Geoff Strong: Footballer who won League and Cup with Liverpool
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Some footballers become utility men because they can't quite reach the required standard in any one position. But in the case of Geoff Strong, who starred for Arsenal as a prolific striker before tasting glory as a serial chameleon with Bill Shankly's Liverpool in the second half of the 1960s, he was so efficient everywhere he played that it was well-nigh impossible to pinpoint his most effective role.
During Strong's Anfield sojourn, in which he helped Liverpool to the first FA Cup triumph in their history in 1965, then to lift the League title a season later as well as cutting a swathe through some of the continent's top clubs on the way to a European final, the whippet-slim Tynesider covered every slot but goalkeeper – and as Shankly once remarked, if the green jersey had become vacant, it was a fair bet that the prodigiously versatile Strong would have excelled in it.
Kopites adored him not only for his comprehensive range of skills, but for his raw courage, too, which he never displayed more memorably than on one of the most tumultuous nights even Anfield has known, during the Cup Winners' Cup semi-final victory over Celtic in April 1966. Hobbling as a presumed passenger at centre-forward following an earlier serious knee injury in those dark days before substitutes were permitted, he sprang from his one sound leg to nod home a cross from his close pal Ian Callaghan, simultaneously winning the tie and securing an eternal niche in Reds folklore.
As a gifted schoolboy sprinter and brilliant all-round athlete, Strong seemed a likely candidate to make his living from sport, but he had been training as a machine-tool fitter while playing for north-eastern amateurs Stanley United when he joined Arsenal in a £100 deal as a 20-year-old in November 1957. After honing his abilities in the Gunners' junior sides he stepped up to the first team at centre-forward in September 1960, scoring on debut in a 5-0 drubbing of his home-town club, Newcastle United, at Highbury. Clearly he was an uncut gem, a lean and lethal marksman who was single-minded and clinical in his finishing, assured in possession of the ball and intelligent at making runs to receive passes. Utterly fearless and willing to work until he dropped, he was terrific in the air, too, completing a high-quality package.
Though his immediate progress was limited by the demands of his National Service in the Army, Strong averaged better than a goal every two games when he did play and in 1962-63, his first full season – under new manager Billy Wright and lining up at inside-right alongside the exuberant spearhead Joe Baker – he scored 21 times in 39 League and FA Cup outings.
That front pair, together with the incisively creative inside-left George Eastham, formed a sumptuous inside trio, terrorising rearguards. They specialised in quicksilver interchanges of short passes and at their best were enchanting entertainers, clearly enjoying themselves hugely, sometimes impudently challenging each other to score from kick-off without the opposition touching the ball.
In 1963-64 Strong and Baker raced each other to be the Gunners' top scorer, eventually settling for a tie on 28 each. Alas for Arsenal, the defence was less reliable, Wright's team never threatening to win the top prizes.
By 1964-65 Strong's all-round game was so impressive that the manager gave him a run in midfield, which rather perplexed him. Then, with a further reshuffle on the cards, the 27-year-old was transferred to Liverpool for £40,000, having contributed 77 goals in 137 games as a Gunner.
Bill Shankly had long admired Strong as a complete footballer, but initially the newcomer took time to come to terms with the Merseysiders' more strenuous training regime. By the time he had settled the team was flowing fluently without him and he became the most polished all-purpose deputy in the League.
His first high-profile assignment was standing in for sidelined right-half Gordon Milne in the 1965 FA Cup final, when he virtually nullified the waspish threat of Leeds United's play-maker Bobby Collins and tested the Yorkshiremen's 'keeper Gary Sprake with several snap-shots on the way to a momentous 2-1 victory. Then in 1965-66 he paraded his full complement of wares, filling in at various junctures for striker Roger Hunt, Milne and Willie Stevenson at wing-half, full-back Chris Lawler and winger Peter Thompson as Liverpool surged to their second League title in three years.
That season, too, came the European Cup-Winners' Cup sequence to which Strong made a spectacular early contribution with the pulverising 25-yard shot which knocked out Juventus in the preliminary round. There followed that courageous clincher which stunned the thirsty Celtic hordes, who left the Liverpool groundstaff to clear up a mountain of empty bottles and cans the next morning, and thereafter the Kop took Strong to their heart, chanting for him until he limped from the bench to take a bow the day the Championship was secured at home to Chelsea.
Over the next two campaigns Strong played pretty regularly in a variety of roles before settling into an accomplished two-year stint at left-back. With his pace and vision he might have been even better suited as sweeper, but that position was already spoken for, and most eloquently, by Tommy Smith.
When he was sold to Coventry City for £30,000 as a 32-year-old in July 1970, having made some 200 appearances for the Reds, Strong's diversity of gifts was sorely missed. As one wag put it, he didn't leave one gap, he left 10. At Highfield Road Strong performed splendidly alongside centre-half Jeff Blockley as the Sky Blues finished in the top half of the First Division in 1970-71, but then he suffered injury and retired in the summer of 1972. Later he ran a hotel-furnishing company on Merseyside and co-owned a pub with Ian Callaghan.
Geoffrey Hugh Strong, footballer: born Kirkheaton, Northumberland 19 September 1937; played for Arsenal 1957-64, Liverpool 1964-1970, Coventry City 1970-72; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Southport 17 June 2013.
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