Between January 1978 and January 1981, Liverpool played 85 matches in all competitions without having tasted defeat at Anfield: 63 league matches (W50 D13), six in the FA Cup, nine in the Coupe de la Ligue, six in the Coupe d ‘ Europe and a European Super Cup meet. Teams from England, Scotland, Portugal, West Germany, Belgium and the USSR visited Anfield and none won. Liverpool’s defense was stingy – they conceded just four goals in 21 league appearances in the 1978-79 season and just eight goals the following season – but they were also ruthless, beating Derby 5-0, Norwich 6 -0 and Tottenham 7-0. in the 1978-79 season. They even scored 10 goals ahead of Finnish champion Oulun PS in October 1980.
If you were going to invest a hard-earned pound in a race-ending team from Liverpool, you would have avoided Leicester’s trip to Anfield on January 31, 1981. Jock Wallace’s side were at the bottom of the league, having won as six league appearances all season, with their only away wins at Birmingham City and Leeds United.
They could at least signal some success against Liverpool. Leicester’s first win of the season came unexpectedly against the defending champions, with a 2-0 win in front of 28,455 fans at Filbert Street offering an ounce of optimism. However, hope would soon evaporate. Two 5-0 hits at Manchester United and Nottingham Forest in September gave an indication it would be a tough season for Leicester, and a 4-0 loss to Southampton at the end of the year continued the pattern.
Leicester could hardly have visited Anfield in worse form. They hadn’t scored a goal in their last five league games and, to make matters worse, had just been beaten 3-1 in the FA Cup by third tier Exeter City. Limitation of damage seems to be the main objective. However, it wasn’t all a disaster for Leicester. Liverpool were also knocked out of the FA Cup, losing 2-1 to local rivals Everton, and injuries were taking their toll on Paisley’s side. With Alan Kennedy, Alan Hansen, David Fairclough and Kenny Dalglish all gone, Liverpool’s resources were exhausted.
“People expect us to remove our false teeth while chewing food properly,” Paisley said. Even so, he could still call on Steve Heighway and David Johnson to enter the first team, with Avi Cohen and Colin Irwin filling in at the back. In third place in the league, just two points from Ipswich and Aston Villa, the expected home win would keep Liverpool in the lead.
Although Leicester started off brilliantly, the fragile confidence of Wallace’s young side was fully tested when they fell behind after 15 minutes. Forward Alan Young, trying to help defensively, only managed to beat goaltender Mark Wallington. Liverpool smelled of blood.
Heighway missed an easy eight-yard chance, as Liverpool built up the pressure. Forcing 10 turns, it seemed inevitable that a second goal would follow. But early in the second half, Leicester gained a foothold, with Kevin MacDonald, Pat Byrne, Andy Peake and Ian Wilson dominating the midfield battle. Leicester began to believe.
MacDonald and Byrne tested Ray Clemence before Leicester equalized for Kop thanks to a rare mistake by the Liverpool keeper. Clemence dropped a cross at the feet of Byrne, who rolled the ball into an empty net. A stuttering Liverpool was apparently paying the price for taking his foot off the pedal.
Young and his striking partner Jim Melrose continued to buzz, causing problems for the Liverpool defense. Melrose missed chances, before making amends with 15 minutes remaining. Stealing the ball from Irwin on the edge of the box, Melrose shot past Clemence to give Leicester a 2-1 lead and knock out all 35,154 fans at Anfield.
Liverpool couldn’t come up with an answer as the unthinkable started to become a reality. After the final whistle, the home crowd cheered Leicester’s heroes off the pitch. Despite the breach in Liverpool’s title bid, their fans were happy to give credit where it was deserved.
“Our loss was a good example of complacency,” Paisley said afterwards. “I only hope that our players will have understood that in football there are no certainties, only uncertainties. Paisley was right. Despite the injuries, you could excuse Liverpool players and supporters for dismissing the threat of a side that were down in the league and had just lost to Exeter.
Somehow, Wallace’s youngsters had stopped Liverpool’s record. “When I saw the Leicester team in our players ‘lounge after the game I thought:’ God, they look like little boys. How guys like that could beat us, ”said Liverpool midfielder Ray Kennedy. The average age of the team was only 22. Friar was 17, Peake 19, MacDonald 20, with Larry May, John O’Neill, Melrose and Wilson all 22. When Byrne (24) was replaced by Mark Goodwin, 20, the juvenile presence grew. “They were playing more like old pros,” Leslie Duxbury wrote in The Observer. “Relentlessly bringing down Liverpool in attack and midfield and standing like a prison wall in defense.”
“I will tell my players that they can now compete with the best – and they will believe it,” Wallace said after Leicester became the first club to complete the brace against Liverpool since Arsenal achieved the feat in from the 1974-75 season. These two victories were not enough to maintain them, however. Their form recovered after the trip to Anfield but their poor start to the season cost them dearly.
A week after their loss to Leicester, Liverpool lost again to West Brom and the title race turned into a direct fight between Aston Villa and Ipswich. They would finish fifth in the league but, despite questions about the strength of Paisley’s squad, the club managed to end the season with their first League Cup and third European Cup. Winning two trophies in a transition season was very Liverpool.
Will Brendan Rodgers ‘side repeat the boys’ accomplishment of 1981 and end Liverpool’s undefeated league run at Anfield in 63 appearances? They are at the top of the table after victories at Manchester City and Arsenal, so will not lack confidence. One thing is for sure: if Leicester win at Anfield on Saturday it won’t be a coupon cutter like it was in 1981.
• This article first appeared on the 1980s sports blog
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