Common touch of an uncommon football man

Stan Hey pays homage to the genius of Bob Paisley who died last week
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The Independent Online
WHEN they lay the former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley to rest this week, after a remarkable life, it is tempting to think that a last link with the old order of football will go with him. Certainly, his 44 years of active service - more if you include his directorship and his advisory role to Kenny Dalglish - to a single club is unlikely to be surpassed in these days when a contract between a manager and his employer is mutually regarded as a disposable item.

Then there is the question of Paisley's lineage. Like the other great managers with whom he can be confidently numbered - Jock Stein, Matt Busby and his celebrated predecessor at Liverpool, Bill Shankly - Paisley had the sort of background where football offered an almost magical release from the industrial drudgery of the coal pit, the factory or, in his case, as an apprentice bricklayer in Durham. None of these great men, and the adjective is meant to embrace qualities beyond their football achievements, ever forgot the apparent blessing bestowed upon them whereby they were paid for doing something they loved.

Today the modern player arrives in the game knowing the infinite horizons ahead of him - where the opportunities lie for getting rich, tooled up with agents, accountants, and contracts with fashion houses - and is mostly convinced that everything he gets out of the game he will deserve, irrespective of what he achieves on the pitch.

For men like Paisley, however, the involvement with football itself was a precious gift not to be squandered. This attitude, translated into management, helped produce the astonishing run of success - 13 major trophies in the nine seasons in which he was in charge of Liverpool. Yet it would do Paisley a disservice solely to define him as the last true football man, with its connotations of centre- parting, boot-room camaraderie and homely values. For though he embraced all of these, he was also one of the great modernisers of the English game.

This paradox was enshrined by his appearance and demeanour. When, as a fledgling feature writer with Time Out, in London, I first proposed an interview with him early in 1977, I found Paisley's understandably cautious view of the media after the wild, epigrammatic days of Shankly, was only laid aside because my dad happened to be a Saturday settler in Sid Turner's betting shop, where Paisley often adjourned to relax.

So when I finally met him, in the players' lounge at Anfield, I assumed that his appearance - brown zip-up cardigan with leather patch-pockets, and carpet slippers - was a gesture to the informal connection, until the same wardrobe appeared again for an interview the following year, and also in several television features.

The quiet, chuckling Geordie voice which completed the package might have suggested a favourite uncle marking your racing page with tips from a stable lad, but it was the clinical authority of Paisley's words which confirmed that here was a man who knew much more about football than his natural modesty would allow him to admit.

His low-key acceptance of Shankly's legacy was still there: "I asked the players about it and they were for me having a go, and I thought, well a new man wouldn't know our routines, and that was that . . ."

But the confidence brought by a first championship and a Uefa Cup in 1976 had allowed Paisley to formalise his philosophy. "Our game is based on simple things. It's all about control and movement performed at pace, and about each player knowing his strengths and those of his team-mates. People think Liverpool are an over-coached side, but we are the least coached, least complicated side in the country. It's all about control of the ball - without that, you have no foundation for anything else."

Paisley refined this apparently simple vision which he freely acknowledged had Europe as its source ("We don't go around with our eyes shut," he told me) with an acute ability to find players able to slot into the system immediately - Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Terry McDermott - or to assist those with difficulties: Ray Kennedy's conversion from a powerful forward to a shrewd midfielder was probably Paisley's master-stroke. And he loved bright footballers - "The first five yards is all in the head," he outlined as being the difference between those who had the gift and those who did not.

Three years ago, I wrote to him hoping for contributions to an article I was writing on the last days of Anfield's Kop. His wife Jessie sent me a note, confirming the news that Alzheimer's had cruelly wiped away all memory of his great achievements.

But Bob Paisley lives on, beyond the one minute's silence with which this weekend's football matches from Huddersfield to Shrewsbury pay tribute. Not only in the minds of those who joined him and the great journeys to Rome, Wembley and Paris, but also in the work of his disciples who still espouse the virtues of dedication, integrity and simplicity that mark the people's game at its best.