“No Scot ever made a bigger impact on a club than Bill Shankly. Others may claim an equal share of trophies and Matt Busby comes to mind with his wonderful record crowned by the European Cup, but not even Matt would claim the kinship with the fans that Bill Enjoyed. He was what football was all about. I can’t praise him higher than that.” – Jock Stein
“Mr Williams said, ‘How would you like to manage the best club in the country?’
‘Why, is Matt Busby packing it up?’ I asked.” – Bill Shankly
‘John, you’re immortal now’ – Bill Shankly to Jock Stein, 1967
LIKE many of us I’m scything through David Peace’s new book, ‘Red or Dead’ – his fictionalised account of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool career and life. It’s not an easy read. Peace uses pages and pages of repetition and has documented pretty much every game under Shankly’s tutelage with just a handful of set expressions and terms. Ordinarily it would be easy to allow your eyes to wander off the page and onto more interesting things but as you read the words in Shankly’s voice, and Shankly’s voice is one you can never ignore, it pulls you through even though you suspect that most of the time you may have read the page before.
It’s a familiar style. Ernest Hemingway liked short sentences. Ernest Hemingway liked repetition. Ernest Hemingway was a writer. A very good writer. Who liked short sentences. Very short sentences. Ernest Hemingway could also, on occasion, be quite dull. Mind-numbingly dull. Ernest Hemingway wasn’t Bill Shankly. If Bill Shankly was to appear as a phantom in front of us and recited his shopping lists we would draw our chairs up closer and crane our ears to his spectre in expected hope of a nugget of wisdom, of genius. Bill Shankly could read the most arid tomes on taxation law, each punctuated with the word ‘son’ and still have us rapt. Bill Shankly had ‘it’.
‘It’ is a rare quality, one that speaks of greatness and simplicity and furthermore enthuses others to greatness. Men like Emlyn Hughes, a young bundle of energy when he left Blackpool, still needed the direction of genius to lead him to Rome and beyond. The old adage is one of needing someone to show us where the light switch is, one of mentor, of sage. Bill Shankly held an unusual spark and taught people that there was something special within them and within their collective group. He made the people happy. That’s a hell of a quality to have, a hell of a quality to share.
David Peace’s work may be difficult but the constant repetition and ruts of paragraphs don’t speak of por writing. They simply echo Shankly’s own mindset – of drill, routine and endless cycle on the way to greatness via piecemeal improvement. Yes, there’s the aphorisms, the quotes, the quips but it was always, always underpinned by hard slog and effort. That was the key to everything. When he first arrived in December 1959 he was met with a disjointed squad and a mess of a training ground and stadium. He set about changing everything from the watering of the pitch (an old hose pipe which only did half the job was used initially) upwards but it was the players’ fitness which was addressed first. That side may not have been great but they would do a lot better if they were fitter. As the years rolled on many opponents argued that one of the reasons Liverpool were successful was because of their new found strength and stamina. Scoring in the last minute against a tiring side became something of a speciality. When one journalist had the temerity to criticise Roger Hunt’s poor finishing after one game, his manager favoured him with his steeliest glare and pointed out that he was always in the right place to miss them. Again, this looks like a glib comment but there’s a truth in there. Fitness comes first and is achieved by endless repetition. No one gets lazy. Standards never slip.
Shankly may have built Liverpool but the role of managerial/club overlord wasn’t unique in that era. Matt Busby’s achievements with Man United were also incredible, taking them from a post war slump, through the horrors of the Munich air disaster and onto a European Cup win. Jock Stein’s nine-in-a-row League titles bore similar hallmarks to the Shankly model. Celtic hadn’t won the League for twelve years but Stein took the reins in 1965 and led them to the 1966 Scottish League and the European Cup the following year. Celtic nearly missed out on those achievements. Due to the lunacy of sectarianism, Stein was close to not joining Celtic at all and could have stayed at Hibernian before reason found its throne and he was installed as their first Protestant manager. Ridiculous. To pass up on all those years of success for the want of a single word on a piece of paper…
What was it about these three men who took their clubs to new heights from such meagre starting places? Well, geography plays a part, being born less than forty minutes apart – from Glenbuck to Bellshill to Burnbank, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire and all into mining communities. This was significant. Two of them had experience of the pit. Busby only briefly as a visiting child along with his father, Shankly for a couple of years in his teens while Stein spent the majority of his twenties there and only signed as a professional footballer at the age of twenty seven, late even then. Football was a deliverance from the paucity of opportunity and poverty of their circumstance. Busby had a troubled childhood, losing his father and three uncles in the First World War while Shankly, despite his brothers making careers in the game, was always destined for a miner’s life before his sheer force of character took him elsewhere.
It was in these communities that their sense of collective goals and teamwork became the central pillar of their managerial success. Mining makes your worst enemy your best friend. He’s protecting your life and you his and this is mirrored on the pitch Emlyn Hughes and Tommy Smith may have despised each other but there was something much bigger than a petty rivalry at stake – the club, the people – one and the same thing for Shankly. The team, or your safety in this instance, always came first. Furthermore its success was grown in different ways. Stein always swore that he wasn’t a disciplinarian but bore the gait of a man who you wouldn’t want to disappoint, couldn’t disappoint. Shankly’s approach was support through overwhelming hyperbole. Every new signing was the greatest ever, every opponent he’d bumped into in the Anfield corridor was petrified, past it or too drunk to challenge the might of Liverpool. Busby, a much less theatrical man, relied on cajoling his players with a quiet, calm wisdom. All took their backgrounds as the starting place for their ideals. The team was the star, not the players. Even Busby’s greatest sides, with their three big names, had to play within a framework. It wasn’t just Best, Law and Charlton plus eight others. The most flamboyant, Best, Busby’s ‘genius’ had to do his bit for the side other than simple showboating. That came later.
Shankly and Busby loved their adopted cities, the latter playing for both sides (and captaining Liverpool), but Jock Stein performed the ultimate act of civic pride with his 1967 European Cup winning side. The entire starting eleven were born within a thirty mile radius of Glasgow. Some achievement, that. Not only did Celtic win the European Cup, Glasgow had won it, or at least his half.
Bill Shankly always championed the link between the people and its football club. Days after the 1971 Cup Final defeat to Arsenal he told those massed in their thousands ‘Since I came here to Liverpool… to Anfield… I’ve drummed it into our players – time and again – that they are privileged to play for you’. Of all the Shankly maxims that’s the one that hits me in the solar plexus every time I hear it. That’s what it’s all about. Busby, a much less eloquent man than Shankly (who wasn’t?), simply proclaimed: ‘Manchester is my heaven’.
Today, the game is global and the clubs have to consider fans who will not and cannot see their teams play in the flesh. Back in the 60s and 70s, the club met their fan base every fortnight and a mutual love grew. The game is too divided for that to happen again. The majority of Liverpool and Man United fans will never see those cities. Equally, it’s rare than a manager should stay so long in the same job. Ferguson and Wenger along with Dario Gradi being noticeable exceptions. Things were different when they took over. United hadn’t won the League for decades but the money and infrastructure was there. Wenger replaced Bruce Rioch of all people and negotiated a ground move but couldn’t convert his great 2004 side into a dynasty. The cult of the manager is a lot different now to then. Liverpool puts their managers on plinths, or at least some of them but can still cast out their former darlings if they transgress any moral rule (Souness) or have one bad League season (Dalglish and Benitez) – something that would have been unthinkable from 1959 to 1991 – but the new guard of managers only added to their clubs’ success, not built it. That isn’t to disparage Ferguson and Wenger’s achievements, although they’ve seen their clubs move from one fanbase to another, from local and national backgrounds to multi-million pound conglomerates where sponsors have more say than the fans, which carries its own difficulties (social media and instant feedback from the world) but those clubs wouldn’t have been anywhere without their architects.
All three men have statues now and a whole host of books and documentaries. I like that. It’s important not to forget how your club came to be what it is. Shankly forms the basis of everything I believe and everything I want the club to be and I hope there isn’t a day when his hopes, mantras and ideals are dismissed as mere nostalgia. His voice should still echo around those corridors and playing fields and in the heads of everyone associated with the club. He is the template. He is the marrow of what Liverpool is or what should be. We’re often accused of living in the past, of not moving forward, of being guilty of narrow thinking. Bill Shankly built a future and did it with a child’s imagination. We don’t sing his name anything like as much as we should.
I’m going to have another go at the book now.