THE announcement that a combined Great Britain football team will take part in the 2012 Olympic Games in London has caused much debate, but on the red half of Merseyside it has prompted the re-emergence of memories of one of the greatest and most legendary Liverpool players.
Billy Liddell played for Great Britain against the rest of Europe on two separate occasions in 1947 and 1955. He is one of only two players – the other being Sir Stanley Matthews – to hold that honour and it is one that is befitting of an individual whose talent, commitment, loyalty and place in the hearts of the Liverpool crowd defined an entire era at Anfield.
The passing of time means that when debates over Liverpool’s greatest ever are played it is Steven Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish who dominate discussion. There can be no question of their worthiness of places in Liverpool’s pantheon of greats but go back a generation or two and William Beveridge Liddell would have taken some shifting in a popular vote.
For those fortunate enough to see him in his prime, there was no one better than Billy. Not before or since. He was a man who carried an entire club and who refused to desert it even during the wilderness years spent in the second division. A player whose modest wage was scant reward for a unique talent that captivated supporters and even united rivals in admiration.
During some of Liverpool’s bleakest times, he was a shining light who made going to Anfield worthwhile. Without him, a spell in the second tier of English football may not have been as bad as things got for Liverpool in the 1950s. If Bill Shankly was the catalyst of a magnificent revival then Liddell was the player who made the revolution possible by keeping Liverpool afloat, at times almost singlehandedly.
Albert Stubbins – he of A-L-B-E-R-T, Albert Stubbins is the one for me fame – perhaps summed his former team mate up best when he recalled a couple of occasions when Liddell left opponents speechless.
“We were playing Preston at Deepdale and got a free kick just outside the box,” Stubbins said. “Billy was aiming to hit it with his right foot when the wind rolled the ball away. He just let it run and hit it with his left and it went in like a rocket. He was fast, courageous and very strong.
“When we got to Newcastle one day, I popped into their dressing room to say hello to my old team-mates. Newcastle had a very good full-back in Bobby Cowell, who said to me: "Albert, how do I play against Billy Liddell?" I replied: "I'll say one thing, if Billy picks up the ball and you're not close to him when he does, you're dead!"
It is always difficult to assess how players would have performed in eras other than their own and comparing them to their predecessors and successors is notoriously difficult given the speed at which football changes. But when Liddell’s qualities are assessed it becomes easy to make a case for the winger being one of an elite bunch of players who would have thrived in any era. Ferociously fast, able to beat a full back on the inside and outside, the possessor of a shot so powerful that goalkeepers were rendered powerless and absolutely fearless; these qualities are timeless and if the modern Liverpool had a Billy Liddell on their left flank his value to the team would be as immeasurable now as it was back then.
What is not in any doubt is that by the mid-1950s, Liddell’s impact on Liverpool was such that he stood alone as the greatest player in the club’s history to that point. "What can you say about him?,” Donald MacKinlay, a Liverpool captain of the 1920s asked rhetorically. “Liverpool have had some good club players, but I think he is the finest in their history.
I used to do a bit of running around, but he does a lot more than I ever did. Matthews is a great entertainer, but for me that Liddell man is “It”. He is one of the greatest club men ever to have played football.”
Ian Callaghan, who eventually succeeded Liddell in the Liverpool team, had no hesitation in describing him as his hero, insisting that the man he adored as a youngster on the Kop was worthy of the same status as Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. Compliments do not come any better, or with more authority, than that.
Shankly himself, the manager who had the unenviable task of bringing the curtain down on Liddell’s glittering career, was equally fulsome in his praise of his fellow Scot. "Liddell was some player,” he said. “He had everything. He was fast, powerful, shot with either foot and his headers were like blasts from a gun. On top of all that he was as hard as granite. What a player! He was so strong – and he took a nineteen-inch collar shirt!"
The tributes go on and on but in some ways even they do not tell the full story of what Billy Liddell meant to Liverpool. That particular tale can only be told by the supporters whose support of Liverpool during the dark days of the 1950s were made worthwhile only by the presence of a player upon whom they relied upon to such an extent that a shout of “give it to Billy” was heard from the Kop on several occasions in most games he played.
Next summer, a number of players will probably make at least two appearances for Great Britain at the Olympics, rendering the record Liddell held alongside Matthews obsolete. But regardless of that his status as a true Anfield great remains secure for as long as football is played there. A legend of the game deserves no less.
Copyright - Tony Barrett