'We were just watching in disbelief' - How Limerick gave Real Madrid a scare before their last final with Liverpool
Des Kennedy is not a name that has been mentioned much in the build-up to this weekend's Champions League final, but the legendary League of Ireland striker can claim a remarkable connection to the biggest game in club football.
The last time Liverpool and Real Madrid met in a European final was in 1981, and that season Limerick-born Kennedy did what the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness could not, and scored against the Spanish giants. And he did it not once, but twice.
Kennedy's famous goals, one in Lansdowne Road and the other at the Santiago Bernabeu, are the standout moments from Limerick's 1980/81 European Cup campaign, where the Irish champions gave a footballing superpower the fright of their life.
"We were just watching in disbelief, we were actually beating Real Madrid," Limerick fan Gary Spain recalls.
Liverpool's 1-0 victory over ‘Los Blancos’ in the final brought them their third European Cup, but earlier that season Kennedy's goals briefly threatened to dump Madrid out of the competition in the very first round.
The early-1980's was a time when Liverpool’s King was Kenny rather than Egyptian, and European club football had not yet become globalised - most of Liverpool’s players were English, or at least British, and most of Real Madrid’s were Spanish.
Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now, however, was that the European Cup was a ‘Champions League’ in a more literal sense of the word. Only the domestic champion in each European country qualified - the one exception was a place reserved for the previous year’s winners, should they not also win their domestic league.
The quirk of this system was the potential for epic mismatches, and earlier in the 1980-81 season that was borne out, as semi-professional Limerick United were rewarded for winning their second League of Ireland title with a first-round draw against Real Madrid.
European club football has evolved beyond recognition in the intervening 40 years, but some things don't change. Real Madrid were still Real Madrid, semi-finalists the year before and of course eventual losing finalists in the 1981 campaign. Being drawn against the Spanish giants was just as absurd a proposition to a club like Limerick in those days as it would be now.
“It was unbelievable to be playing against these guys, they were the elite of the elite at that time, and they still are,” says Des Kennedy, Limerick’s legendary striker who played in both legs.
It was Limerick’s golden age, the most successful period in the club’s history, before or since, and the spearhead was Eoin Hand, player-manager at the League of Ireland side.
“It was the first time Limerick had qualified for Europe in ten years,” Hand recalls. “They hadn’t won a league for a long period, it was absolutely a very exciting time.”
The defining match of that era came as the Shannonsiders welcomed Madrid to Lansdowne Road for the first leg of the European Cup tie, and Hand was adamant his side would treat the game like any other.
“I told the players we are not going to change our tactics, we are not going to change our style of play, because it had been very successful for us at domestic level.
“All I said was if we just play to the best of our ability, they might be surprised at the standard of our play, which they were, and they said as much to me afterwards.”
That self-belief was evident as the Irish champions were not only the equal of their world class opposition, they were, according to many in attendance, the better side.
“I still remember hearing from some of the fans who arrived late that they thought we were Real Madrid,” Hand recalls.
Limerick fan Gary Spain saw both legs, and was unequivocal in his assessment of the Lansdowne Road tie.
"We were much the better team, it was just incredible," Spain says. "We were just watching in disbelief, we were actually beating Real Madrid."
The first-half ended goalless, the expected massacre failing to materialise, and early in the second-half the Irish side incredibly took the lead through a Des Kennedy strike now a part of Limerick folklore.
“At the stage I’m at now you think back on it and different things come into your head,” Kennedy says. “You realise who were playing against and what happened.”
The moment came in the 51st minute as midfielder Ger Duggan rose above the Madrid defence to head the ball on to an unmarked Kennedy, who took the ball down and stabbed it past Miguel Ángel in the Real Madrid goal to give Limerick a remarkable lead.
Unfortunately, the League of Ireland champions could not hold out for a famous victory. First Madrid won a penalty, goalkeeper Kevin Fitzpatrick bringing down Real substitute Pineda with what Hand could only describe as a “sloppy” challenge, calmly converted by Spanish international Juanito. Then, with five minutes remaining, the Limerick defence failed to deal with a Real Madrid free-kick and Pineda poked home to ensure the Spanish side escaped Lansdowne Road with a narrow win.
While Hand stressed that it was important to approach the game with a confident frame of mind, he concedes he was ultimately realistic, and that his confidence did not border on delusion.
“For me as a manager, I knew we were not going to put them out. What I wanted was to get the maximum out of the tie to go forward in the domestic league.
“It was a fantastic occasion, and we gave a very good performance.”
Just as memorable for all those involved was the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu two weeks later. Supporter Gary Spain was one of sixty Limerick fans who made the journey to Madrid.
"We arrived two days before the game and we went to the stadium just to walk around in awe," Spain recalls. "It was a different world at the time to Limerick, even Landsowne Road was so poor in comparison."
However player-manager Hand insists that playing in front of 50,000 fans in one of the most famous arenas in football did not overawe him or his squad.
“We weren't spellbound. We enjoyed the whole occasion for what it was.”
“We were not one bit intimidated,” striker Kennedy agrees. “When you're on the pitch you actually can't see the crowd. When you're looking at your team taking a throw-in you can see maybe four of five people, but the rest you don’t see at all, they just kind of vanish in the distance.”
And Limerick did not leave the Bernabeu without landing another unexpected blow, Kennedy scoring his second goal of the tie just before half-time to cut Madrid’s lead to 2-1 on the day, and 4-2 on aggregate.
Ultimately however the class and fitness of the world’s top professionals became obvious against the part-time Irish outfit as Madrid scored three more goals in the second-half, advancing to the second round of the competition, eventually making it all the way to that final in Paris.
Hand acknowledged that the Spanish champions were capable of playing on a level his side had never encountered before.
“The pace of the game was a big difference to what we're used to, they would relish in it which was the huge drawback.”
“The body gets tired but the mind gets tired also,” Kennedy explains. “The manager will tell you 'keep your head, keep your head' but at that point you're not just physically tired, but mentally tired.”
Limerick lost the tie but their European campaign could only be described as a success overall, the scale of their achievement put into context by the statistic that Real Madrid only conceded 4 goals in the European Cup that season, and half of them came from the boot of Des Kennedy.
Hand says Limerick’s class of 1980 remain in contact and meet up several times a year, the Madrid tie unsurprisingly a common topic of conversation.
“Whenever we get together Des is never slow to remind us about his goals in the Real Madrid games.”
“Don’t mind that,” Kennedy jokes. “He could have scored when he had the chance but he put it wide. I think he’s just pure jealous.”
“We had a free-kick routine that we used in the domestic league,” Hand explains. “It was a set piece thing and it worked to a dream with me one-on-one with their goalkeeper when it was 2-1 and I dragged it wide. It was one of the worst misses I ever had in my life. I cocked up the most important part of it.”
Nonetheless Limerick’s European adventure stands out in an extensive footballing career for Hand, who spent eight years with English side Portsmouth and was capped 26 times for Ireland as a player.
“They are now kind of legends in Limerick football,” Hand says. “They've got memories that they'll never ever forget and fantastic memories that they, as part time players, did so well.
“It was living the dream looking back on it."
Unfortunately for supporters of the Shannonsiders, they have not been able to replicate the success of that era in the years since. That 1980 League of Ireland is still their most recent title win, and as recently as 2016 they found themselves in the second-tier of Irish football.
Hand is pragmatic in his assessment of how the situation has developed at Limerick, focusing instead on the positive of what his side did achieve.
“That first season we were so successful winning the league and then drawing Real Madrid, you're inclined to think this will happen every year," Hand reflects.
“But it doesn't, and it never happened again. That's the way wonderful moments like that are.”