FeatureBill Shankly's final season: Champions creep closer but receive European lesson in November
To mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary Bill Shankly’s final season as Liverpool manager, we have been retracing that 1973-74 campaign month by month.
It was a season that the Reds entered as reigning English champions and UEFA Cup winners, and it would finish with another trophy added to the cabinet before Shankly’s resignation stunned the city and the world.
Our recap has reached the fourth month of that term, when Liverpool were beginning to move through the gears in the league yet were on the receiving end of a lesson on the European stage…
Entering November, reigning champions Liverpool sat sixth in the First Division, with unbeaten Leeds United the clear leaders in the season’s early stages.
To this point, Shankly’s side’s Achilles heel in the league had been their away form. The wins column showed zero victories on the road and there had been just three points and three goals from seven games.
But the Reds corrected that annoyance on the third day of the new month when they chalked up a 2-0 victory against Arsenal at Highbury.
A late double did the damage for the visitors as Emlyn Hughes thrashed in with 77 minutes on the clock and, soon after, John Toshack met Alec Lindsay’s free-kick with a header that put the game beyond the Gunners.
The result was not just a monkey off Liverpool’s back but a confidence boost ahead of their next challenge: the visit of Red Star Belgrade and the need to overturn a 2-1 deficit in their European Cup second-round tie.
November 6, 1973 was a bitterly cold night and an equally bitter experience for the Reds – but one that would have hugely positive long-term ramifications.
Miljan Miljanic’s Red Star again deployed their composed, short-passing game at Anfield with success, frustrating both the home team and crowd as they stifled Shankly’s men.
Vojin Lazarevic extended their aggregate lead on the hour mark and though Chris Lawler netted late on to bring his side within a goal of forcing extra-time, Slobodan Jankovic made it 2-1 in the last minute.
The Reds were out and it would prove to be Shankly’s final European match in charge.
But the lessons of the tie would not be lost on the boss and his Boot Room allies, who instantly acknowledged changes were needed. Changes that eventually led to Liverpool’s domination at home and abroad.
“The Europeans showed that building from the back is the only way to play,” conceded Shankly. “When they play the ball from the back they play in little groups; the pattern of the opposition changes as they change.”
For now, though, it was back to league action and Steve Heighway’s first-half goal settled a workmanlike 1-0 win at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Things were more eventful at Anfield the following Saturday as Ipswich Town were defeated 4-2, including a hat-trick from Kevin Keegan.
After a close-range finish to open the scoring, the No.7 benefited from a big slice of fortune when a defender’s clearance clattered him and found the net. He needed no such luck to complete his treble with a walloped penalty at the end.
David Johnson, the future Reds striker whom Shankly had repeatedly tried to sign before his move to Ipswich, was notably on target for the visitors.
“Liverpool begin their charge,” blared a headline in The Guardian, with reporter Paul Wilcox noting Shankly’s side were “creeping rather than charging boldly into joint-second place in the league”.
A 2-0 victory away at Sunderland in the League Cup third round – the team’s sixth win out of seven in all competitions – backed up Wilcox’s assertion, with goals in either half from Keegan and Toshack securing progress at Roker Park.
However, November would grind to a disappointing conclusion for Liverpool.
A First Division journey to Queens Park Rangers saw the Reds not only squander a lead on two occasions at Loftus Road but also lose Lawler to a serious injury that restricted him to just one more appearance in 1973-74.
And that was followed by a forgettable goalless stalemate at Hull City in the League Cup’s fourth round, a contest that drew the disdain of Wilcox. “To say that the match was tame would be kind,” he wrote. “Neither side had any cohesion.”
Shankly’s charges were going to have to rally themselves again as the 14th anniversary of the Scot’s arrival approached.