Interview: Phil Neal on Liverpool's European glory days

Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan and Phil Neal of Liverpool parade the trophy after the 1977 European Cup Final. Picture: GettyTommy Smith, Ian Callaghan and Phil Neal of Liverpool parade the trophy after the 1977 European Cup Final. Picture: Getty
Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan and Phil Neal of Liverpool parade the trophy after the 1977 European Cup Final. Picture: Getty
PHIL Neal is one of the most eminent English footballers, and hearing him talk about Liverpool's glory days is a treat, finds Alan Pattullo

It’s nearly one in the morning. In the corridor of a hotel in Portobello, Phil Neal is talking about giving Alan Stubbs, erstwhile manager of Hibernian, his big break. It’s surreal circumstances in which to be interviewing one of the true legends of the British game.

Neal is among the most decorated English footballers of all time. He scored in two European Cup finals and won 22 honours with Liverpool over 11 years while also earning 50 caps with England.

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Later, as Bolton Wanderers manager, he signed the aforementioned Stubbs for nothing, switching him from to centre-forward to centre-half.

And yet, to some, the former full back, now 65, will be forever associated with Graham Taylor’s doomed “do I not like that” period in charge of England.

It’s why, understandably, he wishes to underline his managerial credentials: not only did he sign Stubbs and send him on the way to success with Bolton, Celtic and Everton. He also “found” Jason McAteer, who ended up at Liverpool in their “Spice Boys” era and was a Republic of Ireland internationalist. These signings, which cost the club next to nothing, earned Bolton a combined £7 million.

“Stubbsie thought he was a centre forward who could play a bit, I told him to try playing a bit at centre-half,” reflects Neal.

That was a wise move. Not so inspired, Neal admits, was agreeing to join up with Taylor’s England in the early 1990s. “The worst decision I made,” he says, with reference to being the third stooge in a coaching team made up by assistant manager Lawrie McMenemy.

“And that is no slight on Graham, who was a talented manager,” Neal adds. “But I was made out to be ‘yes’ man for Graham. ‘Hang on a minute,’ I was thinking: ‘Why am I coming to England for all these days when I could spend it trying to bring another Stubbsie and McAteer into the game?’”

Neal was dividing his time between assisting Bobby Gould at Coventry City and fulfilling his England duties. “I was only getting a match-to-match fee [at England],” he explains.

“I wasn’t getting anything for three days’ work – Monday, Tuesday Wednesday. But I wasn’t doing it for that. I wanted to work with Gazza and players like that; I had ideas about the game. Graham chose the team and did most of the training but at least I had an input.

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“He [Taylor] was a decent person. But in the end because the press had a pop at him, they had a pop at me. They slaughtered me! I was like: ‘I do not need this for 300 quid a game’.”

It truly was the Impossible Job, as a revealing fly-on-the-wall documentary, aired after England had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals, was titled. But that was another time, another place.

Last Thursday night Neal found only love and laughter at the Brunton Hall in Musselburgh, where Liverpool’s successes in the 1970s and early 1980s were celebrated in stage show called Bob Paisley: Reluctant Genius.

There was, understandably, a great focus placed on the Anfield club’s first European Cup win of 1977 over Borussia Monchengladbach, which seemed topical since Celtic are between Champions League appointments with the same opponents. Remarkably, the German side’s recent Group C victory at Celtic Park was their first away win in the competition since their run to meet Liverpool in Rome 39 years ago.

Their powers diminished in the years following the final; Liverpool simply grew stronger under Paisley and Joe Fagan.

Neal won three more European Cup winner’s medals. He also picked up a runner’s-up medal, though one rendered even more worthless by the death and destruction at Heysel. As skipper, Neal had to address the warring fans across the Tannoy.

Liverpool’s on-field dominance in that era was down to a variety of factors. But Neal’s deadeye accuracy from the penalty spot, after Kevin Keegan had been brought down by Berti Vogts, secured their first European Cup win.

Neal had already scored ten penalties that season so might have expected a little faith in him from his teammates. But Ian Callaghan still felt inclined to appeal to a higher power for favour as Neal stepped up to make it 3-1.

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“The next day, we’ve flown home and we are going down town in an open-topped bus,” recalls Neal. “I’m looking through the papers at the photographs. And because the picture has been taken of me from behind the goal, I can now see who is standing there behind me, and I see Cally crouching down, praying, like the good Catholic that he is!”

Now 74, Callaghan joined Neal, Jimmy Case and Alan Kennedy on stage in Musselburgh with journalist and broadcaster John Keith. In such company, having one European Cup winner’s medal to your name isn’t going to cut much ice.

On Thursday, it was multiple winners’ night in the popular pub Staggs, where the players retired afterwards before heading to their hotel in Portobello. Neal leads the way with four, Case three and Callaghan and Kennedy have two each. That’s European Cup winner’s medals, not pints consumed.

A large audience was attracted by four Englishmen re-telling stories from an era which still inspires awe and reverence. In an age of commercial glitz, it was refreshing that no action footage was required: just some crackling radio commentary and well-told anecdotes.

But helping keep a Scottish audience rapt was that so much of Liverpool’s story of that time is indebted to Scotland.

“We were wondering what Bob [Paisley] was going to do after Kevin Keegan?” remembers Neal, explaining the circumstances behind the arrival of Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness. “He was about to bring in three new components. Training with Kenny, Souey and Alan, we thought: ‘yes, this is going to work’.

“We saw the qualities of Graeme and Kenny in the European Cup final of 78 – one gave the other the ball for the goal that finished the game [against Bruges].”

Ten days later Neal was playing against the pair in a Scotland v England fixture at Hampden. England won 1-0 thanks to a late Steve Coppell goal, which meant Neal held bragging rights for the next 12 months. Such an opportunity to gloat was hugely desired in such a competitive dressing-room, especially one infiltrated by Scots to such an extent.

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With a first competitive meeting between the countries for 17 years less than a fortnight away, Neal, who will be working as a hospitality host at Wembley, recalled one of his first memories of being involved with the England camp at the fixture. While he hadn’t been picked for the 1976 clash at Hampden, Ray Clemence, his Anfield teammate, was.

“And my mate’s been nutmegged by Kenny from a tight angle for the winner hasn’t he?!” exclaims Neal. “Well he is not in the best of moods afterwards, naturally. ‘Shall we go and have a drink?’ No!

“I did not know how to console him. He’d been there longer than I had. I was quite new to it all. I was going home because I was taking the family away on holiday the next day and he’s doing the same thing. But he is in a grumpy mood because Kenny has popped one through his legs.

“We ordered a cab to get us back down the road. Ray doesn’t want to stop. ‘Driver, let’s get down the road. We might stop at Carlisle’. But we stopped just over the border, after Gretna. The first pub we got to in England! Ray said: ‘I will be more relaxed and have a pint with you’. He was so upset. And he was just determined not to have a drink in Scotland!”

“I didn’t like what I saw the following year when they [Scotland fans] pulled the turf up,” adds Neal. “C’mon, I am playing with Scottish internationals, they are my friends. I don’t feel any animosity. I want to win like they want to win. But it’s a 90-minute game. You shake hands and get on with things.”

At Liverpool, a club before country spirit was fostered going all the way back to Bill Shankly, who memorably greeted Roger Hunt on his return after England’s 1966 World Cup success with the comment: “Congratulations, son, but there’s more important things for us to achieve this season.”

Around the same time, the teenage Neal had gone south to Spurs on trial from his home in Northamptonshire. But his father was gravely ill and on his advice he turned down the offer of an apprenticeship to stay at home and study. After six years with Northampton Town, during which he played in every position, he feared his chance was never going to come again.

“I turned one of the top clubs in the country down; Greaves, Gillie …they were all there. So I have been down for trials and it has not worked out because my dad is on his deathbed. Six years later I am still at Northampton, and thinking ‘I’ve missed my chance’.”

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There was scope for further frustration when Neal had to go in goal after an injury to their goalkeeper on the day Liverpool’s Geoff Twentyman had come to watch him. Fortunately, the chief scout had already seen enough and the 23-year-old became Paisley’s first signing. The rest really is history.