Reminiscing about Liverpool’s greatest European heroes takes you on a journey of some of football’s most iconic names: Keegan, Smith, Dalglish, Gerrard, Grobbelaar, Souness, Rush. But look more closely and the men who actually wrote the story on a European stage were full-backs – and 2019 has every chance of throwing up the same narrative.
As Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson make for Madrid, revelling in almost universal praise for their contribution to Liverpool’s season, the full-back pairing have plenty of role models to study when it comes to winning European Cups.
First of all, however, let’s consider the quality of the partnership currently wearing the famous red shirt. This duo have provided a remarkable 23 assists between them in the Premier League this season, placing both of them in the top six ahead of the league’s most high profile midfielders, and added six more in the Champions League campaign.
In fact, Alexander-Arnold’s four assists in Europe leave him above Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Raheem Sterling in the Champions League statistics table - quite remarkable for a right-back even in modern football.
Liverpool, however, have always had a history of marauding full-backs capable of making vital contributions in the final third, starting in the days when 4-4-2 was a default formation and creating width without leaving defensive gaps was a major challenge.
The king has to be Phil Neal, the penalty-taking right-back and later captain who drove Liverpool to eight league titles and four European Cups in a 21-year career that should really leave him above even the
biggest names in Liverpool’s history. This was a player who perhaps lacked the flicks, tricks and searing pace we associate with attacking full-backs these days but his reliability, quality of passing, flawless positioning and unwavering self confidence marked him out as special.
It’s little surprise that Neal was known as Mr Dependable considering he missed only four games in his entire Liverpool career after being signed from Northampton by Bob Paisley, including a record run of 417 consecutive games for the club between October 1976 and September 1983.
He played a major part in Liverpool’s first ever European Cup victory, in 1977, helping his team come from behind to win 3-1 against Borussia Monchengladbach by scoring a penalty which sealed victory in Kevin Keegan’s farewell game. Then he won the trophy again in 1978 and 1981 before scoring from the spot against Roma in 1984. The first two of those triumphs came with Welshman Joey Jones as his left-back partner but his next partnership, in the 1980s, was possibly even better.
If Neal was influential in Liverpool’s European domination then Alan Kennedy deserves a trophy of his own for his part in lifting the trophy in 1981 and 1984.
The player nicknamed ‘Barney Rubble’ after a character in the Flinstones cartoon, scored a solo effort to win the 1981 final against Real Madrid in Paris and then showed nerves of steel to score the winning penalty against Roma in 1984, a shoot-out in which Bruce Grobbelaar’s wobbly-leg routine went down in football folklore.
For those who think modern day football is on a different planet to the 1980s, it’s worth watching clips of Kennedy who was dynamic and innovative going forward, often linking with Kenny Dalglish ahead of him – providing 20 goals in all during an illustrious career at Anfield.
Perhaps that is where Alexander-Arnold and Robertson can improve as they build on a burgeoning partnership. Kennedy and Neal provided 79 goals between them for Liverpool (although of course many of Neal’s were from the penalty spot), whereas the current incumbents have scored just three between them so far.
The Champions League Final would be a perfect place to put that right – and history is on their side.
Liverpool’s top six European Cup winning full-backs
Signed: 1974 from Northampton; Transfer fee: £66,000;
Appearances: 650; Goals: 59; Honours - 4 European Cups, 8 League titles, 1 Uefa Cup, 1 Uefa Super Cup, 4 League Cups, 5 Charity Shields
Signed: 1978 from Newcastle Transfer fee: £300,000
Appearances: 359 Goals: 20 Honours - 2 European Cups, 5 league titles, 4 League Cups, 3 Charity Shields.
Signed: 1975, from Wrexham; Transfer fee: £110,000;
Appearances: 100; Goals: 3; Honours - 2 European Cups, 1 league title, 1 Uefa Cup
Signed: 2001 from Monaco; Transfer fee: £4m;
Appearances: 348; Goals: 31; Honours - 1 Champions League, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 1 FA Cup, 1 League Cup.
Signed: 1981 from Ayr Utd; Transfer fee: £300,000;
Appearances: 468; Goals: 46; Honours - 1 European Cup, 4 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 Super Cup, 1 Charity Shield.
Signed: 2003, from Fulham; Transfer fee: £3.5m
Appearances: 217; Goals: 1; Honours - 1 Champions League, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 FA Cup, 1 Community Shield