Shanks for the memories

I have recently read David Peace’s Red or Dead, a 700-page novel about the legendary football manager Bill Shankly. The story goes from Shankly’s first week with Liverpool in 1959 to his premature death 22 years later. Peace became a successful writer while working as an English teacher in Tokyo. His previous works include the Red Riding Quartet, GB84 and The Damned Utd. The latter, his most successful novel to date, dealt with Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44-day reign at Leeds United.

Red or Dead’s first three words are “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” And we certainly get it in spades. This book is a symphony of daily life. Not only do we hear all about the training sessions and the matches, we also get repeated descriptions of Shankly laying the breakfast table, washing the dishes or cleaning the oven. On one page Bill is used 84 times and he takes eight pages to describe Shankly washing his car. Peace is trying to capture the methodical nature of the great Scottish manager. Here is a piece which captures the style of the book:

In the house, in their bed. Bill opened his eyes. Bill closed his eyes. And then Bill opened his eyes again. In the dark and in the silence. Bill stared up at the ceiling. The bedroom ceiling. And Bill breathed out. Bill had been dreaming. Only dreaming. In the dark and in the silence. Bill turned to look at the clock on the table beside the bed. The alarm clock. Ticking, ticking. In the dark. Bill got out of bed. Bill shaved and Bill washed. Bill put on his shirt. Bill put on his suit. Bill put on his tie. His red tie. His Liverpool Football Club tie. Bill went down the stairs. Bill went into the kitchen. In the light and in the silence. Bill saw the cloth on the table. The cutlery and the crockery. The salt and pepper pots. The jars of honey and marmalade. The butter dish. The two glasses of fresh orange juice. And Bill smiled. In the kitchen, at the table. Bill and Ness ate breakfast. A slice of toast and honey, a glass of orange juice and a cup of tea. And then Bill helped Ness clear away the breakfast things. Bill dried up the breakfast things. Bill helped Ness put away the breakfast things. And then Bill kissed Ness on her cheek. Bill went into the hall. Bill put on his hat. Bill went out of the front door. Bill went down the drive. Bill got into the car –

And Bill went off to work.

I found it compelling, but I can imagine it is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, this is not going to be review of the book. Instead I am going to look back at the 22 years covered by the author.

When Shankly took charge of Liverpool, they were in the Second Division. They had seen better days. Since their foundation in 1892, the club had already claimed four league titles, their first coming in 1901. However, after 50 years in the top flight, they had been relegated in the 1953-54 season.

Shankly wanted to bring the greatness back to Liverpool. He soon created one of the symbols of “the Liverpool Way,” the famous boot room. This small room, where the squad’s football boots were kept, became an informal coaches’ meeting room. It was here where Shankly and his assistants, Bob Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders and Joe Fagan would, with the help of whisky, discuss team selection, go over tactics and plot how to beat their next opponents. Shankly’s football philosophy was deceptively simple: “pass and move”, a style that became synonymous with the golden age of Liverpool. One particular training routine involved something called the “Sweat Box,” which was used to improve players’ short passing and touch.

The other aspect which marked Shankly’s reign was his relationship with the fans. He wanted to show the supporters they were the ones who mattered. The two were made for each other. His devotion to the fans really does come across in the book. In return, the manager and the team received the fervent support of the Liverpool fans. Shankly was and remains an idol on Merseyside.

Football really was very different in this time. European ties which ended in a draw were decided by replays. There was no away goals rule. And there were no penalty shootouts either. If the replay failed to provide a solution, then the result would be decided with a coin toss. Shankly himself is a rich source of anecdotes. My favourite has to be the 1964 club tour of the USA, when he bizarrely insisted on keeping English time. No American was going to tell him what time it was.

The first half concludes with his shock retirement on July 12, 1974. It was a decision he would soon come to regret. Many players and managers end up as alcoholics, drug addicts or living on the breadline. That was not what afflicted Shankly. He was a man without a hinterland, for whom football was the be-all and end-all. He just couldn’t cope without his daily fix. Now every day was like Sunday.

He tried to maintain his ties with the club of his life by turning up for team training at Melwood, but he cut a forlorn figure. Feeling unwanted, Shankly became embittered about the club. It was not the way this relationship should have ended. Kevin Keegan summed it up:

It was the saddest, saddest thing that ever happened at Liverpool.”

But I can also understand it from Liverpool’s point of view. Shankly had resigned, even though he had been begged him to stay on. It is also true that there had been an antagonistic relationship between Shankly and the directors. The board were also well aware what had happened when Matt Busby had retired at Manchester United. His long shadow undermined the successors; a club that had been champions of Europe in 1968 was relegated to the second division in 1974. Liverpool did not want to undermine Bob Paisley’s position. Their treatment of Shankly may seem disrespectful, and they probably should have found a way to keep him involved, but they wanted to look to the future. In part he was a victim of the ruthless single-mindedness that he himself had brought to the club. They would go to win four European Cups and ten league titles in the fifteen years after Shankly’s resignation. In this sense the board were vindicated. Would Liverpool have enjoyed the same success had Shankly continued? We will never know the answer to that counterfactual. He did a brilliant job in reviving a team that had been languishing in the second division. He was the architect of their success. However, maybe Bob Paisley, who is said to have been the one with the tactical nous, was the man to take them to the next level.

Bill Shankly’s retirement would be short-lived. Following a heart attack, on the morning of Saturday 26th September 1981, he was taken to Broadgreen Hospital, an NHS facility situated on the outskirts of Liverpool. He seemed to have stabilised and he did not appear to be in danger. However, after his condition suddenly deteriorated, he was transferred into intensive care. At 00:30 on the following day, he suffered a second heart attack and was certified dead less than an hour later. He was 68 years old. His wife Nessie was by his side.  At his funeral Canon Arnold Myers summed up the city’s mood: “Bill Shankly did not live for himself but for a team, a vast family, for a city, for an ideal.” After being cremated at the Anfield Crematorium on 2 October, his ashes were scattered on the Anfield pitch at the Kop end.

I wouldn’t go as far as David Peace, who describes Shankly as “a saint, one of the greatest men who ever lived”. But he was a great man and it is sad to contemplate the years after he retired. At least he was not around to see the decline of his beloved Liverpool. The team has never won the Premier League; their last league title was in 1990. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister! He was also spared the two events that marked the club in the 1980s Heysel and Hillsborough. What would he make of the multi-billion pound global franchise that the Premier League is today? I think Shankly, a lifelong socialist, would be horrified by players’ salaries, ticket prices and some of the modern breed of owners.  Liverpool has not been immune to these trends. Five years ago, when Liverpool was owned by two American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a banner appeared on the Kop with an SOS to Dubai International Capital, pleading with them to buy out Liverpool. Indeed, the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ group were in talks with the private equity arm of the Dubai government. Such is the fans’ desperation for trophies today. I am convinced that if Al Capone were alive today, he would be welcomed at more than one club.

I don’t think we should overdo the nostalgia for the football of yesteryear. I support some of the changes. In 2008 the Premier proposed holding league matches in Asia, Africa, Australia or America. Bill Shankly would not have approved and had he been involved, he most certainly would have stuck to English time.


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