26 August 2010

"Goals by Keegan, Kennedy and the ginger-headed David Fairclough..."

I watched the Champions League draw on television earlier, although heaven knows why, given that I have no emotional interest in the competition.

There is something fascinating about a live draw for a major football tournament that drags you in and, as each ball is plucked from the dish and each team learns its fate, you find yourself making assessments and expressing opinions on fixtures that, when they come, you may not even watch on telly.

I dislike the Champions League but still watch a sizeable number of games, just because I'm still someone who enjoys a comfy settee, a decent drink and a good match on the box. For a spell in the 1970s and 1980s, English clubs dominated the competition and, immediate bitter rivalries apart, generally goodwill existed in the whole country for whichever team was doing well.

And the singular 'team' is important, and forms part of the reason why I maintain a big fascination for the old European Cup while scorning the structure and ideals, if not the quality, of the Champions League.

Nostalgists like me would prefer the Champions League - a bloated, money-led group system that allows teams who aren't the best in their own country to still be crowned the best in Europe - to be ditched and reverted back to the classic European Cup format that existed until 1993, in which just the champions of each nation partook in straight two-legged ties until a brace of finalists emerged.

It'll never happen. Money talks. Power dictates.

But the old European Cup was fantastic. Midweek games, always reserved for Sportsnight highlights, and the fans of those sides that won the competition during that purple patch - Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa - talk of "great European nights", which somehow don't feel capable of replication in the modern format, especially if a heroic 4-3 win over AC Milan can still be cocked up by a 2-1 defeat at Basle a fortnight later.

I think, leaving the actual finals aside, the best night for an English club in the European Cup during that halcyon era came in 1977, when Liverpool faced French champions Saint-Étienne ("ALLEZ LES VERTS") in the quarter finals. The first leg in France had finished 1-0 to Saint-Étienne, leaving Liverpool with little doubt of what was required; win the game and try at all costs not to concede an away goal.

Anfield, a ground which in its modernity I find it hard to warm to, was just the most atmospheric of venues in those heady days of terracing and minimal segregation. The travelling French fans, decked in bright green scarves, were in the Anfield Road end, mixing with the locals. At the other end, the Kop was sprawling in anticipation. The gates had been locked a whole hour before kick off.

England had not had a European Cup winner for nine seasons and this Liverpool team looked most capable. Saint-Étienne had lost the final the previous season and were no slouches, but Liverpool settled their nerves and sent their fans into raptures when Kevin Keegan - his necklace clearly wafting over his shirt - fluked a shot-cum-cross into the far corner after just a couple of minutes.

Everything was now level. 1-0 to the home side in each leg. Liverpool therefore became favourites with still nearly a full game before their own people ahead of them. But Saint-Étienne threatened to ruin it when they scored an equaliser.

There are two things to flag up about that particular goal.

Firstly, it has never been offered the credit it deserves as one of the European Cup's greatest ever goals. Dominique Bathenay was the young French midfielder who scored it, thumping a swerving, looping shot from more than 30 yards over Ray Clemence. England's best goalkeeper at the time was completely done by a very special shot the moment it left Bathenay's boot.

Secondly, as it was scored at the end where the Saint-Étienne fans were based, it meant there was this bizarre sight of green-clad people capering with glee interspersed with people not doing so. The lack of segregation was quite remarkable, especially in an era where hooliganism in the English game was rife and rising. These thrilled fans of Les Verts were rightly cavorting in their allocated area at such a priceless goal; that they were able to do so within undoubtedly a surrounding majority of disgruntled Scousers makes their glee all the more notable. As the ball hits the net you get about two seconds of fans behind the goal celebrating or clearly not celebrating together, before the director unsurprisingly focusses in on the scorer.

As far as the fixture was concerned, it meant Liverpool were in trouble. 2-1 down on aggregate and, with the away goal now against them, they needed to score twice or go out. There was little more than half an hour to go, but within eight minutes of Bathenay's wonder strike, Ray Kennedy had slid in a smart shot to make it 2-2. The Frenchmen maintained the upper hand, albeit a greasy one.

Then the story that every Liverpool fans present that night still talks about.

David Fairclough, a nippy but slight young striker from the city with hair to match the red Liverpool kit, was slung on as the substitute, something for which he had become renowned in his short career as he had been prone to grab crucial goals after late introductions. And, in the last 10 minutes, he was given a through ball that still required him to shake off two uncompromising French defenders.

This he did, before slotting the ball past the goalkeeper in front of the Kop. Which promptly exploded with noise.

Fairclough's reaction was ace. He didn't quite go for the full scale "arms aloft, look at me" celebration as he was evidently a mixture of unsure that the goal had been allowed and disbelieving that he'd just scored it. Gerald Sinstadt, commentating for ITV's The Midweek Match, knew how to react as the ball hit the net - "Supersub strikes again!"

The game stayed at 3-1, giving Liverpool a 3-2 victory and a place in the semi-finals. Eventually they would win the final in Rome and collect their first European Cup and even though they have since won the competition four more times and had countless great evenings in doing so, the drama and elation of the win over Saint-Étienne remains one of the most revered of the "I was there" occasions for the elder Liverpool supporter.

Of course, it's possible to still have similar melodrama in the Champions League format, as once the group stages are over the surviving 16 teams revert to authentic two-legged showdowns until the final. But it's a pity that the Champions League retains an element of falsehood about it when history shows that the competition is big enough to produce those moments that remain in folklore and transcend the competition and the sport. Those 55,000 who went to Anfield know that. Everyone who watched on television later, irrespective of affiliation, knew that. Have a look at it yourself, go on.

The innocence of football in 1977, eh? Clemence had to put on a yellow keeper's jersey because of Saint-Étienne's green strip. You'd have thought they could have found one with a number 1 on it...

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