Bill Shankly's final season: Struggles on the road for Liverpool in September – Liverpool FC

The conclusion of this season will mark 50 years since Bill Shankly retired as manager of Liverpool Football Club.
It was a decision that shook the nation, and one few saw coming. Shankly had built Liverpool from a middling Second Division club into the powerhouse it remains to this day.
To commemorate the Scot’s final campaign in charge, we’re revisiting it month-by-month to see how 1973-74 unfolded. It’s time to reminisce about September 1973…
‘RETIRE? NO!’ was one of the subheadings in Shankly’s Sunday Express column published on September 2, 1973. We now know he changed his mind less than a year later but there was no inkling the great man was going anywhere as 1973-74 began to take shape.
Liverpool had closed August with a defeat at Coventry City and they returned to the Midlands four days later to get September under way at Leicester City.
The Foxes had long been a bogey team for Shankly’s side. Between the Octobers of 1962 and 1964, the teams met seven times and Leicester won six of the matches, including an FA Cup semi-final in April 1963.
While their record had improved since, the Reds arrived at Filbert Street in September 1973 having lost their previous three visits, so in that light the 1-1 draw they secured was a decent result. If there was a disappointment, it was that they failed to defend the lead given to them by John Toshack, the forward scoring in his first appearance of the campaign.
As Leicester had come from behind to take a point in their first two games, their powers of recovery would not have been a surprise. However, the result left Liverpool 11th in the very early league standings, for what they were worth. The good news is that this was the lowest position they would hold across the entire season.
After taking one point from a pair of away games, a double-header at Anfield would’ve been most welcome for Shankly’s men.
It began on Tuesday September 4 with a visit from Brian Clough’s Derby County. They had been surprise league champions two seasons earlier, taking the title for the first time in their history.
Tommy Smith returned to the line-up to make his first start of the campaign. Having been sent off towards the end of the previous season, ‘Anfield Iron’ had been suspended for the opening trio of matches.
Yet it was young Phil Thompson who took the headlines, scoring his first Liverpool goal in his 25th appearance for the senior team. It was by all accounts a superb strike too – writing for The Guardian, Eric Todd penned: “We may not see a better goal all season.”
Thompson later remembered his 30-yard effort fondly, as you would expect. “I’m not a good golfer, but I know that feeling when you catch the ball perfectly,” he said.
“It flew from my boot and went into the top left-hand corner. I remember Kevin Keegan rushing up to me saying, ‘How did you kick it that far?’”
But kick it that far he did, and a late penalty from Keegan ensured the points remained at Anfield. While the England international missed a penalty in the following match, against Chelsea, he also scored to secure a 1-0 victory for the Reds.
It may have been close but Paul Wilcox’s report for The Guardian noted that Blues goalkeeper Peter Bonetti ‘made incredible stops from Thompson, Keegan, Cormack, Callaghan, who also hit the crossbar, Smith and especially Hughes in a performance which he can rarely have bettered’. While the goals were not flowing for Liverpool, chances clearly were, and back-to-back wins lifted them to third in the league table.
Next up was a trip to the Baseball Ground to play Derby. Where it is now rare for a team to face the same opponent twice in very quick succession in the league, it was far more common in the old days.
Unfortunately for the Reds, Clough’s men atoned for their 2-0 loss at Anfield with a 3-1 victory. As with Leicester, trips to face the Rams rarely ended well for Liverpool in this era and so it proved again.
Phil Boersma got his opening goal of 1973-74 thanks to Keegan’s first assist of the campaign but otherwise it was a night to forget for Shankly’s men. The Guardian’s ‘Derby run Liverpool off their feet’ headline succinctly summed up the contrasting performances delivered by the two sides.
The Reds made yet another journey to the Midlands three days later to take on Birmingham City. It was a memorable match for Derek Brownbill, a 19-year-old striker who made what proved to be both his first and last appearance for Liverpool that day.
He was replaced by Brian Hall, with the substitute scoring after Bob Latchford – who later made 268 appearances for Everton – broke the deadlock.
Goals from the bench were still something of a novelty at this point, with Hall’s only the 17th Liverpool had scored since substitutions were first introduced eight years earlier. His strike was most welcome, as it earned the Reds a 1-1 draw and a point.
The following midweek, Liverpool began their quest for a first European Cup with their first foray into the competition for seven years. They did so in the most unlikely surroundings: Luxembourg, a country they had never previously played in and have not done so since.
The Reds were drawn to face Jeunesse d’Esch, who remain the most successful side in the history of Luxembourgish football, and Shankly picked a full-strength side for the occasion.
Permitted to name five subs, unlike in league football, he included Frank Lane, Dave Rylands and Peter Spiring on the bench, a trio of players who would muster just three Liverpool appearances between them.
It was the goalscoring substitute from the previous match who struck for the Reds again, though Hall was in the starting XI here. The amateurs from Luxembourg fought back hard, though, and stunned Liverpool with a goal from Gilbert Dussier two minutes from time.
With a return leg at Anfield to come, it was not the end of the world but it did extend the Reds’ winless run to three games. It would be fascinating to know what Shankly made of his side’s performance that night.
League action resumed on the Saturday with Tottenham Hotspur travelling north to face Liverpool on their own patch. Just as Diogo Jota scored a 90th-minute winner for the Reds against Spurs in 2023, so did Chris Lawler against the same opposition some 50 years earlier.
It was a remarkable day all round for Liverpool’s full-backs, in a match in which Shankly’s side twice had to come from a goal down. First, right-back Lawler headed in a free-kick delivered by Alec Lindsay, his colleague from the opposite flank.
The Liverpool left-back then converted a retaken penalty (with Emlyn Hughes having had the first effort) after Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings was adjudged to have moved off his goalline too early. With Lawler then firing home the winner from 30 yards out, a difficult afternoon ended very happily for Shankly and his boys.
The final match of a very busy month was a trip to Old Trafford. While this always represents a difficult fixture for Liverpool, the 1973-74 season ended with Manchester United relegated to the Second Division.
Nobody would have known this back in September, of course, and so the 0-0 draw was probably viewed as a reasonably satisfactory result for both sides.
However, the match was described as a ‘drab affair’ in The Guardian, and their correspondent Paul Fitzpatrick was critical of the Reds. “Liverpool were a dull reflection of United,” he wrote. “They possessed a safe defence, a predictable midfield and a near anonymous forward line.”
Reading match reports from the time, it appears Shankly was content for his side to play controlled football away from home, with the aim of ensuring they took at least a point from the match. While not the worst strategy, particularly in the two-points-for-a-win era, it left people thinking the Reds should open up, express themselves more and enjoy better performances as a result.
As September drew to a close, Liverpool had recorded four wins from four games at Anfield in 1973-74 but no victories from six matches on the road. It was clear where Shankly needed his troops to improve.
Return to for the next instalment of the series in October.


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