The Week In History: Anfield Conquered

Thirty two years ago this week, on 31 January 1981, Leicester City defeated Liverpool at Anfield, ending an astonishing Liverpool run of 85 home games with out defeat.

This victory was remarkable for several reasons. 

Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were the league champions and that season’s European Cup winners, defeating Real Madrid in the final. They were utterly dominant in England and in Europe.

By way of contrast, Leicester City were anchored at the foot of the old First Division, having lost their last five league games without even scoring a goal. To make matters worse, they had also just been defeated in the FA Cup by Third Division Exeter City.

This victory also meant that Leicester City completed a league double over Liverpool that season, having already defeated them at Filbert Street five months earlier. This was when Andy Peake scored his unforgettable and spectacular long-range goal. The last time a side had completed a league double over Liverpool was lost in the mists of time.

In the days leading up to the match, as if to underline the City’s lowly predicament, Jock Wallace had put Bobby Smith and Martin Henderson up for sale. These were two of the stalwarts of the team that had won the Second Division title the previous season. The Directors had decided to place financial security above retaining the Club’s place in the top division.

This was all a far cry from Wallace’s confident prediction at the start of the season that his young side would win the Old First Division title! Rarely has a prediction been so wrong. From November onwards, the team were never out of the bottom three, in a season which ended in Leicester City being relegated along with Norwich City and Crystal Palace.

Before the game, Wallace had issued this challenge to his players: “I’ve got to rebuild this side. Who wants to play? Then go out and show that the ability is there!”

The team responded magnificently to this challenge. 

Liverpool started strongly, were unfortunate not to score an early opening goal and in the 15th minute they did go ahead following an Alan Young own goal. Alan explained to me what happened.

“I blame Ian Wilson! He’d got injured in the centre circle. He was meant to be tracking Terry McDermott. He was lying down so I thought I’d better go with McDermott. So I dropped back. They hit a long cross to the far post and (Liverpool’s) David Johnson knocked it back across goal. I’m running back towards my own goal. The ball’s coming in. I know that Terry McDermott’s there somewhere. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something’. Bang! Top corner! I’d never have scored the own goal if Ian hadn’t been injured!”

Throughout the first half, Liverpool’s superior class was matched by City’s determination and enthusiasm. Leicester started the second half like a hurricane and they got the break they wanted when Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Ray Clemence, dropped the ball and Pat Byrne forced home the rebound. As Alan Young remembers, “Clemence was coming out. I clattered him. The ref didn’t give a foul and Paddy Byrne put it in.”

The winner came in the 76th minute. Striker Jim Melrose, who was in his first season at the Club, took a pass from Alan Young, and fired in a 20-yard drive from the right wing, leaving Clemence wrong- footed.

Leicester held on for their famous win. The four minutes of added time seemed endless. 

After the match, the Leicester Mercury paid tribute to Melrose’s mercurial attacking, Young’s industry and power, Peake’s re-emergence of form, and Wilson’s effective marking of Terry McDermott.

Praise was also given to the young 17-year-old full-back Paul Friar, playing only his third first team game, and to Kevin McDonald (who later became a Liverpool player), ‘who looked so at ease that he could have been playing his one hundredth game at Anfield, not his first’.

Alan Young won a hamper for being Man of the Match. It contained exotic cheeses, wine and ham. Alan still has a picture of himself with the hamper and his son Wesley. He told me that Kenny Dalglish told him later that he had only won the hamper because he had scored an own goal for Liverpool!

Jock Wallace was overjoyed with the result.

“I’m delighted for everyone associated with the Club, especially for the fans who decided to follow us to Anfield following our bitter disappointment in the Cup at Exeter. As for the players, they proved to everyone that they also have ability. I took particular pleasure for the displays of Andy Peake and Jim Melrose. Andy had all his old confidence back and Jim showed the sort of attacking power I knew he possessed. It was a great historic day for the team and the Club. The main thing is that suddenly the mood has changed from despondency to optimism. It was hard to pick ourselves up after Exeter, but we did it. We can’t wait to face Manchester United on Saturday.I wish it was tomorrow.”

In the event, this historic victory proved to be a false dawn. Manchester United were indeed defeated in the next game, and there were other notable victories against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, but these were not enough for Leicester to avoid relegation.

Nevetheless, despite relegation, the victory at Anfield, ending Liverpool’s 85-match run of undefeated home games, thereby completing the double over them, was a truly remarkable achievement. Thirty-two years later, it still lives in the memory.

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