The madness of Liverpool’s first foray into European competition

The madness of Liverpool’s first foray into European competition

Six-time European Cup winners; three-time UEFA Cup winners; a club synonymous with continental glory and famous nights under the floodlights: when it comes to European competition and experiences, you can safely say that Liverpool have been there, done that and bought many t-shirts. Few teams have as much history across the continent. Crazy nights in Istanbul, thundering roars against St-Étienne, and the despair of Heysel. 

But every voyage begins with a first tentative step. And for Liverpool, that initial journey into the great unknown commenced in the summer of 1964. The nation was gripped by Beatlemania as the Fab Four started to conquer the world. Such was the fervour, cinemas saw the release of A Hard Day’s Night accompanied by screaming teenagers while The Beatles’ return to their home city saw 300 people injured as around 150,000 attempted to see their idols in person. Liverpool became the epicentre of Britain, relegating London to a minor role – at least until the Swinging Sixties exploded into full flowering.

And while Liverpool dominated the pop scene, it also dominated the football world. Bill Shankly led Liverpool to the Second Division title in 1962, bringing the Reds back into the limelight. Incredibly, just two seasons later, Liverpool were English champions for the first time since 1947, powered by the goals of Roger Hunt, Ian St John and Alf Arrowsmith, who combined for 92 strikes that season.

That Championship was rewarded by Liverpool’s maiden entry onto the European stage – a place in the European Cup against the elite of the continent. It was a competition that, at the time, was still purely contested between league champions, a straight knockout from the beginning. No groups, no seeding.

It is almost impossible now to imagine Liverpool looking ahead to European competition as an unknown quantity, but it must be remembered that, until Shankly won that title in 1964, Liverpool had been in the doldrums.

Early British escapades into Europe were led by the likes of Wolves, Manchester United, Dundee and Hibs. As those clubs visited Barcelona, Madrid and Milan, Liverpool were mired in the Second Division, travelling to the slightly less glamourous metropolises of Scunthorpe, Plymouth and Rotherham. But all that had changed over the course of three seasons, and Liverpool were now playing alongside the giants of Europe.

The competition began with a preliminary round, although in effect it was basically a full round with only the previous season’s winners, Internazionale, afforded a bye. Given the straight draw and lack of seeding, Liverpool could theoretically have drawn anyone, including the likes of Real Madrid or Benfica – a potential recipe for a short-lived adventure.

But they managed to avoid the big boys and instead started their first European expedition with a trip to Iceland, whose champions were KR.

That season, KR became the first Icelandic team to enter the European Cup, so a trip to their island was uncommon in those days. And what a trip it was. Now there are probably direct flights from Liverpool to Iceland, but in those days it was somewhat more convoluted. Leaving from Liverpool, the team first had to travel to Manchester, then fly from Manchester to London, then fly from London to Prestwick, and finally from there on to Reykjavik.

What is more admirable is that some Liverpool supporters actually made the trip themselves. For many, with Liverpool having never been in Europe, this could have been their first trip outside of England. As one fan put it at the time, “We thought they were all eskimos,” before being surprised to find they were just like scousers. Different times, indeed.

Ayrshire was also the home county of Shankly, so he couldn’t resist showing off the area to his boys before travelling on to Iceland. Full of pride, Shanks hired a bus to take the team to see … Butlin’s holiday camp. On proudly telling the camp leader that they were Liverpool FC, en route to Iceland, the gentleman helpfully told them, “I think you’ve taken the wrong road, sir.”

And so, on 17 August 1964, Liverpool strode out for the very first time in European competition on the green grass of Reyjavik before 10,000 witnesses. Opening night nerves and a lack of experience affected them; at half-time, Liverpool were carrying a slim 1-0 advantage heading into the break. But then fitness levels and experience kicked in and two goals from Wallace and Hunt saw them run out 5-0 winners.

A month later, the Icelanders made the long trip over to Anfield and, sadly for them, took another pasting, this time losing 6-1 with Ian St John grabbing a double. The competition was already down to just 16 teams and the draw for the first round proper awaited.

This time, Liverpool would not be getting such a straightforward tie. Fate threw them up against the Belgian champions, Anderlecht. This was an side that would then go on to win the following four Belgian First Division titles too – a streak that is still a national record.

It was a team led by the legendary Paul Van Himst, the scorer of 233 goals in 457 appearances for the club 16 seasons. This team was so good that when Belgium played against the Netherlands in 1964, there were ten Anderlecht players within the starting line-up. The only non-Anderlecht starter was the goalkeeper, Standard Leige’s Guy Delhasse, but he was substituted during the game by Jean-Marie Trappeniers who was, of course, an Anderlecht player. Liverpool had their work cut out.

Ahead of the game, Shankly decided on a rebranding of his team. Liverpool had traditionally played in red shirts and white shorts, but the manager decided that playing in all red would make the players look bigger and more intimidating – and so was born the legendary kit that we know and love so well today. Shankly was also aware of the threat posed by Van Himst and decided to throw a tough young defender up against him by the name of Tommy Smith.

And so onto Anfield for the first leg on 25 November. As the players were getting set to leave the changing room, Shankly gave them his final words of advice: “Right boys. You’ve nothing to beat tonight, they’re a load of rubbish.”

Ninety minutes later, Liverpool had swept the Belgians aside 3-0, with goals from St John, Hunt and Ron Yeats. Shankly’s words on the Reds re-entering the changing room were plain: “Congratulations, you’ve just beaten one of the best teams in Europe.”

A further 1-0 win in Brussels saw Liverpool through to the quarter-finals with four wins out of four under their belt. They seemed to be getting the hang of this European thing. But now some serious weeding out had been done and the competition was down to the major players, including the ever-dangerous trio of Real Madrid, Benfica and Inter. The hope would be to avoid one of those in the next round.

As luck would have it, Real Madrid drew Benfica, meaning one of those powers would be eliminated at this stage. Inter drew Scottish champions Rangers leaving Liverpool to face German champions Köln. It wasn’t the hardest tie but was far from the easiest either.

Köln had gained entry into the European Cup by becoming winners of the first-ever Bundesliga in 1963. A 0-0 stalemate in Germany was followed by the same back on Merseyside; 180 minutes of football and no goals to show for it. Back then, the next step was a playoff at a neutral venue.

And so, on 25 March 1965, Liverpool and Köln fans met up at Feyenoord’s De Kuip for the decider. The Reds got off to a cracking start, with St. John tapping in from close range on 20 minutes followed by a Roger Hunt second on 37 minutes. Obviously the all-red strip was having the desired effect.

But Köln got back into the match through a Karl-Heinz Thielen header a minute later, meaning the Reds went into half-time 2-1 up. Shortly after kick-off, the Germans scored again, this time through Hannes Löhr, to level matters – and that is how the game remained until the final whistle.

So how do you decide a high-profile European Cup quarter-final when the playoff is tied? At the time, penalties were not in use, and so it came down to the ultimate test of football skills and composure – the coin toss. Unbelievable to think now but yes, a critical European Cup game would be decided on the flip of a coin. In the middle of the pitch. Televised.

Up stepped the captains, Ron Yeats and Hans Sturm. Under the floodlights, Yeats recalls the events wonderfully: “I thought, get in quick, I’ll have tails referee. And before he asked, he went yeah – Liverpool tails, Köln heads. Up it went and it come down and I couldn’t believe it, it stuck in a divot on its side. We were trying to blow over to tails by now and of course the German captain was trying to blow over to heads. And he had more puff than I had. It was coming over to heads and I said to the referee, ref, you’re going to have to re-toss the coin. And he said you’re right Mr Yeats and he picked it up. I thought, great, up it went again.”

Over 48,000 fans held their breath and waited for some sort of signal – and then the Liverpool players were jumping for joy. The Reds had just progressed to the semi-finals of the European Cup thanks to Yeats and tails.

Shankly went over to the Köln bench to commiserate, saying that it was no way to decide such a hard-fought, evenly-balanced game. And so, in their maiden continental odyssey, Liverpool found themselves in the European Cup semi-finals.

Joining them would be holders Inter, two-time champions Benfica, and ETO Győr, a Hungarian side who had just won the league for the first time. Probably hoping for Győr, Liverpool were instead drawn against Inter. If the Reds were hoping to get to the final in, appropriately enough, Milan, they were going to have to overcome Helenio Herrera’s men.

Just how daunting a task would that be? Well, Il Grande Inter, as they would later be named in recognition of their prowess, had lifted the European Cup the year before, defeating the dominant Real Madrid 3-1. They were managed by perhaps the world’s most revered manager, Herrera, who had added steel through the adoption of a fifth defender, the libero, to elevate catenaccio to an art form.

The team oozed quality: Sarti, Burgnich, Facchetti, Picchi, Corso, Mazzola, Suárez and Jair. They were on their way to recapturing the Scudetto, having just thrashed AC Milan 5-2. This definitely wasn’t Scunthorpe anymore.

Before that trip, however, Liverpool did have the small matter of an FA Cup final to contest against Don Revie’s Leeds. The crown jewel of the English season saw Liverpool lift the trophy after a 2-1 win, with all the goals in extra time. Wild celebrations followed back on Merseyside as the trophy was paraded before an estimated 250,000 people singing Beatles’ songs. For the first time in their history, the trophy sat within the halls of Anfield.

Just three days later, Liverpool welcomed Inter with players still suffering from an extra-time final on the spacious Wembley pitch and some lingering hangovers. Anticipation was at fever pitch with the ground full at 17.30 for an evening kick-off. Officially, 54,000 fans packed out Anfield, but there were probably more squeezed in.

If that wasn’t intimidating enough for Inter, Shankly then cranked up his mind games again. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if the FA Cup was paraded once again around the ground just before kick-off? And so it was, pitching the Liverpool fans into a state of pure rapture and upping the volume considerably. It was time for Liverpool to really see how they matched up against the great Inter.

In a later interview, Ian St. John describes the game as “the night of nights”. Although at this point no-one knew how many great European Anfield nights the future would hold, this one would still go down alongside the best.

After just three minutes, a Callaghan cross was beautifully converted by Hunt. Mazzola then struck back shortly after for Inter, but after that it was all Liverpool. After 33 minutes, a lovely free-kick routine saw Callaghan dummy taking it, then run on as the free-kick was taken to get it back into his stride before hammering it into the corner. It was straight off the training ground. By now Anfield was a thundering cauldron of noise as Liverpool kept sweeping forward. A shell-shocked Inter staggered into the dressing room at half-time to attempt to catch their breath.

After 74 minutes, a shot by Hunt was parried by Sarti straight into the path of St. John, who gratefully accepted the tap-in. It was job done on Merseyside. Liverpool had a two-goal advantage to take to Milan, meaning that the kings of catenaccio would have to come out of their shells. To this day, many older Liverpool fans will still swear that this Anfield night was the team’s greatest display and the club’s most atmospheric evening.

Ominously, the Italian press warned Liverpool that “you will never be allowed to win”. The shenanigans began as soon as the squad arrived at their Lake Como base. Church bells and singing locals ensured that sleep would be a luxury. And that was before the Reds had to step out in front of 76,000 at the San Siro. The game was going to need a firm and brave referee – and the man chosen for this big night was one José María Ortiz de Mendíbil from Spain. 

After eight minutes, Inter were awarded a free-kick just outside the area, which the Liverpool players believed was signalled as indirect by Ortiz. The referee strode out the ten yards for the wall, using the most exaggerated, extended strides you will ever see, before pushing the Liverpool wall back to what is more like 20 yards from the free-kick. Corso then struck a lovely shot into the corner – directly. A goal was awarded and Inter had just the start they needed.

Just two minutes later, things went from bad to worse. Inter forward Joaquín Peiró chased a long ball but Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence was paying attention and got to it first. Bouncing the ball as he moved up the area, Lawrence was unaware of Peiró coming up behind him, who stole the ball on a bounce and rolled it into the empty net.

The move represented what was generally viewed as “ungentlemanly conduct”, along with Peiró coming from an offside position, although I have to confess that it looked a fair enough steal to me. The Liverpool players protested vehemently but to no avail: Ortiz let it stand. Liverpool’s two-goal advantage was wiped out in the space of ten mad minutes.

A third Inter goal by the glorious Facchetti after 62 minutes saw the Liverpool dream finally extinguished, even though St. John had a goal disallowed for an infringement unknown to him. The game ended 3-0 and Inter went on to reclaim the trophy in their own stadium against Benfica. The last image from that night in the San Siro was Yeats chasing Ortiz, calling him “El Bastardo” while kicking him on the ankles. It was a sad end to a glorious run.

Interestingly enough, the secretary of Inter at the time was Italo Allodi, who was later accused of match-fixing scandals including the infamous Juventus-Derby game in 1973. Allodi was close to a Hungarian called Dezső Solti who was accused by a referee in 1966 of trying to bribe him before the 1964 European Cup final with “enough dollars to buy five Mercedes”.

Later, UEFA and journalistic investigations found Solti guilty of offering bribes between 1963 and 1967. None of this proves that anything deliberately untoward was manifest that night, but suspicion lingers.

If skullduggery was indeed at work that night, the football gods made sure to rectify the situation going forwards. While Shankly would never win the European Cup, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Rafa Benitez and Jurgen Klopp would see that Liverpool lifted ol’ big ears six times, while Inter would only enjoy one more night of glory in 2010. 

The 1964/65 European Cup campaign became the springboard for Liverpool’s dominance on the continent. They played in Europe for an incredible 20 successive seasons after their inaugural visit and still remain one of the most successful clubs in history. And it all started with a campaign that included visiting little-known Iceland, winning games through a twice-taken coin toss, and one of the greatest nights that Anfield has ever witnessed, before being curtailed in somewhat dubious circumstances. It taught Liverpool many lessons on the wily ways of European competition – lessons that they learned well and applied with a vengeance going forwards. 

By Dominic Hougham

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