'Everybody had written us off' - Liverpool's forgotten night when half-empty Anfield saw something incredible
Liverpool are renowned for famous European fightbacks and one of their most significant took place at Anfield against French side Auxerre 30 years ago today
Liverpool’s famous European fightbacks are the stuff of legend.
The very mentions of 2005’s epic Champions League final in Istanbul against AC Milan and more recently the stupendous semi-final second leg against Barcelona are guaranteed to get Reds fans misty-eyed and waxing lyrical.
The club’s continental pedigree stretches back of course to the mid-1960s when only a series of controversial refereeing decisions against Inter Milan stopped Bill Shankly’s side becoming the first British team to win the European Cup, with six triumphs since then in the ‘Big Cup’ along with three UEFA Cup triumphs firmly establishing Liverpool as England’s pre-eminent force abroad.
Chief among the reasons why Jürgen Klopp’s injury-hit side’s astonishing reversal of a three-goal deficit against Barcelona in 2019 is still so revered at Anfield and beyond is the fact that, for all the famous European nights Liverpudlians have been treated to, it was the first time the Reds had overhauled such a heavy first leg loss.
Indeed before the remarkable conquest of the Catalans, Liverpool had only ever once before pulled back a two-goal first leg deficit and it took place thirty years ago today in front of a half-empty Anfield who created what is still regarded as one of the old ground’s finest and most feral atmospheres.
The winds of change were beginning to blow tempestuously around L4 in the autumn of 1991
European Cup-winning skipper Graeme Souness had returned to the club the previous April to take over as manager following Kenny Dalglish’s shock resignation in February but, despite that summer bringing in record British signing Dean Saunders from Derby County for £2.9m to bolster the attack along with central defensive team-mate Mark Wright for £2.2m as well as winger Mark Walters from Rangers for £1.5m, Liverpool had suffered a difficult start to a season which ultimately was an indicator of the barren years ahead.
Although Souness’s side began the campaign with a win over Joe Royle’s newly-promoted Oldham Athletic and ended August second in the league table after beating Everton at Anfield, a home defeat to Crystal Palace on 2nd November - the Reds’ third league loss of the campaign already to go along with five draws - left Liverpool in an unfamiliar ninth spot.
1991/92 also marked Liverpool’s return to European competition in the UEFA Cup after the ban imposed following the Heysel disaster in 1985 and the Reds marked their first game back with a handsome 6-1 win at Anfield over Finnish minnows Kuusysi Lahti which saw new striker Saunders bag four as he gradually began to overcome his difficult start.
A 1-0 defeat in the second leg to Lahti was mildly embarrassing while not overly concerning but when Liverpool abjectly lost 2-0 in the first leg of their second round tie against Auxerre in France, an already turbulent season seemed headed for yet rockier waters.
Along with a heavy injury list which had already seen key players like John Barnes, Steve Nicol, Mark Wright, and Ronnie Whelan ruled out for significant periods of time, Souness’s options in Europe were further hampered by a new UEFA ruling which permitted only four ‘foreign’ players to be named in a matchday squad, with Scottish, Welsh and Irish players counting as ‘foreign’.
For the return tie against Auxerre, Souness plumped for Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Molby, Ray Houghton and Ian Rush as his ‘overseas’ quartet and was only able to name four substitutes on the bench instead of five such was the scale of the injury crisis.
Despite the initial excitement over Liverpool’s return to Europe, the lack of confidence in the Reds’ prospects were shown by the paltry crowd of 23,094 which filtered into Anfield the evening after Bonfire Night, numbers perhaps also being affected by live BBC television coverage which imposed an unusual 7.10pm kick off time.
Liverpool’s makeshift side included Kirkby -born midfielder Mike Marsh who had made only a handful of appearances after making his first-team debut in 1989 but was to enjoy, along with fellow Academy graduate Steve McManaman, his breakthrough season at Anfield in Souness’ first full campaign in charge.
Marsh had already made eight starts as well as a number of effective substitute appearances that season and was pressed into service in an unfamiliar role against the French.
“It was peculiar because I played right-back that night, a position I had never played before”, he told the ECHO years later.
“If you ask anyone who attended that game they will tell you that the atmosphere was fantastic.
”There was only just over 23,000 in the ground because the 22,000 who stayed away must’ve seen the first leg on the telly and thought ‘there’s no chance of clawing that back’ because we’d played particularly poorly and Auxerre had played particularly well. So, I don’t think anything was expected of us on the night.
“It was our first year back in European competition and many fans probably thought there was no comeback from the first leg.”
On a blustery cold night, the knowledgeable Liverpool crowd knew they would need a good start having failed three times previously (against Ajax, Nottingham Forest and Widzew Lodz) to overcome a first-leg European deficit of two or more goals and, roared on by a half-empty Anfield which sounded louder than plenty of full houses, they got one.
Just four minutes had gone when Steve McManaman was caught by defender Stephane Mahe as he advanced into the penalty area and Jan Molby stepped up from 12 yards to nervelessly hammer the penalty beyond goalkeeper Bruno Martini to half the deficit and further ignite the atmosphere.
The threat of an away goal making Liverpool’s task even tougher was very real and Grobbelaar was soon called into action to make a point-blank save from Hungarian forward Kalman Kovacs as Auxerre looked to re-establish their command from their first leg.
This was a Liverpool side however clearly intent on responding to the criticism their recent indifferent performances had provoked and just before the half hour mark they levelled the tie with a superb goal from the unlikeliest of sources.
A smart one-two from Houghton and Molby opened up the right side of the Auxerre penalty area and the Irishman’s curled cross to the back post was met by makeshift right-back Marsh who buried a downward header for his first, very timely senior goal in a red shirt.
Molby went close to putting Liverpool in front before half time with a free kick which was tipped over but after the break Liverpool’s momentum perhaps inevitably waned and a tense war of attrition ensued with the Reds trying to pen the French in as they attacked the Spion Kop (the only part of the ground full on the night) and Auxerre causing hearts to leap into throats every time they ventured forward in search of that precious away goal.
Liverpool continued to turn the screw and Walters’ persistent probing down the left drew reward with quarter of an hour of normal time remaining when he induced another foul from harassed right back Frederic Darras that brought a second yellow card from Portuguese referee Carlos Alberto da Silva Valente and saw the French reduced to ten men.
Nick Tanner came perilously close to scoring an own goal inside the last ten minutes which would have ended Liverpool’s hopes when diverting Pascal Vahirua’s cross inches wide of his own goalpost before on 83 minutes the Reds struck the third and killer blow of the night.
Molby seized on a loose Auxerre ball just inside the French half and his first time pass found Walters, whose deft first touch took him beyond the last defenders and clean through on goal with a baying Kop in front of him.
With Martini racing out to close the angle, Walters kept his cool and steadied himself before firing home off the post to put Liverpool ahead at last for the first time in the tie and send those inside Anfield and watching at home wild with delight.
The Reds held out for the final few minutes to record a memorable 3-2 aggregate victory and matchwinner Walters afterwards paid tribute to the hardy 23,000 who’d turned up at Anfield on the night.
"The fans were the vital factor. The noise they created put fear on the faces of the French players.
“You could see it. It was nice for us to give them something to shout about as we have had to take a lot of flak recently.
“We had a dream start with a goal after four minutes and didn't panic when it would have been easy to start pumping the ball upfield. We showed patience and got our reward."
The joy and relief was written all over under-fire manager Souness’s face at the final whistle and his pride at his side’s achievement under such difficult circumstances was evident after the game.
"Considering our injuries and the four foreigners regulation the performance was immense”, he said.
“In terms of the silky football this club is famous for, there wasn't much of that. But in terms of grit, determination and will to win I could not have asked for more.
“Everybody had written us off but we showed this club is made of sterner stuff than some people would have you believe.
“The crowd was superb, we have a young team and they need to know they have the backing of supporters. I feel more tired now than when I was playing on one of the old European nights here."
Liverpool progressed past Austrian side Swarovski Tirol in the next round before being eliminated by Italians Genoa in the quarter-finals but a testing season was to end with silverware when Sunderland were beaten 2-0 in the FA Cup final at Wembley the following May.
That night against Auxerre however went some way to establishing the Reds back on the European stage after six years in the wilderness and set the template for some of the great Anfield nights which would follow.