a particularly popular captain at Liverpool. Craig Johnstone, for one, wrote in his autobiography that Neal seemed only concerned with his own advancement at this stage, and point-blankly refused to intervene when he, Johnstone, was having problems with the manager, Joe Fagan.
Neal, for his part, wrote in his own autobiography that he felt he was indeed being groomed for the top job when Fagan finally stepped down, in what he believed would be 1986.
However, things didn’t go to plan and Fagan decided to retire a year earlier at the end of the 1984-85 season. Liverpool were in Belgium preparing for the ill-fated European Cup final against Juventus when news began to leak out that the match would be Fagan’s last in charge.
The news came as an almighty shock to Neal who had had no inkling that Fagan was thinking of stepping down. Some names were being bandied about as possible replacements – John Toshack was one, Kenny Dalglish another – but still Neal believed he was in with a shout based on his previous conversation with John Smith and the fact that he was Liverpool’s current captain.
By the time Liverpool’s players boarded the flight back to England the day after the 1985 European Cup Final, events had overtaken not just the club, but the game as an entity. 39 people lay dead after rioting at Heysel, and the matter of who was going to be named the new Liverpool manager was inconsequential by comparison.
The fact that it was Dalglish that Liverpool turned to and not Neal hit the long-serving defender hard. It had never occurred to him that Kenny Dalglish was interested in management and he had assumed he was next in line.
Dalglish’s subsequent decision to take the captaincy off him and award it to Alan Hansen only served to deepen the wounds.
Neal then gave a statement to the press along the lines of how he didn’t feel he had any future with Liverpool. Dalglish agreed and promptly dropped him.
It was a sad end to a long and distinguished career, and Neal arguably deserved better. In December 1985, Neal left Liverpool and took over at Bolton Wanderers as player-manager where he enjoyed a mixed time, experiencing both relegation and promotion.
The fall-out of his departure from Liverpool had one more sad epitaph, however. In his autobiography, he related the events of Heysel as he recalled them and he stated that the Liverpool players, including Dalglish, knew deaths had occurred before going out and playing the game. This contradicted what Dalglish had previously said in an interview, and Neal basically accused Dalglish of lying.
Dalglish took legal action and the case was settled outside of court.
Six years in charge at Bolton was followed by a two-year spell managing in the Premier League with Coventry City before he was sacked to make way for his old mate, Ron Atkinson.
Atkinson, incidentally, always claimed that Manchester United’s good head-to-head record against Liverpool in the 1980s was largely due to the shackling of Neal. Atkinson wrote that he identified Neal as being instrumental in starting many of Liverpool’s attacks and so reasoned if United could stop him from playing then Liverpool’s threat would be neutralised.
Neal went onto have further management spells with Cardiff City and Manchester City (as caretaker).
I think the less said about his well-publicised time working alongside Graham Taylor the better, don’t you?