It’s Thursday which of course means another trip down memory lane. On this day 35 years ago, a crowd of 31,000 arrived at Anfield on a cold Tuesday night to watch Liverpool take on Walsall in the semi-final (first leg) of the Milk Cup.
Perhaps the biggest talking point going into the game was the fact it marked the debut of Scottish centre half Gary Gillespie who signed from Coventry City in the summer of 1983.
Gillespie became Joe Fagan’s first signing as Liverpool manager since taking the reigns from the most successful manager in Liverpool history, Bob Paisley. However, the rock solid partnership of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson meant Gillespie was left waiting until this day to make his debut in the famous red shirt.
Almost everybody watching expected nothing less than a Liverpool win against Third Division side Walsall. But if there’s one thing we can gather from this game, it’s that complacency should always be avoided in football and that no opponent should be underestimated.
For Walsall, reaching the semi-final had already made this cup run the greatest achievement in their history and getting any sort of result against arguably the best side in Europe would be a dream come true.
As expected, Liverpool took the lead in the 14th minute through Ronnie Whelan. The goal was a result of remarkably intricate build up play. Robinson’s header fell into the path of Ian Rush, who laid it off perfectly for Whelan who picked out the bottom left corner.
The 10,000 travelling Saddlers fans refused to give up hope and much to the surprise of pretty much everybody, Walsall would equalise three minutes from half time after a horrendous catalogue of errors from Liverpool.
Sammy Lee, under very little pressure in his own half, played a poor pass back to Grobbelaar which was intercepted by the Walsall striker, who squeezed the ball past the Zimbabwean and as the ball looked to be rolling in, two Liverpool defenders were waiting on the line but miscommunication was evident as the debuting Gillespie kicked the ball right into the back of Phil Neal, and it ricocheted into the back of the net and declared a Phil Neal own goal.
Neal was not best pleased with Gillespie at that moment, in Gillespie’s own words: “Nealy gave me one of his stares”. Truly a moment to forget as both sides were level at half time, a scenario very few would have predicted.
There was very little to report on in the second half until Steve Nicol burst forward down the right hand side in the 73rd minute and found space with a bit of luck. He laid it off to Craig Johnston on the overlap, who put in a peach of a cross and once again, Ronnie Whelan was in the right place at the right time, grabbing his second of the game and giving Liverpool the lead.
Before Liverpool fans could finish celebrating Whelan’s goal, Walsall immediately responded. David Preece played a through ball through the middle that somehow split the Liverpool defence open and substitute Kevin Summerfield was there to chip the ball over Grobbelaar and into the back of the net to claim a famous result in Third Division Walsall’s history.
Far from an ideal debut for Gillespie and a humbling result for Liverpool, who now realised they had their work cut out for them in the second leg.