Liverpool's journey into the unknown

KR Reykjavík were the opponents for Liverpool FC's maiden European Cup game in 1964 – the start of a journey that has since brought five titles; Champions Matchday tells the tale.

Bill Shankly led Liverpool on their first European Cup journey
Bill Shankly led Liverpool on their first European Cup journey ©Getty Images

Like most stories about Bill Shankly, this one may well be apocryphal. Yet, also like most Shankly stories, it's a lot more fun to believe it's true. En route to their first ever European Cup tie in 1964 – away to KR Reykjavík – the Liverpool FC manager took his players to a holiday camp in Ayr, Scotland, to kill time before their flight. On arriving, Shankly moved to the front of the coach, opened the door and proudly informed the commissionaire: "Liverpool Football Club, on the road to Iceland!"

"Aye, well, you're on the wrong road," replied the commissionaire. For once, Shankly was lost for words. It was an inauspicious start to a journey that would ultimately take Liverpool to five European Cup triumphs, via Rome, London, Paris, Rome (again) and Istanbul.

In an era before private jets and charter flights, the team's itinerary was circuitous. First, the players boarded a plane at Liverpool Airport, resplendent in their new club blazers, ties and flannels. "We didn't half look well," recalled defender Ron Yeats. The team flew south to London, then north to Scotland's Prestwick Airport and, after their brief visit to Butlin's holiday camp, on to Iceland. During the flight, the pilot announced that the plane would be forced to skirt a volcanic eruption in the sea. It turned out to be the formation of Surtsey Island.

None of the players really knew what they would encounter at the end of their 15-hour odyssey. "Most of us didn't know where Reykjavik was," admitted Yeats. A few had even pictured a land of igloos and Eskimos, but what they found bore little resemblance to their speculations. "I had always imagined Iceland to be a cold, bleak and rather daunting place, but I got the shock of my life when we arrived," wrote winger Ian Callaghan in his autobiography. "It was a clean and pleasant land, and when we went it was daylight almost round the clock."

KR would be Iceland's first representatives in the European Cup, but few believed the part-timers stood much chance against the English champions. Their chairman, Sigurgeir Gudmannsson, said: "A 5-0 defeat would even be impressive for us. What is of the greatest importance to us is to have such a famous team like Liverpool visit Iceland." Laugardalsvöllur Stadium was full – 8,000 KR supporters happy to stand while 2,000 paid £1 to secure a seat.

And so, at 20.00 on Monday 17 August 1964, Liverpool kicked off their first European Cup tie. At 20.03, they scored their first goal. Roger Hunt fired a cross into the goal area and Gordon Wallace, a 20-year-old striker who was only in the team because Ian St John had appendicitis, fired home. "To be honest, I mishit it," Wallace recalled. "I shouldn't really say that, but it's the truth. I remember Roger Hunt going to the byline and squaring it back to me. I was only six yards out. The ball went in between the goalkeeper and the near post."

KR then defended as if their lives depended on it, and somehow managed to go in at half-time just the one goal behind. But the Reds needed a mere 30 seconds of the second half to double their lead, as Hunt defied five KR defenders to score from the edge of the area. In the 57th minute, Phil Chisnall, a forward now best remembered as the last player to move from Manchester United FC to Liverpool, made it 3-0. Wallace then headed his second on the hour, and Hunt made Gudmannsson's prophecy come true with a long-range shot two minutes from time.

The KR players sportingly lined up to applaud their conquerors from the pitch. "Obviously they were only amateurs and we were expected to win, but the locals were lovely people," Wallace recalled. "It was our first time in Europe and everything was new." Liverpool completed their home-and-away victory a month later, beating the Iceland side 6-1 at Anfield. The likes of AS Saint-Étienne, VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach, AC Milan and the rest were still to come, but KR were the reassuring first. The journey had begun.

Champions Matchday is the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League and is available in print or free to download in digital format. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.

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