Timely this. A book perfect for the run in after the return of Kenny, reporting on what was his finest hour as Liverpool manager in terms of trophies won – 1985/86.
I often fail to adhere to The Anfield Wrap’s lovely single paragraph opening and then continue more if you like, but what struck me when I drilled down into the above sentence was that there were three key phrases in the summation: “trophies won”, “run-in” and “reporting on”.*
It is in the “reporting on” where Nevin and Shaw really do excel. Much of the 1985/86 season was spent under the shadow of a dispute over TV money and therefore there isn’t very much in the way of video footage. But you don’t need it. Their summation of games, of opinions, of the climate around football is a masterclass in soberly using written primary source material to calmly and truthfully enrapture. They use a combination of their own memories and contemporary written reports to conjure these games in your imagination. They make you work, close your eyes and envisage red shirts easing their way around the pitch (indeed, they quote the West Brom Programme stating that “Liverpool are a machine, adequately oiled, well balanced…and unrelenting.”) in a way which has become alien to us supporters. Games you can’t now watch brought to life by you working with an author to do so in your own head.**
Shaw and Nevin also take correspondence into the Echo to create impressions of how Dalglish’s side was received, along with early media acclaim of United as inevitable champions being dismissed by Blues (reigning Champions) and Reds alike. And they go further again, using The Echo, Hansard and even Peter O’Sullivan to create a sense of the time they are discussing. This is a story set firmly against a backdrop of unrest – the aftermath of Heysel, the consequences of Thatcherism on Liverpool and the game itself at a crossroads.
It isn’t a blinkered view and the book is a splendidly solid historical document. They spend time discussing West Ham United, Manchester United, the reigning Champions, Everton, and even sides like Watford and Spurs. You read it knowing exactly what Liverpool were up against. There’s a respect for the reader and for the period. They give you exactly what you need to know and do so with an economy which belies the book’s size. By going game by game and going into the detail they do, you can learn about and savour a match without being pummelled with statistics.
Establishing the book is as sound as it is means we take from it. Learn. The book consistently acknowledges that Liverpool weren’t the dominant force they had been in the past and would be again under Dalglish in 87/88. Kenny is very keen to rotate (though reluctant to use substitutes). They beautifully illustrate with letters into the Echo – football forums of the day – depicting quiet questioning of Dalglish often along the lines “that Kenny doesn’t seem to know his best team”.
But, of course, we get the “run-in”. Kenny brings it together beautifully, his Liverpool, as described by West Brom above, are relentless. We feel this ride keenly. Gary Shaw writes: “This was different. This wasn’t the procession we’d almost come to expect – it was difficult…Winning in the manner we did, after a horrendous year, when it seemed that everyone – and I mean everyone – hated us, despised us? It felt like payback.” In the aftermath of Heysel, with a new manager in his first year, with United powering away, Everton champions and simply very good, with West Ham picking up points consistently, Dalglish’s Liverpool found themselves with their backs to the wall. The run-in rattles along, powers you from game to game and you feel the Merseyside rivalry passionately: “They went to Nottingham Forest, and they only got a draw / And then they went to Oxford and they couldn’t even score.”
What’s clear is the relentless focus. The smell of blood in the nostrils of Kenny and his team. The pounding towards silverware (this side also made the semi-final of the league cup only to suffer huge misfortune against QPR with their hated plastic pitches to boot.) “Trophies won.” This was a team that knew how to win. That wanted keenly to win. Occasionally perhaps you’d like a little more gossipy stuff – internal team reportage, what was going on inside the camp. But this is the book from the outside. How the supporters felt, what they did, snapshots into match-going lives, vivid stories. What the games were like themselves.
In short, Shaw and Nevin have managed to write the definitive book on 1985/86 – it is the textbook. And I can’t recommend it highly enough.
“On The March With Kenny’s Army” by Gary Shaw and Mike Nevin is available here
* There’s actually a fourth: “Timely this”. Mike was kind enough to give me this book to review some months ago. Can only apologise to him, Gary and The Anfield Wrap for the length of time this review has taken.
** It was in the context of reading this book that I stumbled over this match report by John Cross on which I pushed Ollie Holt when he appeared on our podcast. This is a report which leads you to have no sense of a football match you may not have seen. This isn’t Mr Cross’ fault per se. This is the way match reports have been going for far too long. Yet it is an extreme example – Noel Gallagher had made those comments more than two weeks before the report. And they aren’t even funny. It is akin to Kenny Dalglish being compared in 1985 to Paul Shane in Hi-De-Hi! by John Lydon. As I made clear to Ollie Holt, I’ve no axe to grind with Mr Cross. Seems an intelligent man who talks a fair bit of sense on Twitter. Yet the entire report really stuck with me.