Today’s game against the reigning champions Leicester is certainly one of the great landmark days in the clubs illustrious history. A spanking new main stand awaits a crowd of over 50,000 for the first time in over four decades, the surrounding area is taking shape and looking good, and the side are showing promising signs in the early part of the season that entertainment is the name of the game. Not sure the heart can take much more after the tail end of last season.
The date of today’s encounter also brings back very fond memories of a game almost 34 years ago now, my first ever Reds game. The memories have been flooding back for the past few weeks as it was against the League of Ireland champions Dundalk in the European Champions Cup. Dundalk have come back to the forefront of Irish football in the past number of seasons and just a matter of weeks ago they came within one leg of reaching the Champions League group stages before going down to the Polish champions Legia Warsaw in the last qualifying round. Although they do have the bonus of the Europa League group stages and the much needed TV money that will come with that. Not bad for a club that was on its knees just a few years back.
Back in the late 70’s early 80’s the lilywhites were also a very successful side, providing tough opposition to the likes of Celtic and Tottenham in European competition and winning Leagues and Cups under the watchful eye of Jim McLaughlin, who also acted as a Liverpool scout on this side of the water. Dundalk is just a mere 30 miles from where I lived – but 30 miles in those days was well…miles away. And Dundalk – although a smallish town was huge in comparison to the tiny town of Ballybay in Co. Monaghan. But as it happened it turned out a butcher’s shop in my own town was selling tickets for the game. No logging in at 7.30am for a ticket sale in those days. And with Kenny and co up the road the begging started in earnest. Only problem was that I had two other brothers, one a red the other a hammer, but both more senior than me. My father had a Beetle Volkswagen car that would maybe go five miles before it broke down, turned out it was ideal training for years for us lads, pushing it up and down the road, and not the same Volkswagen, just a slightly different shade of blue every so often. Come to think of it, maybe it was the same one all along. Quite the impression of the Flintstones we must have made, much to the amusement of everyone in the neighbourhood. Finally after much crying I managed to convince my parents that I was worthy of going to the game. I clearly remember challenging any of the family to ask me anything about the side, Height?, well Kenny was 5ft 8”, Sammy 5ft 7” easy. I knew everything about the reds those days and it worked, a few years of studying everything red had worked the oracle.
No way was that car of ours going to make the trip so we all piled in with another family from the town who had a much better car and it could actually make the trip. So 8 of us set off. Two adults and the rest of us crammed in the back. 30 miles was quite the trip at the time we had a packed lunch with us. Dundalk’s ground, Oriel Park, had the classic four floodlight pylons; think of the Subbuteo floodlights, that was them. Quite exciting for a 10 year old that had never been to a proper football game, and now it was a game where I would see my heroes. Jesus Christ I was going to see Kenny Dalglish in the flesh, under the lights, in the European Cup.
The away side had forfeited home advantage with the Co Louth side who were anxious to maximise the home gate – learning from their experience back in 1969 when they were defeated 10-0 in the Fairs Cup at Anfield, in front of a gobsmacked Gerard Houllier, only for 5,000 to appear for second leg at Oriel Park. This time it was a 16,000 sell out paying record gate receipts of £68,000
Heading into the ground we were quite close to the Liverpool coaches that were pulling up, seeing young lads pile out, in gear I had never seen before, hairstyles I had certainly never seen before – one or two punk rockers, mochican hair. I was out of my depth here. In awe of the surroundings.
It didn’t take too long for the Dundalk side to also be out of their depth, as the reds went to kill the game before the second leg at Anfield. Two goals from Irish favourite Ronnie Whelan, the first after eight minutes, took the edge out of Dundalk’s play and Ian Rush added a third before the interval with the fourth coming from David Hodgson. I was taking it all in, staring at Bob, Joe and Roy in the dugout, the next minute Kenny and Souness where in my sights all the while making sure I implanted all of it into my mind, it worked, it’s still there. After Liverpool scored the fourth goal we started to make our way to the exits. I would have stayed to the bitter end but what can you do. I recall hearing a cheer and laughter from the crowd, turns out Bruce had over carried the ball and a free-kick was awarded to the home side. This was followed a few seconds later by an almighty roar as the home side scored what was a well-deserved consolation goal from the free kick. And that was it; school the next day was full of boasting about where I was the night before.
I still have the programme of course and have always followed the fortunes of Dundalk ever since and in the subsequent years the reds ventured over to the town for well attended pre-season friendlies and of course they presented us with one Steven Staunton for a snip at £20,000.
At the time of writing Dundalk are on their way to retaining their title and another crack at the holy grail of the Champions League is very much on their agenda next season. Wouldn’t it be great to welcome the reds back over the sea again – back in the Champions Cup.