In honor of Liverpool’s remarkable season, this is the first installment of a six-post accompaniment to The Anatomy of Liverpool: A History in Ten Matches, by Jonathan Wilson with Scott Murray. It’s modeled on my similar “Mixer Project” posts, which offer a chapter-by-chapter accompaniment to Michael Cox’s tactical history of the Premier League, The Mixer. Because Wilson and Murray’s anatomy has already distilled the history of Liverpool FC into ten specific games, the Liverpool Project will cover two of these games per post, essentially collecting relevant footage for those who are reading along at home.
The opening two matches discussed by Wilson and Murray are from 1899 and 1947. They were probably not filmed, and are certainly not publicly available. Having said that, there are videos that at least provide a sense of the teams in question. Good enough for a start, at any rate.
Aston Villa 5 – Liverpool 0, Football League Division One, Villa Park, Birmingham, 29 April 1899
This match at the end of the 1898-99 season was undoubtedly a momentous one. It was the first time that the league title was decided on the final match day, let alone in a game where two contenders played one another. Somewhat remarkably, it was only Liverpool’s seventh season in existence, and only their fourth in the First Division.
Really, the chapter is the story of Liverpool’s early development under their second manager, the great Tom Watson. He had arrived two seasons earlier from Sunderland, where he had assembled one of the great sides of the era, Sunderland’s Team of All Talents. This Liverpool team had a remarkable run, particularly after an indifferent first half of the season. They stormed through the second half and were first place heading into their final game against second place Aston Villa–until Villa won their game in hand 7-1, tying Liverpool on points and edging them in goal average by 0.02 (until the 1970s, goals scored were divided by goals conceded rather than the latter being subtracted from the former as the tie breaker for teams on level points).
That set up this winner-take-all game, and Villa most decidedly took it all on the day. Focusing on this dramatic loss is an interesting choice, especially given that Watson’s Liverpool would go on to win the title two season later, again decided on the final day. But that game was far less dramatic than this one, which also set an important precedent in terms of Liverpool’s self-understanding. Looking back from that winning season to this loss, Wilson and Murray note that, “two seasons after suffering the harshest setback any club had been dealt in league history to that point, Liverpool had made it, the first illustration of a relentless spirit that would become part of the club’s fabric” (32).
Here’s the roster for Liverpool’s 1898-99 squad (you can click on the image for a larger picture that will allow you to read the players’ names). Everyone who played against Villa in that final game is pictured except for right wing Jack Cox, who had arrived the previous winter and did not feature until the new season, and goalkeeper Bill Perkins, who wasn’t signed until after an FA Cup semi-final replay loss in late March. The blonde-haired center half (and Scottish international) Alex Raisbeck was the side’s greatest star.
There is no way to watch either Liverpool or Villa from 1899. The earliest film footage of Liverpool that exists is from November 1901, the year after their first league title, away at Newcastle United. Five players from the game against Aston Villa played in that game as well: Perkins and Raisbeck, both of whom are identified in the video; as well as Tom Robertson, Cox, and Billy Dunlop. Archie Goldie’s younger brother, Bill, also played (Bill would have likely played against Aston Villa had he not been suspended–for the rest of the season following the FA Cup loss that led to the signing of Perkins–for refusing to give his name to a referee he had engaged with “discourteous language”).
When the camera is focused on Liverpool’s end, Perkins’s role and Raisbeck’s blonde hair make them easy to spot. Dunlop is surely in the mix, but less easily identified. The same is probably true for wingers Robertson and Cox when the camera turns to Newcastle’s end, though one suspects Cox’s signature mustache would stand out had he to made a major appearance in front of camera.
You can see even more of Raisbeck at work in a Merseyside derby from the following September, a game in which Perkins, Dunlop, and Cox also played. The quality of the film is not as good, but the pressure of Everton’s attack–they would win the game 3-1–offers more of an opportunity to see Liverpool’s defense at work.
Though not quite as early, you can also see a few of Aston Villa’s players in this November 1905 game away at Preston North End. Keeper Billy George, full backs (i.e. central defenders) Albert Evans and Howard Spencer, and center forward Billy Garraty all play in the game. This wonderful film opens with both teams entering the field, so that all of them are identifiable. Spencer is the first in line (carrying the ball), George is third (cap on), Evans fifth (having either a piece of gum or a bit of chewing tobacco pre-game), and Garraty brings up the rear.
As this video is focused entirely on Villa’s goal, you can see a great deal of George, Evans, and Spencer. Garraty is more difficult to locate, though he may make a brief appearance during the protest over a disputed goal. Garraty also played (as did George) in a game from the end of the 1903-04 season at Blackburn Rovers. He scored a goal in the game, though it isn’t captured on camera.
In truth, the video quality is poor, and if you want to try and make out Garraty in action you will need to focus on the opening 30 seconds, which seem to focus on Blackburn’s goal. The rest of the clip focuses on Villa’s goal, which does include a nice bit of goalkeeping by George in a crowded goalmouth near the film’s end.
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 – Liverpool 2, Football League Division One, Molineux, Wolverhampton, 31 May 1947
Wilson and Murray open this chapter with the interesting claim that, “without the efforts of [manager] George Kay and his team in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, [Bill] Shankly would have had precious little to build on . . . there would have been no sleeping giant to wake” (36). It is an interesting commentary on the fates of other pre-war giants, and certainly food for thought in considering the importance of this side. Ultimately, however, the importance of this league title stands on its own merits. As Wilson and Murray acknowledge, “the seven-game run-in of 1946-47 stands–with all due respect to the team which charged from mid-table at Christmas to claim the title in 1981-82, and the class of ’86 which reeled in Everton to win the Double–as the most spectacular, impressive and dramatic denouement to any of Liverpool’s eighteen championship victories” (52).
As in 1899, this run culminated in a make-or-break final match against a competitor for the title (though in this case, Liverpool would have to wait over two weeks for a highly-favored Stoke City to lose at Sheffield United in order to be crowned champions). As might be expected at the end of a long season, both sides were missing key players. Liverpool lacked their starting half-back pairing of Phil Taylor and Bob Paisley–both of them, future Liverpool managers. Utility man Bob Jones and left back Eddie Spicer deputized for them. As for Wolves, they were missing the league’s leading scorer, Dennis Wescott–who had scored four of his 38 in Wolves 5-1 victory at Anfield–and inside forward Tom Galley. This would also be the last game for center-half Stan Cullis, who would go on to manage Wolves through their golden era in the coming decade.
The warning on the match program (above) that teams are subject to alteration proved all too apt, as both sides required further tweaking due to late injuries. For Wolves, Billy Wright, who the following season would replace Cullis both as center-back and team captain, was a late substitute for left back Roy Pritchard. Liverpool’s late change, as Wilson and Murray note, would prove critical. “[Willie] Fagan had picked up a knock, so despite [star winger Billy] Liddell’s return, Priday kept his place. ‘We had to make a switch,’ explained [center forward Albert] Stubbins, ‘with Liddell playing in the unusual position for him of inside-left, even though he wore the number seven. Bob Priday came in at outside left. I said to him before the game, if you lie deep and pick up the ball, just hit a long pass, not to my feet but past me and past Stan Cullis. I’ll see what I can do with it'” (58).
While Liverpool’s first goal was the kind of cultured, short-passing team goal for which they were known–albeit, scored against the run of play–the second followed exactly the plan Stubbins had devised. The unanticipated directness caught Wolves out and gave Liverpool the insurance goal they would need to weather the second half and come away with a title-winning victory.
A short video made in conjunction with Gary Shaw and Mark Platt’s privately published book on the 1946-47 season collects still images and film footage of the team. Coverage of the final game begins at 5:13 with a photo of the handshake between team captains Balmer and Cullis, followed by a still of Stubbins’s goal. Even better, it contains footage from two FA Cup games leading up to the final seven-game run-in. The quarterfinal at Birmingham features Stubbins’s glorious “goal in snow,” a diving header for which he would be remembered (51). The semi-final replay loss against Burnley was Liverpool’s last game before that magnificent run-in.
The parade of filmed players at 1:13 includes six who lined up against Wolves, as well as the three regulars left out because of injuries: left back Ray Lambert, keeper Cyril Sidlow, forward Cyril Done (not involved in the game), inside right Jack Balmer, center half Laurie Hughes, left back Eddie Spicer, inside left and team captain Willie Fagan, right half Phil Taylor, utility sub Bill Jones, and left half Bob Paisley, who goes on to speak about the team. You can see right back Ron Harley in the signed picture following Paisley’s comments, second from the left in the bottom row, in between Sidlow and Fagan; and winger Bob Priday second from the right in the top row, next to the balding Balmer. The iconic left wing, Billy Liddell, is the final interviewee in the video, at 6:25, while center forward Albert Stubbins appears second (at 6:46) in the parade of stills following the interview. William Watkinson is seventh (at 6:54), while Liddell himself is eighth (at 6:55). Harley is sixteenth (at 7:09), following manager George Kaye and Jack Balmer.
Seven of these players also lined up in Liverpool’s 1950 FA Cup final loss to Arsenal. Stubbins and Liddell, Jones (again stepping in for Paisley), Sidlow, Lambert, Hughes, and Spicer (in his true position at left back). Below is a newsreel of the game, offering something approaching a modern highlight.
Seven of Wolves’ starters also lined up in a November 1946 friendly against Swedish side IFK Norrköping (Mullen and Wright were injured, Dunn and Alderton left out; and Hancocks plays at left wing rather than right). Cullis again takes the coin toss, and the video gives a very good sense of his command of the game at center-half. His deft back heel pass along his own end line at 1:10 is not to be missed.
If you are interested in reading more about this game, by the way, it is discussed in Gunnar Persson’s “The Rise of IFK Norrköping” in Issue 27 of The Blizzard (2017) 130-42, esp. 139.
That’s it for pre-Shankly Liverpool. Next up for the Liverpool Anatomy Project will be the Shankly revolution. See you then.