Since the time in the 1950s when the attacking trio Mats Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm strutted their stirring stuff for Milan, football writers have endlessly sought out catchy nicknames for brilliant attacking tridents. Using contractions of their family names, that Swedish combo would become forever known as the Gre-No-Li trio, just as Napoli would have the Ma-gi-ca trio in the late 1980s starring Maradona, Giordano and Careca.
One of the lesser-known great attacking trios from the past half century belonged to Borussia Dortmund back in the early days of the Bundesliga, albeit a trio whose names stubbornly couldn’t be shaped into a catchy nickname even by the most imaginative of writers.
The trio in question were all West German internationals: Lothar Emmerich on the left wing, Stan Libuda on the right wing and Siggi Held at centre forward; a greatly talented and potent front line astutely assembled by newly arrived coach Willi Multhaup during the summer of 1965.
Emmerich was the only one of the trio already in situ. A product of Dortmund’s youth policy, this prolific wide player had been a regular for half a decade and at 23 still had his best years ahead of him. He’d already achieved much at the club as part of the Dortmund side that won the 1963 championship and the DfB-Pokal at the end of the previous season.
The controversial acquisition of 21-year-old right winger Reinhard Libuda (nicknamed Stan after Stanley Mathews in tribute to his brilliant dribbling skills) from bitter local rivals Schalke 04 represented quite a coup for Dortmund.The Gelsenkirchen club had ended the previous season in the Bundesliga relegation places and accepted the pressing financial need to offload their big stars. During the close season a payments scandal involving Hertha broke and an unexpected Bundesliga expansion granted Schalke a reprieve from the drop, albeit too late to keep the stars, including Libuda, they had already parted with.
The other newcomer was Siggi Held, also 21 and catching the eye in the regional divisions with Kickers Offenbach. Held was an intelligent and adaptable player who operated primarily as a centre forward, but was ever-willing to drop deeper to collect the ball and link the play. No fewer than half a dozen Bundesliga clubs chased his signature and Dortmund were pleased to win that particular battle.
The trio gelled rapidly thanks in part to the unconventional tactical system used by Multhaup loosely based on Helenio Herrera’s 5-2-3 set up at Internazionale. A back four had the added security of Wolfgang Paul tucked in behind as sweeper while a hard-working midfield pair of Aki Schmidt and Willi Sturm shuttled between defence and attack. Where the system differed from Inter was the use of two out-and-out wingers in Emmerich and Libuda that gave the team real attacking width and trickery.
A heavy 4-0 opening day defeat at Braunschweig was just a blip as Dortmund started that 1965-66 season strongly with seven wins from their next eight matches. That run extended to 15 unbeaten games until ended at title rivals Munich 1860 just before the winter break. Upon resumption of the season Dortmund stepped up a gear and hit a seam of imperious form. Another 13 game unbeaten run was put together with an impregnable defence at one end and the newly constructed front trio dismantling every defence it faced. Libuda brought the skill and impetuousness, Held the clever movement and link up play and Emmerich the pace and the goals – lots of them.
European progress in the Cup Winners Cup was just as serene. Spanish champions-elect Atletico Madrid were dispatched at the Quarter Final stage and holders West Ham were defeated comfortably home and away in the semis, prompting an impressed Hammers manager Ron Greenwood to declare the West Germans to be the strongest European opponents his side had faced.
Dortmund became West Germany’s first European trophy winner with a deserved extra-time win over Liverpool in the pouring rain at Hampden Park, but that mentally and physically gruelling game exacerbated a problem that had become apparent during recent fixtures. Dortmund’s all-action style demanded a lot of running from its players, especially the midfield pair of Schmidt and Sturm, and the effects of a long season were taking their toll. The Bundesliga title was surrendered to the workmanlike 1860 Munich.
Despite that disappointment the season was an unrivalled success for Dortmund’s deadly front trio – ably supported by yet another forward in Reinhold Wosab. Emmerich finished the season as Bundesliga top scorer with 31 goals with Held contributing a further eleven. The following season the trio’s attacking play sparked another title push and this time Dortmund finished in third position, Emmerich retaining his top scorer crown in the process with another huge 28 goal haul.
Typical of the fragile psyche that was always associated with Dortmund in years gone by, the 1967-68 season saw the previous title chasers collapse into a relegation battle and an eventual lowly fourteenth placed finish. Emmerich”s goal total dropped to just 18 and various injuries meant their all-star front trio was unable to demonstrate the same potency.
This precipitated the break up of their broadly successful three season relationship in the summer of 1968 with Libuda the first to depart, back to his first love Schalke. Emmerich left next in 1969 for a new challenge and a bigger wage packet in Belgium with Beerschot. Siggi Held stayed until 1971 and with his goals drying up he returned to Kickers Offenbach, by now also a Bundesliga team – although he did have a late career encore, returning to Dortmund for a couple of seasons in 1977.
The writing was on the wall for Dortmund and now fully stripped of their high-profile and influential front men, the club plunged to relegation at the end of the 1971-72 season.