Football: Ghost of a chance stirs 'Supersub'

Simon Turnbull speaks to the former Anfield striker hoping for a feeling of deja vu
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The Independent Online
The European examination awaiting Roy Evans and his team at Anfield on Tuesday night is nothing new for Liverpool. Indeed, barely six months have passed since the last moment of home truth after failing the French test. On that occasion, a 2-0 second-leg success against Paris Saint-Germain was not enough to overcome a 3-0 defeat at Parc des Princes and a place in the final of the Cup-Winners' Cup was lost. The prize at stake this time is more modest - progression to the third round of the Uefa Cup - but Kopites will still have hope in their hearts when Strasbourg arrive at Anfield with their 3-0 advantage.

The overturning of such a substantial lead is a rare occurrence in European competition; Leeds United required the assistance of a rule-book technicality (the unwitting fielding of one late "foreign" substitute too many) and also a play-off at the neutral Nou Camp to surmount their 3-0 deficit against VFB Stuttgart in the European Cup five years ago. Liverpool, for all their continental glories, have never achieved such a feat of European escapology. They have, though, recovered from potential knock-out blows delivered by French opposition. In the second round of the 1991-92 Uefa Cup they lost 2-0 in Auxerre but won 3-0 at Anfield. Steve McManaman is the only surviving Liverpool veteran from that night, though Jamie Redknapp made his debut in the first leg.

There will, however, be someone else at Anfield on Tuesday who has first- hand experience of overturning the French, and the odds. Liverpool only trailed Saint Etienne 1-0 after the first leg of their European Cup quarter- final in 1977 but, as David Fairclough recalled, the size of the task confronting them changed dramatically during the course of one of the European classics played out in front of the Kop. Kevin Keegan put Liverpool level on aggregate after just two minutes but when Saint Etienne scored on the breakaway, five minutes into the second half, Bob Paisley's team were left needing two goals to win the tie. It was Fairclough, of course, who famously fired the late winner, true to his role as Liverpool's "supersub" saviour.

"People seem to be drawing similarities from that match," he said, "but I don't think you can with the Strasbourg game. When we played Saint Etienne, chasing a 1-0 deficit might have seemed relatively easy but it certainly got more dramatic as the night went on. I'd have to say, though, that this is a much harder proposition for Liverpool. A 3-0 deficit is a hell of a lot to make up. The approach has to be different. We could afford to be more patient until they scored. When you're chasing three goals you have to throw caution to the wind from the start.

"The thing about the Saint Etienne game is it was such a great period for the club. We'd won the Uefa Cup the season before and they were pioneering days for us in Europe. The atmosphere was new and fantastic. That's changed. People are frustrated. I wouldn't say they've given up on the Uefa Cup, though. Scoring four against Derby last week has got people thinking they might still get past Strasbourg."

Fairclough does not share such optimism. Now working as a financial adviser, he will be at Anfield as part of Radio City's commentary team and he does not expect to be doing any lyrical waxing about what would rank as Liverpool's greatest ever European comeback. "Liverpool's old mainstay was always defensive security," he said, "and the defence wasn't looking safe even before the derby match against Everton and the first leg in Strasbourg. While Liverpool could perhaps score four, my worry would be how many Strasbourg might score. Still, there's always hope." There always will be in Anfield hearts. But once upon a time there was well-founded expectation.