- since 2011 -

Georgia on my mind

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

As in the Caucasian one. Three decades ago its most famous football team stormed Anfield to make a lasting impression upon those who were there

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Nobody was kidding themselves on the way out of Anfield but my father gave it his best shot. "What a team that was," said my uncle with barely concealed glee. Like a fair few Evertonians he'd go to watch neighbours Liverpool if the fixture was enticing enough and here was a rare chance to wind us up. "That's you out of the European Cup - you won't beat that lot over there."

I remember staring at the pavement on that mid-September evening in 1979 as we weaved home through the crowds, all those quick-moving feet as disorienting as the display of football we'd just witnessed from Dinamo Tbilisi, the Georgian team that was making its debut in the competition. My dad must have sensed my despondency and rattled the sabre of defiance - something along the lines of Liverpool finishing the job in the second leg. I was twelve years old but already I'd seen enough matches to know that somehow we'd established a 2-1 lead while being played off the park, and our chances of winning the European Cup for a third time in four years had diminished if not vanished completely.

In the late 70s we fell in love with that big beautiful trophy. It seemed to have been fashioned on some sun-drenched riviera, a world away from the dark grey skies of northwest England. If the domestic league championship trophy had the august allure of Julie Andrews then the European Cup was all Sophia Loren, its gleaming curves and convex reflections exerting a Grail-like pull. And three months after the surprise success of Nottingham Forest, who'd eliminated Liverpool on their way to winning the tournament, we were suffering withdrawal symptoms.

We had the consolation of an eleventh English title, leading from start to finish over season 1978/79 and amassing a record 68 points (under the old system of two points for a win). After a summer in which Pope John Paul II had toured his Polish homeland, Kramer vs Kramer played at packed cinemas, and Seve Ballesteros, Viv Richards, Bjorn Borg and Billie Jean King dominated the sporting headlines, Liverpool manager Bob Paisley had been hoping for a low-key return to European action. His programme notes for the first round first leg said as much: 'Tonight we meet a Russian [sic] team for the first time in Europe, and Dinamo Tbilisi will give us something to think about, here and on their own ground. I would be less than honest if I said I viewed tonight's challenge as being more difficult than the one which came from Forest last season - they don't and they won't come any harder than that test. But it will still be difficult, make no mistake. [Dinamo] are well into their season and will be at peak fitness'.

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Paisley admitted that the Georgians were an unknown quantity. His chief scout, the wily old Tom Saunders, had been dispatched to the Eastern Bloc prior to the tie to find out more. Having commenced in March, the Soviet season had only two months to run and Dinamo were chasing a second successive title in the 16-club Supreme League. Years later Saunders would recall: "A trip behind the Iron Curtain was an adventure. People who couldn't speak a word of English would welcome me, and over a couple of days we would forge a relationship through football. In turn it was up to me to look after them when they came over here. When Dinamo's scout arrived I invited him down to the boot room [the LFC coaching staff's celebrated nerve centre] and offered him a Guinness. He quickly got the taste for it and by the time I got him back to his hotel I needed some assistance to get him out of the car. For a long time afterwards we exchanged Christmas cards."

Black stuff and pleasantries were set aside before kick-off when Dinamo famously warmed up in front of the Spion Kop - a gesture unheard-of for a visiting team. The Soviet ambassador was among a modest crowd of 35,000 which expected a routine home win despite the absence through injury of our classy centre-back Alan Hansen and powerful left-sided midfielder Ray Kennedy. Dinamo, coached by Nodar Akhalkatsi and featuring seven USSR internationals, had other ideas. I can still see their swarming white shirts, hear the murmurs of awed appreciation for their one-touch football from Anfield's terraces. Assiduous and artful from the first whistle, they played like Brazil - a Soviet side with Latin flair orchestrated by a roaming midfielder called David Kipiani. 'In Russia', the Liverpool matchday programme had warned, 'his reputation is such that he is often accorded the "privilege" of being given a personal marker'. Not that night, to our cost.

Through the wonky parallax of hindsight the game is now more of a general impression in my mind, but contemporary reports confirm that the Georgians had opportunities to score before Liverpool's local-born striker David Johnson beat goalkeeper Otar Gabileya with a firm header on 20 minutes. They were level on the half-hour when libero Aleksandr Chivadze surged forward from his own half and collected a return pass from striker Ramas Schengeliya to prod the ball past Ray Clemence, the Reds keeper. Schengeliya, at 22 the Soviet Player of the Year, then missed a chance before Jimmy Case, as Scouse as they come, drilled a free-kick hard, low and through the jumping Dinamo wall (one moment I do recall vividly) just before half-time after team-mate Kenny Dalglish had been upended outside the penalty area. The second period followed much the same pattern minus any more goals and did little to reassure the hosts. Liverpool were lucky and we knew it.

Bit of a blur: screen grab of Dinamo players celebrating Chivadze's goal at Anfield

Bit of a blur: screen grab of Dinamo players celebrating Chivadze's goal at Anfield

Gabeliya, deputising that night for Dinamo's first-choice goalkeeper David Gogiya, would go on to make 271 appearances for the club. "I'd joined with Schengeliya a couple of years earlier and we'd been welcomed by established stars like Kipiani, Chivadze and striker Vladimir Gutsaev," he'd later reflect. "The coach Akhalkatsi was a man who devoted his life to bringing success to Dinamo. The club was full of wonderful people and everybody had one aim. It wouldn't happen overnight, but the tie against Liverpool showed that we were climbing to the top."

Listening to the first leg on a radio 2,300 miles away was another twelve-year-old with pictures of Liverpool players on his bedroom wall. David Javakhishvili is now Consul at the Georgian Embassy in London. He remembers how important Dinamo's display was to a country striving to preserve its identity. "The previous year there had been peaceful protests against plans to make Russian the country's official language. Georgia is only a small country but we are very proud and have a rich history. We took to the streets of the capital and solved the problem. In those days Dinamo wasn't only a force in the old Soviet championship, which was a strong league - we were the standard-bearers for a whole nation. But a lot of kids supported English clubs as well. I had posters of Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway and Kenny Dalglish on my bedroom wall - I say posters but they were really clippings from foreign newspapers. We heard how well it went in Liverpool but not in our wildest dreams did we believe we'd go through."

Tbilisi, with a population just under one million, was sports-mad. The city had had four indoor and six outdoor Olympic-sized pools, almost 400 basketball or volleyball courts, 19 tennis courts, 31 football pitches and five stadiums - the pick of which was the immense Stadion Dinamo, recently refurbished to incorporate a continuous upper tier covered by a roof. Another concrete marvel was the new Ministry of Highway Construction Building, completed in 1975 (and today headquarters for the Bank of Georgia). Its spectacular raised grid of interlocking forms was a product of Soviet 'Space City' architecture which aimed to create an 'experience of psychological comfort' and 'well-being in the people'.

Tblisi Programme Cover
Tblisi Programme Spread 1

In 1978 the people had been decidedly unimpressed by a proposed change in the constitutional status of the indigenous Georgian language - so much so that the country's Communist Party chief Eduard Shevardnadze extracted a rare concession from Moscow: while Russian would be taught more widely, Georgian would remain the state language. A new spirit of nationalism had begun to stir. But if Tblisi at the time was a city resolutely defying the Soviet yoke, Liverpool of course was at low ebb in the supposedly affluent West. As Britain under a new monetarist government slowly recovered from the high inflation and industrial action of the 'Winter of Discontent' (it was an eleven-week strike by technicians that kept the tie's first leg off television screens) Liverpool felt like it was trapped in terminal decline. Once the major transatlantic port of the British Empire, it lay marooned on the wrong side of the country thanks to fundamental shifts in world trade. If things seem tough today, revisiting the history books makes for bleak reading: in a single decade 350 of its factories had closed or moved elsewhere and 40,000 jobs had been lost. But the football team remained a source of local pride with its python-like grip upon the English game, and in the summer of 1979 it became the first in the UK to exploit the commercial potential of shirt sponsorship.

Liverpool always chartered an Aer Lingus short-haul jet for European trips with an amiable Irish captain called Barney Croughan who would liven up flights with bogus announcements of engine failure or a fifth whisky in the cockpit. This time, however, the Soviet authorities insisted that the club forsake its familiar BAC One-Eleven for two Aeroflot TU-154B planes which would take the team, officials and a small group of intrepid fans (including a friend of my owlfella who brought back a much-cherished match programme) to Tbilisi via Moscow - a near 5,000-mile round trip with 'gruelling' written all over it.

For years to come Liverpool's players would recall the entire experience with a peculiarly British and comic insularity. There were tales of the team being woken in the middle of the night by chanting crowds outside their Tbilisi hotel and a furious Peter Robinson, LFC's old-school club secretary, remonstrating in his pyjamas with receptionists in the foyer. At a champagne-and-caviar reception David Johnson allegedly wandered over to Jimmy Case and warned, "Don't touch that black jam - it tastes of fish." Overall the place was dismissed as grim. It's a safe bet no one was acquainted with Ivan Aivazovsky's delightful painting of Old Tbilisi which shows a warren of white-washing buildings under a low, almost Levantine sun in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains.

Tblisi Programme Spread 2
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Back on Merseyside, around four o'clock on the afternoon of 3 October 1979, like thousands of kids I ran home from school in time to catch the second half of the second leg on the radio, Britain being three hours behind Georgia. It was still goalless at the interval but a hat-trick of unnervingly loud roars from the record 110,000 crowd in the Stadion Dinamo greeted the goals which changed all that. Subsequent TV footage would show Kipiani skinning Hansen on the right and crossing for Gutsaev to score at the far post and dangle deliriously from the goal netting; Dinamo centre-back Georgi Chilaia running fifty yards before slipping the ball inside for Schengeliya to clip over the onrushing Ray Clemence; and finally Chivadze converting from the penalty spot after Gutsaev had been fouled, and a photographer darting into the six-yard box to take close-ups of a crestfallen Clemence on his knees.

In his autobiography Kenny Dalglish later wrote: 'Tbilisi fans were incredibly passionate, leaping out of the stands, running to the edge of the pitch as their team gave them plenty to cheer. Dinamo stormed to a 3-0 win, playing some wonderful football in the second half which we simply couldn't live with'. Once again Liverpool had crashed out of Europe at the first hurdle, but if the defeat to Nottingham Forest had been painful this was chastening. Slumped against the big wooden music cabinet that sat in our living-room corner like a coffin, the BBC's faraway commentary now over, I contemplated another season without that wonderful trophy.

"After the final whistle we stayed in the stadium for nearly an hour celebrating with our friends," says David Javakhishvili. "Actually I was with my own father and uncle. We were all season-ticket holders, but that night nobody sat in their usual places. You just budged up on the long wooden benches, making room for your fellow Georgians to see the match. There was such unity, it was incredible. It poured with rain before kick-off and everybody was worried that the weather would suit the English team. But against Liverpool it just clicked. Kipiani, the playmaker with the beautiful silky touch, it's hard to express how we felt about him. And Chilaia dribbling like Messi to set up Schengeliya's goal - he wasn't a bad player but that was the first and last time he did something like that. It was one of those evenings when everything fell into place."

Chivadze about to beat Clemence from the spot in Tbilisi - who needs Sky Sports HD?

Chivadze about to beat Clemence from the spot in Tbilisi - who needs Sky Sports HD?

Which is where, for one season at least, the fairy tale abruptly ended. In the next round Dinamo lost 6-3 on aggregate to eventual finalists Hamburger SV. The story goes that Peter Robinson contacted the German club, for whom our old striker Kevin Keegan now played, before the tie to forewarn them about the long trip to Tbilisi and any dead-of-night disturbances. The following season, while Liverpool recovered to reclaim the beloved European Cup (and Paris in 1981 is another tale) Dinamo struck gold in the European Cup Winners' Cup. In the final in Dusseldorf they beat East German side Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1, their goals scored by Gutsaev and midfielder Vitali Darselia, with Kipiani providing the winning assist. To this day they remain only the second former Soviet club (after Dinamo Kyev of Ukraine) to win a European trophy, and in 2011 the players were honoured by their country as 'Knights of Sports' on the 30th anniversary of 'the greatest-ever victory in the history of Georgian football'. Goalkeeper Gabeliya would say: "In 1981 our dream came true. It was brought about by sheer effort and professionalism. Each player and all the people in charge did everything in their power to bring happiness to the Georgian people, and we celebrate 13 May, the day of the final, as we would our own birthdays."

At the following summer's World Cup finals in sunny Spain, Chivadze and Schengeliya, who hold the Dinamo records for most European appearances (40) and most European goals (19) respectively, were in the USSR team that drew 2-2 with a Scotland side featuring Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness. Missing from the Soviet squad was Kipiani, who'd suffered a badly broken leg in an exhibition tournament in Madrid. Neither he nor Dinamo would be quite the same force again. In September 2001, aged fifty, Kipiani died in a car crash in Georgia. A New York Times obituary hailed a footballer who 'could play with artistry few men could summon... Had he been born in the West, he would have been a millionaire. Had he indeed been a Russian, he would have defected to the lure of offers that came his way. But he was Georgian to the core, and he understood that the style he could command, the freedom his play suggested, meant so much to countless Georgians who identified with him'.

'Georgia is only a small country but we are very proud and have a rich history, and in those days Dinamo were the standard-bearers for a whole nation'


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