Bill Shankly

Bill Shankly was born in Glenbuck Ayrshire in 1913. It was a small mining town, his father was a tailor and his mother had ten children. Her family were football daft and all her sons went on to be footballers. Bill worked at the pit, on the surface and pushing wagons underground. Here he became fit and tough, learnt the value and principles of good honest work, loyalty to the working man and socialism. The local football team was the Cherrypickers and for such a small place it was remarkable that 50 of their players went on to be professionals.

Bill was an uncompromising half back and went on to play, briefly for Carlisle. But in 1933 he went on to play for Preston North End. He earnt a reputation for being able to break your legs, but he would never cheat you. It was a man’s game then. Preston developed a good team by the end of the decade. They had a good few Scot’s and the remarkable Tom Finney a small but skilful player. Bill’s job was to guard him. He also talked to him about football a lot. Even then in that great team Bill would entertain and amuse the players and his infectious enthusiasm improved morale.

Preston won the FA cup in 1938 against Huddersfield after extra time. But the war years were to take the best football years away from Bill. He was 26 at the beginning and 32 at the end. He had a handful of caps for England and played a few war matches as well. He carried on after the war and retired in 1949. He went straight into management starting at Carlisle for two years, then Grimsby for three and Workington for two.

He was adept at making improvements to lower division clubs, which were in towns not known for their great footballing interest. His main goal was to encourage the players. The facilities could be rubbish and he insisted on improving them. He wanted triers and people who would work hard for him. He managed to buy some players to improve things with the little cash available. Sometimes it worked sometimes it did not.

By 1955 he had been appointed manager of Huddersfield Town. A bigger club under achieving in the second division. He was able to recognise some talent, even securing the 16 year old Denis Law who was eventually become a legend for Man Utd and Scotland. There were a few other decent players but he could never put a team together good enough to reach the first division. Then out of the blue in 1959 Liverpool offered him a job.

They were a large club who were in the second division. When he joined, he discovered that there were a nucleus of staff who were committed to the club. The likes of Paisley, Moran, Fagin and Bennett. He liked what he saw and instead of bringing in his own staff he stuck with them. He said he wanted hard work and loyalty. He established the boot-room where they would sit and discuss the team and the opposition together and work out their plans.

Bill fell for the city, it was similar to Glasgow, being a big port. It had the rivalries of the two big teams. It was passionate and football daft. It was socialist and it was about to explode onto the world map.

Many of the players he inherited were not up to standard. There was a large playing staff and it needed to be reduced. He was able to let some go and sell some and he set about the task of buying the players he needed. He was able to get some Scottish plays like the giant Ron Yeats and the goal-scoring Ian St John. A player here and there from the lower divisions sometimes paid off and sometimes not. But by 1962 they had won the Second Division and the love affair with Liverpool was in full swing. The Kop was a massive stand that could hold 25,000 supporters all standing, the atmosphere could be electric. They started a new trend of singing and chanting. Whether it was a Beatles song, a chant of their own or their own “You’ll never walk alone”, they were a mouthpiece for the city and others had to follow. The Beatles had their first single in 1962. There were other Mersey-beat groups. Inspired by the crew of the ocean liners who would bring back rare R&B records from their trips across the Atlantic. Liverpool was buzzing and Bill was in the centre, representing a new force in football.

His methods were all about inspiring the players. He would make them feel ten feet tall. He would rubbish the opposition and undermine them with mind-games. He always had time for the press and had a one-line quote for them. His door was always open and although he had a snappy dressing, hard gangster image, he had a heart of gold. He would repeatedly tell the players, it’s about the fans, you win for the fans. There was nothing else but winning.

He spent all his time in football. He would go and have kick about in the park with the kids. His training was about playing five a side, practicing close control and short accurate passing. He would make sure the players would warm down afterwards to avoid injury. In fact an injured player was ignored by him as he thought it unnecessary. He was not interested in the office work and was not particularly educated. But he knew people and how to encourage them and get them motivated.

Now in the first division, he was targeting Everton with some success. Eighth in 1963, they would go on to win the league in 1964. With success came greater revenue and that would lead to more money for players. He was able to go out and buy almost anybody he wanted now. Europe was his next goal and he was successful in 1965 getting to the semi-final. Liverpool had won the FA cup and were playing Inter Milan at Anfield. The FA Cup was brought out to rapturous applause that was a prelude to an electric night of European football, not to be the last. The all-conquering Italians had been overawed and lost 3-1, but in the return two disputed goals meant Liverpool were out.

They reached a European Cup Winners Cup final, but were beaten by an excellent Borussia Dortmund side. The team carried on finishing in the top five for the rest of the decade but failed to win anything. The team Shankly built was getting old and some of his new players were not making the grade. But he had instituted a good scouting system and he was getting tabs on new players all the time. He rebuilt with the likes of Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes in defence. Kevin Keegan up front and Steve Heighway on the wing. There was now a new team, they were the red machine. Passing and movement, a simple style with commitment and a team ethic. There were no prima-donnas in this team, Bill would never allow it. If he watched a player and he started rolling around with a fake injury, he immediately lost interest.

They lost the 71 Cup final, but went on to win the 73 League and finally victory in Europe. The UEFA cup final was a two leg affair with Borussia Monchengladbach. The first leg at Anfield was dominated by big John Toshack. A welsh striker who did not succeed for Bill as he would later. He dominated the Germans and they won 3-0. In Germany it was harder and they had to hang on with the Germans coming back to 2-0. But Liverpool were old hands at Europe now and they understood the preparation, the need for secluded hotels and proper travel arrangements. But most of all they knew what it took to win, mainly by defending abroad.

The next year there was less league and European success, but a cup run led them to Wembley and a tie with Newcastle United. It was virtually an exhibition match as the red machine put on a show and won three nil. A simple passing move went through most of the team ending up with Keegan burying it in the net. It summed up the team and the ethos. He had won everything, but the European Cup. His friend Jock Stein did in 1967 for Celtic when he felt he had a chance, but the method and the framework had been prepared by him for future success.

He went out and took the acclaim of his adoring followers at Wembley, punching the air as he did after every victory in front of his beloved Kop. They were his people, they were the ones he was playing for and they were the ones who represented the 12th man of Liverpool.

But the man whose life was football, was getting tired as was his family. He could not go into o Liverpool without getting mobbed and would always have time for the fans, getting them tickets if they were real fans that needed them. In the summer of 1974 he decided to retire and spend more time with his wife Nessie. The news shocked Liverpool and the board thought that they could talk him out of it, but they couldn’t. But football was his life and he realised that there was nothing else. He could not come back and eventually had to be told by the new manager Bob Paisley that he could not come to training with the lads.

There was sadness for Bill as the team would go on to greater heights as they were to win the European Cup he coveted three times over the next seven years. But he had made the club, the system and the structure. It was his club, but the continued success emphasised the fact it was a team from bottom to top. Not a place for prima-donnas, but there were superstars that joined. Dalglish and Souness the Scottish greats, also countryman Hansen developed into one of the best. Phil Neal from Northampton and McDermott and Kennedy from Newcastle. The Red Machine carried on, but Bill helped others like Everton, Tranmere and Wrexham, but he appeared heart broken and died at 68 too early.

The City and the world mourned a great manager and folk hero. Not only was he a success he did it as one the fans. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, cos you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.”

Laird (2017)      

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