It was 50 years ago today – the most misreported event in sports history?

.. on December 9, when I was lucky enough to witness an undying talking point in sports history.

The place: Anfield, of course. Me, my father and 39,674 others were here for Liverpool v Leeds United. To be exact, in the Paddock, a standing area in front of the main stand, now long since turned over to seats, but which my father always regarded as the best spec in the ground – ideally midway between the Kop and the half-way line.

Remember that this was one of the season’s top fixtures. Both sides had World Cup winners in action (Sir Roger Hunt for us, Jack Charlton for them) along with some great Scottish bruisers (St John and Bremner). And the managers, Bill Shankly and Don Revie, were canonical figures in the national and European game.

In goal, more to the point for this story, were Tommy Lawrence for us, an occasional Scotland player universally knows as the Flying Pig, and for Leeds, frequent Welsh pick Gary Sprake. Everyone present knew that just over two years earlier, he had defied Liverpool almost to the death in the 1965 Cup Final, won 2-1 in extra time, and this in the era when the Cup mattered a lot more than it might seem to now.

But before the match, a sideshow. Mersey poet Roger McGough, now a stupendous national treasure, was at the time fronting a band called the Scaffold. They are remembered, if at all, for Lily the Pink and Thank You Very Much. They were paraded in front of the Kop, to the disgust of a Liverpool supporter standing just to my left. “I’ve been coming here for 40 years and nobody ever paraded me in front of the crowd.”

To business, and after 18 minutes, a definitive Anfield sight of that era. In the number 11 shirt, Peter Thompson up the left: centre into the box: Roger Hunt on the end of it for one of his 285 Liverpool goals: 1-0.

Liverpool were now pressing, but after 44 minutes, half time was in sight and Sprake had the ball in his hands. He drew it back to prepare to kick (and to keep it away from an opposition player). It slipped out of his hand, bounced twice, and hit the back of the net. Liverpool had lost the toss, so this was the Kop end, not perhaps the ideal setting from his point of view.

Many people have described this incident, and most get it wrong. My dad lived to 94 and the inaccuracy of these accounts was one of his favourite themes. Once I heard a supposed expert say it was a wet day and the ball was muddy. In fact it was a cold, clear, crisp day. In his magisterial Shankly tome Red or Dead, David Peace makes it into a snowy day with an orange ball, again completely wrong. Admittedly he has the excuse that the book is a novel (and one you should read if you haven’t already).

Both sides’ players looked baffled, but there was no doubt Gary had scored for us. There was only one thing for the Kop to do – gives him a chorus of “Thank You Very Much for that lovely goal, thank you very much Gary Sprake.”

One thing they did not do was sing “Careless Hands.” That came on the PA at half time, though, and was certainly taken up with some enthusiasm.

I can’t remember a thing about the second half. The record shows that there were no more goals. We ended the season third, behind Man City and United, and Leeds were fourth. But the odd feature of this event, unique in its way and still vivid in my mind after this half-century, is that it could recur, whether at Anfield or Wembley, or at a park pitch, at any match you might imagine. Sprake, who died last year, must have been grateful that his faux pas did not take place in the era when there is always a camera running at any sporting event. Next time it happens, the hapless goalie will be doomed to see it on TV for ever.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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