1981 European Cup: Liverpool beat Real Madrid


With a minute to go at the Bernabéu in the second leg of Real Madrid's semi-final against Manchester City, the prospect of reminiscing about the 1981 European Cup final seemed far-off. Yet, there is something about this Real Madrid team that throws all reasoning out of the window. Somehow they scored two times in injury time to drag the tie into extra-time prior to finishing off a shellshocked City. "Improbably, amazingly, beyond their dreams and expectation," as the fantastic Peter Drury declared.

So, Liverpool will meet Real Madrid in a European Cup final in Paris for the second time. It ought to be a classic, probably including a Karim Benzema hat-trick in stoppage time that will leave Liverpool as shocked as the rest of Real Madrid's opponents this season. That might be requesting too much, but the match needs to at least be an enhancement on the 1981 final.

It was hardly unexpected that their encounter on Wednesday 27 May 1981 was a little bit of a let-down. Both teams had withstood long seasons and, in the days before team rotation, many players were running on empty or carrying injuries.

Liverpool's route to the final was serene till the semi-finals. Bob Paisley's team hammered Finnish side OPS 11-2 on aggregate in the preliminary prior to beating Aberdeen 5-0 in the second round and CSKA Sofia 6-1 in the quarter-finals to set up a tie with Bayern Munich, which they won on away goals. This was still a great Liverpool team but injuries had hit them hard and, although they won the League Cup, finishing 5th in the league was way listed below their typical high requirements.

In hindsight, Paris would be the swansong for this variation of Paisley's team. Ray Clemence and Jimmy Case would leave the club in the summer, with Bruce Grobbelaar and Mark Lawrenson developing themselves. Ian Rush had currently arrived at the club; Ronnie Whelan was emerging as a routine fixture in the team; and, with Craig Johnston joining from Middlesbrough that summer, Ray Kennedy, Terry McDermott and David Johnson would be replaced.

Real Madrid were a far cry from the vintage team that had won the very first five editions of the European Cup. Searching for their very first win in the competition since 1966, manager Vujadin Boskov had built an uncompromising side that was also sprayed with some star quality.

The primary threat to Liverpool seemed Spain's little genius of a forward Juanito, who had run England ragged during Spain's 2-1 win at Wembley a couple of months earlier. Striker and captain Santillana was another possible risk, with German Uli Stielike intending to get revenge over Liverpool after losing the 1977 final. One player popular back in England was winger Laurie Cunningham. He had won La Liga in his very first season in Madrid after moving from West Brom, however had broken his toe in November 1980 and had not played a full match prior to beginning the final against Liverpool.

Real Madrid had been pipped to the title by Real Sociedad on their head-to-head outcomes so understood that, like Liverpool, they would have to win the final to get approved for the following season's European Cup. There was no safety of top-four credentials to minimize the tension at that time.

There was one style common to the modern age, however. Fans were outraged that the two clubs had been allocated simply 12,000 tickets each for a stadium with a capability of over 48,000. Many ticketless fans attempted to acquire entry to the stadium but were forced back by 1,000 baton-wielding French authorities. Tickets priced as low as ₤ 3 were rumoured to be going for ₤ 60 via touts.

Despite the glamour of the clubs included, the final was not being billed as a traditional. "Those eagerly anticipating a more open game this evening may be disappointed," composed David Lacey in his Guardian match sneak peek. "So again the final is more likely to resemble chess than draughts."

Brian Clough, who had won two European Cup finals 1-0, was prophetic: "Do you believe Bob Paisley will be interested in how it looks if Liverpool win 1-0? Of course he won't-- and best of luck to him." Lacey agreed: "Yet once again the final could be decided by a single goal. If Liverpool score first, they ought to win."

The match kicked off at 7.15 pm UK time, with the BBC's live coverage beginning simply 15 minutes before. Joining Barry Davies in the commentary seat was Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy, who had recently denied the uninhabited post at Manchester United. It was most likely just as well. The way he screamed "act" after Liverpool's winner might not have gone down well with United fans.

As many feared, the match was far from spectacular. Kenny Dalglish returned for the very first time since injuring his ankle in the Bayern Munich match, and Liverpool entered the final with doubts over captain Phil Thompson, Alan Kennedy and Sammy Lee. At half-time, Graeme Souness needed treatment for a knee injury.

In the build-up to the final, Boskov had called Liverpool "a team of veterans", a barb that Paisley dismissed without hassle. Yet, Liverpool's experience was valuable, with Alan Kennedy, Dalglish and Souness testing goalkeeper Agustín, who was in for the injured Mariano García Remón.

After a tight very first half, Real Madrid had a great chance at the start of the second period. Liverpool felt Cunningham was in an offside position, however Hungarian referee Karoly Palotai waved play on, allowing defender José Antonio Camacho to race through. Clemence pertained to the edge of his box and watched helplessly as Camacho cracked him. The effort wandered over the crossbar.

As the match seemed to be drifting towards extra-time, a not likely hero emerged. Left-back Alan Kennedy had broken his wrist against Bayern in the first leg at Anfield and had just played once more before the final. But he had a knack of scoring goals on the big occasion. Kennedy had already scored in the League Cup final against West Ham previously in the season, and he would do so once again in the 1983 final against Manchester United. He likewise went on to score the winning penalty in the European Cup final shootout against Roma in 1984.

With less than 10 minutes to play in Paris, Kennedy got the ball from a throw-in and avoided past García Cortés. He smashed the ball beyond Agustín and wheeled away in delight behind the goal, as Liverpool's supporters ended up being a sea of limbs. "For one dreadful minute I thought I had miskicked it," he revealed later on. "But when I searched for, I saw it go in like a rocket. I simply scampered. I can't even describe how I felt. I didn't want to stop running."

The 26-year-old, affectionately offered the label Barney Rubble, had won Liverpool's third European Cup. "A few years ago I believed I would be spending the rest of my career with Newcastle and I would most likely still exist if they were still in the First Division," Kennedy shown.

"We've joined the greats and we've beaten 2 of them-- Bayern Munich and Real Madrid-- to do it," said Thompson after collecting the cup. "It might not have actually been a classic, but we showed significant character," stated Paisley, who ended up being the first manager to win the European Cup three times. Carlo Ancelotti could overtake that achievement against Liverpool on Saturday.

Half a million individuals lined a 17-mile path in Liverpool for an open-top bus parade as the celebrations continued. Liverpool's win in Paris was the 5th English triumph in a row in the European Cup and the 4th successive 1-0 triumph in the final. A year later on, Aston Villa preserved the trend. Dollars Fizz even won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981 to continue the UK's supremacy on the European stage.

Real Madrid needed to wait until 1998 for their next success in the competition, however they have actually more than offseted their relative dry spell since, winning their 13th title in 2018 against Liverpool. Will the third part of the trilogy resemble 81 or 18? We will find out in Paris.

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