Friday 19 January 2018

Georgian pedigree deserves respect

Incredible Dinamo Tbilisi side that outclassed Liverpool 37 years ago was ahead of its time

‘The Georgians had already been excellent in the first leg, controlling the game like few dared to even try at Anfield. Most of that was orchestrated by the elegant playmaker David Kipiani’ Photo: Getty
‘The Georgians had already been excellent in the first leg, controlling the game like few dared to even try at Anfield. Most of that was orchestrated by the elegant playmaker David Kipiani’ Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

It was a sight Anfield had never seen before, and they remain a side Georgian football hasn't seen since. A few minutes before the 1979-'80 European Cup kicked off, the Dinamo Tbilisi players did what most of Liverpool's foreign opposition always did and went up to the Kop to take in the atmosphere.

What immediately followed, however, was something virtually no-one did. Dinamo's players began to irreverently flick the ball between them, displaying exquisite one-touch play at speed that left some in the Kop wide-eyed. Far from getting a foretaste of what Anfield was all about, the Georgians were giving Liverpool a foretaste of the tie.

Dinamo undeservedly lost that first round first leg 2-1, but these were in the years when that was considered a fine away result, and all of Liverpool's tentative talk before the second leg betrayed that fear. It got worse than they could have imagined. In Tbilisi, Dinamo eviscerated the English champions to the tune of a devastating 3-0 scoreline that could well have been 6-0.

All of the talk after that second leg should put a slightly different tint to perceptions of Georgia ahead of Ireland's latest meeting with them in 11 days. Seven successive victories over the eastern European side might mean we have got used to the idea they are awkward but generally beatable opponents, still finding their feet in the international game 25 years after declaring independence, but they once came close to ruling the continent. There is an under-appreciated pedigree to Georgian football.

Liverpool certainly appreciated it. Speaking to the Sunday Independent last week, Phil Thompson says that "technically, they were as good as we'd ever played against". Graeme Souness has gone even further. In a recent interview, reflecting on eight years from 1976 to 1984 when Liverpool won four European Cups and beat everyone from Real Madrid to Bayern Munich, Souness said "the best football team we played were Dinamo Tbilisi". The Georgians crowned that spell with the 1980-'81 Cup Winners Cup, beating Waterford and West Ham United along the way, and leading the latter's manager John Lyall to echo Liverpool in describing them as "one of the best teams in the world".

Dinamo went beyond being a fine club side, though. This was the height of the USSR so, just like the great Dynamo Kyiv with Ukraine, they were a de facto Georgian national team. All of their players were born in Georgia, with two of them later becoming MPs, and they were certainly playing for the honour of the people. That became apparent when someone involved with the club saw the Anfield programme make a reference to 'Russian Roulette'. "But we are not Russians," he protested.

That was not the only way the idiosyncratic complications of the Cold War era influenced the occasion. Liverpool manager Bob Paisley would refuse to let his players even drink the tea once they went past Checkpoint Charlie, protesting "you don't know what they've put in it", but had that turned back on him at Anfield. The Dinamo players insisted on only drinking water from the taps in the home dressing room.

That kind of intrigue continued on Liverpool's first night in Tbilisi, as Thompson explains.

"We got over late and, I think it was close to four in the morning, there was a demonstration right outside. There must have been about 400 people chanting . . . but they all dispersed within 15 minutes after making a right racket. Now, this was the USSR where they had the secret police so you wouldn't get a demonstration. They were making so much noise . . . I can remember Terry McDermott throwing oranges from the window."

Liverpool refused to use that as an excuse for what happened next, but that's possibly because they couldn't. Dinamo just blew them away, lifting their display to a level that has become legendary in their country.

The Georgians had already been excellent in the first leg, controlling the game like few dared to even try at Anfield. Most of that was orchestrated by the elegant playmaker David Kipiani, who layered his precision with a power Liverpool struggled to deal with. He drew gasps from the crowd with one delivery, as he took a ball dropping out of the sky on his thigh, before volleying a perfect pass through the defence in the same movement. A 33rd-minute moment produced that stunned silence unique to European nights when USSR's commanding 1982 World Cup captain Aleksand Chivadze so clinically equalised David Johnson's 19th-minute header. Jimmy Case gave Liverpool the win on 44 minutes, but it didn't give them much confidence about winning the tie.

Paisley attempted to calm nerves ahead of the return by preaching Liverpool would do what they always do.

"We will try to dictate the pace of the game," the manager explained. "That's the only way you can keep the crowds subdued. That will be our plan. We hope that they'll get a little careless in their routine. Whatever happens we will not go down without a fight."

It was fanciful talk, all of it. For one, there was no hope of subduing the crowd. There were estimated to be 110,000 fans at the Lenin Dinamo Stadium - now known as the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, and where Ireland will play in September 2017 - and tickets were going for huge black-market prices.

"It was a massive occasion," Thompson says. "There was a phenomenal atmosphere, and it was all standing. That's how big an area you're talking about."

Dinamo were ready to put in a performance to match the scale of it all. "You looked at these guys, when you're kicking off, and their eyes are sticking out," Thompson says. "You just thought, 'Oh my goodness', these guys are up for it. It was their technical ability, though. Just incredible, absolutely top-class. They kept possession of the ball in confined areas all over the pitch."

And they so often burst from that at top speed. That was what really marked this performance out. The blistering pace combined with the perfect cohesion. Kipiani again blazed a trail on 55 minutes, humiliating Alan Hansen with a swift swivel before squaring for Vladimir Gutsaev to make it 2-2 on aggregate.

It was the second goal that really stood out though, given how gloriously it brought their qualities together. Taking the ball in his own half on 76 minutes, centre-half Georgi Chilaia suddenly surged forward at full pelt, and continued for 60 yards while leaving five Liverpool players behind him. The sheer force of that was immediately complemented by finesse, as Chilaia passed for World Cup striker Ramaz Shengelia to deftly lift the ball over Ray Clemence. Footage of the match is available on YouTube and, even watching from the prism of the greatly evolved 2016 game, it is an eye-opening moment. It is just a staggering burst from nowhere, like the team.

Chivadze scored a penalty on 82 minutes, and that was followed by fans spilling on to celebrate. Paisley admitted afterwards his side had been outclassed like never before.

"They were a fantastic team," Thompson enthuses, "years ahead of their time."

They were also out of a different time, for European football as much as Georgian football, and that is to be lamented. Even allowing for the fact Dinamo were part of the larger Soviet Supreme League, the globalisation of the game means it is no longer possible for a side outside the core elite to so brilliantly surprise and capture the imagination in such a way. It is also no longer possible for such a talented national core to be kept together for anyone outside the biggest clubs. There just aren't the circumstances these days for a side like that Dinamo Tbilisi to exist. We'll likely be brutally reminded of that in the Champions League this week, as a modern eastern equivalent is pummelled by a super-club.

The 1979-'80 season was also a little too early for Dinamo, as they were beaten in the next round by Kevin Keegan's Hamburg, who were in turn beaten by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in the final. Tbilisi finally came to a peak in 1981, winning the Cup Winners Cup by beating East Germany's Carl Zeiss Jena in the final 2-1. They beat Waterford 5-0 on aggregate on the journey there, but it was travel that actually dominated all discussion with that tie. Due to factors like the USSR only allowing national airline Aeroflot within its borders, the cost of the trip for Waterford was put at £20,000. Chairman Joe Delaney said "this could put Waterford out of football", while the Munster Express declared it 'Operation Survival'.

Liverpool chairman Peter Robinson offered his advice, and Waterford eventually pulled through thanks to donations from businesses and League of Ireland clubs like Galway United, as well as a healthy home gate for the first leg at Kilcohan Park.

Dinamo suffered their own travel problems there, when the coach to take them from Dublin airport after a 15-hour journey failed to show up. Waterford restricted them to a 1-0 win, before Tbilisi cut loose in the second leg. Another 1982 World Cup star, Vitaly Daraselia, scored two screamers in a 4-0 win. He tragically died in a car crash two years later, giving the side a greater emotional depth.

Coincidentally, that Cup Winners Cup actually meant Dinamo were due to face 1981 European Cup winners Liverpool in the Super Cup. It was one of only three times the competition did not take place, however. The other two were Bayern Munich-Magdeburg in 1974 due to West-East German tensions, and Juventus-Everton 1985 after the Heysel tragedy.

Liverpool claimed there was no space in their schedule. The Georgians, of course, have a different theory.

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