From cult hero to legend: the life and times of Alan Kennedy

From cult hero to legend: the life and times of Alan Kennedy

Shoulders hunched, slumped in the Anfield dressing room at half-time on the opening day of the 1978/79 season, Alan Kennedy sat there as Bob Paisley approached, awaiting some words of mystical wisdom from his new manager. Quietly spoken, as always, so as to draw the full attention of the person he was addressing, Paisley sagely offered his opinion on Kennedy’s first 45 minutes in a Liverpool shirt. “They shot the wrong bloody Kennedy.”

It had been an erratic display. Kennedy was essentially trying too hard. In the opening few minutes, he had miskicked the ball with his weaker right foot – a foot Kennedy himself freely admits was only there to stand on – only to see it skew off the pitch, where it struck an unsuspecting police officer, knocking off his helmet much to the delight of the 51,000 supporters who had gathered to watch Liverpool face Queens Park Rangers in the August sunshine.

Kennedy added to this by carelessly giving away a couple of unnecessary corners and spraying some disapproved of long balls straight into the possession of the visiting team from West London. Advised to relax and to play the short ball into midfield, Kennedy’s second half proved a better experience for him. He was even involved in Steve Heighway’s winning goal. 

It still took Liverpool’s new left-back a few more games to acclimatise. Having been conditioned at Newcastle United to play the percentages and to ‘get rid’, it had been a bit of a culture shock on his arrival at Liverpool to be informed that he was expected to cherish the ball, and to think before dealing with it. Passes were rarely to travel more than 10 yards. Compared to life on Tyneside, Kennedy initially felt like a fish out of water.

Bob Paisley had kept a watchful eye on Kennedy’s development at St James’ Park. When Newcastle were relegated from the First Division at the end of the 1977/78 season, Paisley bided his time, before swooping for his transfer target on the eve of the new campaign. Newcastle, by now desperate for an injection of funds, accepted Liverpool’s offer of £330,000. 

Just short of his 24th birthday, and with his best years ahead of him, Kennedy’s signing was one of Paisley’s greatest masterstrokes. It was also a transfer which had arguably been 40 years in the making.

Paisley had grown up in the north-east mining community of Hetton-le-Hole, where he had been friends with Kennedy’s mother, Sarah Ann. She worked in the local chip shop, was a keen football fan, and used to watch Paisley play on a regular basis for the local team, then later on for the great amateur side Bishop Auckland, before he headed to Anfield just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Sarah Ann watched Paisley’s achievements as a player, coach and then manager of Liverpool from afar, often commenting to her son that it would be nice if he was to play for her old friend one day. Sadly, Sarah Ann died shortly before her son fulfilled her wish.

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Kennedy had enjoyed a meteoric rise at Newcastle. Aged just 19, he had played against Liverpool at Wembley in the 1974 FA Cup final, despite having played fewer than 20 games for the club at that point. It was a valuable but chastening experience, which he shared with another future Liverpool player in the shape of Terry McDermott.

Less than a year later, it was an injured Kennedy who stood on the Kop, watching his Newcastle teammates yield to another one-sided defeat at the hands of Liverpool, this time 4-0.  By now, Paisley had succeeded Bill Shankly as manager at Anfield, and he was starting to find the left-back position to be a bit of a headache.

Alec Lindsay, one of the best left-backs in the country, an England international, and a player who had scored one of the great disallowed goals in that 74 FA Cup final, had suffered a pronounced dip in both form and fitness. Between the regular loss of Lindsay and the signing of Kennedy, Paisley tried the raw but passionate Joey Jones, and when the idiosyncrasies of Jones proved too erratic at times, the Liverpool manager instead opted for Phil Neal or Emlyn Hughes to cover the position.

With Hughes too valuable an asset centrally and Neal seen as the natural successor to Chris Lawler at right-back, Paisley played the long game in identifying the perfect left-back, something that a more consistent season from Jones in 1976/77 also afforded him. In 1977/78 Jones struggled once more, however, and by the summer, Kennedy was seen as the ideal long-term option.

After a difficult start to his debut campaign, Kennedy proved himself to be an integral part of Liverpool’s all-repelling 1978/79 title-winning defence, which conceded just 16 goals in 42 league games, with only four of those being shipped at Anfield. Forming an effective double act down the left-hand-side, behind his unrelated namesake Ray Kennedy, the two players linked with bewitching ease, which was at odds with the awkward relationship they harboured with one another off the pitch.

Liverpool swept to the league title emphatically and stylishly in 1979, but had relinquished the European Cup early in the season in an All-English coming together with Nottingham Forest, when Liverpool slipped to a 2-0 first leg defeat at the City Ground, where they went into the tie like it was a normal domestic clash rather than embracing the game as the away European encounter it was. While the League Cup offered another early exit, in the FA Cup Liverpool went all the way to the semi-finals, where they were edged out narrowly by Manchester United. It was a missed opportunity for a league and cup double.

A similar story unfolded the following season; Liverpool retained their league title, exited the European Cup early – this time to Dinamo Tbilisi – and again narrowly lost out in an FA Cup semi-final, on this occasion against Arsenal, after a titanic four-match odyssey. 

The 1980/81 campaign would be polarising for Kennedy. Missing sizeable swathes of it through injury, both Avi Cohen and Richard Money stepped in to deputise for him for prolonged periods. With perfect timing, however, he was fit to play in both the European Cup final and the League Cup final, plus its subsequent replay.

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At Wembley, Kennedy seemed to have scored the winning goal against West Ham in the League Cup final, before Ray Stewart struck back with a last-gasp penalty to take the game to the Villa Park replay, where Liverpool ran out 2-1 winners. If Kennedy had seemed like an unlikely hero at Wembley, then in Paris, at the end of May against Real Madrid, he became the most unlikely of European Cup-winning legends.

Initially told by Paisley that he wouldn’t be playing in the final due to suspicions that he hadn’t fully recovered from a broken wrist, Kennedy was taken by surprise when he found his name on the teamsheet at the Parc des Princes. In a largely disappointing final, where the two sides essentially cancelled each other out, extra time loomed imposingly on the horizon when a burst of speed took Kennedy into the Madrid penalty area, where he ignored the better positioned David Johnson to drive home what would prove to be the only goal of the game.

It took Kennedy’s incredulous teammates a stunned split second to assimilate just what had happened, and then they were off, in hot pursuit of a delirious and unexpected goalscorer who was making his way toward the massed ranks of the travelling Kop.

Having walked away from Paris as the hero of the hour, Kennedy could have been forgiven for feeling like he was now indispensable to Paisley’s plans. The summer 1981 signing of Mark Lawrenson from Brighton and Hove Albion, however, soon threw his future into doubt.

On the outside looking in, when the 1981/82 season began, Kennedy eventually forced his way back into the side, again proving instrumental in Liverpool reclaiming the league title and retaining the League Cup. It had been a test of Kennedy’s character and mental durability, to overcome the added competition for places in the Liverpool defence after the arrival of Lawrenson. An attacking full-back who was arguably ahead of his time, Kennedy wasn’t a textbook defender by any means. In a team of such footballing genii, he was often identified by friend and foe alike as Liverpool’s perceived weak link.

Predominantly one-footed and at times caught out of position, Kennedy could be a distraction on off days, but when on form there was no finer attacking left-back in Europe. Kennedy operated at two pronounced polar opposites. He would have fitted into the modern game perfectly.

His knack of scoring on the big occasion was accentuated again in the 1983 League Cup final. Striking an equaliser from distance with just 15 minutes remaining against Manchester United, his goal worked as the pivot as Liverpool took control in extra time, going on to win 2-1 on an afternoon when it could easily have been a much wider margin of victory.

Beyond Wembley, another league title was collected as a fitting farewell to Paisley, who stood aside for Joe Fagan to take over the managers chair. Despite the change of manager, the trophies continued to roll in. Kennedy was an ever-present as Liverpool swept to a treble of league title, League Cup and European Cup. The league title was the Reds’ third in succession, emulating Huddersfield Town from the 1920s and Arsenal from the 30s, while the League Cup was won in the first ever all-Merseyside cup final, while the European Cup was won the hard way.

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Winning away to a physically punishing Athletic Club remains one the great underrated performances by a British football team in European competition. Kennedy then helped his side put four goals past Sven Göran-Eriksson’s Benfica at Estádio da Luz, before facing down one of the most volatile atmospheres Liverpool have ever faced when travelling to Romania to play against Dinamo Bucharest.

It was a toxic flame on which oil was poured after Graeme Souness had broken the jaw of Dinamo’s Lică Movilă, in retaliation to a series of assaults the Romanian midfielder had launched without the referee stepping in. Then came the task of travelling to Rome to take on AS Roma in their own stadium, in the final itself no less. The trips into the bear-pits of Bilbao, Lisbon and Bucharest had been perfect preparation for Rome. 

Relaxed and scoring all the pre-match psychological points, Liverpool marched into the Coliseum of football and walked away with the prize. It was the ultimate display of gate-crashing a pre-arranged party. Liverpool ripped up the script, and once again Kennedy provided the clinching moment.

Kennedy was an accidental hero. Over 120 minutes of football had passed and the game had ended 1-1. Asked by Fagan if he was OK, Kennedy confirmed he was indeed fine. Unbeknown to Kennedy, this was Fagan’s way of enquiring with his players if they were willing to take one of the penalties in the shoot-out which was about to unfold. Kennedy had no idea that he had just accepted the responsibility of taking the fifth and final Liverpool spot-kick. 

The Reds had practised penalties back at Melwood before setting off for a week in the sunshine prior to the final, but they had been comfortably beaten by the youth team. The shoulders of the players dropped as they felt they had little hope of winning from 12 yards. Even less so when Steve Nicol missed the first penalty and word had spread that Kennedy was number five on the list.

Roma stalled, however. The enormity of the situation made some giants of the Roma team shrink visibly. Bruce Grobbelaar unnerved his opponents, and somehow, when Kennedy picked up the ball to walk toward the penalty spot, he was graced by the power to once again swing the decisive kick in a European Cup final.

As Kennedy’s teammates discussed who would be the sixth Liverpool penalty taker, in preparation of him missing his spot-kick, Ronnie Whelan stood next to Phil Neal, who refused to watch the nightmare which was about to unfold, offering a running commentary of Kennedy’s efforts. With an incredulous “Yes!” Whelan was off and away, however. Kennedy had once again won the European Cup, and with an involuntary little run and hop in celebration, he was enveloped by his disbelieving teammates. 

At the peak of his powers in Rome, within 18 months, Kennedy’s time at Liverpool had come to an end. A difficult start to the 1984/85 season was compounded by an injury he picked up at home to Manchester United at the end of March. Fit again by the time of the European Cup final, Kennedy suffered a reversal of fortunes from Paris four years earlier when Paisley opted for his experience, despite question marks over his fitness. In Brussels, his new manager, Fagan, instead selected the inexperienced but impressive Jim Beglin at left-back, who had covered in Kennedy’s absence. It was from the sidelines that Kennedy watched the horrors of Heysel unfold.

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When Kenny Dalglish took on the role of player-manager in the summer of 1985, it opened the door once again for Kennedy, at least temporarily. Initially deploying Beglin on the left side of midfield, Dalglish handed Kennedy his number 3 shirt back for the first eight games of the new season.

At the Manor Ground against Oxford United in mid-September, Kennedy would play his 359th and final game in a Liverpool shirt. Despite a laboured performance, Liverpool were closing in on a 2-1 victory. With just three minutes remaining, however, Kennedy scored an unfortunate own goal, resulting in a 2-2 draw. It was a defining moment in the shift of mindset within the Liverpool squad, in accepting the change in status of Dalglish from teammate to manager.

It was retrospectively harsh, but in dispensing with Kennedy prematurely, Dalglish was stamping his authority at a time when the senior players in the squad were finding it difficult to refer to a long-term contemporary as boss. Phil Neal, who found it particularly difficult, was soon gone too.

With an opportunity to return to Newcastle on the table, and within that the chance to remain in the First Division, it was with his heart which he instead took the alternative option of signing for his boyhood favourites at Sunderland. It was to be a massive mistake.

Under the high earning Lawrie McMenemy, Sunderland were gambling the family silver on an immediate return to the top-flight after relegation from the First Division at the end of the 1984/85 season. The golden touch he had displayed at Southampton, with a style of football which had brought interest in his services from Manchester United, had made McMenemy a much sought-after commodity. Sunderland made him the highest paid manager in the country.

While the people of the north-east struggled to make ends meet in an increasingly broken Britain, McMenemy became a symbol of obscene excess. Signing an array of star names, of which Kennedy was the highest profile, it was a process which seemed ill at ease within the community it resided. That the whole experiment blew up in both Sunderland and McMenemy’s face somehow seemed hypnotic. Indeed, Sunderland were relegated to the Third Division at the end of the 1986/87 season.

Kennedy played on, becoming something of a journeyman. He plied his trade both domestically and on the continent for a short while in Denmark and Belgium, before winding down his career in the lower and non-leagues.

Criminally restricted to just two England caps, Kennedy was equally blessed and cursed in many ways. He was a player who had to work hard for everything he earned yet so often found himself in the right place at the right time to such dramatic effect. Often deemed the weak link in a legendary side, he twice had the deciding say in European Cup finals. Kennedy was a man of phenomenal deeds who lands somewhere between unlikely legend and joyous cult hero.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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