Monday, 18 October 2021

League Cup: Liverpool win four in a row

Liverpool and the League Cup had endured a troubled relationship as the 1980/81 competition kicked off. After entering the inaugural staging in 1960/61, the club decided to sit out the next six editions, and despite the growth of the Merseyside giant, success in the League Cup proved difficult to come by.

A controversial defeat in against Nottingham Forest in the 1978 final replay was the closest the club had come to winning the competition, with Brian Clough's team once again dashing hopes in the 1979/80 semi-final. But you wait ages for one League Cup to come along....

1980/81: Valley Parade to Villa Park

The quest for a first League Cup did not get off to an ideal start, a late Bobby Campbell strike resulting in a shock 1-0 defeat at Fourth Division Bradford City in the second round first leg. But Kenny Dalglish returned for the second leg, scoring twice as Liverpool won 4-1 on aggregate.

Comfortable wins at Anfield over Third Division Swindon Town and Portsmouth followed, and when a determined Birmingham City were defeated 3-1 - aided by a fine Ray Clemence display and superb Terry McDermott volley - a two-legged semi-final awaited with a revitalised Manchester City.

Under John Bond, City would reach Wembley in the FA Cup. Yet a hotly disputed disallowed Kevin Reeves goal would hurt the team dearly, as Ray Kennedy grabbed a late winner in the first leg at Maine Road. A nervy 1-1 draw in the return leg saw Liverpool limp to Wembley.

Second Division leaders West Ham stood in the way of Liverpool's first League Cup triumph, and luck seemed to be going Liverpool's way when referee Clive Thomas overruled an offside decision - stating that a prostrate Sammy Lee was not interfering with play - as Alan Kennedy fired home in the 118th minute.

West Ham, and manager John Lyall in particular, were furious. But the team at least gained a replay when penalty specialist Ray Stewart equalised from the spot in the last minute. On Wednesday April 1, Liverpool won the replay 2-1 at Villa Park - the first live League Cup final - Dalglish and Alan Hansen scoring after Paul Goddard had put the Hammers in front. The duck had been broken.

1981/82: Wembley AET Part I

An 11-0 aggregate win over Exeter City, and a 4-1 victory against Middlesbrough at Anfield started Liverpool's defence of the League Cup (now known as the Milk Cup), but the next two rounds would involve replays, as the road to Wembley extended.

At Highbury, Ray Kennedy was sent off after 40 minutes after a clash with Peter Nicholas, yet Liverpool held out for a goalless draw. Graeme Souness would extract revenge on Nicholas, the Arsenal midfielder carried off just before half-time in the replay at Anfield, Liverpool winning 3-0 after extra-time.

Second Division Barnsley had already knocked out Swansea, Brighton, and Manchester City in the League Cup, and followed by 16,000 of their supporters they held Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield. But late goals from David Johnson and Dalglish saw Liverpool come from behind to win the replay 3-1. The 4-2 aggregate semi-final win over Bobby Robson's Ipswich was easy in comparison.

For long periods of the final against quadruple-chasing Tottenham, it looked as if Liverpool's grip on the League Cup was loosening. Steve Archibald's 11th minute goal separated the teams, as former keeper Ray Clemence did his best to thwart his old club. You could never write off Liverpool, though.

As soon as Ronnie Whelan equalised in the 87th minute there was only one winner as the match entered extra-time. The same man put Liverpool ahead in the 111th minute, and when Ian Rush scored with a minute to go, two relatively new components in the future success of the club had ensured a successful defence of the League Cup.

1982/83: Wembley AET Part II

An easy 4-1 win over two legs against an Ipswich team suffering from the loss of Bobby Robson got the ball rolling, although it would take a 79th minute winner to see off Second Division Rotherham at Anfield in the next round. 

Benefitting from further home draws, Norwich and West Ham were beaten on the way to another semi-final. A Phil Parkes error in the latter led to Souness' winner with just three minutes remaining, setting up a two-legged semi-final with Second Division Burnley.

The Clarets may have stunned Tottenham 4-1 at White Hart Lane in the previous round, yet they simply could not hold back the red tide in the first leg on Merseyside. Souness, Phil Neal and Dave Hodgson goals gave Liverpool a 3-0 lead to take into the second leg, and although they lost 1-0 at Turf Moor, a mouth-watering final with Manchester United had been reached.

Again their opponents would take the lead in the Wembley final - through a fine Norman Whiteside goal - but Alan Kennedy carried on his happy knack of scoring in finals, equalising in the 75th minute as the match went to extra-time.

Some felt keeper Bruce Grobbelaar had been lucky to stay on the pitch, his foul on an already injured Gordon McQueen late on in normal time creating controversy, yet Whelan's delicious winner clinched the hat-trick of triumphs, with Souness happy to send retiring manager Bob Paisley up the Wembley steps to collect the trophy.

1983/84: Four in a row

Brentford may have been dismissed 8-1 in the second round two-legged affair, but the march to Liverpool's fourth League Cup in a row was flooded with replays. In a 66-match season that would see the club win three trophies, Liverpool played 13 times in the League Cup alone.

Three matches against Second Division Fulham involved 330 minutes of action, as a Souness winner in the 116th minute of the third match edged the team through. Birmingham were beaten 3-0 at Anfield after a 1-1 draw at St Andrew's, with Second Division Sheffield Wednesday the next to extend the holders.

Wednesday would go the same way as Birmingham, losing 3-0 at Anfield after a Neal penalty saved the day in a 2-2 draw in the first match. And even though Third Division Walsall gained a creditable 2-2 draw at Anfield in the first leg of the semi-final, a 2-0 win in the Midlands set up a Merseyside final, the first Wembley final to be screened live.

The final played on Sunday March 23 was lacking in excitement, although Everton felt they were denied a clear penalty when Hansen handled an Adrian Heath goal-bound shot. Played in a friendly atmosphere, with cries of "Merseyside" filling Wembley, the two teams would later pose together for photos and perform a joint lap of honour.

A fine strike from Souness in the replay at Maine Road gave Joe Fagan his first piece of silverware, as Liverpool kept the Milk Cup after their third consecutive win since sponsorship was introduced in the competition. Everton, like the two previous beaten finalists, would have the consolation of going on to win the FA Cup.

1984/85: Tottenham end the run

Fourth Division Stockport held the four-time winners to a 0-0 draw in the second round first leg, and it would take extra-time goals from Michael Robinson and Whelan to win the tie at Anfield in the return match. 

But all good things have to come to an end. At White Hart Lane in the next round, a Grobbelaar fumble led to Clive Allen's 6th minute winner as Tottenham guaranteed a different winner of the competition for the first time since 1980. 

The glamour of the competition may have taken a few hits in recent years, with most clubs making vast changes to starting XIs as the riches of Premier League and European competitions hold sway. In essence, the League Cup is now a reserve team competition, which ultimately plays into the hands of Manchester City and the squad built at the club by Pep Guardiola.

But if City do surpass Liverpool's achievement of four in a row then it will be a fine accomplishment, regardless of the status of the competition in the modern era. You can argue about the relative merits of League Cup wins for Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester City in recent times. But if City claim their fifth in a row, then you cannot deny them their place in the record books.

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