Sammy Lee rarely watches clips of his great Eighties Liverpool team — ‘You can only find it on Pathe News,’ he quips — but memories will flood back at Wembley on Sunday as he cheers on his beloved Reds against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final.
The fact that Jurgen Klopp’s outstanding team are trying to win their first domestic cup for a decade puts the remarkable achievements under Bob Paisley into context.
Between 1981 and 1984, Lee won four League Cups in a row besides Liverpool taking three league championships and a couple of European Cups.
Sammy Lee (above) was a star for Liverpool where he played between 1976 and 1986
They had great individual stars like Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush but Lee, the Scouse son of a local butcher, provided the energy in midfield in order for them to shine.
‘I didn’t really appreciate all the success we had until later,’ admits Lee, now 63, who later enjoyed a stellar coaching career under Gerard Houllier, Sven Goran Eriksson, Rafa Benitez and Sam Allardyce.
‘If there was a secret, it was that we took nothing for granted. Liverpool supporters demanded the best and we were never allowed to become arrogant. My main effort was simply to keep my place in the team but I still wouldn’t call it work. Proper work is what my mates were having to do on the factory floor or my Dad in the abattoir.’
Like Trent Alexander-Arnold today, Lee embodied the importance of having a local Liverpool lad in the dressing room.
Lee was an assistant under Rafa Benitez (right) at Liverpool (Pictured in 2009)
He joined Liverpool at 15 just as legendary manager Bill Shankly quit and lifted his first trophy in 1981, seven years later. The 2-1 victory over West Ham in the League Cup final was controversial with Lee laying in an offside position when Alan Kennedy scored.
‘I’ve got quite an ample backside and the ball happened to go over it. I suppose I was in an offside position but the referee deemed not,’ says Lee, with a shrug. ‘Their manager John Lyall was usually very passive but he got really irate about it. I suppose he felt his team had been cheated.’
The win started Liverpool’s League Cup trophy rush. They beat Tottenham in ’82, Manchester United in ’83 and Everton in ’84. All went into extra-time and with interesting sideplots.
The 1981 win unleashed Rush on the football world. Liverpool faced their former goalkeeper Ray the following year. For Lee, who grew up in the city centre, being part of the greatest team in the world on his doorstep was incredible.
‘I’d always supported Liverpool and when your dreams come true like that, it blows you away,’ he says. ‘There was a fantastic team behind the team with manager Bob Paisley and his staff, particularly Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran.
As well as featuring for Liverpool, Lee was also an England international
‘Liverpool don’t like sycophants and they all had opinions. But when they faced the outside world, they spoke with one voice.
‘Shanks leaving had been devastating for the city and I think Jurgen Klopp is the closest in terms of personality to him since then.
‘Jurgen has this charisma, this personality. He understands the people of the city, embraces them and makes them part of the club. It’s crucial.
‘Bob was different but he’d have been successful today because the best adapt. Ronnie Moran was my mentor. He tested you every day. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but knew how to prepare you for the demands of the game.
‘The phrase ‘old school’ can have a negative connotation but for me it’s about values, respect and standards. These things are still important today.’
Paisley was thoughtful and considered. By the time match day arrived, he could be quiet because the key messages had all been delivered. When he did intervene, players responded.
Lee celebrates with Kenny Dalglish after the forward scores for Liverpool at Arsenal in 1983
‘The Spurs final stands out,’ says Lee. ‘They had a great team with Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles. When the whistle blew for extra-time, they were slumped on the floor resting.
‘Paisley came out and told us to stay on our feet and not show any fatigue to the opposition. We won 3-1 and that season showed our character. We were 12th in the league at New Year but went unbeaten for 16 games to retain the title.
With Dalglish, Souness, Alan Kennedy and Phil Neal, Lee is one of five players who appeared in the full quartet of League Cup wins.
His personal favourite was Souness. ‘He was the best, as a player and as a man,’ he says. ‘Graeme understood the bond we all had at Liverpool. When we beat United in the 1983 final, we knew Bob Paisley was retiring at the end of the season so Graeme as captain made him walk up and collect the cup. It was unprecedented at the time.
‘As a player, he didn’t have a weakness, and what a leader. Before we played Roma in the European Cup final at their stadium, he made us walk around the entire pitch before kick off, like Gladiators at the Colosseum, rather than do a quick warm-up and get out. Their supporters couldn’t believe it.’
Player reunions are less frequent at clubs that you’d imagine. But at Liverpool, they regularly meet up. Last week, Lee had lunch with Phil Thompson, Bruce Grobbelaar, Roy Evans and ‘youngster’ John Aldridge.
‘I’d look around our dressing room and feel invincible because I had so much belief in the players,’ said Lee. ‘And when we go out now, I still feel that way.
Lee believes Graeme Souness (right) was the best at Liverpool as he celebrates the 1984 League Cup win along with Alan Hansen (left) and Dalglish at Wembley
‘We were the best in the world even though we didn’t think about it at the time.’
In addition to his rich history, 62-year-old Lee can talk about the current day with authority. He was alongside Allardyce at West Brom last season and is currently working with the LMA mentoring young managers.
Many of the England players he coached in 2006 now have thriving management and media careers themselves; Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville among them.
His spell as Allardyce’s No 2 in 2016 lasted only one game, through no fault of his own. But he’s far from bitter and loves the work Gareth Southgate did at Euro 2020. ‘I have nothing but respect for the way he’s taken the England team on. They could turn out to be the real golden generation.’
Lee also knows from experience how difficult it is to beat Klopp’s Liverpool. Last May, he thought West Brom had held out for a point until goalkeeper Alisson headed the winner in injury-time.
‘He came up from the back so late, we didn’t have a marker for him,’ he says.
Lee has praised Trent Alexander-Arnold
‘Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach John Achterberg is a great guy but I think I swore at him at the time! The joy on their faces and the disappointment on ours, that’s football.’
Football has allowed Lee to travel the world. He still speaks Spanish from his three years as a player with Osasuna.
Yet Liverpool remains his home. This interview took place at Allerton golf club, close to where The Beatles grew up as kids.
‘Liverpool gets a bad shout from some people but it’s my city and gave me the inspiration and energy to go and better myself,’ he says proudly.
‘I’m proud of anyone who comes from here and does well, whether it be in music, sport, comedy or academia. What Trent is doing now is fantastic.
‘You don’t take this city lightly and you can’t take Jurgen’s team lightly. They could go down as one of the greatest in the club’s history.’