The way Ian St John tells it, if Bill Shankly had received the financial backing he craved prior to somewhat reluctantly accepting the Liverpool manager's job 50 years ago on Tuesday, all the cups, charisma and class he showered on Anfield would have belonged to... Huddersfield Town.
"Shanks wanted to buy me and Ronnie Yeats [from Motherwell and Dundee United respectively] to be part of the Huddersfield team he hoped to build around Denis Law and Ray Wilson," reveals St John. "They never came up with the money but years later he told me, 'If I'd got you two, Huddersfield would've been the Liverpool of today'."
St John and fellow Shankly-era legends Ian Callaghan and Chris Lawler are meeting the media at the Liverpool Empire, where they will soon appear in an anecdote-packed drama-documentary titled The Bill Shankly Story. Spookily, notes the writer and producer, journalist John Keith, the one-off show will be staged half a century to the day since the late, great son of Glenbuck, Ayrshire first took training at his new club.
Yeats, their captain for a decade in which Shankly transformed a tired-looking Second Division outfit into a global phenomenon, could not make the press call. He will be back, however, to complete a Fab Four with a twist on the very stage where The Beatles performed and Merseyside set the Sixties swinging.
The balance of the cast symbolises Shankly's team-building blueprint; "Scousers and Jocks" is the gospel according to St John. Callaghan and Lawler are Liverpudlians, born, bred and buttered, and witnessed the before-and-after effect of Shankly's methods.
Callaghan would become the only member of Liverpool's Second Division title-winning class of '62 to gain a European Cup-winner's medal 15 years later. Yet when Shankly arrived he was an amateur, "jumping the bus" from Toxteth to Anfield two nights a week for training. "He saw me play," the 67-year-old recalls, "and after four reserve games he put me in the first team."
His elevation to the full-time ranks gave Callaghan an early insight into Shankly's powers of persuasion. "I was training as a central-heating engineer and my parents were adamant that I stuck to that. It was a job for life, unlike football. Shanks came round to the house and told my parents he'd look after me, which he did. Suddenly they're telling me, 'You have to sign'!"
Lawler, 66, like Callaghan a former England player, joined the groundstaff the summer before Shankly took over. "What we did was like slave labour, working on the pitch or terraces from 8.30am to 5pm. In his first week he stopped me in the corridor and knew who I was. He said he'd speak to the groundsman and I'd train with the pros from then on."
It was not all plain sailing for the teenaged centre-half from a family of 11 boys and four girls. "Ronnie [Yeats] played in my position and I only made the first team when he was out. The papers reckoned Matt Busby wanted to take me and Tommy Smith to Manchester United. So I told the boss I wanted a transfer. He was effing and blinding but a couple of weeks later he put me in at right-back and moved Gerry Byrne to the left."
For a total of £67,500 – eat your hearts out, Huddersfield – St John and Yeats formed the spine of the side that turned Liverpool into a superpower. "The Saint", 71, stresses there was more to Shankly than a penchant for a quote, notably his eye for a player, his grasp of psychology and the values, rooted in a socialist ethos, that he absorbed as a boy growing up in a large mining family and instilled in all around him.
"That's how the Boot Room came about and gave Liverpool continuity," St John asserts. "He could have brought in his own men instead of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, who were on the backroom staff. But he kept them on and they became the managers who conquered Europe. They were great men but they would've gone off to Rochdale or Barnsley but for Shanks."
Talk of the European Cup prompts a note of regret from Callaghan. "I feel sorry he never won it. It's the one thing missing from his record. We had a real chance in '65, two years ahead of Celtic, but were cheated out of a final place in the semi-final at Inter Milan."
But the laughter overrides any sadness. Lawler, who scored 61 goals for Liverpool, remembers Shankly collaring him after a 5-0 win over Newcastle. "He asked me, 'Have you got eyes in the back of your head?'. I said no. He said, 'Well you just tried to back-heel the ball into their goal. I don't want fancy-dan stuff at this club'."
If his fabled philosophy stemmed from his humble background, so did his rapport with the Kop. "When we came home with the FA Cup in '74 Shanks made a speech to 100,000 people outside St George's Hall," says Callaghan. "He was going on about Chairman Mao. It sounds weird but people hung on his every word."
Shankly then retired, leaving Lawler baffled. "He'd rebuilt another team, with Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence and so on. He was just tired. Later, he regretted it bitterly." What would he make of Liverpool today? "He'd be disappointed with what's happening."
Keith, who knew Shankly as a reporter, believes his leaving Liverpool contributed to his fatal heart attack, aged 68, in 1981. "Shanks famously said 'football's not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that', though it was said with a smile on a TV chat show. He knew there was more to life than football. At the same time, it dominated his life."
As he prepares to tread the boards, Callaghan reflects on the "unique character" who changed the culture of a club that started December 1959 below Huddersfield. "I go to most home games," he says, "and as I walk through the Shankly Gates and see the crowds, I think, 'He started all this'."
'The Bill Shankly Story' is at the Liverpool Empire (0844 8472525) on 14 December
Messiah's memorable quotes
* I want to build a team that's invincible so they'll have to send a team from bloody Mars to beat us.
* They say we're predictable. Well, Joe Louis was predictable. He'd knock his man down to the floor. Goodbye!
* Of course I didn't take Ness to watch Tranmere as a present for our wedding anniversary. It was her birthday. Would I have got married during the football season? And anyway it wasn't Tranmere, it was Tranmere reserves.
* There are two great teams on Merseyside. Liverpool and Liverpool reserves.
* If you've got three Scots in your team, you've got a chance of winning something. Any more and you've got trouble.
* Tommy Smith wasn't born. He was quarried.
* My scout told me the (trialist) had football in his blood. I said aye, but it hasn't reached his legs yet.
* Forget the Beatles and the other groups. The Kop is the real Liverpool sound. That's real singing.
* Brian Clough is worse than rain in Manchester. At least God stops that occasionally.
* I was the best manager in the game and should've won more. I didn't do anything devious. I'd fight you, and break my wife's leg if I played against her, but I wouldn't cheat her.
* Retirement is like having a coat in a wardrobe for years, which you decide you don't want and give to a friend. When he's worn it for a week you want it back.Reuse content