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Liverpool and The Liberation Of Rome: Remembering Bob Paisley’s Italian Campaigns

When Liverpool won the 1977 European Cup final in Rome, Bob Paisley had been there before. That was just over 30 years previous, when he rode into the city on the back of a tank.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Beneath the setting Italian sun, the Stadio Olimpico is starting to cool. On the cusp of summer, Rome is sweltering, and the relief of the balmy evening makes the travelling spectators give thanks to the gods. Waving red scarves – not that they need them – as well as a fluttering mass of flags and banners, Liverpool fans have struck up their songs and are urging the team on with anxious cries. For those out on the pitch, this is the biggest match of their lives. Their opponents, in white, are the mighty Borussia Monchengladbach, and the occasion is none other than the final of the European Cup.


While Monchengladbach might not have been able to maintain such high standards to the modern day, their seventies vintage was quite spectacular. In the decade or so prior to the 1977 European Cup final, they had won five Bundesliga titles, as well as the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Cup. They were a footballing behemoth equivalent to today's Bayern Munich side, and facing them in any game would have been a formidable task. Coming up against them in the grand finale of Europe's most prestigious competition was as high-stakes as it could possibly get, and would have been a daunting prospect for a side with even the most storied continental pedigree. None of that mattered to Bob Paisley's Liverpool team, however. He had brought his lads to Rome for one reason alone, and that was to win the ultimate prize.

With the match kicking off in the deepening twilight, Monchengladbach started on the front foot, though Liverpool just about managed to contain them in the opening 20 minutes. Paisley's team was in many ways a continuation of Bill Shankly's great side of the early seventies, and played with that same disciplined togetherness and in that same collectivist mould. Nevertheless, Paisley had brought something fresh to the team, which in its newfound dynamism and increasing flair was ready to embark on an era of near-unprecedented dominance. Still, this was the club's first ever European Cup final, and the players could have been forgiven some early nerves.


Having hit the post through Rainer Bonhof early on, Monchengladbach attacked in numbers. Looking back on the game now, Bonhof may well rue that moment as an opportunity so narrowly missed. With the likes of Jupp Heynckes, Allan Simonsen and Herbert Wimmer pouring forward, Liverpool could so easily have strained under the weight of the bombardment. Instead, Paisley's men turned defence into attack, with Ian Callaghan, Ray Kennedy, Steve Heighway and the gloriously permed Kevin Keegan tearing into them with incredible tenacity and speed.

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In the 28th minute, Callaghan won the ball in his own half. He spread the ball wide to Heighway, who cut inside, cantered towards the box and suddenly set up the onrushing Terry McDermott, who fired past Wolfgang Kneib and into the far corner of the net. Things remained cagey, before Simonsen equalised for Monchengladbach with an absolute screamer early in the second half. This was another stern test of Liverpool's character. They came through it with flying colours, thankfully, and for the rest of the game they combined the coherence and cooperation which Shankly had drilled into them with the characteristic pass-and-move transitions of his successor and former protege, to devastating effect.

Having seen Ray Clemence make a brilliant save at the feet of Uli Stielike only two minutes before, the men from Merseyside took the lead through veteran defender Tommy Smith. Liverpool worked their way up the pitch, won a corner, and Smith did the rest with a thumping header. With a strong penalty shout for Liverpool in the interim, the match was sealed when Berti Vogts brought Keegan down in the penalty area. Phil Neal stepped up and slotted home the spot kick, and, minutes later, the final whistle confirmed that Liverpool would be named European Cup winners for the first time.


Bob Paisley poses with the European Cup on his return to Liverpool // PA Images

Though he would go on to win the trophy with the big ears twice more in his career, this was a match of special significance for Paisley. That was down not only to the fact that it was an unparalleled feat at Liverpool, or the calibre of the opposition, or the manner in which his team had played, executing his vision to an absolute tee. It was instead down to the significance of Rome in Paisley's life, and the fact that the humble miner's son had in fact been to the Eternal City before. That was just over 30 years previous, when he rode into Rome on the back of a tank.

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Indeed, the 1976/77 season wasn't the only one of Paisley's campaigns to culminate in Rome. While he won the European Cup in his late fifties, guiding Liverpool past Crusaders, Trabzonspor, Saint-Étienne and FC Zurich along the way, his twenties had seen him help liberate the city near the climax of the Second World War. Paisley had served under Field Marshal Montgomery during the fight against Rommel's Afrika Korps and, while his famous Liverpool team would have to hurdle the best sides in Europe to get their chance in the Italian capital, Paisley had been forced to avoid tank battles, bombardment and strafing by the Luftwaffe. He had been a 'Desert Rat' and, as such, the heat of a summer evening in Rome can't have bothered him one bit.


A British tank passes a burning German counterpart during Operation Crusader, in which Paisley took part // Via

Prior to serving in the military, a young Paisley had only just signed a contract with Liverpool, joining up as a promising left half. He would go on to make over 200 appearances for the Reds after the war, though he was first to join up in a rather different sense. Paisley was called up in October 1939 and was assigned to the 73rd Medium regiment of the Royal Artillery as a gunner, with his main training being in the use of medium-range field guns. He remained in the United Kingdom until 1941, before he and his regiment were sent overseas to fight in the crucial North Africa Campaign.

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Prior to leaving for Egypt, Paisley had played several exhibition matches for Liverpool, including two games against arch-rivals and reigning champions Everton (one resulting in defeat, and the other in a surprise win). He ended up captaining the resident football team of the 73rd, an honour which, according to the journalist John Keith, prevented him from being sent to the Far East, where he would almost certainly have become a prisoner of the Japanese. Having been stationed in Cairo upon his arrival in Africa, Paisley was taught to operate a truck, as well as being trained to fire an anti-tank gun. This would come in handy soon enough, as he was about to participate in some of the fiercest tank battles the world had ever seen.

A British artillery battery in action at El Alamein // Via

Paisley's first major action was Operation Crusader, an offensive action which saw the British Eighth Army relieve the Siege of Tobruk. They suffered almost 18,000 casualties in the process, and Paisley was lucky not to be amongst them. During his time on leave, he would return to Cairo, where he continued to play football as well as cricket and hockey, captaining the regimental team in the latter. He would go on to be involved in the Second Battle of El Alamein, which is generally considered to be the decisive battle of the North Africa Campaign, and continued to see action after that until the surrender of Axis forces in May 1943.


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While the battles he participated in were as lethal as any in the African theatre, Paisley was only injured once, when his unit was strafed by a Luftwaffe squadron and sand was sprayed directly into his eyes. Apart from that, he survived unscathed in a campaign that cost over 35,000 British Commonwealth lives. In late 1943, he was part of the invasion of Sicily, and proceeded to snake his way up Italy after that. Soon enough, he was on the Allied convoy which drove unopposed into the Italian capital, and he must have felt that, in that moment, Rome was his.

Bob Paisley as a postwar footballer, circa 1950 // PA Images

All those years later, Paisley perhaps felt a similar frisson of excitement and relief at the final whistle at the Stadio Olimpico. He was a manager for whom victory in Rome had unique meaning, as well as a deep reserve of historic memories, some of which must have been euphoric and others traumatic. The chances of a man both liberating the Eternal City and winning the European Cup in its rarified surroundings are surely humbling in just how miniscule they are, and, in that sense, Paisley was blessed almost beyond belief. That said, his recollections of Rome must have tied in with his recollections of Africa, and the fear he felt, the loss he encountered and the bloodshed he witnessed on the desert sands.

Still, if Paisley was reminded of all that at the end of the 1977 final, he made little show of his feelings. Instead, he responded to the win against Monchengladbach with a joke which was fundamentally of the time, and rather epitomised a generation's stoic, paradoxically cheerful attitude towards their experiences of war. Speaking about how it felt to lift the European Cup in Rome, he came out with a quip which must have inspired a fair few snorts amongst his old comrades, and which would have done the scriptwriters of Dad's Army proud. "This is the second time I've beaten the Germans here," he said. "The first time was in 1944."