Team talks can be tricky things. Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the result can be disastrous. Some managers believe the message should be positive. But on occasions, harsh words are needed to shock players from their slumber.
One such occasion came during a season when the reigning European Champions were languishing mid-table and needed a rocket up them.
Boxing Day 1981
At Anfield, European Champions Liverpool played host to Manchester City. They had just returned from a disappointing trip to Japan where they were well beaten by a Zico-inspired Flamengo, in the Intercontinental Cup- the precursor to the World Club Championship we now know. They looked tired and unprepared. Mark Lawrenson revealed years later how they didn’t really take the thing seriously.
Their poor form continued as Asa Hartford gave the visitors a half-time lead. Kevin Bond converted a penalty in the 75th minute to double the lead. With five minutes remaining, Ronnie Whelan pulled one back, with his first goal in only his seventh start for his new club. But Kevin Reeves restored City’s two-goal advantage and they ran out 3-1 winners.
In the Daily Post, Nick Hilton wrote;
“Liverpool looked ordinary – at times downright ragged and City plundered their disorganised ranks with efficiency if not style”
Liverpool were 12th. It was their fifth league defeat in their 17th game of the season. Three of those defeats had now come at the previously impregnable Anfield.
It was crisis time at in the red half of Merseyside.
Just six months before, their League crown was taken from them when Aston Villa won their first championship for 71 years. Liverpool had broken records in 1979, looked unbeatable in 1980, but a year later they trailed in fifth.
The 1980-81 season hadn’t been a complete write-off, as they lifted their third European Cup and the League Cup, for the first time.
Manager Bob Paisley had recognised his ageing squad needed fresh faces. Gone were Emlyn Hughes and Jimmy Case. Legendary goalkeeper Ray Clemence left in the summer. Ray Kennedy had just moved to Swansea City. Later that season David Johnson Lee and Terry McDermott’s Liverpool careers came to an end. In had come Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Craig Johnston, Bruce Grobbelaar and Ian Rush.
Grobbelaar was having a tough time of it. He was to blame for two of City’s goals in his antics had drawn the ire of his boss.
For the first time since taking over from Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley was under pressure and on the receiving end of criticism for some of his decisions.
Something had to give.
In the legendary Boot Room, the various sages of the management team gathered to discuss the latest debacle. Was this the end of the run? The end of the dynasty? More importantly, were they ready to just accept it was all over?
Assistant Manager Joe Fagan decided he wasn’t ready to accept mediocracy. But what was the solution? He certainly believed the players were good enough, so their poor form just had to be down to something psychological. Should he massage some egos, or should they just work harder in training and wait for the tide to turn. These things had worked in the past, but this time Fagan decided a different approach was required.
After a day off, the squad returned to Anfield on a Monday morning. Fagan, not given to ranting and raving, let them have it. It was said he was wild with fury. He criticised their performances, their attitudes, their application and their professionalism.
He told them they needed to take responsibility. There was no point looking around at each other, it was time they took a long hard look in the mirror.
“This is Liverpool, there are certain expectations and right now they are not being met”
Nothing was left unsaid, he didn’t hold back. The players sat there in stunned silence. Joe was such an amiable fella, they’d rarely seen him angry, and they were visibly rattled.
Some of the finest players in Europe were on the receiving end of the tirade. Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Phil Neal, Phil Thompson, Alan Hansen.
Would it make the difference? Only time would tell.
The next match was a tricky FA Cup tie at Swansea City. The Swans were managed by former Anfield favourite, John Toshack. They’d been on an incredible rise through the four divisions of English football to arrive at the top table for the first time. Not only that, but they celebrated New Year top of the pile, with just one defeat.
The biggest crowd of the season packed into the Vetch Field with the anticipation clear for all to sense. But just before the match, the Liverpool management made their second move in an attempt to turn their season around.
Phil Thompson had replaced Hughes as club captain in late 1979 and lifted the League Championship the following May. A year later he lifted the European and League cups. But by now Paisley felt his form had dipped and decided the captaincy was weighing too heavily on him.
So, he made the shocking decision to replace his skipper halfway through the season. Graeme Souness took over. Reluctantly, Thompson accepted the decision, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it.
Not fully back to their best, Liverpool ran out 4-0 winners in the cup tie. Ian Rush grabbed a brace. He’d gradually eased David Johnson out of the starting eleven yet had only hit the net three times thus far. Suddenly his season, and his career, took off.
Three days later they eased past West Ham, 3-0 at Anfield. Kenny Dalglish was on target. He’d only scored four goals himself in the season, and now Paisley’s front two were firing.
They then beat Wolves, 2-1 at home. Wolves had inflicted the first defeat for Liverpool in the very first game of the season, with Mick Matthews debut goal for the club.
Rush and Dalglish shared the goals in a 3-0 win at Sunderland in the FA Cup, before Rush scored his first Liverpool hat-trick as Notts County were taken apart in a 4-0 win
Terry McDermott scored twice as Rush bagged another with reigning champions, Aston Villa, beaten 3-0 at Villa Park.
Eight matches in all competitions since Fagan’s rant. Seven wins, one draw, 22 goals scored and just one conceded.
At the end of January they were up to fifth, but crucially just four points behind the leaders, Southampton, and with a game in hand.
February began with a week of matches against Ipswich Town. The two clubs were drawn against each other in the League Cup Semis, and in between, there was a crucial league meeting. Ipswich were lying third in the table, just two points off the top but with three games in hand.
But first the League Cup, or Milk Cup as it had now become known. For the first time in English football history, a domestic cup competition had received a sponsor. The Milk Marketing Board.
Second-half goals from Terry McDermott and Ian Rush gave Liverpool a two-goal advantage from the away leg.
At Anfield on the weekend, McDermott and Rush were again on target along with Dalglish and Whelan as Liverpool cruised to a 4-0 win. Sixteen goals now since Fagan’s fury, and they were up to third.
Three days later they completed their Semi-Final win over Ipswich as a 2-2 draw was enough to see them prevail on aggregate. Tottenham won the other Semi to set up a March Wembley final.
February and March were a bit hit-and-miss. Either wins or defeats. They were dumped out of both the FA Cup and European Cup. The FA Cup was still the one piece of silverware Paisley was yet to win and losing at Second Division Chelsea did nothing to correct this record. Their defeat to Bulgarian champions, CSKA Sofia, was particularly disappointing. Taking a slender one-goal lead, courtesy of Ronnie Whelan, to Sofia, then behind ‘the Iron Curtain’, proved not to be enough.
In an ill-tempered game, Liverpool appeared to come off second best to many of the official’s decisions. The home side won in extra time. Further ignominy occurred as Lawrenson was sent-off for retaliation. The only consolation, although they didn’t know at the time, was that this was to be the last time they’d suffer defeat for the rest of the season.
The defeat in Bulgaria had come just four days after a successful trip to Wembley where they retained their League Cup title.
A match which pitted last season’s FA Cup winners (Tottenham) against last season’s League Cup winners (Liverpool), sort of Super Cup perhaps? Tottenham came into the match on a 16-game unbeaten run and had Ray Clemence in goal, looking for his first winners’ medal for his new club. His last appearance in a Cup Final was the previous seasons European Cup Final in Paris for Liverpool.
Steve Archibald put Spurs in front inside 10 minutes, pouncing on a rare mistake by Lawrenson. Inside the final quarter of an hour and Spurs still lead. Then, a ball into the area from Johnson on the right and Whelan, making his first Wembley visit, turned and hit it first time right into the corner of the net for the equaliser.
This forced extra time. With nine minutes remaining, Rush pounced on a loose ball to play Dalglish in deep on the left of the Spurs area. He waited momentarily and then picked out Whelan on the edge of the six-yard box and he took two touches to fire the ball into the roof of the net. It was a fabulous moment for the young Irishman to score twice in a Wembley Final.
With less than a minute remaining, Spurs misplaced a pass deep in Liverpool’s half and Sammy Lee played a long ball downfield to find Rush in the clear. He played Johnson in, and as Clemence came out he managed to evade his attempts to get the ball, then unselfishly played it square for Rush to finish. 3-1 and a trophy which back at Christmas had looked a long way off.
March ended with back-to-back 3-1 wins, including doing the double in the Merseyside derby. Liverpool were now second, a point behind leaders Southampton with three games in hand.
In early April they had two away matches against both Manchester clubs. At Old Trafford, a penalty save by Grobbelaar and Craig Johnston’s first goal of the season gave Liverpool the points. At Maine Road, they were more clinical. As if to ram home the fact they were a completely rejuvenated side since City arrived at Anfield on Boxing Day and walked away with the points without barely breaking sweat, they won 5-0. Even Alan Kennedy got on the scoresheet.
With Southampton dropping points, Liverpool stormed into the lead a full five points clear of Ipswich in second.
Wins over Stoke City and West Brom saw their winning run extend to nine matches by the time they arrived on the South coast to take on Southampton. Just as in the League Cup Final when they beat a side containing a former old boy, Ray Clemence, Whelan scored twice to beat another side containing a former reds favourite, Kevin Keegan. Keegan scored but Liverpool won 3-2 to go four points clear with a game in hand on Ipswich, who were running out of games.
When Johnston scored both goals to beat Nottingham Forest at the beginning of May, it was Liverpool’s 11th straight win in the league. At the start of the run they were back in sixth, 9 points off the lead. Now they were four points clear of Ipswich who only had four matches remaining.
In a midweek trip to White Hart Lane, Ipswich must’ve sensed their chance as two Steve Perryman goals had Spurs two-up at the break against Liverpool. But Dalglish matched him in the second half and although the winning run had come to an end, they were still two points clear with a game in hand.
Both sides had 1-0 wins away from home, before Liverpool played their game in hand at Highbury. At the time Arsenal were back in sixth but 15 points behind their opponents. Rush’s first-half strike was cancelled out by Alan Sunderland and the points were shared.
With two games to go Liverpool were three points clear and only needed to win one of their remaining matches, whilst Ipswich couldn’t afford any slip-ups, especially as Liverpool had the superior goal difference.
For their final home game of the season, Liverpool welcomed Tottenham to Anfield. This match saw the return to Anfield of one of the Kop’s favourite sons. Clemence was back at the ground he graced for 13 years. He had decided he needed a new challenge. Spurs were that challenge.
After suffering defeat to Liverpool at Wembley in March, Clemence and his teammates were out for revenge. Spurs were a week away from another Wembley appearance as they were due to play QPR in the FA Cup Final. As with the League Cup Final Spurs had the lead at the break, thanks to a stunning long-range strike from Glenn Hoddle.
At Portman Road, Ipswich Town entertained Nottingham Forest, who had one win in six coming into the game. The game was goalless at half-time, so Ipswich were now two points behind Liverpool.
It took just seven minutes of the second half for Liverpool to cancel out Spurs lead. Lee’s corner on the right was headed in from the edge of the area by Lawrenson. Spurs hadn’t won at Anfield since before the Titanic sunk, and any hopes they had of ending that run appeared dashed just three minutes later. Lawrenson hooked a ball over the defence, and Dalglish was first to react. Clear of the defence he took a touch when Clemence expected a first time shot, and the keeper’s blink was enough to allow Dalglish to slide the ball past him into the net.
With three minutes remaining, Spurs nemesis from Wembley raised his head again. Miller’s tame header went straight to Whelan. He chested it down into the area and as the Spurs defence parted like the Red Sea, he had plenty of time to smash it past Clemence. A win by any margin was enough for Liverpool as their goal difference was so good. As it was Peter Davenport scored a hat-trick as Forest beat Ipswich, 3-1.
Liverpool had won their 13th League title. For Phil Thompson, this was league title number 6. He became the first player in the history of the English First Division achieve that with one club.
The season ended with Liverpool playing out a goalless draw against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. They won the title by four points.
For Fagan, it had been a clear justification for his outburst after Christmas. A League title and a League Cup in the trophy cabinet and an incredible run of form.
League record before Fagan’s fury
Played 17, won 6, drawn 6, lost 5, scored 24, conceded 19
After Fagan’s fury
Played 25, won 20, drawn 3, lost 2, scored 56, conceded 13
In all competitions after Fagan’s fury
Played 35, won 26, drawn 5, lost 4, scored 74, conceded 21
It was one of the most remarkable runs to a league title anyone could remember. Few outside the club knew anything about it. That was the way Liverpool did their business back then, kept it in-house. Anyway, Fagan wasn’t the sort of person to look for the credit. Of the famous Boot Room members, all would attest to the belief he was the glue which kept the whole thing together. Quietly going about his business, with that knowing smile and that look. But just after Christmas 1981 he put that all aside for the good of the club and to vent his fury on an underachieving squad and they repaid him with interest.