ANYONE who has completed ‘Red Machine’, the latest book by author and journalist Simon Hughes, will have a favourite passage. Mine comes about halfway down on page 105, in the chapter entitled ‘Guardian Reader, Michael Robinson,’ and tells of how then manager Joe Fagan replied upon being asked by the former striker how he should fit into Liverpool’s “system”, having just arrived from Brighton:
“Listen lad, we play 11 players here – just to make sure we aren’t disadvantaged. In midfield, when we get the ball we try to kick to somebody dressed the same colour as us. As a forward, Michael, kick it in the net, and if you can’t, kick it to somebody who can. Then at the back, we’re gonna break our balls to make sure the opposition don’t score.”
As hilarious as it is sincere, Fagan’s reply perfectly encapsulates the fundamental essence and appeal of ‘Red Machine’, a book which, as the cover makes clear in large red letters, recounts the history of Liverpool Football Club during the 1980s through the stories of the players (and, in the case of Ronnie Moran, one legendary coach). On page after page, in paragraph after paragraph and side-splitting anecdote after another, what the reader is ultimately left with is a sense of how straightforward and, through its individuals, rooted the club’s success was during a decade when everyone involved had to also deal with the twin scars of Heysel and Hillsborough.
Hughes’s approach to the book is in its own way as simple and effective as the instructions Bob Paisley, Fagan and Kenny Dalglish gave to their respective teams during that time. Track down 10 players who represented the club in the ‘80s and ask for their memories. The author’s genius comes in the choices he makes and manner in which he recounts their tales, using clean, crisp and evocative writing as a way to serve and not smother the wealth of attention-grabbing information provided.
Some of the choices are obvious, such as Bruce Grobbelaar, the chapter on whom Red Machine opens with, and John Barnes, arguably Liverpool’s most gifted and, for reasons that go beyond football, iconic player of the decade. Yet as Hughes makes clear in his introduction, the book is not intended as a celebration of the 80s’ most colourful and captivating reds, but instead as a tribute to the variety of players who represented the club during that time and the fact that however great or small their contribution, each arrived at and departed from Anfield with a story to tell. As the author writes: “This book seeks to answer a question frequently posed when supporters gather for a post-match pint: where have all the characters in football – or more precisely from Liverpool – disappeared to?”
Hence we also hear from the likes of Robinson, John Wark, Craig Johnston and Nigel Spackman, all of whom openly accept in ‘Red Machine’ that theirs was not the most significant of Liverpool spells , but each, through their stories, testifying to the consensual view that in the years before Premier League-gloss and Academy-reared superstars engulfed football, there were simply many more interesting blokes around.
Perhaps none more so than Robinson, who arrived at Liverpool as a technically-limited striker with strong left-leaning political views and now resides in Spain as a superstar television pundit who looks upon Gary Lineker as the BBC’s “Julie Andrews”. The man who scored 13 goals in 52 appearances for Liverpool is clearly also a marvellous raconteur, as Hughes discovered when he travelled to Madrid to meet Robinson, who is affectionately known in the Spanish capital as Robin. Describing an afternoon spent drinking fine wine and eating even finer fish with the 55-year-old at La Parra (The Grill) on the outskirts of Madrid, the author lets Robinson’s story spill across the pages with the verve and sense of exuberance it deserves. We hear of the boy raised by the beach in Blackpool who fell in love with Liverpool as a child and via spells at Manchester City (“an absolute fucking nightmare”) and Brighton (“it was my rehabilitation”) finally got to play for the club of his dreams, with a mixed season-and-half spell beginning with Fagan’s wonderfully sardonic instructions.
By Robinson’s own admission, he was not the most gifted of players (Red Machine includes this description of him by a BBC Radio commentator soon after he arrived on Merseyside – “clumsy, awkward, a yard behind the play and a thousand yards from Dalglish’s analytical football”) but, again, that is not the point. Here is a man of substance and character, a generation and light years away from modern day players. Or, at least, the perception given of them by football’s increasing army of “communication” personal and PR specialists.
The same can be said of Johnston, who arrived at Liverpool having honed his skills in a car park while at Middlesbrough and left to care for his seriously ill sister, and Grobbelaar, the one-time Rhodesia bush fighter who broke Steve McMahon’s nose and (another personal favourite) made Roy Evans vomit with a pungent silent fart.
In contrast, the contributions of Spackman, David Hodgson and Steve Staunton lack the jaw-dropping colour of those above but they too add to the sense that the 80s was a decade of rounded The development of mobile casino games is focused on HTML5 casino games that can be played on lots of SmartPhones and offer the user a great audio and visual experience. characters in red shirts, while in the passages belonging to Wark and Kevin Sheedy we get the valuable reminder that for all the on-field success Liverpool enjoyed during that time, mistakes were also made. Sheedy, for instance, went onto become a key part of Howard Kendall’s title-winning Everton team having never been truly valued at Anfield, while in Wark’s contribution we get the remarkable story of how Paul Walsh developed a reputation among Liverpool’s backroom staff of being a crock due to his inability, while injured, to respond to an ultrasound only for it to be discovered that the machine he was being tested on hadn’t been working for months.
Arguably, however, the most interesting chapter in ‘Red Machine’ is the second one, belonging to Howard Gayle. In the introduction to the book, Hughes makes clear that it “isn’t intended to be a comprehensive account of what happened in the decade on or off the pitch at Liverpool” yet, in Gayle’s story, we get a rich sense of how the club and its city looked and felt during this most turbulent of eras. Here was a Scouser born in Toxteth and who grew up in the area in the years leading up to the 1981 riots. A product of its melting pot of culture and dissatisfaction, Gayle became Liverpool’s first black footballer having endured a stint in prison and, having signed for the club, experienced the type of casual racism which now would lead to uproar.
“There would be racist jokes,” Gayle tells Hughes, with the story of Roy Evans calling the former striker a “black bastard” as a means of winding him up during a Central League game at Goodison Park particularly shocking. Gayle, who now runs a social-inclusion project in his home city, goes on to say that he considers Evans a mentor as well as a friend, and in no way a racist, but the revelation nevertheless shines a light on the attitudes and mannerisms of the time.
If Gayle led, Barnes not only followed but stole a march and it was his chapter I was most interested in reading. Sadly I was left a little disappointed given it came across more as a general interview than an insight into the Anfield experiences of one of Liverpool’s most thrilling talents. On reflection, however, it dawned on me that there was probably not much more Hughes could’ve added that has not already been covered in the many tributes and profile pieces done on the former No10, and at least what could be taken from the chapter marked ‘Genius’ was a continuation of the theme which runs right through Red Machine: that the secret of Liverpool’s success during the ‘80s was the lack of any secrets.
As Fagan outlined to Robinson, it was about doing the basic things well and, as he goes onto say on page 106, leaving it to the players “to figure it out for themselves”. In every chapter there is the insistence from those interviewed by Hughes that winning match after match, trophy after trophy, was based on great coaches putting great players together. There were no intricate tactical masterplans or pre-match ‘mind games’, just five-a-sides at Melwood and a culture of treating men like men. Simple but so, so effective.
The right men have to be signed, of course – “They mustn’t like losing”, as Moran outlines in Red Machine’s closing chapter – and Liverpool did that better than any other club during that time. It is no surprise to hear from those interviewed that the likes of Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Steve Nicol were as supreme to play alongside as they were to watch from the Kop, but what does feel new are the countless stories of the warmth they displayed off the pitch (once, of course, the legendary piss-taking had died down).
For example, we hear from Johnston of how Dalglish drove him around Southport so he could look for a house – “he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable” – and from Robinson of how Souness was far from the arrogant, snarling bully portrayed by many of those who encountered him during his years as an all-action midfield general. “He was my best mate – a wonderful man,” says Robinson. “He looked after me when times were hard at Liverpool.”
The revelations, insights and tales simply keep coming in Red Machine, a book of simple approach about simple approaches told with wonderful clarity and compassion. It is a joy to read, a masterpiece in nostalgia, and a must for anyone who wants to remember a time when football, and Liverpool Football Club in particular, was littered with people with a story to tell.
“Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the “80s: The Players” Stories” by Simon Hughes is available now from Amazon and elsewhere.
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