It goes without saying that Bob Paisley would not have settled too well into the Harvard Business School role which Sir Alex Ferguson began enjoying in the months before retiring to such a fanfare.
Paisley managed Liverpool to 19 trophies in nine years – a ratio of 2.1 per year, against Ferguson’s 1.3 in four times that period – but he also found communication with the world outside Anfield difficult. So excruciatingly difficult, in fact, that when he was finally persuaded – against his will – to take the job Bill Shankly vacated, he gathered together the four or five newspaper journalists he trusted and told them: “I’m not good at this. I can’t finish my sentences. You’ll have to finish them for me…” So, in a compact which provides a beautiful twist on the way Ferguson used the press, they did just that – agreeing between themselves on what Paisley meant when he spoke in that high-strained dialect of Hetton-le-Hole, Co Durham, which those who knew him still spontaneously break into when they remember him.
There were no authorised autobiographies for Paisley, either. It was a full 16 years after his departure from the Anfield dugout before the definitive biography Bob Paisley: Manager of the Millennium was written by John Keith, one of that group of journalists who interpreted his utterances. You won’t find the book propelling Paisley into a posthumous Christmas ratings battle with Ferguson because it is out of print.
And that is why, at the end of a year in which we have celebrated Ferguson and Shankly so richly, the telling insights into Paisley’s qualities and methods provided by two new books on Liverpool are so welcome. His abilities are delivered with excellent understatement in Simon Hughes’ Red Machine (Mainstream, £15.99). Paisley’s capacity, for example, to intuit which players were susceptible to injury while watching a match is related to Hughes by Bruce Grobbelaar, one of 10 players from that era whose stories the book tells. “It meant that during games he’d tell our wingers to take on their marker in a certain way. ‘The right back has a sore left leg. Take him on the outside and come in on the inside – you’ll kill him,’” Grobbelaar relates. “Nine times out of 10 he was right. He was a genius. I loved the man so much.”
The eccentricities and sheer incomprehensibility of the man – Craig Johnston remembers Paisley calling him to say, “Eeer. eerp, it’s Bob Paisley, ere like y’naw… We’d like to sign ye, like” – have contributed to history’s characterisation of him as merely fortunate enough to reap what Shankly sowed. But that myth does Paisley a great disservice. Shankly’s capacity to claim silverware for Liverpool dried up entirely between 1966 and 1973 and Paisley’s promotion in 1974 brought something different, to have the trophy cabinet overflowing again. That extraordinary ratio of over two trophies a season is his alone.
Keith tells me the 1970 FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Second Division Watford helped shape Paisley’s conviction that Shankly, who never fined a player, was too loyal at times. Graeme Souness tells Jonathan Wilson in the journalist’s own new book The Anatomy of Liverpool (Orion, £18.99) that Paisley’s avuncular image obscured an individual “who ruled Anfield with a rod of iron. He was a commanding man and few dared mess with him”.
Perhaps that was shaped by his wartime experience which, compared with Ferguson’s Govan legend, remains virtually unknown. Yesterday was as good a time as any to pause for thought at Paisley’s four war years overseas, including service with the Eighth Army at El Alamein, taking cover on the day a plane sprayed bullets over his hideout. “When the plane had gone, Bob had his hands over his eyes saying, ‘I can’t see. I’m blind,” a comrade-in-arms related. He soon brushed off the terror of his temporary affliction when he made it home. Wilson observes that, as Shankly’s assistant, Paisley played a key part in determining Liverpool’s style. His eye for a player was also manifest in signings like Alan Hansen, Phil Neal, Kenny Dalglish and Souness.
In these post-Ferguson days, when every football conversation turns to the enormity of David Moyes’ inheritance, it is worth pausing to consider what Paisley faced, early in the 1974-75 season, with Kevin Keegan suspended for two months and Neal and Terry McDermott acclimatising. Many clubs have suffered after successions like that: Leeds after Revie, Nottingham Forest after Clough, Manchester United after Busby. Paisley didn’t flinch.
Though it is hard to argue against Brian Clough as the foremost club manager of all time, turning water into wine not once but twice, at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, Paisley stands right behind him on the grounds of trophies delivered with a team of his own creation. And though it has no relevance to the question of relative greatness, he did it without unpleasantness, too. “He had a smile as wide as Stockton High Street,” said Clough, alluding upon Paisley’s death in 1996 to the Teesside town they both knew well. “He has exorcised the silly myth that nice guys don’t win anything.” How shrewd was that judgement. Paisley said in 1982: “Ranting and raving gets you nowhere in football. If you want to be heard, speak quietly”. A message for these frenetic times.
Cork keeps it compelling when the action stops
The biggest test comes on a slow news day in this media business, so hopefully Sky Sports’ MD Barney Francis observed the efforts last week of Dominic Cork. The former all-rounder was asked to deliver his opinions through not one, or two, but three midnight rain delays as England’s Ashes warm-up game in Hobart delivered no action for fully two and a half days.
Cork still looks like a man who could cause a row in an empty room – always did – but the talk that swept from topics as diverse as fast bowlers’ wrist positions to Chris Tremlett’s likely inclusion for Perth was almost as compelling as the mystery of what Cork’s problem with studio host Charles Colville actually is. He doesn’t seem to like him.
“They’ll be greased up and shirtless by 2am at this rate,” someone observed on Twitter. We won’t be saying that about Botham and Gower when the cavalry arrives.
Frost: That was the career that wasn’t...
Football’s maximum wage had a lot to answer for but we can give thanks to it, at least, for the road not taken by David Frost. It was in his last broadcast, for the BBC Radio 4 Museum of Curiosities episode repeated on Sunday morning, that Frost discussed how the cap on spending dissuaded him from accepting Nottingham Forest’s offer of a playing contract in the late 1950s.
The alternative pathway took him to Cambridge, the Footlights, Varsity, Granta, Anglia Television, That was the Week that Was… and the rest is incredibly fine history. Frost was four years younger than Brian Clough and the prospect of those two crossing managerial swords in the East Midlands would have been something, though. Mind games, they’d probably call it today.
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