Kevin Keegan and John Toshack: the little-and-large combo who became football’s original Batman and Robin

Kevin Keegan and John Toshack: the little-and-large combo who became football’s original Batman and Robin

This feature is part of Duology

English football loves tradition. At least, it used to. An FA Cup replay on a muddy pitch, a giant-killing, a midfield hard man, an old-fashioned winger teasing a hapless fullback, four-four-two formations, and, of course, a nimble forward feeding off the knock-downs of a big target man.

You knew what you got with English football in the 1970s, the most English of decades for English football. Get the ball to the full-backs or the wingers, launch it into the opposition area, hope for a flick-on by the big man, and make the most of the ensuing chaos.

If that paints a grim picture for modern audiences, that’s because it often was. But things weren’t always that black and white and no team did more to dispel that notion more than the great Liverpool team of the time. They did that with, ironically, the help of one football’s most famous little and large forward pairings.

Few partnerships are as historically iconic, to the point of cliché, as that of Kevin Keegan and John Toshack. There was England’s Keegan, five foot eight inch, the man nicknamed Mighty Mouse, and Toshack, six foot one, the Welsh beanpole.

On the pitch they were a match made in heaven, or, more accurately, Bill Shankly’s vision to build Liverpool into “a bastion of invincibility.” Old footage of Liverpool matches from the 1970s show the two combining for goal after goal; the Kop, at its most romantic, surging forward in waves to greet yet another glorious Anfield moment.

The duo arrived at Anfield a season apart. Toshack, from Cardiff City, at the start of the 1970-71 season, and Keegan, from Scunthorpe United, a year later, after Liverpool had lost a famous FA Cup final to Charlie George and Arsenal. Their peerless partnership would prove the catalyst to Liverpool’s greatest era.

Almost immediately, they dovetailed perfectly in their seemingly obvious roles. Steve Heighway and Brian Hall, the two wingers in Liverpool’s 4-4-2 formation, delivered the crosses for the target man Toshack to head home, or down to Keegan, the nimble forward whose movement and pace few defenders could deal with. It quickly became fashionable to describe the pair’s understanding as telepathic.

Indeed, in 1974, the ITV programme Kick Off tested the theory that the two footballers could possibly share their thoughts non-verbally. Keegan and Toshack were seated back to back and one would be given a card with a shape and colour on it, while the other had to guess what it was. To the amazement of the viewers, and no doubt the delight of ITV bosses, the pair guessed correctly 10 out of 10 times.

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It was, needless to say, an illusion, the pair letting slip later that a mirror in the television studio had helped them pull of the trick. Still, talk of telepathy persisted in the enthralled media, and for good reason. Defenders throughout the First Division and across Europe simply had no answer to first Shankly’s and then Bob Paisley’s red tide.

Shoot magazine had the pair pose, in hilariously unflattering costumes, as ‘Batman Toshack’ and ‘Robin Keegan’, The ultimate superheroes. English football’s traditional big man and little man. Or so it seemed. In reality, the dynamic was a little more sophisticated than that.

Toshack was the quintessential big man with great feet, while Keegan’s mighty leaps saw him score, and create, with his head more than his diminutive stature suggested. Far from lumping the ball up to the big man, Liverpool had adopted a brand of football based on possession and short passing, brought in years earlier after a painful encounter with Johan Cruyff’s Ajax. The crosses of Heighway and Hall were mere armoury in a far grander arsenal.

Pass and move became the Liverpool mantra. As many English teams stagnated in the dark ages of 1970s long-ball football, Liverpool took on, and beat, Europe’s best at their own game. At home, Liverpool’s dominance would eventually border on the boring, so complete it had become.

Keegan and Toshack won their first league title together in 1972/73 and hit new heights in Liverpool’s triumphant UEFA Cup campaign of the same season. In the final, Liverpool met a Borussia Mönchengladbach team that included Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof, Jupp Heynckes and the gifted Günter Netzer; a blond blur of a footballer who a year earlier had captured the world’s attention with stunning midfield display as West Germany humiliated England 3-1 at Wembley.

But the Germans were up against a completely different English preposition in Liverpool and the first leg at Anfield would prove one of the finest exhibitions of the of the front-pair’s partnership. The first goal came via a typical Keegan-Toshack combination. A deep cross by right-back Peter Cormack was nodded back across the penalty area by the big man for the little man to score with a stunning diving header. A rooted Wolfgang Kneib in goal was as much a spectator as the hysterical Kop behind him.

After Keegan had a penalty saved, Liverpool doubled their lead on 32 minutes and if the first was a trademark move between Liverpool’s front two, the second was canned Keegan-Toshack. A looping defensive header was nodded down by Toshack for Keegan to volley home. Larry Lloyd completed a 3-0 win in the second half.

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Liverpool lost the second leg 2-0 in Germany but claimed their first ever European trophy on aggregate. What English First Division teams had endured on a regular basis, the rest of Europe was now getting familiar with.

A year later, in Shankly’s last competitive match, Liverpool, who had finished as runners-up in the First Division, claimed their second FA Cup. In a comprehensive 3-0 destruction of Newcastle at Wembley, Keegan scored twice and Toshack’s flick set up Heighway’s slick finish in between. But it was in the semi-final that the two put on one of the great performances of the time, running Leicester ragged at Goodison Park as Liverpool ran out 3-1 winners.

Shankly, a father figure to both Keegan and Toshack, shocked the world of football by resigning that summer but after a season of consolidation, in 1974/75 under new boss Paisley, when Liverpool again finished second in the league, normal business was resumed. In 1975/76, Keegan and Toshack helped the tough but unassuming Paisley to the first of his six league titles, and the UEFA Cup was won for the second time.

In the semi-final first leg, Liverpool became the first, and to date only, English club to beat Barcelona, then led by Johan Cruyff, at Camp Nou, Toshack showing close control before finishing with his right foot. The equally frustrated and impressed Catalan crowd applauded their visitors off the pitch, unknowing that they had just witnessed the future European champions. In the final they defeated Club Brugge of Belgium 4-3 on aggregate, Keegan scoring in both the 3-2 win at Anfield and the 1-1 draw at the Olympiastadion three weeks later.

In between, the conclusion of the 1975/76 First Division title race proved one of the most dramatic in years. On the last day of the season, Liverpool needed to beat Wolves at Molineux to win the championship. With 15 minutes to go, the Reds trailed 1-0 and the title looked destined for QPR. Enter Batman and Robin. Toshack’s deft flick set up the equaliser for Keegan before the Welshman showed remarkable control and poise to score the winner. In the dying minutes, Keegan slipped Ray Kennedy in to score a brilliant third and spark a pitch invasion. Liverpool were champions of England again.

Keegan was named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and would announce that the following season would be his last at Anfield. Toshack, meanwhile, was increasingly plagued by injuries that would ultimately call time on his Liverpool career. Yet their last season together, 1976/77, would go down as arguably the greatest in Liverpool’s history. Winning the league was practically second nature for the Reds by this point and a record 10th First Division championship was secured after a 0-0 draw with West Ham.

On 22 May, Liverpool met Manchester United at Wembley looking to complete a league and FA Cup double. Fearing a potential replay, ridiculously scheduled for three weeks later, Paisley, for once in his career, made a hurried decision that would prove costly. As he later admitted, in his eagerness to avoid a replay, he dropped the veteran Ian Callaghan for centre-forward David Johnson. With the side disrupted, Manchester United won 2-1.

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Yet only four days later, Liverpool would pull off the club’s greatest ever performance, at least to that day, by beating old foes Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 in the European Cup final in Rome. In his last match for the club, Keegan was simply unstoppable throughout, eventually winning the penalty that Phil Neal converted for the third goal.

For Keegan and Toshack, there had been an earlier curtain call. In the quarter-final second leg, against St-Étienne, the pair played their part in one of Anfield’s most cherished nights. Keegan scored in the second minute before Toshack’s replacement, David Fairclough, scored a late winner at the Kop end to secure a raucous 3-1 win on the night; 3-2 on aggregate. It would prove to be the last truly epic match that Keegan and Toshack played as strike partners.

Though Toshack took no part in Rome, the season was a fitting finale for the era of Liverpool’s little and large. Keegan left for Hamburg, while Toshack moved to Swansea, where he enjoyed success as a player-manager.

Though Liverpool have since then had better duos – aesthetically and statistically – Keegan and Toshack remain the go-to reference for Anfield’s great striking partnerships.

As Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, perhaps the club’s finest ever pairing, won domestic titles and European Cups, the Scottish genius astonishingly proved an upgrade on Keegan; the skinny Welsh goal machine earned the nickname “Tosh”, as much for his sudden propensity for headed goals as it was for his common nationality with the club’s former number nine.

Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard were as far removed from an old-fashioned striking duo as you can get and yet their brief, plentiful partnership between 2007 and 2009 brought Liverpool fans untold joy in an era of hope under Rafa BenítezIn more recent times, Anfield has rocked to the attacking trios of first Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling and then Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané.

But perhaps the partnership that recalled the days of Keegan and Toshack most acutely was that of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey at the start of the new millennium. It was, as with the 70s duo, more than just a case of the big man knocking down for little man. Heskey’s heading prowess was not that of Toshack’s but his unselfishness, strength and underrated hold-up play were heaven sent for Owen who, in 2001, became the first Englishman since Keegan to win the Ballon d’Or.

There was a time when English football loved tradition. But in the age of the Premier League, tradition rarely goes back beyond 1992. The 4-4-2 is all but consigned to the history books, the false nine has replaced the old-fashioned number nine, and attacks are made up of front threes or lone strikers; rarely a pairing.

None of these developments are necessarily undesirable, but it’s a shame that English football is unlikely to see a little and large pairing quite like Keegan and Toshack again, certainly not one that cleaned up at home and in Europe over six glorious seasons. After all, when was the last time you saw Batman and Robin taking on Wolves in a title decider?

By Ali Khaled @AliKhaled_

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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