Simple days. Simple chants.
England’s, England’s Number One. Shankly said different; no, Ray Clemence was the best in the world.
He was to me, always, and forever.
Never meet your heroes, they say. In my case, with that Liverpool crop of the 1970s, it’s the worst advice you’ll ever hear. I think Clem was the first of them I met, many years later at a 25-year reunion of the 1978 European Champions Dinner at the Malmaison in Liverpool. He set the standard for others I’ve met through bits of writing; Keegan, Tommo, Souey, Barney. Clem, like the rest, was incredibly friendly, funny, and polite. All gentlemen, and of course all Liverpool greats.
I spoke to Alan Kennedy last week and we talked about Clem for ages. Ray had been a regular in the Liverpool goal for eight years before Alan joined the Reds. What was he like?
Over to AK. “He was like a defensive coach. I would always hear him shout, Al, you’re out of position. He was a brilliant goalkeeper but he got the lads in front of him to do all the work. He used to hate having to save shots.”
Suffice to say, Clemence was the king of organisation; a quality requisite in any top goalkeeper. Clem was a bawler but he was also a baller.
Ray played out in the Melwood five-a-sides, which were “played in tight spaces, very feisty and run at a really high tempo.” The speed required of players was part of a fitness regime that primed Shankly and Paisley teams to play until the death, with a reputation for snatching crucial late equalisers and last-gasp winners.
AK continues. “Clem, like me and Ray Kennedy was all left foot. The three of us couldn’t play on the same five-a-side team, because were all-natural lefties. Ironically, in full matches, Liverpool was predominately a right-sided team, but we had this ability to switch and an element of surprise from the left.”
Clemence had started out as a midfielder and then a left-back before finding himself in goal almost by default. But he was a natural, his talents recognised by Scunthorpe United before Shankly snaffled him.
“Clem fancied his chances playing out. He was all flicks and tricks and back-heels.” The affection – and sheer unashamed nostalgia pours down the phone as Alan describes his colleague and friend. You can almost picture Clem losing the ball to Souness on half-way and scampering back to tip one round the post. Anyone who remembers the “French goalies” we played on school fields and parks would understand the notion of the first line of defence, and Clemence was just that.
As the song goes, the Redmen are still playing the same way. A high defensive line demands a footballing goalkeeper, and it’s no surprise that the three best to succeed Ray – Bruce Grobbelaar, Pepe Reina, and Alison Becker could all play a bit. Ray’s left peg didn’t go to waste either. To see him kick from his hands with that gorgeous left foot was an art form in motion; a thing of beauty.
So, the organisation and distribution boxes are ticked. What else?
Liverpool at the height of their powers spent much of the game in the opposition half. Their goalkeeper needed enormous patience and concentration, although Alan Kennedy recalls too that Ray “would often speak to the Kop during the game. He was always talking to the fans when time allowed” – perhaps a sign of intelligence; that switching off for a moment, like a focused batsman wandering briefly from his crease, kept the mind sharp for the duration of 90, sometimes lonely minutes.
When the opposition had the cheek to break through, supreme anticipation was the Clemence hallmark. It wasn’t his greatest save but the perfectly-timed advance from his line in Rome77 – with the European Cup Final against Borussia Moenchengladbach on a knife edge at 1-1 – was the platform for two Liverpool goals late on to clinch Old Big Ears for the first time.
Organisation, distribution, concentration. The lad sounds good, doesn’t he?
He could catch as well and as I write these words; I can picture him from the Kop, about twenty yards from me, calmy side-stepping from his six-yard box towards the penalty spot. Like a boxer on the prowl, cutting off his opponent, he would depart his line in sideways motion before taking off on one foot to pick the ball out the air. In the early days he would grab with bare hands, or a little later wearing thin cotton gloves. Only our friends at Spurs saw Ray – where he enjoyed a deserved second coming – clasp balls with foam hands.
Well, AK might be right about Ray hating saving shots. But he was damned good at it when pressed. My mate John Mackin paid tribute to Ray with a Twitter video of a penalty save in Dresden against Dynamo on a night that is the epitome of what our generation loved about European football. Funny kits, funny names, funny goalposts, funny decisions, funny horns in the crowd but in Germany, Clem pulls off the save of saves from 12 yards; his outstretched right hand and longest digit giving the “crack” lads of the Eastern Bloc the middle finger.
Watch it for yourself and look for the couple of little steps to right before he launches himself low to his right. As Alan Kennedy tells us, “Ray’s footwork was unbelievable; his feet were always brilliantly aligned.
So, organisation, distribution, concentration, anticipation, catching, and saving shots. That should be enough for anyone.
Clem’s greatest quality though was who he was, who he will always be in our hearts and minds. After the heart-breaking Wembley FA Cup Final defeat which scuppered the 1977 Treble, Paisley’s lads were at an understandable low ebb. Waiting for the train home before flying to Rome, the Euston platform was a solemn place until someone broke the ice.
Ray picked his moment, anticipating brilliantly as ever the consequence of his actions. “I’m going to get soooooooo pissed” he screeched out of sheer frustration. His team-mates fell about laughing, a few ales followed to drown those Wembley sorrows and what followed was the Reds’ greatest night 4 days later.
Ray Clemence. The man. The Goalkeeper. The Liverpudlian. I won’t have a word said about him. I’ll miss you. We all will.
Rest in Peace, Clem. Thank You, Raymondo.
About the Author
Mike Nevin is the Director of Lobscouse Media and freelance writer for Anfield Index Pro, The Cricketer, and ATX Reds Press. He is also a contributor at The Liverpool Connection Podcast, based out of Austin, Texas.