RAWK Advent Calendar #09: Chelsea 0 v 1 Liverpool 3rd May 1986
I don’t remember a tenser game. I’m normally better watching Liverpool live in the ground than watching them on the box. Probably we all are. There’s something about shouting - and being heard by the players - that blows away the nerves and vanquishes the feelings of powerlessness that always accumulate when you watch a close encounter at home or in the pub. Being in the stadium means actually being able to influence the course of the game - and with that responsibility comes courage.
But not on this day. On this day I was deeply, sickeningly, anxious and the anxiety lasted from the moment Kenny put us in front with his famous chest and volley to the relief and delirium of the final whistle.
You’ll remember what was at stake. Two teams were going for the Double and they were both from Merseyside. Tranmere weren’t one of them. Against Chelsea we could win the first leg of the Double – or we could effectively lose it.
This is the story of one game, but to get there I’ll need first to tell the story of two others.
* * *
For the most of the season we’d been trailing Everton and Man United. After a bright start Man United fell away completely, as they always did in those days. But the Toffees didn’t. Lest we forget, Everton were a terrific side in the mid-80s. They were the defending league champions, had a frighteningly productive Gary Lineker up front, playing probably the best football of his career, and they were experts at getting in front and closing the game down. They’d slaughtered Arsenal at Goodison by six goals on one occasion. But more typically they won games by 1-0 or 2-0.
As for us, we’d lost our way a bit since Graeme Souness decided he wanted a sun-tan that wasn’t from a bottle and headed for Sampdoria and Italy. This was Kenny’s first year in charge of the team and by Christmas it looked like we’d be writing the season off as a learning experience. After a decent start we’d collapsed in December, picking up a 3 measly points from a possible 15. The championship had gone – and probably to Everton. That felt even more likely after they defeated us 2-0 at Anfield at the end of February. I was on the Kop that day as thousands of Evertonians went ballistic around me, convinced that the title would be staying their side of Stanley Park.
But in March we suddenly started to put together a fantastic run. Molby and Whelan began to play dreamy football and Ian Rush clearly decided it was time to let Lineker know who really was the best centre forward in Europe. We were to drop 1 point out of the last 33 available.
Everton were doing pretty well too but they weren’t quite as relentless as we were and by the last week of April they were 2 points behind, although with a crucial game in hand. In other words they were still masters of their own destiny. They also had three easy games to come – two of them at Goodison. It was important they lost one of them.
On the night of 30th April we were at Leicester. I was a post-graduate student in Oxford at the time and it had been my intention to get up to Filbert Street for this evening kick-off. But work got in the way and by the time I’d escaped there was no chance of me getting to Leicester before half time. I went to see Oxford United instead. Why? Because that’s where Everton were playing their last away game of the season. It’s unusual to see both Liverpool and Everton playing away on the same day but that’s the way it was on that Wednesday at the end of April. In those days there was no way of watching the Liverpool game live on the telly and the idea of listening to the match on the radio (where the crowd always tells you what’s happened before the bloody commentator) was simply not a choice I could make. Nerves wouldn’t stand it. So I bit the bullet and decided to team up with a mate, climb up Headington Hill and go to the Manor Ground. Maybe I could influence things.
Oxford were a plucky team. In John Aldridge and Ray Houghton they had two fine young players, who Kenny would go on to nick. But they were basically fodder to the likes of Everton. A couple of weeks previously we’d hammered them 6-0 at Anfield. Nor was the Manor Ground, which was made of meccano and bits of string, exactly a forbidding place to visit – despite the fact that the famous slope could sometimes introduce a ‘crazy-golf’ element to a game. My hope was that Oxford would keep the score respectable and therefore hand the Reds an advantage if the title came down to goal difference. Certainly the massed Evertonians in the open end gave the impression that the three points had already been marked up. They were making a hell of a racket inside the little suburban ground. The only question was how many they’d score.
I was in a small paddock under the main stand with my mate Simon and you could see that the home support was already beaten before the game began. Oxford needed the points to avoid the drop but no one was confident they’d be getting them. Not with Lineker and Sharp on such a hot streak. “We’ve had a nice season in the top flight” one bloke said. “We won’t get there again, but never mind”. Another fella started explaining to me why, actually, it was more exciting being in the Second Division than the First. “Oxford don’t really belong in the top division which is why I don’t mind seeing them lose tonight”. The fatalism really was depressing to see.
Inevitably the game was a one-sided affair. How the Oxford goal kept intact I’ve no idea. The siege was pretty much continuous, especially after half-time when Everton started to play downhill. During the half-time break I’d learnt that Liverpool were two-up at Leicester and this settled my nerves and made me decent company for a while. But before long I quickly became a snarling and sarcastic presence again. At some point early in the second half Howard Kendall put Adrian Heath on and turned ‘all-out attack’ into ‘supercharged all-out attack’. Oxford had old-school defenders – men shaped more like cattle than men. The most mobile were like Hereford bulls, the least mobile like huge sides of beef hanging from butchers’ hooks attached to the crossbar. But somehow these creatures did the trick. Corners were defended by a steamy bovine mass. Goal-bound shots made a thudding noise as they smashed into the meat. By 75 minutes it began to dawn on the home-crowd that Oxford might not concede.
But of course it was better than that. With a few minutes to go a small, stocky, curly-haired Oxford midfielder, whose name has long gone, sent a scything shot through the Everton defence and into the corner of the net. Perhaps it was the only shot Oxford had that night. I rather think it was. But it was the one that won the game. No goal not belonging to Liverpool has ever been celebrated by me as much as that one (not even that endless assembly-line of Barcelona goals scored against Man Utd in the European cup). The supporters around me, apathy long gone now, were in various states of hysteria. A solitary Everton fan, who I’d not noticed before, was on his knees, his face lifted to the starry heavens, his throat gulping down huge mouthfuls of night air. I swear you could hear him sobbing even above the cacophony. The injustice was indeed great. His team ought to have won that night 10 or 11 – nil. Possibly 12. Instead they’d lost.
And we’d won at Leicester.
That meant we were 5 points ahead of Everton, having played one more. Our last game was at Stamford Bridge. They were at home to Southampton, with West Ham at Goodison to come. To be sure of winning the Title we needed to defeat Chelsea away from home.
This game I was determined to get to. It wasn’t straightforward though. In those days I played Saturday football in Oxfordshire and we had an important semi-final cup game against a team from Thame. My plan was to play the match, get a lift to the M40 after the game from my best pal Tim, and then hitch the 40 miles or so into London. That would have been a simple enough thing if the game had ended after 90 minutes but as luck would have it there were no goals and we had to go to extra-time. Deep into the extra half-hour I went to cut out a cross and headed straight into my own goal. I wouldn’t quite put it on a level with Sandy Brown’s famous effort in the Derby, but the thing didn’t half make a noise when it hit the net. That was that. The winner. Scored by me. For the opposition. Tim still thinks I did this on purpose in order to avoid the extra ten minutes involved in taking penalties – something I’m now happy to admit to since gross incompetence always seems worse to me than disloyalty. But it’s not true. It was crap defending from a very tired young man. And credit to Tim – he still dropped me off by the M40.
I must have got a ride very quickly since I was on the King’s Road at about 2.15. After a swift pint where I got talking to a scouser with a big tash called John who was living in Philadelphia and who’d come back just for this match, we headed down to the Bridge. Those who were there that day will remember the enormous queues. The game was ‘pay on the gate’, which was not unusual in those days, and predictably - given how the championship race was poised – it had inspired thousands of Liverpool supporters to travel. The excitement was intense: a bit of a throw back to earlier times in fact. I’d been at the Notts County game a couple of years before when Joe Fagan had won his title and although there were lots of Reds in the ground the whole event seemed anti-climactic – as if we were all a little bit jaded from winning the title every year (so you see we suffered even in the glory years). This was different though. It was Liverpool or Everton for the league. And whoever won the league would probably, so we all thought, go on to win the Cup too.
Chelsea’s a bit of shit ground now, but back in 1986 it was even shitter. The place was a vast and crumbling bowl with a cinder track around the pitch and the big white-elephant triple-decker stand running along one side – a constant reminder to Chelsea fans of how the club’s deluded aspirations had run miles ahead of their ability to deliver on the pitch. Ken Bates had fortified the terraces, electrified its fences and generally let the place fall into an ugly slum – an eloquent expression of his contempt for all football fans, particularly his own club’s. I’d been there several times and I hated it. Part of this, admittedly, was because we generally had a thin time at the Bridge, often getting beaten – and sometimes quite heavily. I’d seen a fair few of those encounters on sandy, bumpy pitches and with a home-crowd that was hardly distinguishable from a caucus meeting of the National Front. They were there that afternoon, sitting in the East Stand now rather than standing in the Shed, making Nazi salutes, waving credit cards, singing songs about how wonderful Maggie Thatcher was and making monkey noises whenever Paul Canoville – their own player – touched the ball.
Not that we would hear much from the Right-Wing goons that afternoon. They were badly outnumbered. The big swoop of the away terrace had been sectioned off into about 8 cages. Normally, we’d fill perhaps 2 of these, but on this day we filled them all. The total attendance was, I think, about 49,000 and perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 of those came from Liverpool. I stood with my new friend John high on the right watching with amazement as more and more travelling fans filled the big expanse of crumbling terrace. At some point before the match a large Irish tricolour was hoisted behind our goal – a goad I suppose to the Ulster red hands being fluttered by the Chelsea fans. But it almost triggered internecine war - several outraged Orangeman trying to clamber into the neighbouring cage to bring the offending flag down.
But that was a minor blip. We were absolutely at one that day, focused on bringing our boys home – although hundreds of transistor radios pressed to hundreds of ears kept us abreast of what was happening at Goodison too.
We started well. With the boys attacking the goal we were massed behind it was one of those great occasions when the crowd and the team became a single entity. Ian Rush flashed a header just over the bar, Kenny poked one wide, and a Jim Beglin shot appeared to have crossed the line before a Chelsea defender swept it away. Great pressure. But no goals.
“Well the Saints may do us a favour” a voice said. “They’re 3-0 down mate!” “Four!” someone shouted. “It’s Five now”. This was after about 20 minutes. Goals at Goodison were going in, it seemed, every 25 seconds or so. “Jesus Christ”.
Not to worry though. Whelan attacked a ball in the air that he had no right to win (has there ever been a braver
player than Whelan for Liverpool?) and the ball looped into the box where Kenny was loitering at the far post. “Gooooaaaaal” we all shouted, because it was Kenny. Then Kenny put the ball in the net.
That was as good as it got. Did we have another attack? I can’t remember one. The whole thing became scrappy and disorganized, just the way Chelsea liked it. In the second half they mounted an assault on our goal. It wasn’t pretty. How could it be pretty when Kerry Dixon was the focus of their attack? But it needed strong Liverpool defending to beat the ball away. Gillespie, I remember, was fantastic. Only once did David Speedie – a real talent on his day – escape his shackles and probably he ought to have equalized. But his shot screwed past the near post and the legions behind the goal began to wind up for the celebrations. Everton, meanwhile, had scored a 6th but I was getting the feeling that it wouldn’t matter. For the last five minutes the ball spent more time in the stands and on the greyhound track than it did on the field. It wasn’t pretty but Kenny had worked out that the home club’s (typically mean) lack of ball boys made hoofing the ball onto the cinders a winning tactic. So that’s what we did.
The Chelsea racists, meanwhile, were treated to some football songs. This was the heyday of ‘Scouser Tommy’ and now that song was belted out into the west London sky. It was always nice singing it against Chelsea since during the war their fathers had been on the German side. When the final whistle came and the Liverpool team broke into a sequence of running high fives. There was real jubilation. It wasn’t just that those players had survived 45 minutes of intense Chelsea pressure. They’d picked themselves up after the Derby defeat at Anfield and won ten and drawn one of the remaining eleven games. It was the sort of run that only Liverpool could make in those days. You saw the finishing line and you speeded up while others faltered. That’s the way we did it. We were worthy champions.
The police kept us in the ground for 45 minutes or so after. I was burning for a celebratory pint, we all were, but even without one a mass party broke out behind the goal. A deafening chorus of ‘Hand it Over, Everton’ was surely heard in Liverpool. Then the Chelsea DJ put on ‘We are the Champions’ – to keep us sweet I suppose. It’s a naff song but the massed ranks of Red took up the chorus, again and again, and I’ll always associate it with that day. On the way out I remember seeing the television egghead Bamber Gascoigne singing a full-throated ‘Billy Shankly’s Boys’. Everyone saw him because the air was full of cries of ‘Hey Bamber!’ and ‘Starter for Ten!’ For those too young to remember Bamber Gascoigne it would be the equivalent of seeing the school principal smoking crack in the boys' bogs. OK, probably it wasn’t actually Bamber Gascoigne, but I’ve never seen a better doppelganger of anyone in my life – and I don’t expect to. A surreal end to a mad week.
Everton went on to defeat West Ham the following Tuesday, but of course to no avail. We’d pipped them to the Title. And then, gloriously, unforgettably, we came from behind to defeat them at Wembley in the Cup Final too. Merseyside was truly Red that year.
Outside the ground there was nothing but Liverpool fans – and therefore none of the running battles outside Fulham Broadway that usually happened when we came to the Bridge. I went for a pint or two with John, where we talked – as Liverpool fans often do at moments like this – about how the present connected with the past and how the future would surely involve further links in an endless chain of triumph and joy. Eventually I felt the effects of an exhausting and food-less day catch up with me and we said our goodbyes. I never saw him again. But I'll never forget him. Probably he’s still living in Philly. Certainly he’s still a die-hard Red. I wish him well.