For most, the Champions League remains the pinnacle of European football, yet the continent’s second cup competition has a special place in the history of Liverpool Football Club. After all, the Europa League—originally known as the UEFA Cup—was where Liverpool had their first taste of glory on the continent. It’s a trophy Liverpool have won three times, and that only upcoming opponents and four-time winners Sevilla have held more often.
Liverpool had been a dominant force in England under Bill Shankly, who arrived at a club in shambles and adrift in the second division in December of 1959, and who spent the next two-and-a-half seasons laying the foundations for promotion back to the top flight. Their first year back in England’s top division, Liverpool finished eighth. But then, in only their second year back in the top division, they won the league for the first time in the modern era. They did it again in their fourth season back.
Despite domestic success, glory took longer to find in Europe. Liverpool lost a European Cup semi-final to Inter Milan in 1965, then made it to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final the next season only to lose 2-1 in extra time to Borussia Dortmund. Over the next few years, they struggled to get past the early rounds in Europe, with the low point a 7-3 aggregate loss to Johann Cruyff’s Ajax. It was a humbling defeat, one that convinced Shankly he had to embrace a more possession-based approach to find success on the continent.
Those changes would paid off in the 1972-73 season, when Liverpool not only won the English league—they also won their first European trophy, the 1973 UEFA Cup. It was only the second year for Europe's second cup competition, and Liverpool had qualified to take part thanks to a third-place finish in the league the season before. They joined a field of 64 other teams that would play five home-and-home rounds until two teams were left in the final, which would also be a two-legged affair.
Liverpool were paired up with Eintracht Frankfurt in the first round, and they ran out to a 2-0 victory at home in the first leg on goals by Emlyn Hughes and Kevin Keegan before holding Frankfurt to a nil-nil draw in the second leg. Over the two legs, Liverpool used only two substitutes—both in the second leg—and they advanced to the second round alongside familiar names like Olympiacos, Inter, Fiorentina, and Valencia. Barcelona, in their first UEFA Cup, were ousted by fellow Iberians FC Porto by a score of 4-1.
Liverpool’s History in the Europa League: 1976
As Liverpool prepare for the 2016 Europa League final, we look back at the club's history in the competition and to 1976 when the Reds won their second UEFA Cup.
While the Germans kept things close in round one, AEK Athens couldn’t compete in round two—Liverpool drubbed them 6-1 on aggregate. Tommy Smith and Peter Cormack each had a goal, while Philip Boersma and Emlyn Huges nabbed two each. Round three saw them facing Germans again, with East Germany’s Berliner FC Dynamo falling 3-1 on aggregate. With the first match on the road, Liverpool played out a nervy nil-nil before winning 3-1 at home on goals by Boersma, Toshack, and Heighway.
Liverpool were making home advantage work for them while eking out results on the road, and after a winter break, the competition continued with the quarter-finals against another East German side, Dynamo Dresden. It ended 3-0, with more goals for Keegan and Boersma as well as one for Brian Hall. Their toughest opponent would come in the semi-final, when they faced off against domestic rivals Tottenham—winners of the first UEFA Cup the year before—and advanced thanks to the away goals rule.
The first game of the semi-final was at Anfield, and Alec Lindsay gave the Reds a lead after 26’ that they would hold for the remainder of the match. They headed to London with the advantage—but it was a slim one. And it only lasted a half, with Spurs’ Martin Peters scoring on 49 minutes to level the tie. Five minutes later, though, Steve Heighway put Liverpool ahead. Tottenham knew they would have to score twice, but in the end could only manage one more. The match ended 2-1 to Spurs, but it was 2-2 on aggregate and Liverpool held the crucial away goal.
It set up a final against Borussia Monchengladbach. They were tournament favourites, boasting 11 internationals and led by the UEFA Cup’s leading scorer, Jupp Heynckes. Yet despite their scoring prowess, with the first leg at Anfield, the Germans set out to frustrate the Reds—and their plan seemed to be working to perfection in the early going. But with with the rain pouring down and the pitch waterlogged, a match most thought should never have kicked off had to be abandoned half way through the first half.
The referee's two decisions, to start the game and then abandon it, was the break Liverpool needed, giving Shankly first-hand insight into Monchengladbach’s approach. When the game kicked off for a second time, Liverpool had far more success than they had the day before. Kevin Keegan gave them the lead they knew they needed to take to Germany lead, striking on 21 minutes and then again on 32. Then, when Larry Lloyd found the back of the goal in the second half, it seemed like the tie might be done and dusted.
It wasn’t. At home, Monchengladbach came out guns blazing, throwing everything they had at Liverpool. Heynckes scored twice in the first half. A third would have brought extra time, but as the game went to the half, it didn't look as though it would get that far—Liverpool appeared on the verge of giving the tie away. They reorganised, though, and the Germans couldn’t maintain their furious pace. Liverpool’s confidence grew with each attack they repelled. The game ended 2-0; the tie ended 3-2 to Liverpool.
Bill Shankly and the Reds had won their first European trophy. It certainly wouldn’t be the last for the club, but would be Shankly's only one. The man who had dragged Liverpool back into the top flight, found success in England, and implemented some hard-earned lessons from the continent passed the reins to Bob Paisley a year later, setting the stage for a run of dominance few would have imagined possible when Liverpool had been languishing in the second division fifteen years earlier.