Phil Neal: the most decorated yet understated player in Liverpool history

Phil Neal: the most decorated yet understated player in Liverpool history

While Liverpool have contested nine European Cup or Champions League finals – winning six of them – there is an oddity at play in how only one man has scored for the club in more than one of those finals. Phil Neal is the player who owns that bespoke piece of Anfield history. 

Picked up from non-league Wellingborough by Northampton Town in 1968, Neal was soon thrown into the first team, making his debut at 17 under the management of former Wolves legend, Ron Flowers. Little more than two years earlier, Flowers had been an unused member of England’s World Cup-winning squad, while the Cobblers had just relinquished their temporary hold on a place in the First Division. 

A second consecutive relegation had befallen Northampton in 1966/67, and the following campaign had been an unconvincing one in the Third Division. The 1968/69 season would prove to be a cataclysmic one, as the club slid ignominiously back into the fourth tier, just eight years after they had exited the ground floor of the Football League when setting off on a rise that saw them gatecrash the top flight four years later.

Northampton’s rise and fall had been astounding, with their drop back into the Fourth Division an almost hypnotic event, plummetting from mid-table to the relegation zone within the indecent haste of their last five games of the season. It was a rot which had set in some six weeks earlier when, from a relatively healthy-looking situation towards the tail end of March 1969, they failed to win any of their remaining ten league games. 

A baptism of fire for the teenager, it was a relegation that could easily have sank a young footballer’s career. Neal had another trajectory ahead of himself, however. 

In and out of the team during 1969/70 and 1970/71, before becoming a regular from 1971/72 onward, Neal was a rare spark element in a team that would take seven years to escape the confines of the Fourth Division, inclusive of the need to seek re-election after finishing in 91st position in 1972/73.   

Despite the collective problems at the County Ground, 1972/73 had been a free-scoring campaign for Neal, as would 1973/74, covering a variety of positions when called away from right-back to shore up for the injuries or loss of form of others. This adaptability reached a peak in his very last game for Northampton, in October 1974, against Rotherham United at Millmoor, when he was required to pull on the goalkeeper’s shirt for the final 15 minutes after Alan Starling was forced from the pitch. 

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Bob Paisley and his staff had already seen enough in Neal – well before his goalkeeping cameo role – to provoke a successful £66,000 bid for his services. In doing so, he became Paisley’s first signing as Liverpool manager. 

Aged 23, Neal could no longer be classed as a promising youngster when he arrived at Anfield. He was at a finely balanced point of his career. A prolonged period to make a break into the Liverpool first team would have taken him into his mid-20s, while the men in front of him were multi-honoured England internationals. These were figures who would not be easy to unseat. 

Signed as the projected successor to Chris Lawler at right-back, it was instead at left-back that Neal’s first opportunity to impress fell his way. Not much more than a month after his arrival, he was thrown into the Merseyside derby for his debut at Goodison Park.  

Not initially part of the squad for the game, Neal was due to play at Anfield for Liverpool’s reserves against Blackburn when Tom Saunders swooped to escort him for the short walk through Stanley Park, Neal’s boots wrapped up in a brown paper bag. Recognised by many supporters, he was asked not if he was playing but if he had any spare tickets for the big game.   

As Neal and Saunders approached Goodison, the defender was still oblivious to the fact that he was indeed going to be playing that afternoon. A late injury to Alec Lindsay and the unavailability of Phil Thompson had forced Paisley’s hand in what was his first derby as manager of Liverpool. After a hesitant start to the game, Neal found his focus and helped his new team to a valuable point. 

While Lindsay returned to the line-up for the very next game, Neal wasn’t left to wait long to cement a place in Paisley’s evolving team. It was less than a month later when he reappeared at left-back once again, this time for his home debut against Luton. 

Neal’s education in the Liverpool reserve team had lasted just six games. When he took to the Anfield pitch to face Luton in December 1974, little did anybody know that over the course of the next 11 years, the former Northampton star would go on to become Liverpool’s most decorated player. 

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A beacon of consistency between returning to the Liverpool first team against Luton and dropping down to the bench – ironically at Goodison – for the September 1985 derby, Neal missed only one league game; an away defeat to Sunderland in October 1983. As part of this incredible run, he played in a record 365 consecutive league games.  

At the end of the 1974/75 season, Liverpool were left empty-handed when it came to silverware. Exiting both domestic cup competitions and the Cup Winners’ Cup early, Paisley’s team were First Division runners-up to Dave Mackay’s Derby in what had been one of the most wide-open title races ever. When Neal commented on what a brilliant season it had been, he was left in no uncertain terms that any season where trophies didn’t find their way to Anfield was not to be classed as a success. It was a problem that was emphatically corrected 12 months later. 

Having made a breakthrough at left-back, Neal started the 1975/76 season in his more accustomed right-back position ahead of the ageing Lawler and Tommy Smith. The signing of Joey Jones from Wrexham as a naturally left-footed full-back had allowed Paisley to implement his planned changing of the guard on the right, to Neal.  

Soon, however, Neal was covering at left-back once more. It would take a year for Jones to acclimatise to football at a higher level, which meant that first Lawler then Smith took on the right-back berth again, with Neal asked to switch. 

Real Sociedad was the team on the receiving end of Neal’s first goal in a Liverpool shirt, and soon he was sharing the penalty duties with Kevin Keegan – a sign of his growing stature in a team of experienced internationals. 

By March 1976, Neal had won the first of his 50 England caps in a 2-1 victory over Wales at the Racecourse Ground, in a game marking the centenary of the Football Association of Wales. This was despite not playing for Liverpool in his favoured position. Neal was one of five Liverpool players in Don Revie’s line-up, while Jones was in Mike Smith’s Wales team. Neal would go on to play at both Euro 1980 and the 1982 World Cup.  

His first full season at Liverpool ended with a league championship winners medal and another in the UEFA Cup. Both were won in dramatic circumstances, with a final game clincher at Molineux against Wolves to claim the title, and a tense 4-3 aggregate win over Club Brugge in the UEFA Cup final. The end of the 1975/76 season also brought a close to his days covering at left-back.

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With Jones better acclimatised to first-team football for 1976/77, Neal was free to claim the right-back role as his and his alone. Another league championship was won, and he completed the campaign by scoring Liverpool’s third goal in the European Cup final against Udo Lattek’s immensely talented Borussia Mönchengladbach. Neal had also scored Liverpool’s first two goals in the semi-final against FC Zürich, ghosting in at the back post for the first and converting from the penalty spot for the second. It was this sort of added attacking endeavour in open-play that prompted him to be given the nickname ‘Zico’.   

There was only one blot on the 1976/77 copybook for Neal and Liverpool, which came at Wembley – four days before winning the European Cup in Rome – when they were beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Paisley and his team were undone by the desire to ensure the game didn’t go to a replay, one that wouldn’t have taken place until late-June due to the midweek European Cup final, which would then be followed by an extensive international programme of fixtures, inclusive of England and Scotland undertaking tours of South America. 

It was the closest Neal came to winning the FA Cup. Liverpool won it six months before he signed for the club and then again six months after his departure, yet 1977 would prove to be the only time Neal would reach the final. 

Within a year, Neal had his second European Cup winners medal, Liverpool beating Brugge at Wembley in a major European final for the second time in three seasons, before focusing on domestic matters with further league titles secured in 1978/79 and 1979/80. The first of those back-to-back titles was the very epicentre of the Paisley impact upon the club: the record books were constantly rewritten during a campaign of remarkable league domination. It was also the season when Alan Kennedy became Neal’s left-back partner in overlapping crime. 

As Paisley dispensed with the concept of out-and-out wingers, he opted for wide midfielders who tucked in, converting Ray Kennedy from a misfiring striker into a stylish left-sided midfielder and utilising the rise of the explosive Jimmy Case on the right. Neal and Jones – then in-turn Alan Kennedy – were given far more freedom to attack than full-backs at other clubs, yet it was done in a beautifully balance manner where defensive duties were never neglected. Liverpool conceded just 16 league goals during the 42-game 1978/79 title-winning season.

While league inconsistencies kicked in during 1980/81, Neal’s third European Cup winners medal was obtained in Paris against Real Madrid. A first League Cup was also won, but upheaval was upon the horizon. 

When Liverpool’s league form continued to fluctuate during the first half of the 1981/82 campaign, Paisley escalated the alterations he had begun to implement the previous summer. A sweeping exodus of star names around this point included Ray Clemence, Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Terry McDermott and Case. Phil Thompson also found himself on borrowed time.

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Neal, alongside Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, became the new senior members of the Liverpool squad, overseeing the integration of players such as Bruce Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson, Sammy Lee, Craig Johnston, Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush. In this respect, it became a fertile period for Neal, Dalglish and Souness, where they picked up many of the nurturing skills they would later take into their respective managerial careers.   

A new wave of success followed and league title and League Cup doubles were collected in 1981/82 and 1982/83. The transition of one visage of Liverpool to the next had appeared to those on the outside to have been a seamless one. It was, however, a hard-earned continuation of domination. 

When Paisley stepped down as manager in the summer of 1983, Joe Fagan took over in a stunning era of Anfield continuity, of boot room anointed successors, where there was almost something Papal about the system.

The 1983/84 campaign, Fagan’s first in charge, was individually more successful than any led by either Bill Shankly or Paisley as a treble of league, European Cup and League Cup was collected. For Neal, this meant a fourth European Cup and a fourth successive League Cup winners medal, in turn becoming the most decorated player in Liverpool’s history. 

In Rome, against Roma, Neal had opened the scoring in the 1984 European Cup final, thus becoming the only Liverpool player to score in multiple European Cup finals, while in the slipstream of Souness’ transfer to Sampdoria, he was also handed the captaincy.

From here, it should have been a wonderful Indian Summer to Neal’s days at Anfield. Yet, collective shortcomings at the beginning of the 1984/85 season meant that a fourth successive league title was never realistic. Added to this, Liverpool finally relinquished their hold on the League Cup, and they lost to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup after two electrically charged games. 

Then came Heysel where, as captain, Neal had been compelled to carry the weight of the chaos surrounding him when asked to address the crowd at the height of the fatal disturbances. What should have been his proudest night was in ruins.

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With Dalglish named as player-manager the following day, Neal was left to pick up the pieces of his personal devastation. Having been one of the focal points for Liverpool in Brussels, he had now been overlooked as a potential successor to Fagan as manager. Remaining as captain, as the 1985/86 season began, Neal and Dalglish reputedly struggled to deal with the need for a new relationship between the two – as manager and senior player. Neal kept hold of the number 2 shirt until a collective defensive capitulation away to Oxford acted as the catalyst for change.

Alan Kennedy was sold with near immediate effect, while Neal was stunningly dropped to the bench for the trip to Goodison a week later. He would play just a handful of more games for Liverpool, before accepting an offer from Bolton to become their player-manager in December 1985. Despite this, he had made enough appearances for Liverpool to qualify for a 1985/86 title winners medal. It made him a league champion for an incredible eighth time.  

At Bolton, Neal had inherited a club in decay. Unable to save them from relegation from the Third Division in his first full season in charge, he eventually laid the foundations of stability that his predecessors were able to utilise in order to take the club back to the top-flight. Neal took Bolton to an immediate return to the Third Division, and over the course of the next three seasons, he twice took them close to promotion to the Second Division, losing out in the 1991 playoff final. Frustration at missing out eventually provoked a parting of the ways. 

During the years that followed, Neal was part of Graham Taylor’s coaching set-up with the England national team, before taking the helm at Coventry in the Premier League. This was followed by a short spell at Cardiff and a stint as caretaker-manager at Manchester City when, having been brought in as Steve Coppell’s assistant, he was swiftly thrust into the top job after Coppell walked away from Maine Road after only 33 days in the role. 

One final coaching position came Neal’s way when he became Barry Fry’s assistant at Peterborough, yet it was to be another short stay, their union failing to last an entire season.

While Neal’s managerial and coaching career was littered with an array of ‘what if’ scenarios, his career was exceptional at Liverpool. The most decorated player in the club’s history, both in domestic and European terms, he was a full-back way ahead of his time, striking the perfect balance between defence and attack and blessed with a destructive eye for a penalty and a knack of ghosting in at the back post unnoticed. Neal was not only a fitting successor to Lawler and Smith as Liverpool’s right-back, but also as a predecessor of the likes of Steve Nicol, Rob Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold. 

In a litany of Liverpool legends, while Phil Neal is the most decorated, he is arguably the one that remains the most understated, too.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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