A tribute to Ray Clemence: a man of rare class on and off the pitch

A tribute to Ray Clemence: a man of rare class on and off the pitch

It was his agility, his reading of the game, and his supreme attention to detail that marked out Ray Clemence out as one of the greatest goalkeepers of not only his, but all footballing generations. 

A man who marshalled a defence that had the utmost confidence in his ability to bail them out of any tight spot, there was an impregnable yet languid nature to Clemence’s goalkeeping that spoke of a natural-born talent to stop the ball from entering his net. He was utterly unique. 

While with some goalkeepers you can observe them in terms of their style, and then suggest the contemporaries that might well have been an inspiration to their approach to the game, there had been no goalkeeper quite like Clemence prior to his blossoming. 

Arguably a generation ahead of the game, when Bill Shankly signed Clemence for Liverpool from Scunthorpe in 1967, he was not yet 18, However, for over a year, he had been the first-choice goalkeeper at the Old Show Ground, showing enough of those burgeoning trademark talents to help his club retain their place in the Third Division during a closely contested relegation battle and attract the interests of a clutch of First Division admirers. 

Clemence was acutely aware of the growing interest in his signature, and while he had read of Liverpool’s reported intent, it was still a shock to him when, after the final game of the season, there was Shankly, walking across the car park, hand outstretched and a glint in his eye. 

Shankly, clicking through all his highest salesman gears, swept Clemence to Merseyside, showing him around Melwood and then unveiling Anfield to his prospective new signing. Leading the impressionable teenager through the famous old tunnel and out on to the pitch, he strolled him down to an empty Kop, all the while imploring that there was no better place to play his football and that he would soon be putting pressure on Tommy Lawrence for his place in the first team. 

A cool £18,000 changed hands between Liverpool and Scunthorpe, and Clemence was to be a Reds player for the next 14 years. It would be almost three years before he took Lawrence’s place, biding his time in the reserves, learning the fabled Liverpool way under the guidance of Joe Fagan. 

Over the course of his first three seasons at Anfield, Clemence was the apprentice to Lawrence, the master. Within this, he was able to obsessively study Lawrence on a day-to-day basis in training at Melwood, taking every opportunity to watch the Scottish international in action for the first team whenever he wasn’t in simultaneous action for Liverpool’s prolific reserve side. 

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It was here that Clemence learned the art of the sweeper-keeper, the hallmark of Liverpool’s most legendary custodians. Having started out as a striker before excelling at left-back, Clemence was a natural with the ball at his feet, so much so that when he played outfield during Liverpool’s keenly contested five-a-side games in training, he could confidently hold his own in combat with a litany of defensive, midfield and attacking greats. 

Falling into goalkeeping by chance, it had soon become glaringly apparent that Clemence had a natural talent for the role, and he had progressed rapidly at Scunthorpe. It was with an air of inevitability that he eventually ascended to the Liverpool first-team.

Afforded his debut in September 1968 against Swansea in the League Cup, Clemence marked it with a clean sheet, the first of an incredible 323 clean sheets from the 665 games he played for Liverpool. It was to be his only first-team appearance of the season.

It was almost a year before he made his next appearance, coming in to cover for Lawrence in a Fairs Cup encounter against Dundalk at Anfield, after Shankly’s first-choice goalkeeper had suffered a bout of gastroenteritis. As satisfying it will have been to experience European football, on a night when the future Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier was amongst those congregated on the Kop on his first visit to Anfield, Clemence had little to do as his team ran up an empathetic 10-0 victory. A fortnight later, at Oriel Park, Clemence was selected for the second leg, keeping yet another clean sheet.  

Clemence returned to the reserves for the next four months, until called upon once more towards the end of January to deputise for the injured Lawrence,in the FA Cup fourth round encounter with Wrexham at Anfield. Seven days later, he made his league debut on a testing afternoon at the City Ground, where a narrow defeat to Nottingham Forest could easily have been by a wider margin had it not been for a combination of disallowed goals and the goalkeeping of Clemence.

A baptism to First Division football that might have made some personalities shrink, it simply left Clemence with an appetite for more. Yet, Lawrence made his return in the very next game – the FA Cup fifth-round clash at home to Leicester. He responded to the growing threat of Clemence with three successive clean sheets, before Liverpool headed to Vicarage Road to take on a Second Division Watford side they had already defeated in the League Cup. 

What followed was 90 minutes of football that altered the entire direction of Clemence’s future – and that of the club he was employed by. A numbing 1-0 defeat, via a goal scored by the former Everton youth striker Barry Endean, was to be the catalyst for wholesale change and a period of transition that would see Liverpool eventually return to trophy-winning ways in the 1972/73 season. 

While it worked on something of an 18-month sliding scale, the loss to Watford marked the beginning of the end for the Liverpool career of Lawrence, along with Peter Wall, Geoff Strong, Ron Yeats and Ian St John. Of the others on duty for Liverpool that fateful day – before Shankly’s side were in possession of their next piece of silverware – Ian Ross, Alun Evans, Bobby Graham and Doug Livermore had also been deemed surplus to requirements. Only Chris Lawler, Emlyn Hughes and Ian Callaghan survived the cull, as did the injured Tommy Smith.

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For Lawrence, he was the hardest done by. Just short of his 30th birthday and performing consistently, while he was partly culpable for Watford’s winning goal, it was simply a case of the rich promise and youthfulness of Clemence having an irresistible and almost gravitational pull, which saw Lawrence alleviated of his place in the first team. 

Seven days later, Clemence was handed the number one shirt on a permanent basis. The moment was observed by a 2-0 defeat at home to Brian Clough’s swiftly rising Derby, yet 14 months later, he was walking out at Wembley to contest the first of his five FA Cup finals, part of a rejuvenated team in which meteoric rises had also been enjoyed by the likes of Alec Lindsay, Larry Lloyd, Brian Hall, Steve Heighway and John Toshack.

This new Liverpool were undone in the 1971 FA Cup final, in extra time, by an Arsenal team that was completing the league and cup double – however, it was the beaten team that day which went on to be the most dominant force of the remainder of the decade. It was a game played out with a new signing watching from the sidelines. Another recruit from Scunthorpe, Kevin Keegan would soon make his presence known.  

Between that First Division game against Derby on the last day of February 1970 to his last league game for Liverpool in May 1981, Clemence missed just six, becoming the director of the meanest defence in English football. Amongst a glut of honours and records he scooped up, he conceded just 16 league goals during the 1978/79 season. 

Five league titles, three European Cups, two UEFA Cups, and one FA Cup and League Cup each, Clemence accumulated 12 major winners medals during his time with Liverpool, claiming his first England cap in 1972 against Wales, beginning a rivalry with Peter Shilton that would stretch for over a decade. 

Having been part of what is commonly referred to as Shankly’s second great side, which delivered a league title and UEFA Cup double in 1972/73, followed by FA Cup glory in 1974, Clemence was later a crucial component under Bob Paisley. The 1975/76 league title and UEFA Cup double opened the floodgates to an even greater concentration of success. 

In 1976/77, the First Division was retained, while a first European Cup was obtained in Rome against Udo Lattek’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. A treble was denied when Liverpool were beaten in the FA Cup final against Manchester United, on a day when Paisley felt compelled to attempt to force the win on the day, rather than contemplate a projected replay that wouldn’t have taken place until late-June. That was due to the positioning of the European Cup final, the onset of the British Home Championship, and the FA having organised an end of season England tour of South America to prepare for a World Cup they had little chance of qualifying for.

Clemence played a pivotal role in breaking the gloom while the Liverpool squad waited to board a train north after their FA Cup final defeat. On a subdued railway platform, he let his frustrations loose in a loud and comical manner, imploring that beers were needed. It blew the clouds away; Clemence and his teammates intensified their focus on the European Cup final.

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In Rome, it was Clemence’s vital block with the score at 1-1 upon which the outcome of a closely contested game pivoted. Four years earlier, against the same opponents in the 1973 UEFA Cup final, it was his first leg penalty save that ultimately proved the difference between glory and failure in Liverpool winning their first major European honour. 

Over the course of his last four seasons at Anfield, he helped Liverpool in winning two more European Cups, two more league titles, and the League Cup for the very first time. 

Winning had become an unbreakable habit, and while he sat there in the Parc des Princes dressing room after Liverpool had beaten Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final, he looked on at the exuberant celebrations and wondered why he didn’t feel the same way as his teammates; why rather than the high of winning the biggest prize in European club football, it had instead felt like any other day at the office. 

Clemence’s sudden thirst for a new challenge was as much a surprise to him as it was for Paisley, and after a summer in which the Liverpool manager hoped for a change of heart from his goalkeeper, there was a symbolic last game in a Liverpool shirt for the former Scunthorpe man when Paisley’s side opened their pre-season campaign at the Old Show Ground, the place where it had all began for Clemence. 

Two and half weeks later, Clemence was at Wembley in the colours of Tottenham, reversing a trend by the club from four years earlier when they had allowed a 32-year-old Pat Jennings to depart White Hart Lane, only to see him sign for arch-rivals Arsenal, where he enjoyed many more seasons at the top end of the game, after being classed as beyond his best by Tottenham. 

When Clemence made the move to Tottenham, he was a year older than Jennings was when he was shown to the White Hart Lane exit door. More success was to come his way, despite two high-profile mistakes in the Charity Shield against Aston Villa, when deceived twice by high crosses.

Clemence ended his first season in north London by winning another FA Cup medal, helping Tottenham retain the trophy, defeating Second Division Queens Park Rangers in a replay. He had also faced his former teammates in the League Cup final, coming to within minutes of beating Liverpool, before conceding a late equaliser and being overrun in extra-time. 

There was also an emotional return to Anfield when he was given a rapturous reception by the Kop, on the day that Liverpool clinched the 1981/82 First Division title. 

At international level, Clemence had unseated Shilton as England’s number one during Joe Mercer’s short caretaker spell in charge in the summer of 1974, for the rest of the decade remaining the preferred choice of Don Revie and during the first three years of Ron Greenwood’s time in charge. 

Between 1980 and 1982, however, Shilton’s form with Nottingham Forest put him on parity with Clemence, and Greenwood opted that they shared the job, alternating between the two in a manner that contributed to England’s inconsistent form during the qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup. 

While Clemence had played in two out of England’s three games at the 1980 European Championship, he watched the 1982 World Cup from the bench, after Greenwood had informed the two rivals that there would be a defined first choice for the finals, rather than a continuation of rotating them. 

Clemence had been at an acute disadvantage during the qualifiers when it came to attempts to impress upon Greenwood which of the two should get the nod in Spain. He was dealt a hand where he was fielded for all four of England’s away fixtures, while Shilton was handed all four home games. 

England laboured on their travels, losing three out of four, inclusive of a shocking defeat in Oslo against Norway, which was forever immortalised by the post-match summing up of the Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien, who magnificently goaded Margaret Thatcher and Lord Beaverbrook, amongst others. 

With the 1982 FA Cup final replay denying Clemence the opportunity to play in England’s last Wembley performance prior to the World Cup finals, it gave Shilton’s hopes another boost, and despite being handed the number one shirt, it was Clemence who was sat on the bench when England defeated France in Bilbao in their first World Cup game for 12 years. 

After another victory, this time over Czechoslovakia, England went into their final group game against Kuwait already through. Greenwood, feeling pangs of regret that Clemence was missing out on playing on the biggest stage in football, spoke to him in training, reassuring him that he would speak to his inner circle about him playing the group ending game. Yet the call-up for Clemence never came, and the chance to play in the World Cup was gone forever.

Continuing to be the backup for Shilton during England’s failed attempt to qualify for the 1984 European Championship, Clemence would retire from international football after suffering an injury that meant he wasn’t fully fit for the run-in to the 1983/84 season, inclusive of missing out on playing in the 1984 UEFA Cup final, where it was instead his understudy, Tony Parks, whose heroics won Tottenham their second UEFA Cup. 

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Electing to solely concentrate on club football, from the beginning of the 1984/85 campaign, Clemence enjoyed his best form as a Tottenham player over the course the last three years of his career. 

If his move from Anfield to White Hart Lane had been the great leveller in his rivalry with Shilton, then Shilton’s move to Southampton could have tilted the balance toward Clemence again – yet the new England manager, Bobby Robson, went with Shilton. 

Despite this, Clemence’s form was so impressive during 1985/86 that Robson sounded him out over travelling to Mexico for the 1986 World Cup, only to turn down the offer, not wanting to expend the type of physical and mental energy that would be required, only to watch the tournament from the bench once more. It’s something that might well have had an adverse effect on his club form for Tottenham, a club that had shown so much faith in him. 

Clemence’s decision on this was partly vindicated in 1986/87. He was part of David Pleat’s magnificent treble-chasing campaign, as Tottenham manoeuvred themselves into what was shaping up to be a fascinating title race as winter turned to spring. Added to this, two trips to Wembley loomed. 

While consistency in the league slipped and Arsenal mounted a stunning comeback in the League Cup semi-final, Tottenham reached the FA Cup final, where Coventry weren’t expected to deny them the glory their football had richly deserved. 

On a day when Glenn Hoddle was playing his last game for the club and Clive Allen scored his 49th goal of the season, Tottenham were undone by an inspired Coventry and a cruel deflection which left Clemence helpless. 

Fast approaching 40 and carrying on into the 1987/88 season, before winter arrived, Clemence had unsuspectingly played his last professional game. Injury eventually ended his careerl not prematurely but abruptly, after which he moved into coaching, even having a season as co-manager at White Hart Lane and returning to the employment of the national team as goalkeeping coach. He served all these roles with the same level of dedication to detail that he had displayed as a player of incredible talent.

Beset by serious illness for the last decade and a half of his life, Clemence bravely continued to work, his last major tournament with England being the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A truly majestic goalkeeper, the perfect teammate, an invaluable mentor to a generation of goalkeepers as a coach, and an outstanding individual both on and off the pitch. Ray Clemence will be sorely missed.   

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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