It’s a Shame About Ray

by | Nov 15, 2020

The 7th of September 1985 was a warm, late summer afternoon and White Hart Lane was in a cautiously celebratory mood. Spurs had finished the previous season in third place in the First Division and there’d been talk over the summer over whether they might even be able the break the five year old Merseyside stranglehold on the Football League Championship. By the end of August, though, three straight defeats seemed to have put much of that debate to bed, although a 4-1 win over Chelsea the previous Wednesday had brought a smiles back to a few faces, at least.

We were there early, my dad and I on my thirteenth birthday, squeezing ourselves through comically narrow entrances built more than half a century earlier an hour before kick-off, and with good reason. This match was Ray Clemence’s 1000th professional match. He was on the cover of the programme, and was presented with a tantalus – which may be best described as a spice rack for spirits – by one of his predecessors, Pat Jennings, on the pitch before their home match against Newcastle United. I was slightly too young to venerate Pat Jennings, but Dad did. Still does.

Spurs had signed Clemence four years earlier, ending a goalkeeping crisis that had lasted since Jennings himself slipped through their fingers and across North London to Arsenal in 1977. Those intervening seasons had seen Keith Burkinshaw waver between three goalkeepers, none of whom were really adequate replacements. Barry Daines, Mark Kendall and Mijlia Aleksic each had their merits, but even by the time Spurs won the FA Cup in 1981, they were only a mid-table team.

Clemence’s arrival at White Hart Lane for £300,000 in the summer of 1981 breathed fresh life into the team, and by the end of the following season he’d won the FA Cup with them, whilst on the last Saturday of the league season, upon his return to Anfield and defending the goal in front of the Kop for the second half, he was met with rapturous applause which showed the esteem in which he was still held on Merseyside. And small wonder. He’d won five League championships, three European Cups, and an FA Cup over the course of his fourteen years with Liverpool, all of these coming in the nine seasons immediately to his departure.

As so frequently happens in life, it happened in part by chance and in part as a result of the misfortune, both of which were freely admitted by Clemence himself. He started as an outfield player, but his move to playing in goal proved successful enough to earn him a professional contract with Scunthorpe United, and two years later, Bill Shankly and Liverpool came calling. After three years in the reserves, his opportunity came as a result of Liverpool’s worst result in years. After losing an FA Cup quarter-final 1-0 to Watford in February 1970, Bill Shankly swung the axe upon an ageing team, dropping Ian St John, Ron Yeats and goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence. Clemence was brought in to replace him, and would stay there for eleven years.

Shankly’s team came of age in 1973, winning the First Division title by three points from Arsenal, and the following year they won the FA Cup, with a final against Newcastle United that ended up as one-sided as had been seen in such a match in living memory. Shankly retired after that Cup final, but after a transitional first season under Bob Paisley, Clemence won his second title the following year. It was throughout the 1976/77 season, however, that Liverpool became a machine. In the First Division, they held off challenges from Manchester City and Ipswich Town to successfully defend their title. Defeat to Manchester United cost them a domestic double, but this was forgotten a couple of weeks later in Rome.

The margin of victory, 3-1 against Borussia Moenchengladbach, looks comfortable with the benefit of hindsight, but things might have ended up much different. With the scores tied at 1-1, Clemence made a crucial save from Gladbach’s Uli Stieleke. Two minutes later, Tommy Smith scored with a powerful header from a corner, and Liverpool were on their way to their first European Cup. They defended it a year later, Clemence keeping a clean sheet as Liverpool beat Bruges by a goal to nil at Wembley. The year after that, 1979, they won the First Division title by eight points, losing just four matches and conceding just sixteen goals in forty-two matches. Clemence’s last appearance for the club brought a third European Cup win, and a second clean sheet. This time, Liverpool beat Real Madrid by a goal to nil in Paris. They also beat West Ham United to win the League Cup for the first time.

That 1982 FA Cup win for Spurs, however, would be the end of his run of trophies. Spurs finished in fourth place in the First Division in 1982 and 1983, and injury kept him out of the 1984 UEFA Cup final against Anderlecht, which was won by his replacement Tony Parks’ heroics in a penalty shootout at White Hart Lane. The 1984/85 season saw them separated from the runners-up spot on goal difference only from Liverpool, but both were thirteen points adrift of the runaway champions, Everton.

Against Newcastle United on the 7th of September 1985, Spurs brushed their opponents aside, but even this didn’t come without a share. Clemence conceded a close-range diving header from Alan Davies early on, but Spurs recovered to win 5-1, with the star of the show being John Chiedozie, who scored two goals and had assists for the other three. During the second half, Clemence made one flying save to deny Newcastle’s Ian Stewart, tipping his shot over the crossbar. It was a successful day, all round. Spurs being Spurs, though, it couldn’t last. They could only finish in 8th place in the First Division in 1986, and the 1986/87 brought defeat in the FA Cup final against Coventry City, a match they’d been hot favourites to win, and another third placed finish in the First Division. The champions were, again, Everton. This time the gap was fifteen points.

With injury taking its toll, Ray Clemence retired in 1988 and, after a coaching position at Spurs and a couple of years managing Barnet, he settled into a position as goalkeeping coach with the England national team. Clemence’s international career brought 61 caps in an era during which manager seemed unable to decisively choose between him and his rival for the shirt, Peter Shilton. England failed to qualify for the World Cup in either 1974 or 1978, and by the time of the 1982 World Cup finals Clemence was a substitute, as his team was knocked out in the second group stage.

Amongst the tributes and compliments athat have been paid today, one of the more common has been that Clemence was always “just there”, when a forward was bearing down on his goal. It takes hours and hours of training to learn to be “just there”, of course, and Clemence’s athleticism was matched by his position and distribution. And he was a good enough goalkeeper to be one of the few to finish at the top. Clemence made his last appearance in the Football League in October 1987, picking up an achilles tendon injury for whilst playing for Spurs against Norwich City. He had made his last appearance below the First Division twenty years earlier.

That he’ll be missed so much by the supporters of two different clubs speaks volumes about an extraordinary career.