Shankly back on centre stage: Remembering Liverpool's legendary leader

A new play celebrates the great Bill Shankly, 25 years after his death. James Lawton reports
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The Independent Football

It is 25 years since Bill Shankly left for the great border-less pitch in the sky. At least that is how the Registration of Births and Deaths has it. But this Saturday night in Bootle Town Hall - and could there be a more appropriate place than this salty stronghold of Anfield passion? - there will be more evidence that we are discussing a misnomer.

Shanks merely re-located his old bones in 1981. His spirit, his sometimes wacky but so often utterly brilliant perception of what football means to so many people, has grown down the years to where he has become a beloved point of reference for anyone seeking to impose a hint of logic and a biting feel for how the game should be played.

He becomes not less but more relevant to the football of today, his dictums shining like ancient wisdom on some of the coaching and tactical fads in which even his otherwise excellent successor Rafa Benitez has been known to get entangled.

One of the fiercest protectors of this vital legacy is veteran Merseyside sportswriter and broadcaster John Keith. Already he has produced a book - The Essential Shankly - and an audio tape recording some of the great character's most colourful outpourings. Now Keith, with the help of actor Kenneth Cope and three of Shankly's most distinguished servants, Ian St John, Ronnie Yeats and Chris Lawler, is bringing Shankly back to life on the boards.

Keith has written the script of The Bill Shankly Story which will be narrated by Cope, who is no stranger to the tribute business, having been flown with the rest of the That was the Week That Was cast to New York to repeat their unforgettable homage to President John F Kennedy. "It was a bit of a disaster really," Cope, an ardent Evertonian, recalls. "They got us to tell jokes before Millicent Martin sang her famous ode to JFK. That was a crappy idea." Keith, who has been working on the tones of Ayrshire before portraying a man he knew well and respected so deeply, is determined that in his show nothing will get in the way of an authentic Shankly.

"Bill has such a special place in the heart of Liverpool and all of football that I wanted to come up with something different," he says. "I'm sure there will be plenty of anniversary pieces and broadcasts, even books, but I thought that we might have a chance of making him live again for a few hours in the place which loved him so much.

"There might be another benefit. St John, Yeats and Lawler have all promised to set the record straight when some of the legend has got away from the real Shanks." This is especially valuable in the case of Lawler, the fine right-back who was so reticent he was known in the dressing room as "the Silent Knight".

Lawler figures in one of the classic Shankly cameos. It happened during a game at the Melwood training field. Shankly picked his team and was busily involved when a goal controversy erupted. The manager loudly claimed that his team had scored but there was much heated dispute. Lawler was standing on the touchline and was appointed arbiter. "Chris," boomed Shankly, " was that a goal?" Lawler shook his head and said: "Sorry boss, it didn't go in." Shankly was horrified. He said: "Jesus Christ, Chris, you haven't uttered a word in five years and when you do you tell a lie." Reports Keith: "Chris says that this account is not quite right but he will give the true story for the first time on the stage."

St John and Yeats will also be most valuable witnesses. After breaking curfew before a game in Dublin, the players flew home to Liverpool under a cloud of dread. Desperately, they concocted a story that they thought might soften, or at least intrigue, the heart of a man whose fascination for cards dated back to the days when he played with the miners in his native Glenbuck. When St John and Yeats reported to Shankly's office, Yeats was called in first. He told the story. The players had been lured into a card game in a bar and had fallen so far behind they had to stay in the game in an effort to get back some of their money. Time had of course flown. Shankly appeared quite sympathetic. He said:, "Well, let that teach you a lesson, big man - never player cards with Irishmen. They're all card sharps."

Yeats was much relieved and when he came to the door he winked at St John. Then Shankly snarled: "I don't want to see you St John - you'll only tell me the same pack of lies."

St John no doubt will feel an old ambivalence when he arrives at Bootle Town Hall. He loved Shankly for so long, admired him and yet was exasperated and angered when the manager dropped him, without warning just before a game at Newcastle - and after a decade of rarely dimmed brilliance.

The player spent much of his recent autobiography discussing the love-hate nature of his deepest relationship in football. He described how it was when, as the young striking star of Motherwell and Scotland, he was swept into Shankly's Liverpool revolution. The Liverpool manager arrived at the ground with the force of a tidal wave, nattily dressed and wearing a bright red tie, recalled St John, and within 24 hours the player and his young wife Betsy were being driven to Liverpool in a Rolls Royce.

Shankly talked incessantly, spinning his dreams throughout the journey.

It was inevitable that St John concluded the story of his life with a poignant reference to the man who had done so much to shape it.

Wrote the Saint: "I celebrate my wife and family and all the good men, in and out of football, who have enhanced my days. Even now, I cannot take my leave without one last image of the man who stood so high among them all. Not long before he died, and long after he had detached himself from his Anfield fortress, he visited my football school when I was taking a session with Ronnie Yeats. We were working on penalty kicks. Shankly loved nothing more than taking a penalty. A nine-year-old was keeping goal. Shankly tore in and blasted home his kick. If the ball had hit the boy on the head it might have decapitated him. Shankly glowed and told the boy, 'Don't worry son, Ray Clemence wouldn't have stopped that.' By then Bill Shankly was an old and rather saddened man but something inside him still blazed. Like Liverpool Football Club, I guess I still feel the benefit."

Given John Keith's track record, we can be sure not much of value will be left unsaid in Bootle Town Hall, but there is no doubt about the scale of the challenge he has accepted.

Bill Shankly's life was a torrent of often eccentric commitment, and no one ever doubted that at its heart was one drive above all others. It was to defend and celebrate the game that had brought so much joy and purpose to his life.

Once, when he was explaining how he was going to re-make Liverpool after the fading of such as St John and Yeats, he clambered on to the desk in his little office beneath the old main stand. He stood on the table, on the balls of his feet, and then made a fist and raised it above his head. He said: '"My new team is going to go off like a great bomb in the sky."

On another occasion he took a reporter into the dressing rooms at Liverpool's new training ground and stopped on his tour to flush a toilet. "Did you time that?" he asked. "You should have done. It's a world record." Bill Shankly never exhausted his supply of superlatives. Or his belief that nothing, not even the most efficiently flushing toilet in the history of the world, was too good for Liverpool Football Club. No doubt on Saturday night it will be as though he had never been away.

Tickets for The Bill Shankly Story are available by contacting: thebillshanklystory@hotmail.com or by phoning 07773 715666

Frankly Shankly: The wit and wisdom

* 'When you play for Scotland you look at the dark blue shirt and the wee lion looks up at you and says: "Get out there after those English bastards!"'

* 'He's got a heart the size of a caraway seed.' On a player he sold

* 'The trouble with referees is that they know the rules but they don't know the game.'

* 'I don't drop players. I make changes.'

* 'Of course I didn't take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present. It was her birthday. And it wasn't Rochdale, it was Rochdale reserves.'

* 'If a player isn't interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.'

* 'There are two great teams in this city. Liverpool... and Liverpool reserves.'

* 'Some people think football is a matter of life and death... I can assure them it is much more serious than that.'

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