Is this the real Bill Shankly?

Bill Shankly-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Bill Shankly took Liverpool over in 1959 when they were mired in the second division, brought them up to the first and, in his 15 distinguished years at Anfield, won a profusion of Championships and FA Cups but never the European Cup. By Brian Glanville.

David Peace is one of the most praised and versatile of current English novelists with an extraordinarily wide range. He has written about crime in his native Yorkshire and life in Tokyo where he now lives. Also a book The Damned United, about Brian Clough’s traumatising 44 days in charge of Leeds United, in which, somewhat to my surprise, he purloined an encore which was wholly my own and distorted it; unattributed.

It was in Turin in 1974 that Juventus, in the European Cup, beat a Derby County side managed by the volatile and unpredictable Clough, who would later win that tournament twice in succession with Derby’s nearby rivals Nottingham Forest. As the Italian reporters gathered outside the door of Derby’s dressing room, an irate Clough emerged to say, “No cheating bastards will I talk to,” then slammed the door. “Cos’ha detto, Glanville?” what did he say? The journalists cried. I feigned ignorance. Whereupon Clough re-emerged demanding, “Tell them what I said, Brian.” I did with spectacular consequences. Peace repeats “Cos’ha detto” accurately enough, though without putting it in context; then puts into Clough’s mouth an expletive which he never used. Just, you might say, as he has Clough smoking in his book, though Clough never smoked.

Shankly gets a very different, even reverential, treatment in a maddeningly stylised, repetitive book which goes on and on for 715 pages, when it might usefully be at least cut in half. I knew and liked Bill Shankly over a good many years. He took Liverpool over in 1959 when they were mired in the second division, brought them up to the first and, in his 15 distinguished years at Anfield, won a profusion of Championships and FA Cups. But never the European Cup which his quiet and self-effacing successor, Bob Paisley (“Am I jealous? I’m damned jealous!”, said Bill) proceeded to win several times.

Arguably, Shankly could well have won it were Liverpool not shamefully cheated out of the European Cup semifinals in 1964, at a time when Internazionale of Milan were notoriously buying referees of European games; especially semifinals. Liverpool had beaten Inter impressively in the first leg at Anfield, after which a big Italian journalist (not mentioned here) told Bill sadly that he would have no chance at San Siro. Nor did he. Shocking decisions by the Spanish referee Ortiz de Mendibil gave Inter two ludicrous goals and Liverpool were out. Astonishingly, Peace doesn’t even mention the match, save for the result. At the end De Mendibil was literally kicked all the way back to the dressing room by Tommy Smith, the hard man of the Liverpool side.

That Shankly was a great “character”, supremely idiosyncratic, is beyond doubt, but Peace fails to mention some of his most indicative utterances. Though his famous remark, “Some people think football’s a matter of life and death but it’s more important than that,” is, perhaps deliberately, omitted as too familiar. Shankly, in fact, was curiously cut off at times. When Liverpool had been thrashed 5-1 in Amsterdam by Ajax in a European game, his response was, “It’s terrible, a team playing at home, and it plays defensive!”

After Liverpool had lost in extra-time to Arsenal in the Cup final of 1971 to a goal by Charlie George, Emlyn Hughes, the Liverpool captain, approached Bill in the dressing room to say, “I’m very, very sorry, Boss. That last goal was down to me, I was knackered!” To which Shankly responded, “That’s all right, Emlyn! Everybody makes mistakes!” Then, as a relieved Hughes walked away across the room, Shankly declared, “And that’s the -------- who lost us the Cup final!”

“He can treat you like dirt,” said the Liverpool and England left back Alec Lindsay to me once, during an England Continental tour. And Shankly was famous or infamous for refusing to talk to any player who was injured.

Surprisingly Peace makes no mention at all of Shankly’s impressive playing career. He was playing right-half for Scotland at Wembley against England in January 1942 in the first professional match I ever saw, as a small schoolboy. The other wing-half was to become an equally distinguished manager; Matt Busby who inspired Manchester United.

Shankly enjoyed his years in the second division at Huddersfield Town before Anfield beckoned, and another anecdote comes to mind. It was told that after a training session, in which Shankly himself was given to take part, he told a number of players to stay on the field. “You five, white shirts, you’re England,” he announced, handing out the jerseys. And, distributing blue shirts, he said, “You four and me, we’ll be Scotland.” So with improvised goals, a contest began. Mike O’Grady, then a very young left-winger who would later play for England, easily swerved past Shankly and went on to score. He did it again. But when he was about to pass Shankly a third time, his manager snarled, “Do that again, and I’ll break your blanking leg!”

He did have a very convivial endearing side. I remember coming into the huge dining room with windows on the Danube when Liverpool were due to play Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup. Shankly sat at the top of a long table with a number of journalists. “Sit down, Brian, have a cup of tea!” Then he told us of being on Preston’s trip to France shortly before World War II. Of risque experiences in somewhat dubious places which must have been eye openers to a naive young Scot.

That evening in Belgrade, Liverpool were well beaten by a far superior Red Star team. When they lost the second leg in Liverpool it was quite clear something had to be done and it was, though Peace doesn’t tell us about it, quite famously in the celebrated Boot Room where Shankly would convene with Paisley and his other lieutenants. The year was 1973 and Shankly had anyone even at Anfield known it would be gone in a matter of months. Meanwhile he and the Boot Room decided that their long ball tactics had become outmoded and self-defeating. The build up had to be more patient and more subtle. So it became a new, more modern, Liverpool. At least Peace describes both those games but he doesn’t say anything about their tactical sequel.

Don’t blame him, though, for being unable to tell us why Shankly should so prematurely retired. He has Shankly talking to Nessi, his wife, about how tired he is but other speculative reasons have been given, among them unjustified worries about his financial situation. He would, in his last years, cut a lonely figure, as Liverpool under Paisley now won at last those European titles. But Shankly had laid the solid basis.