Liverpool vs Club Brugge, European Cup Final 1978

Even in the vast expanse of the old Wembley, the gap between both sets of substitute benches was only a few feet wide. Slightly enough to fit another column of chairs had the powers that be chosen to do so. Very close confines for today’s generation of animated managers. On the night no touchline clashes were observed. The two managers would exchange heated words only after the tie had ended, unsatisfied with each other’s approach.

Both of them were legends in their own right, each having already lifted the European Cup. Liverpool’s Bob Paisley had triumphed most recently, overseeing his side’s 3:1 win in the ‘77 final vs Mönchengladbach. The summer brought the challenge of replacing Kevin Keegan who made the £500.000 move to Hamburg. Keegan may not have gotten on the scoresheet in the final, but he was Liverpool’s top goalscorer in the EC with four goals, and for the season overall, netting 20 times in all competitions.

Enter Kenny Dalglish, a then 26-year old striker of slight stature, joining for £440.000 from Celtic, having scored 167 goals in 322 matches for the Bhoys. Dalglish proved an instant success. Though not blessed with blinding pace, Dalglish relied on his superior anticipation and finishing skills. He bagged 31 goals across all competitions in his inaugural season at Anfield.

Had he been a bit sharper in the first few minutes of this match, the 92.500 in attendance would have seen quite a different game.

From kick-off Brugge send it straight to their keeper Birger Jensen who botches his pass upfield. The ball lands on the foot of Dalglish, but with acres of space in front of him, he can’t control it properly.

Just a few minutes later Terry McDermott picks off a strange errant pass by Lajos Kű in a dangerous position on the wing. McDermott wants to shift play over to the middle where David Fairclough is waiting and uses Dalglish as a conduit, but the latter’s pass isn’t precise enough.

A rhythm for the final

Dalglish, Brugge and the game as a whole quickly settle into a rhythm. The Belgian side set up two narrow bands of four, with the defence positioned only ~20 yards in front of their own goal, with the midfield another ten in front of that. Liverpool are in control and Brugge are happy to concede possession until around the half-way line where they start pressing. Otherwise a sole striker is hurrying Liverpool goalkeeper Ray Clemence.

An early scare comes when Graeme Souness pings a ball high out to the left wing. Fairclough lays a header off into the box where Dalglish is beat to the ball by Jensen, colliding with Brugge’s keeper. Both men are down for the count but can resume play.

Souness had joined Liverpool at the season’s outset amongst a bit of reshuffling, by way of Middlesbrough. The £352.000 move had completed a trifecta of Scottish signings. The summer prior had seen the arrival of 21-year old Alan Hansen, brought in from Partick Thistle for £100.000. Altogether serious money for the late-70s, but not enough to win the league a third time on the bounce. Nottingham Forest claimed the First Division title 1977/78.

Liverpool were perhaps side-tracked by Europe. Though the early rounds were a breeze: They had received a bye into the Second Round, where they put the tie with Dynamo Dresden to bed in the first leg at Anfield (5:1). They could afford to lose in Dresden and did so (1:2). Two wins against Benfica in the Quarter-finals, away (2:1) and home (4:1), brought about a rematch with Gladbach in the Semis. Again Liverpool lost in Germany as they had in Dresden (1:2) but booked another final via Anfield (3:0).

Club Brugge’s defensive organization

At Wembley they encountered Brugge, or rather the defensive entity that was Brugge. Their approach on the whole wasn’t negative, even though their general deep positioning would suggest that. There was no mindless boot-the-ball-out-the-box to be found here. Instead Brugge relied on condensing space, applying pressure in the right areas and catching Liverpool’s strikers in their off-side trap.

Approximate formations and player movements for Brugge vs Liverpool, May 10th 1978

Approximate formations and player movements for Brugge vs Liverpool, May 10th 1978

Soon enough everybody but Clemence was positioned inside the Brugge half as Liverpool built their attacks. Brugge’s wider midfield players would fall back into the last line, either on the outside or slotting in between Centre and Full backs, with the whole line then pushing forward. This served them well on both of Liverpool’s attacking patterns.

When Dalglish dropped back to receive the ball at his feet, back to the goal, it gave Brugge always a man advantage in the middle to stifle his first movement.

Showing a bit of space behind their line also cajoled Liverpool into sending balls over the top for Fairclough to run onto. For most of the game the trap worked without a fault. Thus Liverpool were reduced to long range efforts for the early stages. Jimmy Case, the Reds’ European top goalscorer that season, took his cue. His first effort landed straight in the arms of Jensen (13’), the next in the upper decks of Wembley (18’).

Sustained success under Ernst Happel

On the day Brugge weren’t pretty to look at but it’s hard to argue with their overall results. Unlike Liverpool, Brugge did complete their league title hat-trick in 1977/78. In the European Cup they easily advanced through the First Round against Finnish champions Kuopion Palloseura easily (4:0 & 5:2). Afterwards Brugge would rely on their home strength, winning all matches at Olympiastadion 2:0 against Panathinaikos in the second round (losing 0:1 away), against Atlético Madrid in the Quarter-final (losing 2:3 away) and against Juventus in the Semi-finals (losing 0:1 away).

A similar run had brought Brugge to the UEFA Cup final two years prior, winning all of their home legs through five rounds, while winning only one away leg, and drawing another. In the final, which was also played over two legs, they met Liverpool. True to form the Reds won the first match at Anfield (3:2). Brugge then took the lead at home, but Liverpool quickly equalized and held on to win the trophy.

Residing over the Belgian side on both occasions was Ernst Happel. The Austrian had previously led Feyenoord to European success in 1969/70 and was now looking to become the first manager to win the EC with two different teams.

As the first half rolls on he sees a more physical match from both sides. Case goes into the book for a late tackle on Maes, while Case himself is brought down by Vandereycken only a few minutes later. Less retaliatory than last ditch, Vandereycken prevented Case to slip through after a nice move down the middle by Liverpool.

Mistakes to close out the first half

Mistakes from both sides characterize the last few minutes in the first half. Liverpool’s are hardly punished: While they try to up the tempo in the build-up, their pass completion rate drops. Brugge are are hardly threatening on the counter, sending just two or three players out on the break and being altogether to slow going forward.

Brugge’s mistakes, however, almost prove deathly. After 39 minutes the offside-trap fails for the first time, leaving Fairclough with an open path towards goal. Georges Leekens catches up with Fairclough and does just enough to slow Fairclough down, allowing Jensen to clear the ball and the defence to re-form. In the commotion the ball is put back in, Souness gets a volley-shot off which sails high and over the bar.

Moments later Fairclough again avoids the offside-trap, aided by a surprise turn-around, no-look pass from McDermott from the right wing into the attacking third. Jensen is out quickly enough to stifle Fairclough’s shot.

To close out the half, it’s again McDermott who puts in a free kick from the right wing. Hansen towers over the Brugge defence, but his header is not placed well enough. Jensen able to palm it over the bar

If the match were a boxing title bout, holders Liverpool would have won this first round simply virtue of their status. Challengers Brugge did not threaten them enough, only making Clemence work going for a few crosses and corner kicks. However, in the last 5 to 10 minutes Liverpool would’ve rightly earned the points for the round. Bringing more width into their play, with McDermott drifting out to the right and Hughes pushing up on the left wing, the Reds were finally turning their advantages on the ball into chances.

Dalglish breaks the deadlock

In the second half they doubled down on this approach. On the right wing Case is pushing up into the forward line with McDermott filling in. On the left Fairclough drifts very wide, almost holding the line at times. Going forward both full backs would overload.

Belying the strategy, their biggest chance on the day so far comes through the middle.

But that’s where Dalglish brings up the ball after 50 minutes, pulling two defenders out of position then playing a dinky lay-off pass for the surging McDermott, which catches the whole Brugge defence by surprise. The England International is clear through on goal but Jensen plays a good angle, stays up long and stops the shot.

As for Brugge’s attack, noteable achievements are few and far between. Of note is the midfield positioning, the row of three would hold their shape going forward but interchange amongst each other. Kű had a free role in front, while Simoen would drop back to form a 4-3-2-1. It is Vandereycken who notches up the first shot on target, but his effort from 30 yards out lands directly in the arms of Clemence (55’).

Both sides make a change around the hour mark, with Sanders and Heighway coming on for Kű and Case respectively. But before either of the newly introduced players can make much of an impact, the ball falls to Souness 20 yards out, after a stifled Liverpool attack. Dalglish had kept onside and is hovering on the shoulder of the back-line. Souness slips him a great through ball and this time Jensen, though out quickly, goes to the ground early. Dalglish lifts the ball over him into the far side of the goal.

Rather than go decisively for the 2:0, Liverpool sit back and play keep-ball, making the closing 20 minutes nervier than they need to be.

Last ditch efforts from Brugge

Happel brings on Volders for Maes, strengthening Brugge’s left side, where Heighway had rejuvenated Liverpool’s efforts. Vandereyken is at the forefront of an offensive push by the trailing side, with the whole Brugge midfield now in more advanced positions. Their main problem remains a lack of connection between midfield and attack. And, what’s more, Liverpool give them a taste of their own medicine and now use the offside trap to great effect themselves.

The only real chance at the equalizer comes ten minutes from the final whistle. Jensen sends a long ball up the field, which is headed on into the highest line. Hansen gets a foot on it and decides to play it round the back, but his pass is too short. Sorensen tries to get onto it and clatters into Clemence. The ball falls to Simoen who has to turn around to shoot, allowing Thompson enough time to get back and cover for Clemence, thus clearing Simoen’s shot off the goal-line.

In the end Liverpool’s experience may well have been the deciding factor. 77/78 was the 14th consecutive season in Europe for the Reds. That’s remarkable even by today’s standards.

Consequently Happel had seen his opponents in finer form, saying after the match that “Liverpool were only a shadow of the side they were two years prior”, and concluding it was an altogether bad final. Paisley pushed back, suggesting it takes two sides to make for an interesting game.

Upon watching the match, the truth, as so often, lies in the middle. And the verbal aftermath is also less dramatic than could be trumped up to be. In the same vein Paisley added that “Brugge were well organised at the back and it was a case of breaking them down”. Such was the case and from Brugge’s perspective a necessity looking at the overall superior skill in the English side. Liverpool on the other hand dominated for 90 minutes, but only clicked into higher gear for shorter bursts. Certainly not their best performance in the era, but nonetheless a “deserved victory”, as Happel himself admitted.


  • Man Of The Match: Tough one, Souness, McDermott & Case all at times ran the show, but didn’t sustain that level; thus Dalglish get’s it for the sublime finish
  • Best Hair: Lajos Kű with Souness a strong runner-up
  • Viewing recommendation: Yes, for Liverpool fans or if you’re interested in Happel’s tactical nous (and why wouldn’t you be?); otherwise skipable. Full match can be found over on footballia, highlights below.

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About Sebastian

Sebastian writes and talks about football of all eras in German and English. His series of Retro Match Reports focus on British, German and Italian football history. For YYFP he is currently working his way through the late '70s and early '80s. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @maltacalcio.

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