Friday 18 January 2019

'We were never hated. . . except in Manchester' - Liverpool legend David Fairclough

David Fairclough was Liverpool’s ‘Supersub’ in the club’s halcyon days. He tells Ian Herbert about his struggles with his bit-part role

Liverpool ‘supersub’ David Fairclough is tackled against Everton in 1977. Photo: Tony Duffy/Allsport
Liverpool ‘supersub’ David Fairclough is tackled against Everton in 1977. Photo: Tony Duffy/Allsport

Ian Herbert

David Fairclough tells a story about a Liverpool reserve team match against Manchester United which puts those little Premier League training ground handbag controversies - Oscar versus Diego Costa; Mario Balotelli versus pretty much anyone - into perspective.

He was an 18-year-old in the foothills of a career that would one day assign him a place in Liverpool legend, and Tommy Smith, dropped to the second string, appeared to be heading in the opposite when they faced the old enemy together. Smith gave him dog's abuse that day in October 1975.

"If I was up against you today, I'd be able to bring a bloody deckchair onto the pitch and sun myself," he told Fairclough, and after the game the teenager overheard the revered former captain, whom he had idolised as a boy, talking about him to Roy Evans, then reserve team coach.


"Little bastard with the red hair" and "deserved kick up the backside" were the fragments he caught.

Fairclough, who scored in the match, will tell you in retrospect that the abuse was worth it - he made his senior debut alongside Smith a few weeks later.

And was there any intervention from the management to prevent a player's self-confidence being shot to pieces? Most certainly not. The point of the story - one of many told by Fairclough in an excellent autobiography, Supersub: The Story of Football's Most Famous No 12 - is that the team policed and ran itself.

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Bob Paisley - with his eye for a player and an opponent's weakness which no manager has come close to matching, before or since - pretty much left them to it.

The list of rows is consequently a long and colourful one. Alan Kennedy and Graeme Souness were involved in several. Fists featured. Then everyone moved on.

It was a British game with a distinctly British culture back then - in Liverpool's case a northern and Scottish game because Paisley's mistrust of southerners meant that he signed none of them.

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That goes some way to telling us why encounters with United, Liverpool's opposition on Sunday, had something visceral and personal which will be alien to this weekend's sides - Wayne Rooney apart.

The encounters with United were fierce, despite the fact that there was "never a fear factor about them," as Fairclough tells it, when we meet at a busy coffee house near his Merseyside home in Formby, where the warmth of the greetings from the clientele, including Everton's Leighton Baines, reveal the respect he commands.

"They were not one of our strongest rivals but there was always an added competitive edge to this fixture. I don't think we were ever universally hated in those days, except maybe in Manchester. . ."

His own career was measured out with big moments against United. The exquisite solo goal which made a fool out of Gordon McQueen in a 3-0 win in 1978; the gilt-edged chance he missed - to his eternal regret - in the victorious 1983 League Cup final which was his Wembley swansong. And the searing disappointment of not featuring in the losing 1977 FA Cup final against United.

What makes Fairclough's memoir most vivid is its depiction of how it feels to be the perennial substitute. In eight years as a first-team player at Anfield, he made 154 appearances, 62 off the bench.

Liverpool's David Fairclough powers in a superb shot (but not goal this time) during the league division one match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on October 8, 1977 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Steve Hale/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Liverpool's David Fairclough powers in a superb shot (but not goal this time) during the league division one match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on October 8, 1977 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Steve Hale/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

On a further 76 occasions - the equivalent of two modern league seasons - Liverpool's most famous No 12 sat on the bench and never came on.

The 1977 final seemed like a big opportunity. He was flying at that time, using the blistering pace which was always his big asset, and Paisley's way of disclosing that he would be miss out was unusual.

Fairclough answered a knock at the team hotel and found the manager, loitering outside and beckoning him up the corridor to his own room.

They'd walked three or four paces around the corner and were just over the threshold of the 57-year-old's room when he came out with it.

"You won't be playing tomorrow. But I will need you in Rome," he said, offering the devastated young man the carrot of a place in the European Cup final against Borussia Monchengladbach.

Fairclough had substantially helped put Liverpool there, with his iconic winning goal against St Etienne six minutes from the end of the Anfield quarter-final at Anfield that April.

There would be no place in the Rome squad either - an outcome which, to Fairclough's mind, reflected Paisley's unimpressive way of dissembling when it came to his selection.

The prospect of being omitted again from the 1978 European Cup final side against Bruges at Wembley - despite his 19 goals in 29 games that campaign - led Fairclough to write out a transfer request in his hotel room.

He planned to hand it to Paisley if not selected and it was actually in his pocket as he went through his warm-ups on the pitch.

Fairclough featured, though, and he would not leave Anfield until 1983, when Paisley offered him a new contract on reduced pay, from £600 a week down to £425.

He was still only 26 and his career took him to Canada and Switzerland before he returned home for less successful times with Norwich and Wigan.


In the several decades since, there have been players who have reminded him of the Liverpool culture of those days. Luis Suarez is among them, with his refusal to accept sub-standard contributions on the pitch.

"If you lost the ball you had to get behind the ball," says Fairclough (59). "It used to scare you stiff. You were scared you were going to lose because of the bollocking you used to get off the players.

"I lose it and I'm here and Ray Kennedy is there and it's: 'What the f*** are you doing?' The players around you were policing its much as the staff. Getting the bollocking from your teammates dragged up your level."

Those days certainly feel like an eternity ago. Liverpool and United - clubs who in more recent years have obsessed over the stats and the philosophies, hired managers and then sacked them - could learn something from that beautiful, sometimes brutal, simplicity.

Independent News Service

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