How a dodgy penalty, Clough and Paisley sparked Anfield's love affair with 'Mickey Mouse Cup'
In 2014 one of the most renowned English referees of the 1970s, Pat Partridge, passed away at the age of 81.
There was nothing to mark the occasion at Anfield, but plenty of former Liverpool players will have quietly acknowledged the indent the official left on the history of the club. As Liverpool prepare to head to Wembley in an effort to extend their record trophy haul in the League Cup, it is worth recalling Partridge’s contribution to sparking the inferno in the bellies of one of the greatest teams this country has known.
We should go back to March 1978 when Liverpool, now the eight-times League Cup winners, were still looking for their first triumph in the competition. They’d never even reached a semi-final before. Until relatively recently, the competition had been striving for credibility. Before the early 70s there was no compulsion for major clubs to even enter – Liverpool didn’t both to play in it between 1961-67 - but the added incentive of European qualification for the winners gave the tournament a polish.
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Bob Paisley’s Liverpool versus Brian Clough’s emerging Nottingham Forest would have been worthy of European Cup final as much as League Cup that year. Paisley’s side had won its first European Cup in 1977 and would defend the trophy in 1978. Clough was in the process of deposing Liverpool as both League champions and European Cup winners over the next 18 months.
What happened in their League Cup final meeting demonstrated where the battles would be fought at home and in Europe for the next three years and had a profound impact on Liverpool’s subsequent approach to the competition.
After a 0-0 draw at Wembley, Forest won the replay at Old Trafford following a series of contentious refereeing decisions by Partridge. Phil Thompson conceded the decisive penalty for a trip on John O’Hare outside of the area, and a Terry McDermott equaliser was erroneously ruled out for handball.
On the balance of play Forest were considered worthy winners. Most reports from the time fairly judged the contentious tackle denied O’Hare a winning goal, even if technically Partridge got it wrong. Re-watching through a modern lens shows Liverpool would have been reduced to 10 men under the current rules.
But at that time Anfield resentment at Partridge was accentuated when their longest serving player Ian Callaghan – in the final full season of his Liverpool career – was booked for a foul on Peter Withe. Callaghan played 856 times for Liverpool. This was his only caution. Liverpool were so disgusted by that decision they wrote to the Football League to have it rescinded. Refused.
Whatever the merits of otherwise of Partridge’s performance that night, the combination of Liverpool sense of being wronged, the emerging rivalry with Forest and the hunger of Paisley’s extraordinary squad to make amends irreversibly changed the club’s attitude towards the competition.
In the previous season, Liverpool were chasing an unprecedented treble of the League title, European Cup and FA Cup. Neighbours Everton played Aston Villa in the League Cup Final, prompting The Kop to mock their focus on the ‘Mickey Mouse Cup’.
How priorities and attitudes had changed over the course of 12 months. From 1978 onwards, the competition was the first priority every season for the Anfield club.
They lost to Forest again in the 1980 semi-final, succumbing to two John Robertson penalties over two legs, but Paisley’s side were becoming a fixture in the latter stages of the competition. The era of dominance began with a replay win over West Ham in 1981. Seven of the side that lost to Forest in 1978 played in the final three years later.
Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton would succumb as Paisley and Joe Fagan secured four consecutive wins in the competition.
There was never question of placing the league or Europe over the early rounds of the competition. "It's the first trophy of the season available, relieves the pressure and it gets us into Europe before Easter, so win it," was Paisley's message to his players.
In the 35 years since that first victory, while others have decried the competition and asked where it truly fits in the football calendar, Liverpool have always embraced it. Ultimately, that’s the legacy of Paisley's team. If the League Cup was good enough for the most successful Liverpool manager of all time – and the greatest teams to wear the red shirt – there was no prospect of later generations diminishing its value.
In the years since, the League Cup has been a reliable friend to Liverpool managers.
Roy Evans’ only trophy was the League Cup in 1995, his exciting side at least having some reward for an era often unfairly maligned because of the following season’s FA Cup Final.
For Gerard Houllier, the 2001 League Cup win in Cardiff triggered the historic cup treble. He won the competition again in 2003 beating a much superior Manchester United team and probably earning himself an extra season in the job in the process.
Kenny Dalglish’s win over Cardiff in 2012 brought the longest trophy drought since Bill Shankly’s appointment in 1959 to an end.
A first trophy for Jurgen Klopp would continue a trend. In the roll of honour the five European Cups and 18 league titles will always be prized most at Anfield, but a ninth League Cup would be the first step in easing the new manager towards the same pedestal as those illustrious predecessors.
If they succeed, there may be those who recall the 1978 final who will grudgingly admit the smallest debt to a referee who turned a Mickey Mouse trophy into one of the most sought after prizes at Anfield.
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