Soccer - Bill Shankly In His Office

SO, Liverpool and Newcastle this weekend.

Without question, the starkest, most aesthetically-pleasing collision of football colours. The statement flamboyance of all red against the sterner but similarly striking black and white stripes. A dream for the fantasist and ornithologist alike; the majestic, mythical Liver Bird versus the harsh, thieving reality of the equally-threatening Magpie.

It takes me back; the fixture always the ultimate sense of renewal for this Liverpudlian. I’m always returned to Wembley in May 1974. I’m reminded of the red paper streamers adorning my dad’s car, all but robbed of their cherry ink by incessant rain; of North London’s Esso Hotel and the unforced camaraderie of Scousers and Geordies marking their big weekend away with 25 pints on a Saturday night and 10 for Sunday dinner. I picture the simple green magnificence of the match programme, a beacon for an era when the FA Cup final ruled the football world.

Beneath the Twin Towers, fading memories of a child’s view from Wembley’s North Stand, of a pre-match race featuring the darling of the North East, Brendan Foster and then a Red exhibition as Newcastle were undressed. Kevin Keegan two, Steve Heighway one, Liverpool three, Newcastle none. I still chuckle at how the gentleman in front of me, his bladder no doubt bursting with lashings of Double Diamond ale, contrived to miss all three of The Reds’ glorious goals.

At the end, a triumphant Bill Shankly marched like a God towards the massed ranks of the Liverpool supporters swirling a crimson flag above his head. The decibel levels of an already thunderous afternoon reached new heights as “Shanks” disappeared down the tunnel into the bowels of Wembley and the sanctuary of the dressing room. Little did we know at the time he was disappearing from us forever, his final exultant act defining the whole notion of the end of an era.

Later that summer Shankly, almost inexplicably, took leave of his life’s work as Liverpool’s totem. As one urchin, interviewed on the streets of Liverpool during the morning of his sudden retirement and asked what Shankly meant to him, said “Everything.”

The mourning at his passing as Liverpool manager was only matched when he died unexpectedly seven years later, 36 years ago today. John Lennon was killed in New York City 10 months earlier and now Shankly was dead.

Just as when Lennon was shot, it was such a shock. He was only 68. Writing this, my heart still shudders at the memory.

Aged six, at the aforementioned FA Cup Final, I knew all about Shankly. Growing up in his Anfield wake you grew to love him more. Though I never got closer to him than at Wembley, I just sort of knew him – we all did – another kindly uncle with the short back and sides and receding hairline common with a generation of men who fought wars and, though they lived, seldom told the tale. Shankly saved his tall stories for football and The Kop and we’ve been dining out on them ever since.

The quotes are legendary and far too numerous to mention in full here. But, those bastions of invincibility, teams from Mars, ashes and shrines, matters of life and death all still resonate. Shankly’s lines were massive and just like Ron Yeats in the original all red kit, we should walk round them. Even to this day, we walk round with them, just as he would have wanted. They were said for purpose and meant for all of us.

Shanks was an anarchic wit, a raconteur, a genuine comedian, an eccentric, a socialist, an enthusiast, a fanatic, as loyal as they come but sometimes a heartless bastard. Who else would turn his back and give the silent treatment to injured players, deeming them worthless? Who else would brand some footballers a “menace to society”, saying he wanted to put the faint hearted “in jail”?

I pass the Shankly statue at every home game, and often stand with him 10 yards to my right as we queue for The Kop. I barely give him a second glance. The bronze tribute is a good likeness and he is suitably enormous for a small man who exuded might way beyond his physical stature, but the inscription on the plinth at his feet damns him with the faintest praise. “He made the people happy.”

Yes, he put smiles on Scouse faces, but more, much more than that, he gave us our identity, not just as a football club but as a wild tribe that followed it. Shankly’s attitude fostered fanaticism and we took it to levels that made us into his “professional supporters”.

The uninitiated might ask why he should be revered to this day apart from the obvious; for creating the modern Liverpool.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Bolton Wanderers FC

Shankly recognised key Liverpool character traits and this is why he needs to be as important today as he was back in the 1960s and 1970s. As once-unique cultures evolve and morph into a colourless human mass, we need reminding of what Shankly saw as peculiar in Liverpudlians and the attitude we once took with us all over Britain and Europe.

“They’re arrogant, they’re cocky, and they’re proud. They’re my kind of people.”

Liverpool fans looked distinct from the rest, sounded different and walked with a swagger. We cultivated our mannerisms just as Shankly exhibited his own. In some ways we became parodies of ourselves, just as he did.

Shankly himself was a snappy dresser too. In his early days he wore the sharp look of a 1920s gangster and later his thin dark ties, in tune with the Beatles era, were swapped for the garish ones of the following decade. The colours of the 1970s afforded him the chance to don a red shirt, sometimes of silk; an expression of his flamboyance as much as a nod to the Liverpool strip.

He wore that red shirt in front of The Kop in 1973, acclaiming his third and last league title. The scenes that day were quasi-religious, Shankly with his hands clasped together as though praying, beating oafish policemen for kicking away garlands thrown by supporters. Picking up a scarf from behind the goal and putting it round his neck, he scolded the guilty copper saying, “That’s someone’s life.”

In the words of his favourite hymn, a spiritual Shankly always conducted himself with Amazing Grace.

Shanks was unapologetically vain. He prided himself on appearance and fitness. His bizarre predilection for talking about death when he was “on one” led him to say, “When I go, I’m going to be the fittest man ever to die. I’ll have ‘there lies a fit man on my headstone’.”

When he passed away in 1981 he was almost true to his word.

His death was marked by the first minute’s silence ever at Anfield. A now-abused custom, with which we’ve become all too familiar with over the years, really meant something that night. Against Oulun Palloseura in the European Cup, the ground was eerily half full; a sign of desperate financial times on Merseyside. A crowd of just 20,789 was largely made up of young people in The Kop. The only sound was of boys and girls sobbing uncontrollably. A small banner read, “Shankly Lives Forever.”

At the weekend, a top-of-the-table clash with Swansea brought John Toshack – a Shankly protégée – back to Anfield by coincidence. During a second tribute in three days, the former Reds’ striker peeled off his tracksuit top to reveal a Liverpool shirt underneath. Unforgivably, a section of the Welsh club’s followers broke the silence. The Kop – this time packed to the rafters – went ballistic. “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in” was a popular threat in those days but this time they meant it. Afterwards, violent retribution was sought on Anfield Road and Utting Avenue.

All our yesterdays, maybe, but this man built what we all still worship today.

Time to finish with an anecdote. Once, Shankly called a puny reserve player into his office and demanded that he bulk up, build some muscle. He struck a deal with a local butcher to send the lad steaks to eat night after night. Weeks later the trainee, looking much stronger, visited the manager’s office. Like a proud father Shankly admired the boy’s improved physique before the player announced with trepidation, “Boss, I’ve got my girl pregnant.”

Barely able to contain his glee, Shankly shouted down the corridor for his backroom boys – Paisley, Fagan, Bennett – who were all aware of the steak project, to come at once. The young apprentice stood motionless, quaking in his boots and fearing the worst.

“Bob, Joe, Reuben…” Shankly rasped in that distinctive Ayrshire growl, “We’ve created a monster!”

Shankly had indeed created a monster, but not in the shape of a randy teenager. The monster is still alive and well and up at Newcastle on Sunday, dressed in all red.

Bill Shankly 1913-1981.

On this week’s Wrap Up, Gareth Roberts talks to Dan Austin about the influence of Bill Shankly on the anniversary of the great man’s passing. Take a look at our YouTube channel if you haven’t already. If you like what we do, why not SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player for just a fiver a month? A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…

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