IT WAS the first leg of an unprecedented treble.
On March 25 1984 Liverpool and Everton met in front of 100,000 supporters in the first all-Merseyside Cup final at Wembley.
For Joe Fagan it was crunch time. The first season of his Anfield reign was reaching a crescendo.
Reds and Blues stood side by side on the terraces but neither team could find a breakthrough. After a hard-fought goalless draw both clubs embarked on a joint lap of honour.
In his previously unpublished diaries, which form the basis of the enthralling new authorised biography ‘Joe Fagan: Reluctant Champion’, Fagan wrote: “Of course I’d have preferred it if we had won but at the end when I looked around and listened to the fans chanting ‘Merseyside! Merseyside!’ I thought at least they are all going home happy.
“On reflection it was a fair result. We didn’t play particularly well – no snap, no sparkle – too methodical in thought and action.”
Three days later at Maine Road frustration turned to pride as the Reds lifted the Milk Cup after a 1-0 win in the replay courtesy of Graeme Souness’ first-half strike.
“Well the lads did it! And well worth it,” Fagan penned. “The man of the match scored the goal and didn’t he play well? But let’s take nothing away from the other 10 – each one deserved their medal for their commitment and attitude.”
Goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar believes beating the Blues that night was the catalyst for Liverpool to go on and claim even greater prizes.
“That win really took the pressure off and you could visibly see the change in Joe after that,” said Grobbelaar.
“It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Any man would have been anxious following in the footsteps of Bob Paisley, and Joe, although he never showed it, was no different. Winning the Milk Cup also gave everyone the belief that more could follow.”
Following Bob Paisley was an uneviable task and initially Fagan had been reluctant to step out of the shadows.
“When Bob decided to retire, it frightened me that they might ask me to take over,” he said. “I said years ago that I’d never take on a manager’s job, that coaching was my game. But things do change, don’t they?”
Fagan was 62 when he was appointed manager in May 1983. Between joining the club in 1958 and being made boss 25 years later, he had never given an interview to the press.
He had always been happy in the background – first working for Phil Taylor, then Bill Shankly and Paisley – an integral part of the famous Bootroom.
Losing in the Charity Shield to Manchester United, coupled with injuries to key players and the failure to land transfer targets like Charlie Nicholas and Michael Laudrup, ensured it was a testing start to the campaign. Privately, Fagan questioned his players’ hunger.
“At the back of my mind I have got this feeling that certain players are going through the motions,” he said. “They have lost that spark to win more things.”
Those fears were eased by a memorable European Cup win away to Athletic Bilbao – “Big hearts and big chests stand out on nights like this” – and a 3-0 victory over Everton.
The Reds were setting the pace domestically but when a 15-game unbeaten run was ended by a 4-0 defeat at Coventry in December, the usually laid back Fagan flew off the handle.
“I’ll never forget that day,” recalled young reserve Jim Beglin. “I ended up sitting there not knowing where to look. There were tea cups flying around all over the place.”
As critics wrote Liverpool off as a fading force, Fagan wrote: “What a pathetic performance. It’s so long since a Liverpool team have needed to be given a blasting I’d forgotten what to say. I’m confused. We haven’t got a prayer.”
The Reds bounced back by hammering Notts County 5-0 and remained top until mid-March when they were beaten 2-0 at Southampton.
“We are not the Liverpool of old, not enough personalities, not enough good players,” he wrote. “I’m not surprised with the result or the prospect of not winning anything.”
Fagan responded to being knocked off the summit by Manchester United by spending £450,000 to sign Ipswich’s John Wark.
It proved inspired as Wark scored on his debut against Watford and the title was wrapped up with a game to spare after a goalless draw at Notts County.
That night he wrote: “Well the lads did it! We are the champions! Well done everybody. A lovely day! A nice feeling having won the league and not having to sweat on the last game.”
Ian Rush led the way with 47 goals but Fagan said: “Souness is my man of the year. We needed Ian Rush’s goals but over the year, for his leadership, performance, attitude and total commitment I pick Graeme.”
A man always more comfortable dishing out praise than receiving it, Fagan was spotted sweeping the dressing room at Meadow Lane as others celebrated.
The dream finale to an unforgettable season came in Rome on May 30 1984. In the book countless players speak glowingly of Fagan’s man management skills and that sense of togetherness he fostered helped them upset the odds against hosts Roma.
Before the penalty shootout he told his side: “I am proud of every one of you this evening and no matter what happens now that will not change.”
His words to Grobbelaar inspired the famous ‘spaghetti legs’ display which baffled the Italians.
“You’ve done your job, we can’t blame you now,” he said. “But try and put them off!”
Grobbelaar delivered, Alan Kennedy tucked away the winning spot-kick and Fagan had become the first English manager in history to win the treble.
In his final diary entry of the season he wrote: “Well, what can I say? We won the big one as they say and rightly so. In conclusion to the season let me congratulate Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans and the all lads for their magnificent efforts. Well done the lads!”
It was typical of Fagan to pass on the plaudits but this must-read book will help ensure one of football’s all-time greats finally gets the recognition he deserves.
‘Joe Fagan: Reluctant Champion’ is co-written by his grandson Andrew Fagan and LFC TV producer Mark Platt. Priced £20, it’s available from www.merseyshop.com and all good bookshops.