A strange omen about the impending Mersey derby on 23rd November 2013 is that it gives Liverpool the chance to go top of he league, fifty years to the day since they went top for the first time in the 1963-64 title winning season.
All the games on 23rd November 1963 though were overshadowed by the assassination of John F Kennedy at 6.30pm British time on the Friday. A Daily Post journalist was dispatched around some pubs in Liverpool city centre to get some opinions and was told by one drinker: ‘You feel as if you knew him personally. It’s hard to believe that such a thing could take place.’
One pub goer who thought he could bring a humorous touch to the event failed to do so. A planned screening of serial Emergency Ward 10 on ITV was cancelled, leading to a man to comment that they should have left it on as the doctors may have been able to help. The Post reported that he was knocked off his barstool by a left hook from another regular, to the cheers of others.
On the River Mersey ships flew their flags at half mast but life went on and there were no cancellations of the planned football matches, although a period of silence was held at all 1st Division games. The one that took place at Goodison Park though was interrupted by a fan shouting ‘Long Live Kruzchev’ leading to his arrest for a breach of the peace. The shooting clearly did have an effect on the attendance at Old Trafford though as the crowd of 54,654 was less than the 60,000+ which had been expected.
The Reds sat back early in the game and Peter Thompson almost gifted united an opportunity when he tried to play a ball upfield but instead sliced it across the edge of the penalty area. Thankfully Denis Law and Bobby Charlton were taken too much by surprise to capitalise on it. United’s gameplan to stop Liverpool seemed to be to stifle Roger Hunt, which gave Willie Stevenson some space and his hard low shot was only just tipped around the post by Harry Gregg. United hit back though with Albert Quixall having a shot go just over the bar and another pushed away by Tommy Lawrence within the space of a minute. Ronnie Moran then misplaced a pass into the path of Paddy Crerand, whose cross was headed inches wide by Law.
Most of Liverpool’s attacks were coming from the back, with Hunt dropping back on one occasion and undertaking a thirty yard run, but Jimmy Melia failed to take advantage when the ball was laid off to him and he shot well wide. The Reds had another great chance when Ian St John prodded the ball past Gregg but as it slowly dribbled towards the goal the united keeper managed to recover and get to it before Hunt could help it over the line. United were continuing to look dangerous, with Charlton giving Ferns a hard time and Quixall trying a shot at every opportunity. They then came close to taking the lead in comical fashion when Gordon Milne’s attempted clearance looped over Lawrence’s head but the keeper managed to acrobatically get back to tip the ball over the bar. United then strongly appealed for a penalty when Ron Yeats tackled David Herd on the edge of the area but the referee waved their claims away.
After surviving the first half onslaught Liverpool almost took the lead shortly before half time when Thompson took a corner which was headed goalwards by Yeats bit cleared off the line by Maurice Setters, who clattered into the post. The game was stopped while both Setters and Gregg, who had been knocked out by Yeats, received treatment with Bob Paisley lending a hand. Gregg was stretchered off the pitch with Herd taking over in goal but Setters was able to carry on. Yeats was booed by most of the crowd when he touched the ball for the first time and after the half time whistle went Gregg continued to receive treatment for a couple of minutes at the side of the pitch before he was able to get up and walk to the dressing room.
When the second half began Liverpool adopted a more attacking approach as they sought to utilise the extra man advantage and United’s lack of a regular keeper. Thompson put in a dangerous cross from the left which was knocked down by Ian Callaghan to Jimmy Melia, whose shot was deflected wide by Noel Cantwell. Thompson then cut inside after Hunt had drew some defenders away from him but his shot was skied well over the bar. After Liverpool’s initial flurry United managed to get to grips with the numerical disadvantage with Quixall posing a significant danger. Ferns was still struggling and hauled back the United winger, leading to calls for his dismissal from the crowd but the referee had a word with him and nothing more.
Liverpool’s best chance came just after the hour mark when St John’s pass got behind Bill Foulkes and gave Hunt a clear run on goal, but his effort was weak and gratefully gathered up by Herd. The stand-in United keeper then had a let off when Crerand hit a poor backpass but he managed get out of the box and clear the ball before St John got to it. Herd then had to make his first save when Melia hit a low shot near the post after a cross by Callaghan. With fifteen minutes remaining Liverpool took the lead through Yeats, who came forward for a corner and ran onto the ball, stooping low head the ball past Herd and claim his first goal for the club.
United almost got straight back into the game when Setters tried a long range effort but it went just wide of the post, but Liverpool had two good chances to double their advantage with St John and Thompson hitting shots over the bar. With nine minutes left the crowd was stunned when Gregg re-appeared with his arm strapped to his chest to take his place on the right wing. As he went on to the pitch the Liverpool players joined in the applause for a player who turned out to have a fractured collar bone. Gregg only touched the ball once, but Moran was able to tackle him without making bodily contact as the Reds held on for victory.
Cynics may have pointed out that Liverpool had only won the game due to Gregg’s injury, but in his analysis in the Daily Post on 25th November Horace Yates commented that he doubted United could have fought any harder even with eleven men. He also believed that Yeats’s header was so powerful that even Gregg wouldn’t have saved it. Bill Shankly afterwards pronounced that the Reds scorer was the greatest centre half in the world, while any suggestion that he had been responsible for Gregg’s injury was ridiculed by Yates. He wrote that ‘only the nincompoops’ thought he should take any blame with Yeats himself saying ‘it was just one of those unfortunate things.’
With leaders Sheffield United losing at Fulham, it meant Liverpool were now top of the league but only just, with the top four teams being separated only by goal average. By the end of the season though it was far more clear cut as the Reds eventually clinched the title with three games still remaining.