Almost Famous: The Chris Pile story

Who’s likely to take the first penalty? Which side does a player prefer to put the ball? High or low? Hard or placed? When it comes to modern penalty shootouts almost every detail is available to help teams defeat opponents in the battle from 12 yards. And most of the information is on display via iPad to give goalkeepers a quick reminder prior to the real drama beginning.

Rewind just over three decades and preparations weren’t quite so exact. Prior to travelling to Italy for the 1984 European Cup final against AS Roma in the Italian’s home ground, Joe Fagan’s Liverpool were readying themselves for every possibility. At that point club football’s greatest prize had yet to be decided on penalties. However, LFC, winners of the competition three times in the previous seven seasons, weren’t leaving anything to chance.

Chris Pile, a 17-year-old goalkeeper from the same Huyton suburb as future star Steven Gerrard, had already enjoyed a memorable day by signing professional forms with the club he supported. “Then it was announced there would be a penalty shootout,” the now 48-year-old recalls. “It was the first team against us apprentices.” The youngsters weren’t just cannon fodder or being utilised to further boost the confidence of the senior players who had already won the title and picked up the League Cup. Instead, the novices were issued with orders.

“Before it started [coach] Roy Evans took myself and the other young lads aside,” Pile continues. “He gave us different instructions, based on how the Roma players took penalties. Each of the lads had to try to mimic a certain style. It seemed odd but there was definitely a method to it.” Clearly the boot room staff had done their research in to the Italian champions, a side that had overcome a 2-0 first leg deficit against Dundee United in the semi-final. Pile – obviously not taking a kick – was told to put off established stars such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Phil Neal and Ian Rush.

“I did it by jogging up and down or jumping around on the line.” His unusual methods were hugely successful. “I saved loads. We won and it wasn’t a 4-1 or 5-2 scoreline. It was something like 9-2 in our favour. It was emphatic. In the end the practice shootout was abandoned by the coaching staff.” A slightly concerned Evans was quick to enquire what a teenage goalkeeper had done to thwart so many players, players who had appeared for their countries on countless occasions and enjoyed great success at both domestic and continental level.

“I told him I’d tried to get in to their heads and put them off. I tried to do stuff that goalkeepers usually didn’t do at that time.” Bruce Grobbelaar certainly paid close attention to Pile’s unorthodox tactics. When 120 minutes couldn’t separate the teams in the final, the Zimbabwean goalkeeper engaged in a memorable series of leg wobbling and net biting antics that clearly distracted the Italian side. As a result they missed two of their four spot-kicks, Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani both putting their efforts too high. Only Steve Nicol missed for the English side, with Phil Neal, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush and Alan Kennedy all finding the net to start the celebrations.

Pile wasn’t part of the squad but he was a member of the travelling party. “When the referee had blown the final whistle to indicate there would be penalties I wasn’t thinking about the ones I’d saved at Melwood. Like every other Liverpool fan, I was just sat there hoping we’d win.”

Afterwards, Fagan’s squad deservedly partied long in to the night at a villa up in the hills on the outskirts of Rome. “There weren’t too many celebrations for us,” Pile says. “We just got on a plane and went back to England. We didn’t even see the players. I imagine they had a good time. We just left the ground, went to the airport and arrived in Liverpool around 4am. But I still like to think I played a small part in the success.”

Twelve months later Liverpool were back in the final, against Juventus, and this time Pile would be part of the match day squad. He was yet to make a senior appearance so his call up was completely unexpected, to the point that seemingly everyone else at Melwood knew about it before he did.

“I was walking in to the training ground and as I passed different groups of apprentices some of them started whispering. I didn’t know what they were talking about so I asked them.” Their answer contained the news that Bob Bolder, back up to Grobbelaar, had been injured in the previous evening’s reserve team fixture and was out for the rest of the season.

“There was no coverage of the rezzies on TV then, no Internet or mobile phones, so I didn’t have a clue about any of it,” Pile points out. In the typically understated manner the club was famous for at the time, none of the coaching staff made a big deal out of Pile’s surprise elevation to the senior set up. “I was putting away some gloves after training when [coach] Ronnie Moran came over and told me to keep myself fit and not to speak to anyone that I shouldn’t. I didn’t even have a club suit and had to wear one of my own for the trip.”

As has been well documented, Pile’s dream turned in to a horrific nightmare at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels as violence on the terraces before the game led to the deaths of 39 Juventus fans. Unbelievably, amid the carnage a meaningless match was played out, the Italian team winning 1-0. Even now Pile still finds it hard to discuss what happened.

“Clearly, it must have been very difficult for the lads who played. I remember doing a warm up during half-time and there were imprints of horse hooves on the pitch.”

“The runners up medals – which nobody really wanted obviously – were handed out in the dressing room. Craig Johnston and I were walking out of the stadium afterwards and took a wrong turn; we ended up in a gym where some of the bodies were being laid out.”

“People sometimes criticise the fact that the game went ahead. But I think the authorities were worried that if it didn’t there would have been more trouble. It was an ill-suited venue for a football match. What proper preparation and planning had gone in to the game? Not much I would guess.”

The match he only wanted to forget would be as close as he came to making his Liverpool debut, despite the fact that Bolder – the man just ahead of him in the pecking order – left in search of first team football at the beginning of the 1985/86 season.

Seemingly poised to succeed him as the number two, a slipped disc suffered in training ruled Pile out. During his absence player-manager Kenny Dalglish needed a replacement and spent £400,000 to bring in Mike Hooper from Wrexham. Pile would never be so close to first team action again and eventually departed the following year.

“That’s life,” he says. “I had to get on with it and when I recovered I played a few games for the reserves. Obviously, it was hugely disappointing to leave the club I supported and still support now.”

Post Liverpool he had spells with Tranmere, Bury, Southport and Waterside-Karori in New Zealand. He also played cricket for Southport. Now residing in New Zealand, he’s coached the national side’s underage goalkeepers and is a salesman for Volkswagen. Some people might, understandably, have regrets or be angry about missing out on a playing career at the top of the English game. Pile thinks differently.

“I wouldn’t swap those five minutes of fame for anything else. I got to work with some of the best players in LFC’s history, my heroes. I got to know them so well that they were just the lads and I did a tiny bit to help them win the European Cup in 1984.

“I had a little bit of resentment for about 30 seconds when they let me go. Then I moved on. That’s my philosophy in life. There’s no point looking back or thinking: ‘If I, would I, could I, why didn’t I.’ I know I was lucky to be at Liverpool. Some people never get that far. And not making it wasn’t the end of the world for me. Worse things can happen.”

You can follow Johnny Hynes 0n Twitter (@HynesJohn)

Almost Famous: The Chris Pile story
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