Leslie VurnonComment


Leslie VurnonComment
Liverpool Gladbachibwm1.jpg

Day 1: Monday, May 23 1977

The checking-in booths at Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport seemed unusually crowded on that sunny morning when our intrepid party gathered to 'vene,  vide', and if possible, 'vici' in Rome.

Our group included a few journalists, a small number of sight-seers who wanted to visit Italy on the cheap (?), but the majority were your true dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool fans.

They would have made the pilgrimage if the game was scheduled to take place in Outer Mongolia or the dullest industrial city in Western Europe. It later transpired that the crowd of ladies, who so staunchly occupied the best places in that queue, and later on the Jumbo jet, were nurses of indeterminate age, on their way to a convention in Hong Kong.  They were charming to me - or rather to my judiciously selected 'World of Sport' tie, but were rather haughty and condescending towards the Liverpool fans. "Do we have to put up with this drunken, unruly mob?" was the unspoken, but clearly discernible question on their apron-starched-hard lips. The mere fact that the lads behaved, impeccably, had no relevance to their prejudice which was originated from the casual reading of bloodthirsty headlines in their local papers. I realised for the first time that English football fans 'Mark 1977' are a persecuted race. Like an ethnic minority, they are judged by their very worst representatives. Generalised condemnations confront them, and their own supposed ignorance is no greater than that of their critics.

This impression was confirmed, when on arrival, we boarded our air-conditioned coaches, only to be given a lecture by our English courier. Worthy gent, as he is, he assured us that he had signed a declaration on our behalf, which had been handed over to the Roman Police. In it, he promised that we will not defile the sanctity of the Vatican, get drunk and roll down the Spanish Steps, violate the serving wenches in the hostelries, and most of all, will not reduce the Olympic Stadium to ashes and dust.  He also told us that the Italians hate the English, and that we had better be at our seats early, because "here, they do not have much respect for tickets." Prejudices, oh, damned prejudices!

Firstly, the Italians do not hate the English or anybody else in such idiotic 'wholesale' terms. If anything, they dislike each other – the Milanese do not care for the Venetians, etc.  In this beautiful city, where the phrase 'panem et circenses' was invented, the wise ones knew, that when the 'panem’ became harder to earn, the 'circus' had to play an even bigger part in the life of their people. I felt sure that the 'Open City', which withstood the ravages of history, Nero, Caligula and even Mussolini, would be able to put up with the excesses of a few thousand basically well-intentioned 'scouses' from Mersey-land.  Although as we passed the Coliseum, someone inevitably remarked that Manchester United must have played there recently.

Day 2: Tuesday, May 24, 1977

A cut-price trip to Naples, Capri and Sorrento. Some of the lads are on the coach. Others prefer to go to the Railway Station to greet the newcomers (after all, they haven't seen a fellow Liverpool fan for two whole days), or to the Holiday Inn where the team are staying, to pass on last minute messages of goodwill and some unsolicited tactical advice. Our trip is quite hilarious, with an Italian guide whose elongated "Hell-o-o-o" and mincing walk reminded us of Danny La Rue. He describes the Bay of Naples as "quite nice", and a spaghetti factory as "beautiful".

The startled look of the waiter in Capri clearly shows that he has never served a red-and-white totem pole before. Especially not one who wore a British flag on his back, and had his chest tattooed with such sage observations as "Joey Jones is the greatest". But the population of Sorrento weren't unduly concerned when they were told that "Everton are tragic", and when a typically 'well-proportioned' Italian Mama marched past us with her five children and got a chorus of "You'll never walk alone", I began to feel' sorry for the Germans.  How can Moenchengladbach win a match when their opponents are backed by such an irresistible bunch of good-humoured lunatics?

Of course, the forthcoming match was the main topic of conversation. They all felt sorry for Toshack for missing the game of a lifetime, and they all loved Jones, whom they regarded as one of them - a mad Kopite, fallible, over-enthusiastic, but essentially reliable. "He would die for you" I was told time and again. Who could ask for more?

Skill? It does not come into it. Curiously, the eventual result didn't worry them over much. Hungarians, Spaniards etc. would have been concerned only about winning first, and playing well as a bonus. But these Liverpudlians, and for that matter, most English fans, have a more stoical approach. "Che serra, serra - whatever will be, will be" is their admirable philosophy. To be in the Final enough for them. As long as the 'Reds' do their best tomorrow in that massive Stadium on the bank of the Tiber, their fans will be happy.

Day 3: Wednesday, May 25, 1977

A day to be a professional. The parting of the ways sends my mates and 20,000 others on to the terraces with their brand-new chequered tablecloth-like flags - marking 'the finishing line' of a momentous season for Liverpool Football Club. I dutifully attend the usual UEFA Press Conference.

Un-asked questions in the back of our minds dominate the proceedings, which amicably drown on until the iced Campari's are served. Perhaps the one noteworthy notion that emerged from the Conference was UEFA's insistence that the field of the 1982 World Cup should stay at 16. They oppose the increase of numbers, because this would make the tournament too long, the qualifying competition less competitive (therefore less lucrative). In any case, it can be taken for granted that the UEFA v FIFA behind-the-scenes battle has been won by the Europeans ­ for the time being anyway.

Late afternoon, I set out to find the offices of the Italian F.A. to collect my Press ticket. The hotel clerk tells me that it's at a walking distance, all I have to do is to turn right, then the third on the on the left, and at the traffic lights. Tums out to be a hopeless task, and I soon discover that Romans know their own town even less than Londoners do theirs. Finally, after passing the same unshaven newspaper vendor seven times, a lady with a rather badly trained dog comes to my rescue and leads me into a doorway. It is guarded by a woman dressed in black (Anna Magnani's mother?), who nods happily, "Si, si, calcio!" But upstairs I find only two commissionaires playing cards - and the notice on the wall bears the legend, 'Ladies' Football Association!

At the ground Bill Shankly, like Hannibal, is 'ante portas' - he is waiting outside the gates because he hasn't got a ticket! This is the man who made Liverpool one of the greatest clubs in Europe, and in their finest hour, he had to wait for a journalist to go in and fetch a pass for him. (In a country where they have no regard for tickets?)  I do not wish to imply that this momentary indignity was Liverpool's fault. Indeed, Secretary Peter Robinson is a thoughtful, kind efficient man, and he did absolutely everything humanly possible to make the occasion entirely trouble free.

It must be said that the Roman Police somewhat over-reacted to the threat posed by the exuberant Liverpool fans. The thick black line of uniformed might, reinforced by fierce dogs straining at the leash surrounding the pitch, wasn't a pretty sight. Herding the supporters out of the ground after the match like cattle was also totally unnecessary. But to be fair, who can foretell the correct balance between 'adequate' and 'provocative’ policing of a crowd?

The match is ancient history by now.  Suffice to say that Liverpool were tactically brilliant, and the Germans did everything wrong. Apart from that excellent Simonson goal and the run by Stielike, which brought out a world-class save from Clemence, they were slow, hesitant, even over-anxious. When Liverpool's back-four or midfield men had the ball, they were given time to dwell on it (have you ever seen Hughes walking?), but when Moenchengladbach were in possession, they were pressurised by the English players, who found some reserve energy despite the heat and humidity.

Goalkeeper Kneiband, full-back Klinkhammer were the main culprits ­ you cannot win the European Cup with such third-rate footballers in your side. Kevin Keegan, who has never played better, and is sure to become the next ‘European Footballer of the Year', handled the after match Press conference just as well as he did Bertie Vogts during the game. 

An example: Question by an Italian. "Why can't you play as well as that for England?" Keegan: "It is much easier to play well for my club side with players I am used to playing with. I know exactly what I have to do. England have had too many changes recently, it is very difficult to play well in the present national side." Another question: "What did you think of the referee?" Keegan: "Well ..." At that point, UEFA Press Officer, Rudolph Rothenbuhler stepped in, and said that questions concerning the referee were forbidden! Why, I wonder?

After the game, I was invited to travel back to the hotel (and the party) on the team's coach. There we were with the European Cup safely locked-up in the boot, but the players were surprisingly subdued. "We have to do better next season!" said Ray Kennedy. "Yes, we've got to win the League Cup!" came Steve Heighway's rejoinder. Perhaps not very funny, but this 'exchange’ demonstrated the realistic views of the pros in general, and the insatiable appetite for success of the Liverpool players in particular.

Day 4: Thursday, May 26, 1977

Back in the hotel, the fans, who were truly magnificent, are looking at the reviews of the match. They are mainly concerned about their own performance - whether they get a mention or not in the popular English dailies. "We have done as much as the team. We have spent our money, we behaved ourselves. We want some recognition!" was their perhaps understandable attitude.  Frank McGee did them proud in the 'Mirror', and the paper is passed from hand to hand, the relevant passages underlined - with a red biro, naturally.

During my afternoon stroll, I see a large crowd around the famous Fontana De Trevi. Fully clothed Liverpool fans are jumping in - celebrating or looking for coins? Their dry (outside) friend sings "Three nutters in the fountain", while the American tourists click their cameras in bewilderment.

Then the trip home - without the two guys who went missing, and the other two who lost their passports. The plane is waiting to take-off. Suddenly the door flies open, and Tony, the biggest drinker, the most wholehearted supporter, staggers in. "Sit down, sir'' lisps the pretty Japanese air stewardess. "No, luv", says Tony, "I'd rather stand. I've got to be at work at 9 o'clock."

Arrividerci, Roma…

This article originally appeared in the July 1977 edition of World Soccer Magazine.  You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.