Every club has that one game. The match where it doesn’t feel quite right. The fixture in which something, well, a bit fishy seemed to be going on.
And today marks the 55th anniversary of the occasion that, to this day, still rankles with those involved from Liverpool.
The Reds were in Italy for the second leg of their European Cup semi-final against Italian side Inter Milan.
Liverpool, guided by Bill Shankly and in their debut season in the competition, had won the first game 3-1 eight days earlier at a raucous Anfield whipped into a frenzy before the game when the FA Cup – won for the first time in their history the previous weekend – was paraded around the pitch.
Things were different in the return game, though. A lot different.
In their first real taste of trademark intimidation tactics for European away games, Liverpool players and fans were demonised in the Italian media and the by supporters, who greeted them at the airport with cries of “assassins” and placards claiming “Liverpool wild savages” and “Liverpool take dope”.
The latter referred to the accusation in some Italian newspapers that Shankly’s side took pep pills to overpower Inter at Anfield.
“I’m not bothered about anything they say or do,” said the Reds boss. “We are here to play a football match and that’s what we’ll do.”
With a near-capacity 76,601 crowd in the San Siro, Liverpool faced a wall of noise when they walked out for late 9.15pm kick-off.
By half nine, they had been pegged back level on aggregate, Inter scoring two goals inside a minute with both dripping in controversy.
The first, on nine minutes, saw Ron Yeats penalised for a questionable offence with Mario Corso’s direct shot from the edge of the area allowed to stand despite Liverpool claiming Spanish referee Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil had signalled for an indirect free-kick.
Worse was to come barely 60 seconds later when Joaquin Peiro challenged Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence as he bounced the ball ahead of clearing upfield and then tapped into the empty net.
Inter Milan captain Armando Picchi shakes hands with Liverpool skipper Ron Yeats ahead of the European Cup semi-final second leg at the San Siro stadium in May 1965 (Image: 2019 FC Internazionale Archive)
“On the Continent, referees normally protect goalkeepers, particularly in Italy,” said Shankly after the match.
“This Spanish referee did not protect Lawrence. He let Peiro kick him from behind and then boot the ball in while he was bouncing about.”
With the away goals rule not introduced until the following season, Liverpool fell behind for the first time in the tie just past the hour when Giacinto Facchetti strode up from the back to thrash home.
The Reds, though, could easily have levelled the aggregate. “I just remember running through and putting the ball in,” says Ian St John. “I don’t know what the infringement was supposed to have been.”
Instead, it was disallowed – purportedly for offside – and Liverpool were out 4-3 on aggregate.
This could all be explained as one of those things that happens, a referee having a poor match and a team suffering from elements of misfortune.
But context is everything.
Inter’s Joaquim Peiro scores a controversial goal past Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence in 1965 (Image: 2019 FC Internazionale Archive)
Italo Allodi, then secretary of Inter, was accused of taking part in matchfixing scandals throughout his career – including another European Cup semi-final, this time against Derby County, when at Juventus in 1973 – but was never once found guilty.
Liverpool’s defeat came in the middle of three successive European Cup semi-final appearances for Inter, each surrounded by controversy. And the key man was Hungarian ‘fixer’ Dezso Solti, who worked closely with Allodi.
In 1964, Borussia Dortmund had a player sent off while an Inter man escaped censure despite kicking an opponent in the stomach, while in 1966 referees Gyorgy Vadas said he refused to accept an offer from the notorious Solti. Inter were knocked out by Real Madrid.
Match fixing was nothing new. Indeed, Liverpool had been found guilty of such in 1915 when agreeing to lose to, of all teams, Manchester United so they could avoid relegation.
But it was seemingly far more prevalent in Italy – as was seen with the Calciopoli scandal in the mid-2000s in which Juventus had benefited, ironically, at the expense of Inter – than many other countries. There was a certain culture that saw it prosper, and Inter, in the 1960s, had the right connections.
“What happened in that second leg of the European Cup semi final in the San Siro left me feeling cheated,” said the late Tommy Smith, writing in his ECHO column in 2007.
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“The Italians didn’t win it – the referee won it for them – and the only surprise was that they didn’t carry him off shoulder high at the end.”
Liverpool learned the lessons of that evening, although they had to wait until 1977 to be crowned champions of Europe, with last season their sixth such triumph in nine finals.
Inter Milan went on to beat Benfica 1-0 in a final played in the San Siro to claim a second successive European Cup, but since then have won only one more.
Ortiz de Mendibil, who died in 2015 at the age of 89, never admitted to any wrongdoing and continued to officiate in European competition for almost another decade.
Liverpool will probably never know if anything genuinely untoward happened that night. But, more than half-a-century on, it still doesn’t feel quite right.