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 distant. Yet, there is something about this Real Madrid team that throws all logic out of the window. Somehow they scored twice in injury time to drag the tie into extra-time before finishing off a shellshocked City. “Improbably, miraculously, beyond their dreams and expectation,” as the wonderful Peter Drury declared.
So, Liverpool will meet Real Madrid in a European Cup final in Paris for the second time. It should be a classic, probably involving a Karim Benzema hat-trick in stoppage time that will leave Liverpool as stunned as the rest of Real Madrid’s opponents this season. That might be asking for too much, but the match should at least be an improvement on the 1981 final.
It was hardly surprising that their encounter on Wednesday 27 May 1981 was a bit of a let-down. Both teams had endured long seasons and, in the days before squad rotation, many players were running on empty or carrying injuries.
Liverpool’s route to the final was serene until the semi-finals. Bob Paisley’s team hammered Finnish side OPS 11-2 on aggregate in the first round before 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 fine Liverpool team but injuries had hit them hard and, even though they won the League Cup, finishing fifth in the league was way below their usual high standards.
In hindsight, Paris would be the swansong for this version of Paisley’s team. Ray Clemence and Jimmy Case would leave the club in the summer, with Bruce Grobbelaar and Mark Lawrenson establishing themselves. Ian Rush had already arrived at the club; Ronnie Whelan was emerging as a regular 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 first five editions of the European Cup. Searching for their first win in the competition since 1966, manager Vujadin Boskov had built an uncompromising side that was also sprinkled with some star quality.
The main threat to Liverpool appeared to be 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 potential danger, with German Uli Stielike hoping to get revenge over Liverpool after losing the 1977 end. One player well known back in England was winger Laurie Cunningham. He had won La Liga in his first season in Madrid after moving from West Brom, but had broken his toe in November 1980 and had not played a full match before starting the final against Liverpool.
Real Madrid had been pipped to the title by Real Sociedad on their head-to-head results so knew that, like Liverpool, they would have to win the final to qualify for the following season’s European Cup. There was no safety net of top- four qualifications to reduce the tension back then.
There was one theme common to the modern era, though. Fans were outraged that the two clubs had been allocated just 12,000 tickets each for a stadium with a capacity of over 48,000. Many ticketless fans attempted to gain entry to the stadium but were forced back by 1,000 baton-wielding French police. Tickets priced as low as £3 were rumored to be going for £60 via touts.
Despite the glamor of the clubs involved, the final was not being billed as a classic. “Those looking forward to a more open game this evening may be disappointed,” wrote David Lacey in his Guardian match preview. “So again the final is more likely to resemble chess than drafts.”
Brian Clough, who had won two European Cup finals 1-0, was prophetic: “Do you think Bob Paisley will be concerned with how it looks if Liverpool win 1-0? Of course he won’t – and good luck to him.” Lacey agreed: “Yet again the final could be decided by a single goal. If Liverpool score first, they should win.”
The match kicked off at 7.15pm UK time, with the BBC’s live coverage starting just 15 minutes before. Joining Barry Davies in the commentary seat was Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy, who had recently turned down the vacant post at Manchester United. It was probably just as well. The way he screamed “get in there” after Liverpool’s winner may not have gone down well with United fans.
As many feared, the match was far from spectacular. Kenny Dalglish returned for the first time since injuring his ankle in the Bayern Munich match, and Liverpool came into 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 fuss. 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 first half, Real Madrid had a great chance at the start of the second period. Liverpool felt Cunningham was in an offside position, but Hungarian referee Karoly Palotai waved play on, allowing defender José Antonio Camacho to race through. Clemence came to the edge of his box and watched helplessly as Camacho chipped him. The effort drifted over the crossbar.
As the match seemed to be drifting towards extra-time, an unlikely hero emerged. Left-back Alan Kennedy had broken his wrist against Bayern in the first leg at Anfield and had only 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 earlier in the season, and he would do so again in the 1983 final against Manchester United. He also 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 received the ball from a throw-in and skipped past García Cortés. I have smashed the ball beyond Agustín and wheeled away in delight behind the goal, as Liverpool’s supporters became a sea of limbs. “For one awful moment I thought I had miskicked it,” he revealed later. “But when I looked up, I saw it go in like a rocket. I just made off. I can’t even describe how I felt. I didn’t want to stop running.”
The 26-year-old, affectionately given the nickname Barney Rubble, had won Liverpool’s third European Cup. “A few years ago I thought I would be spending the rest of my career with Newcastle and I would probably still be there if they were still in the First Division,” Kennedy reflected.
“We’ve joined the greats and we’ve beaten two of them – Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – to do it,” said Thompson after collecting the cup. “It may not have been a classic, but we showed tremendous character,” said Paisley, who became the first manager to win the European Cup three times. Carlo Ancelotti could overtake that achievement against Liverpool on Saturday.
Half a million people lined a 17-mile route in Liverpool for an open-top bus parade as the celebrations continued. Liverpool’s win in Paris was the fifth English triumph in a row in the European Cup and the fourth consecutive 1-0 victory in the final. A year later, Aston Villa maintained the trend. Bucks Fizz even won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981 to continue the UK’s dominance on the European stage.
Real Madrid had to wait until 1998 for their next success in the competition, but they have more than made up for their relative drought since, winning their 13th title in 2018 against Liverpool. Will the third part of the trilogy be like 81 or 18? We will find out in Paris.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism