It’s a record that confounds all reasonable theories with just two wins for City in 65 years. Since 1956, City have won just two of 52 visits to Anfield, conceding an average of more than two goals per visit. Our last victory was in 2003. Boxing Day 1981 was the other…
John Bond’s City travelled to Anfield just after Christmas 1981 with City fans expecting the annual disappointment of a defeat to the red half of Merseyside.
With no win since a 2-1 FA Cup success in 1956 some 25 years earlier, it had become something of a ritual to travel to Anfield, get well beaten (more often than not) and return home.
Though Liverpool had been a force in English football for 15 years or more, City had also won the league and finished runners up and been fourth twice, so it hadn’t been completely one-sided during that time.
But as City headed for Anfield on Boxing Day 1981, Liverpool were struggling in twelfth spot in Division One, floundering in unchartered territory.
The side that had dominated the 1970s was ageing and the new signings hadn’t settled in, whereas City were in good form, fourth in the table and within grasping distance of the leaders. It was a chance to end a dismal run.
Liverpool legend Sir Kenny Dalglish recalls a turbulent period at the time…
“I think at the time, we were certainly below tenth in the league when City arrived at Anfield,” he said.
"I remember, the pitch looked like it had an allergy – there was sand, mud patches and bits of grass here and there so it wasn’t ideal for either side."
“Although the fixture had been heavily weighted in Liverpool’s favour, especially at Anfield, there was no way we would ever treat any side disrespectfully. City had a good side with the likes of Joe Corrigan, Trevor Francis, Asa Hartford, Paul Power, Tommy Hutchison, and Dennis Tueart and as I say, were above us at that point.”
Another Liverpool player, Mark Lawrenson, had only been at the club six months and found himself in the eye of the storm.
The popular BBC Sport pundit believes City arrived at exactly the right point back in ’81.
“I think we were under all sorts of pressure, and I remember the pitch being awful – which is not an excuse because it was the same for City – but it was terrible. It was the worst pitch at Anfield ever, - in fact and I think they replaced it at the end of the season,” said Lawrenson.
“Phil Thompson was captain at the time and what Liverpool did was to look at a player at the end of the season and say ‘Hmm, I think his legs are going’ and they give them maybe one more year and I think that was the case with Thommo who was a great player and brilliant servant, but after this game, I think they kind of thought ‘no’..."
“He played games that season, as did I, but I was playing in various positions around the pitch. Bruce Grobbelaar was new and just weren’t playing well and we went into this game in twelfth position.
“There was a little bit of turmoil at the time and there was external pressure on manager Bob Paisley because I’d signed, Craig Johnston had signed, Bruce had arrived and it was a really transitional period and we were struggling.”
City legend Joe Corrigan had suffered his fair share of defeats to Liverpool, but he felt it was different as the team coach headed for the stadium.
He’d never won a game at Anfield, but there was a feeling that Liverpool were on the ropes at the time and vulnerable.
“They were having a bad time,” recalled Big Joe. “We had a little bit more confidence in ourselves because we’d reached the FA Cup final the season before and John Bond had come in and changed everything in terms of how we played and trained and there was a little bit more experience with players like Tommy Hutch, Bobby Mac and Gerry Gow.
“I always got a great reception from The Kop and I remember my first game in front of them and my last.
"My first was a raw 19 year-old with the Liverpool fans singing ‘Who ate all the pies?’ and somebody throwing a pork pie on to the pitch, so I bent down, took a bite out of it and threw it back into The Kop and after that, I always had a great rapport with them."
"They were every appreciative and they were actually a big help because they never really gave you any stick, just encouragement because the one thing they enjoyed was seeing good football.
“The whole atmosphere was different this time. We were more confident.”
City started well, causing Liverpool problems early on and when Asa Hartford nodded home on seven minutes, it looked like the perfect start – but the referee blew for an infringement that seemingly only he saw. It was a soft decision - and was also in front of The Kop…
Minutes later, Hartford drilled home a low shot after a smart turn and City were 1-0 up, and deservedly so. Liverpool did react and before the break, a superb Kenny Dalglish free-kick was tipped on to the crossbar by Corrigan to ensure John Bond’s men went in at the break with the lead intact.
“Going in 1-0 up at Anfield was a brilliant sensation, but me and a few of other experienced lads in the team made sure that we went round the changing rooms saying: ‘They don’t stop and they will come back at us., we’ve got to concentrate right to the end’," said Big Joe.
"I knew that from painful experience. In one of my first games at Anfield, we were 2-1 up with five minutes left and they won 3-2. It was typical of Liverpool at Anfield.”
But the onslaught didn’t come. Graeme Souness saw a thunderous shot tipped onto the post by Corrigan, but it was City who scored the vital second goal on 75 minutes.
Bruce Grobbelaar went to collect a high ball, dropped it and Steve Kinsey volleyed a shot towards the top corner where Reds captain Thompson tipped over the bar with his hand. It was a great save but also a penalty for the Blues.
Lawrenson opined: “Bruce, it would be fair to say, didn’t have one of his better days!”
Manager’s son Kevin Bond stepped up to take the spot-kick – but as ever, Big Joe couldn’t watch.
“When we were awarded a penalty, I always used to crouch down on the spot at the other end and look away, so when I heard the City fans celebrating and looked up to see Kevin Bond running over to them in the corner, I jumped up and jogged back towards my line,” he said.
“As I did, a bottle hit me on the head and knocked me to the ground. It was a shock because that wasn’t The Kop – they weren’t like that as a rule – but I was down on the floor and our physio came on. I have a picture somewhere of Ray Ranson picking a bottle of wine up at the back of my net and in the dressing room after, one of the lads said: ‘We knew it was a bottle of wine, Joe because it was full when it hit you and empty when it hit the ground!’”
Joe was OK, but it could have been more serious and he was right – it was an isolated incident in what had always been a set of fans he had enjoyed playing in front of.
He was finally beaten on 85 minutes by Ronnie Whelan, but still City were comfortable at 2-1 and looking to seal a rare victory. And when Kevin Reeves’ clever back flick was saved onto the post by Grobbelaar – the ball struck the South African’s head and went into the net causing the TV commentator to suggest he looked a “sorry character.”
Sir Kenny added: “I always enjoyed when we played at Maine Road because it was always an important game, but though we won something six or seven games in a row, it didn’t mean we expected to win the next time we went – and I think that was City’ attitude as well.
“In that Boxing Day game, I remember Asa scoring and another hit the post and went in off Grobbelaar’s head. It wasn’t our day.”
The final whistle went soon after and City had won 3-1 – the perfect (if slightly delayed) Christmas present for the 3,000 travelling Blues that day and a first experience for many of victory away to Liverpool.
Trevor Francis, City’s third £1m signing didn’t score that day but had become a talismanic figure among the supporters. He, at least, had enjoyed winning there before.
“I’d won once at Anfield with Birmingham City, which was quite a feat even back then - and I had to take a penalty against Ray Clemence at The Kop end – I scored, but it was daunting to say the least!,” said Francis.
“At the time, I was staying with my wife in an apartment on Wilbraham Road in Fallowfield while I had a house built in Bowdon and in the flat beneath me was Man United’s Bryan Robson and his wife. After the game, I came home and Kevin Reeves and his wife joined us for a glass of champagne to celebrate the victory.”
Beating Liverpool could have actually ended Big Joe’s City career – but not because he was struck by a bottle – he was approached by the Reds the next day to see if he was interested in a move to Anfield!
“Ironically, on the Sunday after the game, I got a call from a guy in Dublin asking if I wanted to join Liverpool?” said Joe. “I had a meeting with Peter Swales on the Monday and he said I wasn’t going anywhere so that was the end of that.
“Everyone was over the moon that we’d won that day, but the police wanted to see me afterwards to see if I wanted to put a complaint in, but I said I didn’t because it was Liverpool Football Club and I didn’t want to cause a rift. The sad thing was, the FA denied the fact I’d been hit at all because they said the police had found bottles in the net that were already there, so they didn’t believe me. That left a bit of a sour taste.”
A few days later, City went top of Division One, with belief growing that maybe the title was a genuine possibility. If the Blues could keep Francis fit, why not?
"We beat Wolves 2-1 at Maine Road to put us top of the league going into the New Year. I remember saying after that season, I honestly felt that if we’d added a couple of top players, we possibly could have gone on and won the title that season."
But that’s where the two clubs paths began to diverge dramatically…
In many ways, it was a watershed moment for Liverpool, as Mark Lawrenson explains: “People were saying we weren’t good enough to win the league and that day against City was probably the lowest of the low because City beat us easily.
“The one thing about the Boot Room era - which was Bob Paisley, Ronne Moran and Joe Fagan -was that they treated you the same whether you’d won 4-0 or been beaten – they never went overboard either way. However, on this occasion, Joe went doolally at us. I can’t recall if it was after the game or the next day – but I’d never seen him ever react like that. I’d only been there since August but Joe was so quietly spoken and you’d have to get really close to hear what he was saying because he almost whispered, so this was quite clever, psychologically.
“Joe peeled the paint in the dressing room. He went berserk and gave it to all of us. Even the likes of Kenny and Thommo said that they’d seen it happen once or twice before, but that he’d really gone for it that time. Bob left it to Joe and Joe let us have it.
“The outcome was that Bob changed the team completely. It was almost a justification for going ‘Him – no. Him – no. New boys in and here we go, we can’t do any worse.
“I think everyone was aware that Liverpool were going to make wholesale changes. In previous years, it had been the odd signing – maybe one, two at the most – so this was really the night of the long knives.
“The next game we went to Swansea and on the day of the game at the hotel, I recall being in the lift and Bob got in with me and he was a master of the unfinished sentence. He asked me, ‘Can you play on that one?’ I asked him which ‘one’ did he mean and he said, ‘That left sided one?’ and I didn’t know if he meant left-back, left wing or left midfield but I just told him ‘Yeah boss, no problem.’
“When they named the team, I was playing but I didn’t know where so I asked Joe Fagan and said, ‘Boss, I know I’m playing on that left-sided one, but which one?’ He told me it was left midfield, which was fine as I’d done it one or two times before. I ended up scoring and we won 4-0. It felt like that was how it was going to be from then on with me stuck on the left of midfield, but we just pushed on after that.”
And push on they did. Revitalised and with Phil Thompson relieved of the captaincy, Paisley’s Liverpool went on an incredible run that eventually took them to the title, while injuries to key players and a few ageing stars saw Bond’s team eventually slip to tenth in the table.
“We just didn’t have the legs and it was a hard season for us all and we just fell away in the second half, it’s just how it was,” said Big Joe.
"When you lose players of the calibre of Dennis Tueart and Trevor Francis, both who missed much of the second half of the campaign, you suffer. We had been flying going into the New Year but ran out of steam."
Meanwhile, Trevor Francis admits he had hoped to build on his first season at Maine Road - but never had the chance.
“I never saw myself leaving after that first season,” said Francis, often described as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of a footballer. “I went off to play in the 1982 World Cup in Spain and I was looking forward to coming back to City for the 1982/83 campaign. I didn’t realise that Sampdoria had been watching me play for England. So a deal was done with Peter Swales before I returned to Maine Road and instead, I went to Italy and played alongside players like Liam Brady for four years.
“Whilst I don’t remember the Boxing Day game that well, Graeme Souness signed for Sampdoria in 1984 and we often talked about the game in 1981. Graeme told me that after City had beaten them, they had a huge crisis meeting because they’d dropped to twelfth in the league and they made some major changes in system, personnel and they went and won the league.”
Sir Kenny concurred, adding: “Whatever Bob Paisley said after the game was pretty effective! We went on a run after that and won the League and League Cup that year.
“For my part, I always enjoyed playing City. Maine Road was a great place to go and watch a game whether as a player or when I was a manager. “
Interestingly, Mark Lawrenson touches on Liverpool’s dominance in this fixture – both home and away – and believes there was a bit of psychology going on - and not good psychology in City’s case.
“It was funny in some ways,” he said. “We won the return against City 5-0 at Maine Road and I always felt that whenever we played there, City expected us to beat them. No matter what team City put out, I always felt there was a kind of ‘Ah well, we always win at Maine Road’ from us and ‘Ah well, we always get beat by Liverpool at Maine Road’. We used to have some really strange games and often just felt it was just far too easy. It was a nice big pitch to play on but it was strange in many ways.”
Joe Corrigan doesn’t agree that there was an expectation to lose – more that Liverpool were such a powerful force for so long…
“I can’t put my finger on it,” said Joe. “If I could, I would be a manager. Clubs just have bogey teams, but that said, they mostly had a very good team whenever we played them and unless you’re at your best and they have a bit of an off day, it’s a struggle. Anfield is one of the most intimidating grounds you can play at – maybe less so now The Kop is an all-seater – but when they were in full voice, it could be an unnerving place to be. We just went out and tried to do our best.
“I don’t think we expected to get beat when we played Liverpool. That said, I remember when we got together for England and the Liverpool lads would try and wind the City contingent up saying things like, ‘We’ve got a good Christmas and Easter coning up’ – we’d take the bait and ask why, and they’d say that’s when they were playing us.
“The truth is, for a long time, we were up against some of the best players in Europe and that’s the bottom line. But why we have lost so many games over the years? I honestly can’t answer why.”
Fast forwarding to 2021, and we’ll leave Sir Kenny Dalglish with the final word.
One of the game’s true greats for Celtic, Liverpool and Scotland, more than anything he loves great football and says City and Liverpool have provided that in abundance over the past few years.
“I think the two teams will go head-to-head again this year as it has been few the last few seasons.,” he said. “The first game ended 1-1 at the Etihad was fantastic to watch and I think on Sunday, both teams will start really quickly.
“Some of the passing in the 1-1 draw was brilliant and it was really enjoyable to watch – it was the right result, but it was really entertaining. We are rivals, now, but at the end of the day, both City and Liverpool are a shining example of the Premier League because of the way they play football.”