Liverpool FC’s friendly against Olympiacos will be the fourth time the club have played at Soldier Field. The other occasions were in 1946 when they comfortably beat a team of students and 1964 when they played two fixtures against other touring professional sides and some of the best Shanklyisms were born.
Liverpool’s tour of North America in 1946 came about due to Chairman William McConnell’s friendship with Belfast born Joe Barriskill, General Secretary of the United States Soccer Federation. He was keen to develop the game further there as many returning soldiers had developed a liking for watching ‘soccer’ as it was known there whilst stationed in Europe during the Second World War.
With Liverpool having been a port through which many servicemen passed through and the Burtonwood base being nearby, the Reds were a natural choice and the arrangements were made with minimum fuss. McConnell and manager George Kay knew that several weeks away in a ration free country would be excellent for building morale ahead of the first Football League season since 1939. This began with a six day crossing aboard the Queen Mary from Southampton to New York.
Liverpool’s opponents on the tour were mainly made up of composite sides from local leagues and they won all six games prior to arriving in Chicago, including a thumping 12-0 win over a Philadelphia Select XI. The first four games had been on the East Coast but the players then flew to St Louis, the first time many of them had been on a plane. After beating St Louis All Stars 5-1 they flew to Chicago for a match against Chicago Maroons. They were a team of students from the University of Chicago and one of five sides that made up the North American Soccer League.
The Maroons normal venue for home games was Stagg Field, but the game was held at Soldier Field, the horseshoe shaped 74,280 seater home of Chicago Rockets who played in the All America Football Conference, a forerunner of the NFL. The attendance was not recorded, but it is likely there were far more seats empty then occupied for an extraordinary game that saw Liverpool lead 6-3 at half time. There were then no goals for the first half of the second period before three more were added to give the Reds a 9-3 win in which Jack Balmer hit four goals and Willie Fagan also got a hat trick.
From Chicago the Reds flew to Toronto where they hit double figures for the second time on the tour, beating an Ulster Select XI 11-1. They then returned to their New York base for the final two games of the tour, in which they beat Kearny Celtic Scots 3-1 in New Jersey and an American League side 10-1 at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The team bonding trip had been a huge success and the Reds won the league in 1946-47, but plans to cross the Atlantic again were cancelled due to the severe winter, that led to the season being extended to the middle of June.
Liverpool were back in North America in 1948 but this time there was no match in Chicago. Five years later in 1953 they were back in the city though for a game against Chicago All Stars at Hanson Field, a High School venue. A crowd of 7,000 saw Billy Liddell score three times in a 4-2 win.
Relegation followed the 1953 tour and it was to be eleven years before they were back across the Atlantic. By now the jet age had arrived and Liverpool were travelling to North America as Football League Champions and coming from a city whose singers had taken the American pop charts by storm. Charismatic manager Bill Shankly was not too bothered about this tour and didn’t even board the BOAC jet that left Manchester for New York on 6th May although he did wave the players off. Instead Bob Paisley and Reuben Bennett were in charge of team affairs for the first leg of the tour while Shankly scouted players in Scotland, where a Summer Cup competition was taking place.
Also missing were Gordon Milne, Roger Hunt and Peter Thompson, who had been called up by England for a tournament in Brazil. to celebrate 50 years of their FA. This gave an opportunity for youngsters Chris Lawler, Tommy Smith and Gordon Wallace while Alan A’Court, a veteran of the 1953 tour was also included in the party, even though he hadn’t played a single first team game in 1963-64.
The Governor Clinton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Empire State Building, was the team’s base for the first week of the tour which the Reds opened with a comfortable 8-1 win over Boston Metros. A 7-1 win over New York All Stars followed, with the players being whisked from the stadium to CBS studios where they sat in the audience as Gerry and the Pacemakers performed I Like It and Don’t Let the Sun Catch Me Crying on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The Reds flew to St Louis where there was almost humiliation against the Catholic Youth Council All Stars a late Willie Stevenson equaliser salvaging a draw. The players’ minds had perhaps been distracted by an incident involving Chairman Tom Williams, who had been suffering from constipation all tour. When fruit salads didn’t work, Bob Paisley gave him a tablet leading to a major accident, his room being described by Paisley as ‘wall to wall, it was everywhere.’ His one pair of trousers ruined, the only option was to borrow a pair from Ron Yeats, which naturally wasn’t kept a secret amongst the players.
There could be no room for complacency in Chicago, where the Reds arrived on 15th May. Their opponents would be Mexican outfit CF Monterrey, who had just finished third in their league and been beaten cup finalists. They were sure to provide a far better quality of opposition than the select sides, who Ian St John rated in his columns for the Daily Post as only of Lancashire Combination standard. In addition to the players missing through international duty, the Reds were now without Yeats, who was struggling to shake off a knew injury picked up in New York.
Soldier Field was exactly as it was in 1946 and 12,384 spectators were present for the game on 17th May, which was played in temperatures of over 80 degrees. The majority of the crowd were backing the Mexicans and added to the heat by setting off fireworks, but the Reds players weren’t overawed and St John gave them an 18th minute lead. Tommy Lawrence was a virtual spectator in goal as Liverpool took total control of the game, St John adding two more in the second half to complete a hat trick.
With four games played, the players now returned to the Governor Clinton Hotel in New York for a week’s rest. Some took in a baseball game but weren’t impressed and while the arrival of Shankly was welcomed, his antics had players confused. Refusing to set his watch to American time he was in the hotel reception as some players returned after a night out, but whereas they wanted to go to bed as far as he was concerned it was breakfast time. One by one the players drifted off leaving him alone, aghast that none of the staff knew who Tom Finney was.
The Reds were back in action on 24th May, losing 2-0 to an Uwe Seeler inspired Hamburg at the Downing Stadium. This was their first defeat on American soil, bringing to an end a record that had stretched back 34 games. This was the end of their time in New York and the party then flew to Detroit for a fixture against another German side, Meidericher (now MSV Duisburg). Shankly was livid when he saw posters for the game advertising the fact that it involved a club from the same city as The Beatles. But as match promoter Len Morgan told the Liverpool Echo, ‘we are the poor relations and have to take the crumbs from the table.’
Liverpool beat their German opponents 4-1 in front of a crowd of 7,000 which although low was still 2,000 more than saw England beat USA 10-0 in New York, Roger Hunt scoring four of the goals. The next morning Shankly had more problems caused by his refusal to adapt to American time. Up and ready for breakfast at 6am before the hotel restaurant was open, he insisted that two national newspaper journalists went for a walk with him. After finding somewhere he fancied eating at he was told quite abruptly that he couldn’t have a full English breakfast and cup of tea, it was hot dogs or burgers only. On arrival back at the hotel, the rest of the party had eaten and set off to the airport for their flight to Chicago, where they would face Meidericher again.
In Chicago the players again stayed at the Sherman Hotel, their base for the game in the same city just under two weeks earlier. The match venue was Soldier Field again, and Shankly this time had more enthusiasm than he had anywhere else in America. He insisted the players hold an impromptu five a side game in exactly the same spot that Gene Tunney had defended his world heavyweight title against Jack Dempsey in 1927. The game itself was a much more tight affair than in Detroit and ended in a 0-0 draw. Chris Lawler put in a solid performance at centre half in place of Ron Yeats, making Shankly have serious thoughts about whether he needed to get the chequebook out for a new defender.
From Chicago the Reds flew to the West Coast for what remains their only visit to California. They struck up their all time highest score in any game beating a select side 14-0, St John and Alf Arrowsmith both scoring four. Liverpool’s goalkeeper in that game was Trevor Roberts, who came in for the injured Tommy Lawrence. He touched the ball just once in the first half.
The last two games of the tour were across the border in Vancouver, where they encountered Meidericher for a third time. A bad tempered game played on 6th June, the twentieth anniversary of the Normandy Landings, ended 1-1. Both sides were reduced to ten men in the first half when St John punched Manfred Mueller to the ground after a bad challenge and after the break both benches regularly argued over the amount of air required in the ball.
Shankly flew home after the Meidericher game, but the players stayed behind for the last match against an Al Star XI. Arrowsmith scored both goals in a 2-0 win in a game that was played in the Empire Stadium, venue for the 1954 Commonwealth Games. This brought to an end a mammoth five week tour that had seen ten games played. The party then flew to Toronto and on to Manchester via Glasgow. They were met by Shankly who wasn’t bothered about the games, saying ‘they’re coming home thats all’. Director Sid Reakes was more enthusiastic, describing it as a wonderful experience.
After being fined £20 at customs and having a watch confiscated St John was advised by Paisley that his jockstraps would have been a far better place to hide any contraband. A holiday was probably the last thing any of the players wanted after so much travelling, but St John was off on his jollies straight away, to a caravan in Morecambe.
Shankly may not have had much enthusiasm for the tour and he made sure such jaunts never happened again. The reduced rest period was blamed for Liverpool’s poor start to the season, although they did recover to finish seventh. It did mean though that with the league title hopes ended early on, all efforts were put into the cups and the Reds finally laid to rest the FA Cup hoodoo, winning the trophy for the first time the following May. Had it not been for a corrupt official, they may well have added the European Cup to that as well.
Soldir Field in 2014 is much different than for previous visits. It now seats in the region of 61,000 and is the oldest stadium in the NFL, home to Chicago Bears. Chicago Maroons, who the Reds played in 1946, continue to represent the University of Chicago in inter-collegiate soccer leagues.