Ray Clemence, who died today at the age of 72, was the best English goalkeeper of his generation. Peter Shilton was awarded more caps but in terms of pure talent Clemence had the edge.
It was tough for England managers to choose between two exceptional No 1s. Ron Greenwood hedged his bets and alternated between the pair. In retrospect, Clemence’s 61 caps undersell his status.
Born in Skegness, Clemence began his career at Scunthorpe United before moving to Liverpool. In 1967 Bill Shankly paid £18,000 to bring the 18-year-old to Anfield. It was easy to see what the Scot liked about Clemence. He was tall, unusually athletic for a goalkeeper of the period and had massive potential.
Shankly’s first great team had lost their edge and, after a couple of years in the reserves, Clemence became first choice in 1970. He was very different to Tommy Lawrence, his predecessor, who was nicknamed ‘the Flying Pig.’ There was nothing remotely porcine about the sleek, handsome Clemence.
The new goalkeeper was one of the foundations of Shankly’s epic rebuild in the early 70s. The legendary Liverpool manager wanted more than domestic domination. He wanted to conquer Europe. The process started when Liverpool won the Uefa Cup in 1973, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-2 over two legs. Clemence played a crucial role in both games. At Anfield in the first leg he saved a penalty to ensure Liverpool took a 3-0 lead to West Germany. They needed that advantage. In the first half of the second leg Mönchengladbach swarmed all over Shankly’s team. Clemence made a succession of saves as Liverpool suffered a 2-0 defeat, but edged the final on aggregate.
The same season Clemence won the first of his five league titles. After winning their initial continental trophy, the next target was the European Cup. A resounding defeat by Red Star Belgrade in the following campaign ended that dream in the short term.
The Red Star tie is famous for Shankly’s epiphany that he could not win Europe’s biggest prize with a traditional British centre back like Larry Lloyd. Phil Thompson was drafted in and Liverpool began to play the ball out from the back.
What is often forgotten in this footballing watershed is that to play this way required a different type of goalkeeping approach. Clemence was perfect for the role. He was quick off his line and was an early example of the sweeper-keeper. Not only was he a superb shotsaver, a splendid catcher of the ball and a vocal organiser of the defence, but his modern way of playing gave the team the flexibility to do things differently. It paid off. Before he left Anfield, Clemence won another Uefa Cup and three European Cups.
Liverpool became champions of Europe for the first time in 1977, renewing their rivalry with Mönchengladbach in Rome and Clemence’s contribution was vital in the 3-1 victory. Borussia equalised in the first half and were getting on top when Uli Stielike broke through on goal. Clemence believed his save from Stielike was the best of his career. It was certainly a turning point in the match.
An earlier incident in that game illustrated an aspect of Clemence’s personality. Rainer Bonhof hit the post with a long range shot and afterwards the goalkeeper shrugged off the idea that Liverpool had a lucky escape. “I had it covered,” he said. There was a swagger about Clemence.
England did not go quite so well. He was part of two failed World Cup qualification campaigns and Shilton began to take precedence in the Bobby Robson years. Life at Anfield was good, however, so it came as a shock when, after winning his third European Cup medal in 1981, Clemence decided to leave for Tottenham Hotspur.
The reasons were never fully explained and Merseyside was awash with scurrilous rumours. The convivial goalkeeper was approachable and enjoyed the city’s nightlife, which made it easy for gossip to spread. The most likely explanation is that he received a substantial pay rise for moving south.
The medals still piled up. Clemence won his second FA Cup trophy with Spurs – his first came in ’74 with the Reds – and helped bring home the Uefa Cup to White Hart Lane.
After retiring he joined the coaching staff at Tottenham and then managed Barnet. He became a member of the England setup in 1996 and remained involved until he retired seven years ago, even after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.
His contribution to the national side as a coach and head of the development teams far outweighed his impact as an player. He might not have fulfilled his potential in an England shirt but in every other aspect of his life he exceeded expectations. Clemence was a Liverpool great, a Tottenham hero and a man who did his country proud.