When Liverpool was the biggest club in the world

It’s May 30, 1984, and Alan Kennedy is walking toward the penalty spot at the Stadio Olimpico. The ball is clenched in his right hand.

The Scottish left-back is surrounded by nearly 70,000 fans, most of whom are willing him to blast it into row Z. Liverpool, you see, have spent the previous 120 minutes battling Roma in front of a hostile home crowd. We’re now in the tail-end of the shootout: if he converts from 12 yards, Liverpool will win its fourth European Cup of the decade.

To put it mildly, this is a high-pressure situation.

Kennedy undoubtedly feels the weight on his shoulders, but he knows a thing or two about decisive European Cup goals. After all, his 82nd-minute strike at the Parc des Princes three years earlier prevented the competition’s most successful team, Real Madrid, from claiming what would have been a sixth title.

He calmly places the ball down in the muddy penalty area. A soundtrack of whistling fans is almost as off-putting as the pack of photographers behind the goal, ready to blind him with their flashbulbs at the moment he strikes the ball.

Kennedy takes eight steps with his back to goal, quickly turns … and sends goalkeeper Franco Tancredi the wrong way.

The goal cements Liverpool’s status as the biggest club in the world.

Younger fans, who have watched the Reds haplessly fail to win a domestic title in the Premier League era — while their arch rivals Manchester United flourished under the rule of Alex Ferguson — may not appreciate the scale to which the Anfield side was a behemoth in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to taking home four of the eight European Cups available between 1977 and 1984, they won 10 of the 15 English league titles on offer between 1973 and 1988.

And they played in 28 Wembley finals between 1971 and 1992. Such was their propensity to qualify for cup finals, that they actually named one of the training fields at their Melwood training ground “Wembley,” and it would only be used in the week before a trip to the famous stadium.

Story continues

Liverpool’s fans, meanwhile, quickly filled their passports with stamps. They were involved in European competition every season from 1965 to 1985, reaching an incredible 13 finals.

The last final of that period proved to be one of the darkest days in European soccer history, and one that changed the English game for many years to come.

Under manager Bill Shankly (front, waving), Liverpool became a European power. (Getty)

Liverpool’s golden era was actually kickstarted decades previously, by manager Bill Shankly. The Scotsman took the reigns at Anfield in 1959, with the five-time league winners in a sorry state in the second division.

Shankly, released 24 players, lead the team back to the First Division and cleared out a storage space at the stadium to create the legendary “Boot Room”— a space next to the locker rooms that he would use to plan strategy with his coaching staff.

Five years later, as the Beatles put the city on the map, Shankly led the team to a league title that allowed them to qualify for the European Cup for the first time. They made it all the way to the semifinals, falling to eventual winners Inter Milan thanks to a 3-0 defeat at the San Siro.

Under Shankly, the club became regulars in European competition, winning the UEFA Cup (now rebranded as the Europa League) with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Borussia Monchengladbach. (The Bundesliga side’s goals, incidentally, were scored a by man known better for his domination of Europe as a coach, Jupp Heynckes.)

Shankly, whose statue outside Anfield shows the man standing with his arms raised in triumph, paved the way for Liverpool’s true era of dominance.

His assistant and Boot Room co-conspirator Bob Paisley took over in 1974, albeit reluctantly.

Having spent 15 seasons playing for Liverpool before moving into a coaching role, Paisley insisted he was “only looking after the shop until a proper manager arrives.” Not long after taking charge, he admitted to journalists that he was not very good at expressing himself, giving them carte blanche to finish his sentences for him.

But in Paisley’s nine-year tenure, he delivered six league titles and three European Cups. And he completely change the team’s style of play.

While every other side was hoofing long balls to the forwards, Paisley focused on patient build-up through short passes.

The style became such a part of the club’s identity that “pass and move” literally became the Liverpool groove …

Essentially, Paisley invented tiki-taka years before Pep Guardiola would use it to dominate the world, and it reaped huge benefits.

After beating Queens Park Rangers to the 1975-76 league title by a single point, Liverpool qualified for the European Cup the following season. The cabal of European giants that dominate the latter stages of the Champions League did not encumber Liverpool’s route to the final back then. They beat Northern Irish side Crusaders, Trabzonspor, Saint-Etienne and Zurich before facing their 1973 UEFA Cup final opponents Borussia Monchengladbach in the final at the Stadio Olimpico (where they would also beat Roma in the final seven years later).

With the unstoppable striker partnership of Kevin Keegan and Steve Heighway leading the line, Liverpool won 3-1 to lift the European Cup for the first time.

Paisley’s Liverpool also claimed their second English league title in 1976-77, allowing them to enter the European Cup once again.

Back then, only the champions of any given league were able to enter the European Cup, but the Reds were afforded a bar to the second round, meaning they only had to play three rounds to reach the final.

And that’s exactly what they did, edging Dynamo Dresden, Benfica and their old foes Borussia Monchengladbach before meeting Club Brugge at Wembley Stadium.

Kenny Dalglish — signed from Celtic to replace club hero Kevin Keegan, who had been lured to Hamburg — scored the only goal of the game.

Liverpool became the first-ever English side to retain the European Cup, at a time when English clubs were starting to show up on the big stage. In fact, The Reds had started a streak of six consecutive European Cup finals that were won by English sides, with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest winning in 1979 and 1980 before Liverpool got their hands on the trophy affectionately known as Ol’ Big Ears once again.

In 1980-81, with Paisley in his sixth season as manager, Liverpool’s delectable style of play allowed them to edge past Bayern Munich in the semifinals to meet Real Madrid in the final.

Those who were paying attention at the start of this history lesson will know that Alan Kennedy scored the only goal of the game, after breaking into the box from a throw-in and beating goalkeeper Agustín Rodríguez from a tight angle.

Incredibly, Kennedy played the game despite breaking his wrist in the semi-final against Bayern, wearing a heavy metal cast that would surely be outlawed in today’s game.

Preparations for the match were less than ideal, as a disagreement with TV broadcasters over advertising erupted upon arrival at the Parc des Princes. Warm-ups were cut short while the players covered up the kit manufacturer logos on their shirts with tape.

“It was totally ridiculous and would never happen now,” said Kennedy. “But Bob [Paisley] reacted in a good way. He said we should be even more determined to win the game. His attitude was always that if someone puts problems in our way, we’ll get over them, and that’s exactly what we did.”

It was Liverpool’s third European cup in five years, and the final one under Paisley, who stepped down to make way for his assistant Joe Fagan for the 1983-84 season.

Fagan, a founder member of Shankly’s Boot Room, is rarely heralded as an all-time great. Many younger fans may not have even heard his name. This is a puzzling state of affairs, as he oversaw what might be considered Liverpool’s greatest-ever season — and it was his freshman year as a manager.

Liverpool headed to the aforementioned 1984 European Cup Final at the Stadio Olimpico as First Division and League Cup champions. If they were able to beat Roma at their home stadium, Fagan would become the first British manager to land three major trophies in one season. That wouldn’t happen again for another 15 years, when Manchester United recorded its famous 1999 treble.

A Liverpool team featuring Ian Rush, Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen — all strong contenders for an all-time Reds XI — took Roma to a shootout.

At that point, Fagan played his psychological ace card, reportedly telling his players that it didn’t matter whether they won the shootout after such an incredible season. The speech removed the pressure, while goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s famous “jelly legs” in the shootout ensured another famous European night for the biggest soccer team on the planet.

Liverpool would return to the European Final one more time under Fagan in the 1980s, but it proved to be a day marred by violence, tragedy and heartbreak.

The Reds entered the 1984-85 European Cup as domestic champions once again, breezing through the competition, scoring no fewer than three goals per round before reaching the final. On May 29, 1985, they took on Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

While Liverpool and their fellow English sides dominated soccer in the early 1980s, the nation was undergoing a hooligan epidemic.

The game was far from the sanitized family-friendly experience we see today. The actions of a minority who would attend games to commit mindless violence and destroy property brought the reputation of the beautiful game to an all-time low.

English soccer fans were seen by many as an ugly stain on the sport. Margaret Thatcher’s government made no secret of their distaste for soccer fans, many of whom would make stadiums a downright dangerous place to be.

The most sickening and tragic episode of the hooligan epidemic came at the 1985 European Cup Final.

The Heysel Stadium, despite being the home of the Belgian National team, was in a woeful state of disrepair. It was so dilapidated that some fans were spotted kicking holes in the crumbling outer wall to gain access.

The trouble started an hour before kick off, when riotous Liverpool fans breached a barrier in their area of the stadium with the intent of harming the Juventus supporters in the next section.

When Juve fans tried to retreat from the threat, they were pushed back against a retaining wall. The crush—and subsequent collapse of the wall—caused the death of 39 fans, while 600 others were injured.

In order to avoid further rioting, a decision was made to play the game. Juventus emerged with their first-ever European Cup, but the action on the field was of little consequence.

Fourteen Liverpool fans were given prison sentences for manslaughter, while UEFA took the decision to ban all English clubs from European competitions for five years.

Liverpool were given an additional year away from the continental game as a further punishment.

Fagan, who was in tears as the team stepped off the plane upon their arrival back in Liverpool, retired not long after.

Under Shankly, Paisley and Fagan, Liverpool became an unstoppable European force. Their reign, however, was viscerally ended by one of the darkest moments in the history of the game.

The Heysel Stadium rioting is one of the ugliest moments in the history of soccer. (Getty)

The forthcoming match with Real Madrid will be Liverpool’s third appearance in the final since 1985. Rafa Benitez’s side won the iconic final against AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 — where it was goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek’s job to gain the mental advantage in the shootout, as Grobbelaar had done before him — and Milan got their revenge two years later.

The younger generation of soccer fans may not appreciate Liverpool’s standing in the European game, and the incredible burden placed on the club—and all of English soccer—by the events in Heysel.

But as they shoot for European Cup number six in Kiev, Jurgen Klopp will surely be looking to channel the spirits of Shankly, Paisley and Fagan.

Ryan Bailey has covered soccer for Yahoo Sports since 2010, regularly providing insight on the beautiful game through his columns, interviews and video reports. Follow him on Twitter @RyanJayBailey.

More soccer from Yahoo Sports:• 2018 World Cup preview hub• How 2013-18 Real Madrid stacks up against history’s best• USMNT’s next generation is sprouting before our eyes• Why Mohamed Salah is more than just the Prem’s best player• What Christian Pulisic lost when the U.S. missed the World Cup


Recommended For You

About the Author: Thony