Football dressing rooms have never been a place for the faint-hearted.
As with many workplaces, banter, pranks and practical jokes are often used to alleviate boredom from the daily grind and build morale between colleagues with, inevitably, boundaries occasionally being over-stepped, even if in today’s more litigious and (sometimes) empathetic society there is certainly more of an awareness of what is and isn’t acceptable.
The Liverpool dressing room during the club’s unparalleled era of success in the 1970s and 80s was known to be as ruthless as any, with numerous young players such as Ian Rush and Steve Nicol having to get used to the unforgiving realities of what it took to survive as their team-mates tried to toughen them up for life at the top level of the professional game.
So as the Reds head into what could be their last ever FA Cup third round replay at Wolverhampton Wanderers next week, we take a look back at one of the harshest examples of the dressing room culture which existed back then and came to the fore when Kenny Dalglish’s double-winners began their defence of the trophy in 1987.
For all the seemingly endless successes at home and abroad the Scot enjoyed after his £440,000 British record transfer from Celtic in 1977, the world’s oldest and – in the eyes of many back then – most prestigious cup competition continually eluded him and his decorated team-mates with three heartbreaking semi-final replay defeats in 1979, 1980 and 1985 so joy was unconfined when, after taking charge the previous summer in the wake of the horror of Heysel, Dalglish’s men not only produced a sensational late-season run to snatch the league title back from reigning champions Everton but a week later fought back from a goal down at half-time to beat their Merseyside rivals at Wembley to become only the third side that century, and fifth ever, to complete the hallowed league and cup double.
After the shock news during the close-season that star striker Ian Rush had been sold to Juventus for £3.2m and would leave for Italy the following summer after being loaned back to Liverpool for a year, the Reds had made a somewhat indifferent start to their title defence and at the turn of year, having already been beaten six times, lay third in table, six points behind leaders Arsenal who had played a game less, although they had added further silverware – the unloved Screen Sports Super Cup, beating Everton in the two-legged final held over from the previous campaign’s attempt to compensate for the lack of European football – and had made good progress in the League Cup after thrashing Third Division Fulham 10-0 in their opening match, with a quarter-final at Goodison Park looming on the horizon.
The third round draw of the FA Cup delivered an away match at Luton Town who had already beaten the Reds 4-1 at Kenilworth Road earlier in the campaign and lay fifth in the First Division table, only three points behind Dalglish’s men and not a cup tie which filled anyone at Anfield with great enthusiasm. The Hatters eighteen months earlier had followed Queens Park Rangers’ lead in installing an all-weather, ‘plastic’ pitch, a largely commercial decision to help avoid costly postponements and enable clubs to still host matches in frozen and waterlogged conditions but one which many opposition managers including Dalglish disliked and complained about until they were finally banned in 1991.
Another unappealing aspect of the Reds’ trip to Bedfordshire was no Liverpool supporters would be officially allowed to attend the match, with Luton at the beginning of that 1986/87 season having introduced a ban on any away supporters for games at their Kenilworth Road ground. The Hatters’ chairman at the time was a Tory MP named David Evans who was firmly in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘ID card’ system, a supposed solution to English football’s hooliganism problem which reached its nadir in the spring of 1985, with Millwall supporters running amok in an FA Cup tie at Luton a high-profile example. That scheme never saw the light of day but Evans took matters into his own hands and introduced a home-fans only membership scheme which would remain in place until 1990. He refused to lift the ban for Luton’s home tie against Cardiff City in the early rounds of that season’s League Cup and the Football League kicked the club out of the competition but the Football Association took no action in relation to the FA Cup.
Liverpool’s displeasure at the draw was not shared by the BBC, who selected the tie for a live Sunday afternoon broadcast and may well have been pleased at the artificial surface’s presence when a pre-match blizzard added a coating of snow to the pitch, necessitating the use of an orange ball. The home side, inevitably more comfortable in the conditions, had the game’s best chances with Liverpool thankful for Bruce Grobbelaar’s athleticism early on when he tipped Mick Harford’s 35-yard volley onto the crossbar and in the second half an incredible clearance off the goal-line by Craig Johnston after Ricky Hill’s low cross from the right somehow went through the Liverpool goalkeeper and bounced off the post and along the line with a posse of Luton forwards waiting to pounce, Grobbelaar making another fine save late on to deny Peter Nicholas.
It meant a replay the following midweek at Anfield which Dalglish was satisfied to accept while still railing against the plastic pitch. “Our main objective was stay in the FA Cup”, he said after the game. “We’d have preferred to win and won’t be kidding ourselves that’s the hard part over. I agree with what Howard Kendall said last week at Queens Park Rangers. I think all these artificial surfaces should be ripped up. They might be ideal for training on and a viable business proposition. But if you want to play a football match in good condition then every First Division club in the country should have undersoil heating.”
There was such a facility at Anfield to manage the condition of the playing surface so, even with a severe January freeze continuing to grip the country, there was never any suggestion the replay – scheduled as was customary then to be played three days later on Merseyside – could be in any jeopardy but, to Liverpool’s fury, the match was called off than less two hours before kick-off because Luton could not get to Anfield. The Hatters’ decision to travel up to Merseyside on the day of the match, rather than the night before as many clubs did, and by plane backfired when Luton airport was closed and an alternative flight from Heathrow was grounded due to air traffic congestion, leaving the team stranded down south even if some of their supporters did make it to the ground.
Dalglish and his Liverpool players, as was usual for evening matches at Anfield, had assembled at a hotel on the outskirts of the city earlier in the day to have lunch before retiring to their allotted rooms to rest and, ideally, sleep before tea and toast ahead of the short trip to Anfield. As the Reds squad were gathering in the hotel lounge, Dalglish received a phone call informing him of Luton’s travel woes and that, with the visitors unable to get to Merseyside, referee Allan Gunn would have no alternative but to postpone the match.
The Liverpool manager and his squad would still need to get on the coach to Anfield to pick up their cars which had been left there for after the game but were unable to leave yet because there was one person missing – youngster Alan Irvine. The 24-year-old Scottish forward, an unused substitute at Kenilworth Road, had signed from Falkirk the previous November for £75,000 and had so far only made one brief appearance from the bench in the goalless draw at newly-promoted Charlton Athletic shortly before Christmas which also saw local lad Gary Ablett make his full debut.
A member of staff was dispatched to rustle up Irvine as the players boarded the coach to go back to Anfield for their cars but it took some time to locate him and, as they sat waiting, skipper Alan Hansen remarked to Dalglish that Irvine likely did not yet know the match had been called off and the Liverpool manager decided he was going to have a bit of fun at the expense of ‘sleepy-head’. Eventually Irvine arrived and, no sooner had they departed for the short trip to Anfield, then the young Scot was beckoned to the front of the bus and told by his poker-faced compatriot tonight was the night he was going to make his full Liverpool debut under the Anfield floodlights.
‘We’ve got some injuries”, Dalglish added, “so I have a special job for you to do for us tonight. Alan has a knock so you’ll be in central defence alongside Lawro”. “Centre half? On my debut? I’ve never played there in my life!”, a worried Irvine replied. “Would you be more comfortable in midfield?,” the manager asked, and on receiving an answer in the affirmative, gave his final instructions, “Just do your best, that’s all I ask of you. I know you’ll do a good job. And don’t tell anybody you’re playing.”
By the time the coach arrived at Anfield – where due to the lateness of the postponement some supporters were still gathering around the ground – the rest of the players had been made aware of the ruse and a mock team-meeting was held in the dressing room with Dalglish issuing tactical instructions on a whiteboard, players offering Irvine encouragement and views on the opposition, and Ronnie Whelan even performing a fake tantrum after being fictitiously dropped.
When Irvine disappeared in the direction of the toilet to deal with his pre-debut nerves in the time-honoured manner, the players duly scarpered and went home, the Scot returning to find the room empty and it was only when a club attendant was about to lock up and heard a ball kicked against the wall of the home dressing room that the Scot learned he had been the victim of an elaborate prank, seeing Dalglish outside who told him, “The game’s off”, to which poor Irvine could only mutter, “I know”.
As Liverpool’s League Cup quarter-final at Everton was scheduled for the following midweek, the Luton replay was rearranged for the Monday of the week after that, with the FA Cup fourth round fixtures – in which Liverpool or Luton had been drawn to at home to Queens Park Rangers – due to be played the following weekend. FA Cup ties back then would be replayed as many times as necessary, with penalty shootouts at the end of one replay not introduced in the competition until 1991/92, so with the tight turnaround before the slated fourth round we…