When You See a Chance Take It – Frank McGarvey & Liverpool

Frank McGarvey played under three of the best managers the game has ever seen, Bob Paisley, Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein. He scored goals wherever he went. As a twenty year old he scored seventeen goals to St. Mirren promotion from the Scottish First Division to the newly formed Premier League. His goalscoring exploits attracted the attention of Liverpool boss, Bob Paisley.

He was the classic example of a player seemingly having it all, given opportunities yet not really making the most of them.

During Liverpool’s dominant period of the seventies and eighties it seemed they had a conveyor belt of talent from which to choose. Players would be bought, put into the reserves and then when the first teamers became too old or lost form, they would be brought through to replace them and the overall performance of the team wouldn’t suffer. Bob Paisley was a genius at this, taking his lead from his predecessor, Bill Shankly. They would pluck players from lower leagues, get them to learn about ‘the Liverpool way’ in the second team and then throw them into the first team when they were hungry for the opportunity.

Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence came from Scunthorpe, Phil Neal from Northampton, Emlyn Hughes from Blackpool. Players were watched extensively to find out if they had the right attitude and desire. In between this they would pluck talent from other clubs, players who promised much and deserved more success than they were achieving. Ray Kennedy came from Arsenal, Graeme Souness from Middlesbrough, Alan Hansen from Partick Thistle. They didn’t generally make marquee signings. Kenny Dalglish was the exception to the rule as he was brought in to replace Kevin Keegan.

When Bob Paisley took over from Shankly he won the League title and UEFA Cup in his second season then almost won the treble in his third, becoming the first English manager to win the European Cup.

In 1978 they retained their European Cup but Brian Clough had shaken things up in the league with his Nottingham Forest side taking the league title. This stung Liverpool and they produced a record breaking season the following year.

Paisley’s format was to keep the second team full of players gagging to be given a go in the first team. By keeping them keen they would put pressure on first team players to keep performing. The downside to this is he was forever handling visits from players complaining they were putting in good performances in the reserves and deserved their chance in the first team.

Paisley, himself a professional player, understood the psyche of the footballer. But it didn’t always work. Some players weren’t prepared to wait.

During the 1979-80 season the reserve team at Anfield consisted of players such as Steve Ogrizovic, Colin Irwin, Dave Watson, Ronnie Whelan, David Fairclough, Alan Harper, Kevin Sheedy, Avi Cohen, Sammy Lee and Howard Gayle. Of this group only Whelan, Fairclough, Cohen and Lee had first team careers at Liverpool. The others were bit part players, who all made it elsewhere. Watson, Harper and Sheedy all had successful careers at Everton, with Gayle performing well at Birmingham.

Add to this group, Frank McGarvey.


McGarvey was born in Glasgow on 17th March 1956.  Alex Ferguson was manager of St. Mirren and received a tip about a young striker playing for Kilsyth Rangers in North Lanarkshire. Ferguson signed McGarvey and handed him his debut in April 1975 for the trip to East Stirling in the old Scottish Second Division (pre-Premier League days). St. Mirren lost 0-5. They finished sixth that year and repeated the instance a year later before McGarvey’s seventeen goals helped St. Mirren win the Division One title and gain promotion to the newly formed Premier League in 1976-77.

Dalglish had been an immediate success at Anfield but there was an opportunity for a strike partner. Paisley had used David Johnson and David Fairclough with neither really challenging Dalglish, who had been top scorer with over twenty goals in each of his first two seasons. Fairclough had scored ten in 1978 with Johnson netting sixteen in 1979. Dalglish was nearing his thirties and Paisley needed to look to the future.

McGarvey was hot property north of the border and Liverpool paid £270,000 for him. McGarvey thought his Christmases had all come at once as he tripled his salary and within a month was given his first Scotland cap when he came on for Arthur Graham at Hampden Park against Northern Ireland.

But McGarvey found life hard down south. He scored goals for the reserves in the Central League but unfortunately for him David Johnson was doing the same for the first team. He and Dalglish scored fifty goals between them and this was easily Johnson’s best season for the club. McGarvey was convinced his form for the reserves contributed to this. Johnson knew he had competition and so he was under pressure to perform.

McGarvey was in awe of his teammates but this seemed to spur him on to keep his form up. He got on fine with the other Scots in the team, Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen. There were no cliques but the player he got on best with was former club captain, Emlyn Hughes. Hughes was an avid follower of horse racing, friends with many of the jockeys and always giving out tips. McGarvey was beginning to develop a gambling addiction, one he is still battling to this day.

Paisley had him change in the first team dressing room instead of with the reserves. No doubt the idea was to get the player accustomed to how things were with the first team and develop friendships with some of the players. But McGarvey didn’t see it that way. He was overawed, felt he didn’t deserve to be there.

By his own admission he’d “gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a very small fish in an enormous pond, and that hit my confidence”, he wrote in his autobiography, Totally Frank.

He scored in his second game in the reserves against Sheffield United, then a couple of weeks later at home to West Brom and then he scored a hat-trick against Leeds United. He says he enjoyed the reserve team but wanted to get out of it as soon as possible.

Several of the players implored him to stay patient, especially Souness and Terry McDermott. They said some players can spend two years in the reserves before they get their chance. But McGarvey wasn’t consoled with this as he was itching to get on with his career. As far as he was concerned he could play for any club in the country and so why was he playing in front of a handful of spectators when he could’ve been playing to thousands?

Years later he’d admit to being homesick. Neither he or his wife really settled in Liverpool and when their first child came along they made sure she was born in Scotland. His gambling was beginning to take hold and like many addicts, he refused to admit it. He was finishing training at 1pm and straight down the bookies for the rest of the afternoon. Like many young men with more money and spare time than they know what to do with, he was horribly ill-disciplined. Instead of putting in extra training sessions he would be in the bookies to the point he spent more time in the day there than he had training in the morning. Naturally he never admitted this to anyone, least of all his wife. He wasn’t as fit or sharp as he could be and looking back had he put the effort in to himself he may have forced his way into the first team and been saved from himself. But McGarvey was on a vicious circle and dangerously unaware of his inability to get off it.


At the end of February 1980 his opportunity looked as if it had come. Johnson was injured. He’d been rested at the beginning of the month when David Fairclough took his place against Norwich at Carrow Road. He scored a hat-trick in the game Justin Fashanu scored the goal of the season. But Johnson was back the midweek League Cup Semi-Final at home to Nottingham Forest. Fairclough was gutted. Throughout his career Fairclough resented not gaining a regular starting place, despite generally having a better goalscoring record when he came off the bench than when he started a match. Although he doesn’t give this up as an influence there must’ve been something McGarvey saw in this behaviour which he picked up.

Liverpool failed to overcome Forest in the League Cup and then at the weekend they took on Bury in the FA Cup Fifth Round. Fairclough came on for Johnson at half-time, scored twice and Liverpool were into the Quarter-Finals. Johnson then missed the midweek game at home to Forest, which Liverpool won with Fairclough taking his place.

In his book, McGarvey highlights the next game as the time when things came to a head for his Liverpool career. Liverpool were three points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand on Manchester United in second. These were the days when there were two points for a win. Their next opponents were Ipswich Town, then in third place five points behind Liverpool.

McGarvey was hopeful of getting a game as Paisley had named him in the squad. In those days there was only one substitute so McGarvey knew it was a straight fight between him and Fairclough for the number nine shirt. During Paisley’s team talk he announced Fairclough would start and McGarvey would be on the bench for the first time.

Needless to say the Scot was gutted. He really believed he had done enough to earn a starting place. But if he had put himself in Fairclough’s shoes he would have been equally astonished if McGarvey had started. Ipswich were one of Liverpool’s rivals at the time, not far behind them in the table and a game Liverpool couldn’t afford to lose. Fairclough had scored five goals in the last four matches. Why would Paisley not start him now?

Eight minutes into the game Fairclough opened the scoring. Eric Gates grabbed a late equaliser to earn a point and with United winning, Liverpool’s lead had been cut to two points. McGarvey says when he got changed he knew it was over for him at the club.

Still raging he went to the manager’s office on the Monday morning and demanded a transfer. Paisley was clearly taken aback with this, told him to calm down and assured him he would give him a decent run when he considered him to be ready. But McGarvey believed he was ready and insisted of being allowed to leave. Paisley, a shrewd man, was not going to keep a player who didn’t want to be there. They were top of the league and reigning European champions so any player not wanting to be part of that probably wasn’t worth his time and effort.

McGarvey immediately left and drove up to Glasgow. He spoke to his old manager at St. Mirren, Alex Ferguson who was now earning plaudits at Aberdeen. Ferguson assured McGarvey he wanted him in his team and believed the player had agreed to move to Pittodrie. In the end McGarvey weighed up his options and decided Celtic was the place he wanted to be. Needless to say when he found out Ferguson was furious, but Celtic agreed to pay Liverpool the £270,000 they’d paid for the player and he moved to Parkhead.

His decision was tested when Aberdeen beat Celtic to the title that season, but they got their revenge a year later. He had a successful career at Celtic, scoring one hundred and thirteen goals in nearly two hundred and fifty appearances. He won two league titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup.

McGarvey has recently admitted it was a mistake to leave Anfield as, by his own admission, he could’ve been a European Cup winner had he stayed. As he was knocking the goals in up in Scotland, he needed only to look back at his old club and see evidence of what might have been.


Ian Rush joined Liverpool as an eighteen year old from Chester City. He too was put straight in the reserves, and he too went to Paisley and told the manager how he should be in the first team as he was playing well. But Paisley simply told him playing well wasn’t enough. It was all very well holding the ball up and laying it off for teammates but Paisley wanted him to become selfish. “Score plenty of goals” he told the Welshman. Rush was picked for the League Cup Final replay against West Ham in 1981. He believed this was the start of his first team career. It wasn’t. Paisley shoved him back in the reserves and let him stew. He went to the manager’s office again to complain and once again he was told to “score more goals”. It was driving Rush mad.

Eventually, the following season Paisley let him loose. By this way time Rush was so determined to prove he was worth his place he played out of his skin. The result? Thirty goals, then thirty one in the following season and forty seven the season after that.

As I said earlier, In the years to 1985 McGarvey won two Scottish League titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup. During this time Liverpool won four League titles, two European Cups and five League Cups. Rush had all that, McGarvey perhaps could have.

The irony is that Paisley and his management team of Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans had identified how the hugely successful side of the mid-to-late seventies was getting on a bit and would need refreshing with vibrant, hungry young talent. The 1980-81 season was the worst league finish under Paisley, although they had the European Cup and League Cup to parade at the end of it. Paisley brought through young talent such as Bruce Grobbelaar, Ronnie Whelan, Mark Lawrenson, Craig Johnston and Ian Rush. League Championships were won in ’82, ’83 and ’84 and when Paisley handed over the reigns to Joe Fagan in 1984 he won the treble of League, League Cup and European Cup.

Paisley always regarded McGarvey as the only high profile signing which failed, yet he could hardly be blamed for the decisions the player made.

Paisley clearly felt McGarvey had what it took to be part of this brave new world, by letting him mix with the first team. But McGarvey chose not to see it that way. Had he seen the opportunity for what it was who knows what might have happened. It just goes to show we are all present with opportunities in this world, some choose to take them, some choose not to.

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