When the draw was made for the 1975/76 UEFA Cup semi-finals both Liverpool and Barcelona made noises that they would have preferred to wait until the final before meeting. The biggest clubs still left in the tournament – Hamburg would take on Bruges in the other semi – they also had the two biggest names on the field in Kevin Keegan and Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff had come up against Liverpool before, as a central part of the Ajax team who had defeated them 5-1 in the fog in Amsterdam in the 1966/67 European Cup. In the second leg at Anfield, Cruyff scored twice as the sides drew 2-2. In March of 1976 he was 28, had been crowned the European Footballer of the Year in 1974, and, in the same year, had led The Netherlands to the World Cup final.
Keegan was 25 and playing his fifth season at Liverpool. Winning the 1973 league title and the 1974 FA Cup he was now an England regular with 18 caps since his 1972 debut.
The Catalans’ route to the last four was not without some controversy. Having defeated PAOK of Greece in the first round they were drawn against Lazio in the second round. The Italians forfeited the first leg game in Rome, with their president Umberto Lenzini, fearing unrest over the recent executions of members of the Basque separatist organization ETA and of the Marxist, anti-Franco organisation FRAP in Spain. UEFA awarded Barcelona a 3-0 win. In the second leg at the Nou Camp, they scored four for a 7-0 aggregate victory. Vasas Budapest were defeated 4-1 on aggregate in the third round. In the quarter-final, Barcelona’s 4-0 first-leg win over Levski Sofia was followed by a 5-4 defeat for an 8-5 aggregate.
Liverpool’s only loss on their run to the semis was their opening match, a 1-0 defeat in Edinburgh against Hibs. A John Toshack hat-trick gave them a 3-1 win at Anfield, and on to a second-round game against Real Sociedad. Their Spanish opposition was an easier hurdle than first feared with a 3-1 away leg win being followed up by a 6-0 victory at home. A first trip for the Reds to Poland saw them knock out Slask Wroclaw 5-1 over two legs in the third round. East Germans Dynamo Dresden were dispatched after a 2-1 win at Anfield in the quarters.
After the draw in Zurich Barca’s head coach, West German Hennes Weisweiler said, “We didn’t like the draw. If we had to face Liverpool we’d rather it be in the final.” Liverpool manager Bob Paisley said, in his typically understated fashion, “We all know about Cryuff and Neeskens. It’s the fellers you don’t know you have to be worried about.” To that end, Paisley set out to find out as much about Barcelona as possible. Youth development officer Tom Saunders went to scout them in their league game with Real Betis. Paisley spoke with Leeds boss Jimmy Armfield, whose side had defeated Barcelona on their way to the previous season’s European Cup final. Paisley also received information from Liverpool fans living in Barcelona. One such supporter, Michael Goulding, sent into Anfield a detailed assessment of the squad; player by player. “Great football brain,” he wrote of midfielder Marcial, “slow, but his constructive work is high class.”
An off-the-pitch battle was won when Liverpool secretary Peter Robinson successfully lobbied for the first leg to be moved from Wednesday 31st March to the day prior, in order that they had an extra 24 hours to prepare for the Merseyside derby the following Saturday.
The game in Barcelona would have an 8.45 pm kick-off. Tickets cost between £3 and £9. Day return flights from Liverpool were £49.50, with an overnight stay taking the price to £60.
Like Cruyff, Johan Neeskens had been part of Ajax’s triple European Cup-winning team of 1971-1973. While Cruyff was famed for his skill and artistry Neeskens was the complete midfielder; decisive in the tackle, accurate with his distribution and happy to get rough when it was called for.
“Neeskens is clearly their outstanding player,” Bob Paisley said to the Liverpool Echo. “He plays like Kevin Keegan works as hard, and does just as much – absolutely top class.” Paisley saw the match as the arena for Keegan to shine. “He’s always wanted a stage on which to pit his talents against world-class opponents. This is his moment and it gives him the chance to show the world what he can do against players of equal ability.”
“If people want to compare me to Cryuff, that’s up to them,” Keegan said. “I’m not conscious of any direct rivalry between us. My job is to play as part of the Liverpool team and that’s what I intend to do.” Keegan also suggested that the man to be worried about was Neeskens. “He is the big man in the Barcelona set-up.”
“The atmosphere of playing in this great stadium will bring out the best in the lads,” Paisley said when his side arrived at the Nou Camp. “We don’t intend to simply sit back and defend. We will weigh them up as we usually do in away games, assess their strengths, and then come out on the attack ourselves.”
Despite that statement, in Ian Herbert’s biography of Paisley, ‘Quiet Genius’, Phil Neal recalled his boss approaching him in the dressing room, saying, “No attacking from the back for you tonight, my lad.”
Barca went into the game having lost 3-1 to Las Palmas in the league. They lined up as; Mora; Marcial, Tome, Migueli, Corominas, Neeskens, Cruyff, Asensi, Rexach, Mir and Fortes.
The Liverpool side, wearing all-white, was; Clemence, Smith, Neal, Thompson, Kennedy, Hughes, Keegan, Case, Heighway, Toshack, and Callaghan.
A breakthrough came early in the match. In the 13th minute, a long clearance by Ray Clemence was chested down at the edge of the box by Keegan. He turned and laid the ball perfectly into John Toshack’s path. The Welshman evaded his marker and hammered a right-foot shot into the net from around 12 yards out.
Liverpool forced Barcelona into making mistake after mistake. Toshack, Keegan, and Jimmy Case all missed chances to extend Liverpool’s lead, but at the back, the covering, positional play and tackling from the defence ensured that they were never in danger of losing a goal.
Neeskens was outshone in midfield by Ian Callaghan, who was the best player on the pitch. Clemence was only called into action twice, both in the first half. He turned a Marcial drive wide before punching away a shot from Carles Rexach.
With five minutes remaining the home fans launched cushions onto the pitch. The match was held up while they were removed.
“I remember the night well,” Toshack said to The Irish Mirror in 2019. “It did cross my mind that maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t scored – we’d have a better chance of getting out of the ground in one piece. The situation wasn’t helped by Joey Jones throwing them back into the stand until our manager Bob Paisley warned him that he was in danger of causing a riot.”
Jones, who was an unused substitute that night, recalled the incident for Sky Sports, “All these cushions came out the stand. So, I got up out the dugout and threw them back. I was whizzing them like frisbees, and they were bouncing off these Spaniards’ heads. I was getting that good they were going under my leg, round my back, and I had them bouncing off the Barcelona fans’ heads, and I remember Bob Paisley grabbing me by the collar and saying, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m not having them throwing cushions at us.’ He said, ‘They’re not throwing them at us, they’re throwing them at them cos we beat them.’”
The Echo hailed it as, “One of their finest European performances.” Of Barcelona Paisley said, “Our defence took everything they had to offer.”
Two days later Weisweiler left his position as Barca coach, the product more of a protracted power struggle with Cruyff than the result itself. “Weisweiler was sacked and he blamed me for it,” Cruyff wrote in his autobiography ‘My Turn’. “But if he’d looked in a mirror he’d have known it wasn’t just me his method didn’t work on, it didn’t work on anyone in the team. It was a question of the wrong trainer at the wrong club.” Assistant coach Laureano Ruiz was put in charge of the side.
Shortly afterwards Cruyff signed a new contract reported to be worth £10,000 per week.
For the second leg, Peter Robinson had been fielding requests for tickets from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. “I understand our win in Barcelona really hit the sporting headlines throughout Europe last week.”
Prior to Barcelona arriving at Anfield, Espanyol had beaten them 3-0 in the league, while Liverpool drew 0-0 with Aston Villa, leaving them a point behind league leaders Queen’s Park Rangers.
“It is boiling up to a great game,” said Paisley, “Both of us will be on attack – Barcelona can’t afford to defend and we don’t know how to at Anfield,” Paisley commented that although Barca had three or four good players, they also had three or four moderate players. “I’m sure Cruyff would prefer to be coming to Anfield with the same Ajax team of 10 years ago rather than the current Barcelona team.”
“Obviously, Liverpool have the best chance but in football, there are always possibilities, always hope,” Cruyff said to the Liverpool Echo as he looked around Anfield on the morning of the game.
“Liverpool players will go out there with national prestige on their minds,” Paisley said. “We’ve been belittled enough as a country. I believe in national prestige. I’m a bit like that boxer feller John H. Stracey. I’d wrap a Union Jack around the goalpost if I could.” Stracey had recently wrapped a Union Jack around his body after defeating Hedgemon Lewis of Detroit to retain his WBC World Welterweight title.
Admission at the gate was 75p into the paddock and 70p in the ground. The gates were closed ten minutes before the kick-off as 55,104 spectators packed in, beating Liverpool’s record European tie attendance of 54,206 set against Celtic in 1966.
Liverpool remained unchanged from the first-leg, while Barcelona made four changes. Tome, Asensi, Mir, and Fortes were replaced by Costas, Rife, Albadalejo, and, Heredia.
The referee was Italian Riccardo Lattanzi, a lawyer. His father Vitale and brother Victor were also referees. His other brother Renato was a linesman. “About the worst official I’ve ever seen,” Michael Charters wrote in the Echo. “In the first half, he gave everything to Barcelona, refusing Liverpool at least two penalties from what looked blatant fouls. Then, in the second half, he turned right round and gave Liverpool everything!”
Phil Neal was pushed off the ball in the fourth minute, with everyone in the ground expecting a penalty Lattanzi waved the protests away.
In the 19th minute, Keegan cut back to Ray Kennedy. His shot whistled past Pere Valentí Mora’s post.
The best chance of the first half came from Toshack as he headed Steve Heighway’s cross towards goal, only for Mora to push the ball away.
Liverpool extended their lead in the tie on the 50th minute. A Tommy Smith free-kick was back-headed by Keegan to Toshack who turned the ball towards the far side of the goal. As it was about to cross the line Phil Thompson knocked it over, just to be sure.
But the two-goal cushion was short-lived. From the restart, Cruyff took the ball down the left-wing and fired a cross over for Rexach to blast the ball past Clemence.
Knowing one more goal for the visitors would see them through on the away goals rule Liverpool pushed forward. They forced twenty corner kicks to Barcelona’s one.
Despite setting up that equaliser Cruyff never really got going and by the end, Barcelona had to put up with a constant bombardment by Liverpool until the final whistle.
“I’ve been getting a lot of stick from the lads because I don’t get many goals, but I’m lethal from six inches,” Thompson joked afterwards.
The win put Liverpool into their third European final where they would meet Bruges. Two goals down after twelve minutes in the first-leg at Anfield, Paisley changed things around at half-time, taking off Toshack to replace him with midfielder Case. Three goals across six minutes won the match for Liverpool. A 1-1 draw in Belgium gave Paisley his first European trophy, alongside the 1975/76 First Division title. He would go on to lead the Reds to the European Cup the following year.