A 1-0 defeat at Coventry City’s Highfield Road on February 4, 1978 marked the last of Ian Callaghan’s 640 league outings for the club, before he registered his 857th – and final – appearance for the Reds in all competitions in a 2-1 European Cup semi-final first-leg defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach on March 29.
Having made his debut almost eighteen years earlier on April 16, 1960 – in a 4-0 Second Division victory over Bristol Rovers at Anfield – Callaghan’s longevity is as much a reflection of his talent as his character.
One Second Division title, five First Division titles, two FA Cups, two UEFA Cups, two European Cups and one UEFA Super Cup were won during this time, while he himself notched 68 goals.
Bill Shankly – who handed him his debut and saw him break Billy Liddell’s previous appearances record of 534 on August 15, 1972 – was glowing in his praise.
“Ian Callaghan is everything good that a man can be. No praise is too high for him,” said the Scottish manager.
“He is a model professional, and a model human being. If there were 11 Callaghans at Anfield there would never be any need to put up a team sheet. You could stake your life on Ian.
“Words cannot do justice to the amount he has contributed to the game. Ian Callaghan will go down as one of the game’s truly great players.”
Born in the Toxteth area of Liverpool on April 10, 1942, he rose through the Merseysiders’ ranks before he put in an superb display in that debut outing on the right wing against Bristol Rovers – only six days after his 18th birthday.
He may have been a relatively diminutive physical figure at 5 feet 7 inches, but he was highly dynamic.
New signing Kevin Lewis took up the right-wing berth for the 1960/61 season, before Callaghan began to establish himself as a regular from the November of the 1961/62 promotion season.
From there, he thrived. Alongside left-winger Peter Thompson, strikers Roger Hunt and Ian St John had a top notch supply line from the wide areas.
Perhaps the most iconic example of that combination came in the long-awaited 1965 FA Cup Final triumph.
With the game against Leeds level at 1-1 in extra time, Callaghan darted to the byline and stood up a right-footed cross that St John powered into the Wembley net with a diving header that proved to be the winner.
That first FA Cup win was bookended by First Division titles in 1964 and 1966 and, by the time the Reds next silverware arrived in 1973, Shankly had converted Callaghan into an accomplished central midfielder.
Having undergone knee surgery in 1970/71, it is a switch which is widely considered to have prolonged his Liverpool career – and allowed him to showcase his footballing intelligence and durability even more clearly in the years to come.
The 1973 double of First Division and UEFA Cup was followed by a second FA Cup triumph in 1974 – a year in which he became the first Liverpool player to be named the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
After Bob Paisley took over from Bill Shankly that summer – there was another league and UEFA Cup double in 1976.
Then, in 1977 – alongside retaining the First Division title – came the 3-1 victory over Mönchengladbach in Rome, and the club’s first European Cup.
Callaghan – by now 35 years of age – started that famous final and made 48 appearances across all competitions that season.
He made another 41 the following term too, but – come the Reds’ retention of the European Cup with victory over Club Brugge at Wembley in May 1978 – the recently arrived Graeme Souness had taken Callaghan’s place in midfield.
A worthy successor, but this marked the conclusion of an unparalleled Liverpool career – one which began in the Second Division and played a huge part in pulling the club to the pinnacle of the domestic and continental game.
After a spell on loan at Fort Lauderdale in the USA in the summer of 1978, he joined John Toshack’s Swansea City permanently.
He had a brief stint in the Republic of Ireland with Cork United in 1981 before he finished his career at Crewe Alexandra – where Alan A’Court, a former teammate, was assistant manager. There, an Achilles tendon injury in early 1982 saw him retire at the age of 39.
Alongside his countless achievements in the club game, Callaghan was part of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad – and, in June 2009, he finally received a winners’ medal at a special ceremony in London.
His career, in itself, represents an immense individual achievement. Callaghan, though, appears to represent someone who embodied selflessness as a player and a person.
His contribution and constant presence – over 18 years where the club’s trajectory was steeply, consistently, upwards – perhaps says the most about the importance to Liverpool FC of a man who remains a record holder.
(Statistics from www.lfchistory.net).
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