With both clubs' fortunes beginning to change direction, few could have imagined what would follow the 1968 Anfield match
"Four days afterwards, [on Saturday 12 October, 1968] Manchester United came to Anfield, Liverpool. That afternoon, fifty-three thousand, three hundred and ninety-two folk came too. Fifty-three thousand, three hundred and ninety-two folk to watch Liverpool Football Club play the European Champions."
No prizes for guessing that is an excerpt from David Peace's Red or Dead homage to Bill Shankly. He describes every Liverpool game in a similar fashion, and given that he mentions just about all the matches Shankly supervised, the overall effect, as reviewers have not been slow to point out, is somewhat repetitive.
But don't worry, this is not a review. If you insist on asking, I greatly enjoyed the book, and would grudgingly agree that the chore of the first 500 pages pays off if you make it to the final 200, where the sudden absence of routine, repetition, and daily certainty effectively communicates what is missing from Shankly's life once he retires. I say grudgingly because I am not convinced authors should treat their readers in such a way. Words should not be used like bludgeons, to beat the reader into a state of submission, and it is tempting to suggest that picking up the book and bashing it against one's head would produce a similarly serene effect once you were told to stop. The book is certainly big enough.
But I digress. The reason for beginning with the above paragraph is that United visit Anfield this Sunday. And that back in 1968, only fifty-three thousand three hundred and ninety folk would have come to watch had it not been for my dad and me, sneaking out of school (not literally, it was a Saturday afternoon, but we were Everton supporters really) to try to get a glimpse of George Best and his illustrious team-mates. I had seen Best before, fortunately, for he missed the Anfield game through injury. As did Brian Kidd, Denis Law and John Sadler. As an 11-year-old I didn't realise this at the time, but Manchester United had asked for a postponement because they had so many injuries, and they also had the soon-to-be notorious Intercontinental Cup game against Estudiantes of Argentina coming up in four days time at Old Trafford. So United probably were not all that disappointed to lose 2-0 to goals by Ian St John and Alun Evans. Anfield was a difficult place to come at the best of times.
Liverpool were still on the way up then, United just about to start their decline, though no one in 1968 imagined they would end up in the second division within a few seasons. No one imagined Liverpool would go on to win as many European Cups as they did either, but the reason I remember that afternoon so vividly is that the Anfield match programme that day carried a full colour centre-spread of the United team with the European Cup they had won a few months earlier at Wembley. I doubt very much that this was Liverpool's idea. If memory serves it was in the League Review section of the programme — in those days the league used to provide clubs with a centrally produced insert with which to bulk out their often weedy attempts at matchday reading — so the same photograph would have been in every programme up and down the land. But it happened to be in the Anfield one on the day United were the visitors, and suddenly it was a collector's item.
We were standing in the Anfield Road end, our usual location for keeping an eye on the enemy, and we were asked at least twice by United fans whether we would consider selling them our programme. The usual vendors had apparently sold out. Then, in a blatant riff on the way Liverpool fans on the Kop would hold their scarves, the United fans to a man held the programmes above their heads, open at the appropriate page, and began chanting: "Champions of Europe".
I can't tell you what the Kop chanted in reply, because I couldn't quite make it out over the din the United fans were still making, but from the uncomfortable expression on my dad's face it must have been something very rude indeed. And that, 45 years on, is all I remember of the game. Not St John's goal, not Evans's goal. Not whether Bobby Charlton played well, or whether Sir Matt Busby looked old and tired, as Peace claims Shankly observed after the game. I just remember the raucous chanting and the proximity of slightly hostile strangers, and thinking Anfield that day was the best place in the world to be, which it probably was.
Within a few more seasons, as Peace's book details, it was Shankly who was feeling old and tired. Everybody knows the story of what happened after he retired, and Peace tells it well. Liverpool are usually portrayed as callous and uncaring for the way they turned their back on their most successful manager, leaving him to spend more time at Everton's training ground than Melwood, though it happens to be true that Shankly spent the whole of his time on Merseyside in a house that backed on to the Everton training ground, and the initial desire not to get under the new manager's feet came from Shankly himself. It is not wholly clear that Shankly had prepared himself for the new manager being Bob Paisley, to say nothing of the unprecedented success that would arrive in the late seventies but, unlike United, the club he had built went from strength to strength.
At least it mostly did. There were a couple of years where the conquest of Europe was interrupted by Nottingham Forest. I would like to respectfully suggest that Peace might have missed a small trick here, because though he dutifully records Shankly's admiration for Brian Clough, he omits a detail that Garry Birtles mentioned in a Guardian interview from a couple of years ago. I'll let Garry tell the story, beginning with the goal he scored in the first leg at the City Ground in 1978.
"After I'd scored Phil Thompson told me a single goal wouldn't be enough to take to Anfield," he said. "So when we scored again, cocky young thing that I was, I went up to him and said: 'Will two be enough then?' He was speechless."
Two proved plenty. The Forest defence put up the shutters and the second leg stayed goalless. All Birtles remembers of the trip to Anfield is feeling incredibly nervous beforehand, yet being bizarrely relaxed by the presence of Bill Shankly on the team coach. "Don't ask me how that came about," he says. "It didn't seem normal, but not much ever did under Brian Clough. Shankly must have come to our hotel or something, and we took him to the game. I never asked why. You just didn't."
You could not have told Birtles at that point, or anyone else from Forest with the possible exception of the manager, that the next two European Cups would end up in Nottingham. "Unbelievable, isn't it?" Birtles says. "It's like Barnsley doing it. Every time I watch Liverpool now I look for the flags on the Kop, because there's a two-year gap in the dates. They go from '77 and '78 to '81. And I always think: that's us. That gap. We did that."