Shankly: flawed, feared but forever revered

Fifty years ago, Bill Shankly arrived at Liverpool to take over a side mired in the Second Division. James Lawton speaks to the players who witnessed the dawn of a great era – and who found themselves on the wrong side of its ruthless architect
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The Independent Football

Roger Hunt was the first Liverpool player to suspect that when Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield, 50 years ago on Monday, everyone's life would change.

It was an instinct that was confirmed when the fierce, 46-year-old Scotsman, who borrowed some of his style from the gangster films of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson he so adored, gathered 40-odd players in the old cramped dressing room and made demands that could only have been more ferocious had each one of them been sealed in blood.

"He told us in some detail what he wanted from each player," recalls one of the heroes of England's World Cup triumph of 1966. "He said he was going to ask of all of us more than had ever been required before and if anyone had doubts about his willingness, or ability, to respond he had only one option. It was to pack his bags."

Everything would change: training, discipline, expectations, horizons, personal commitment.

It would, more than anything, be a way of being and thinking and most of the players, the survivors, realised quickly enough, almost of breathing. You were either with him or against him. From Shankly it wasn't so much an introductory chat as a psychological blitzkrieg. If you absorbed it fine, if you didn't, it was too bad. You would be shipped out with a chilling formality.

That was Shankly's regime and it would be his legacy. It meant that when the currently embattled manager Rafa Benitez recently declared that no set of supporters could permanently assume they had a right to success there was more than a ripple of dismay, even embarrassment. Despite his initial brilliant success in winning the Champions League in 2005, it was inevitably deemed by the Liverpool hardcore that he had no right to dissolve such a sacred pact.

Hunt was less surprised than most of his club-mates that the new manager was making such a dramatic impact on his players because a few weeks earlier he seen something that would prove to be a portent of one of the greatest stories football would ever know.

He had played one of his first games for Liverpool at Huddersfield Town, where Shankly was in his third year as manager and Liverpool had lost by the only goal of the match scored by the brilliant young Shankly protégé Denis Law. "You couldn't help but notice that Huddersfield seemed exceptionally motivated and then afterwards I saw Denis not in the limelight but lurking in a corner of the corridor outside the dressing rooms.

"He was smoking a crafty fag and obviously terrified at the idea of being caught by his manager, and bear in mind this was a kid who looked as if he had brought his self-belief from the cradle. It was the first thing I thought of when Bill Shankly was appointed manager of Liverpool. I knew straight away that nothing would ever be quite the same again."

It certainly wasn't for 16-year-old Chris Lawler, one of the stalwarts of Liverpool's rise from the old Second Division into one of the great institutions of football, a tradition that half a century on still demands the highest levels of performance. On that momentous first day of his assignment, Shankly encountered the shy boy in a corridor running beneath the old stand.

"He knew my name," recalls Lawler, "which was amazing and then he asked me what I was doing. I said that during the week I worked around the ground, on the pitch and the terraces and with the painter and that I trained twice a week with the young amateurs. He said it was ridiculous. I was here to learn my trade. 'From now on,' he told me, 'you train every day with the seniors. You're here to play football not do odd jobs.'"

The next day Lawler was training alongside Billy Liddell, the great Scottish winger whose iconic status on Merseyside remains as imperishable today as when he died eight years ago. In just a little more than two years Lawler edged into the first team, a position he would consolidate in Liverpool's first FA Cup triumph in 1965 and maintain for a decade in which he scored a staggering 61 goals, a record without the padding of a single penalty but achieved as a full-back of such stealthy opportunism he was known in the dressing room as "The Ghost".

It could be said that in Lawler Shankly had not only made a footballer but also a young man who found a confidence to express himself beyond his talent on the field.

If there was any lingering doubt about this it will surely dissolve still further at a packed Liverpool Empire theatre on Monday night when the once famously reticent Lawler again takes a starring role, along with old team-mates Ian St John and Ronnie Yeats, in "The Bill Shankly Show", a hugely popular tribute crafted by the great man's biographer John Keith.

There is talk of the show, which has already been staged successfully in such outposts of Liverpool support as Oslo and Ballymena, being staged in New York, an American venue which would surely have thrilled Shankly almost as much as Chicago, the theatre of action for men like Al Capone, Frank Nitti and John Dillinger, who so regularly blazed their way across his imagination.

At the heart of Lawler's contribution will be one of the classic Shankly stories.

This week he recalled it in the best detail he could muster. "It happened at the end of training, I was going to the bus which took us back to the ground and passed a five-side game being played between the boss and his assistants and some of the young lads. They were playing without goalposts and a crossbar, just short poles stuck in the ground. One of Shanks' team fired in a shot which seemed a bit high to me. There was quite a debate going on and then Shanks said, 'There's Chris Lawler, he's an honest man. Was that a goal, son?'

"I wasn't quite sure what to say. Shanks was notorious for playing as long as necessary to win and I thought it might help everyone, including the kids, who I had been among so recently, if I said it was a goal. But I decided honesty was the best policy. I said the shot would have gone over a bar.

"Shanks was outraged. He said, 'Jesus Christ, you haven't said a word for three years and the first time you open your mouth you tell a lie.'"

One of St John's favourites concerns the night he and Yeats missed curfew after a game in Dublin. On the flight back to Liverpool they feared for their fate, which seemed to be confirmed when, as the other players went to their cars Shankly told them he wanted to see them in his office.

St John recalls: "Ronnie went into his office first and I waited outside, very anxiously. Ronnie told Shanks a story about how we had been trapped in a card game [knowing that the manager had been a passionate card player among the old pros and miners of his youth] and that we had hung on in an attempt to try to win back our money. Shankly accompanied Yeatsie to the door and said to him, 'Let that be a warning to you, the Irish are card-sharps.' I asked him if he still wanted to see me. 'Naw,' he said, 'I've already heard one pack of lies."'

That was Shankly living with his knowledge of the way players would probably always be – and acknowledging that if St John and Yeats had broken discipline on one occasion they did not make it a habit. It was also true they were the spine of his team.

The testament of such as St John and Lawler on the man who shaped their lives will always be touched with awe but it is not an entirely romantic view. They knew Shankly's value, his astonishing power to itemise strengths and weaknesses in the opposition and to inspire, but they also knew his flaws. One of them was an inability to cope properly with the time when one of his great players could no longer quite produce what was expected by arguably the hardest taskmaster in football.

When St John was dropped for the first time he heard the news not from his manager but the great former Newcastle player Jackie Milburn, who he met in the lobby of St James' Park where he had gone to hand some tickets to a friend. "Jackie was looking at the team-sheets, which had just been handed round, and said, 'Hey, bonnie lad, you're not in the team.' I stormed off to the dressing room but Shanks dodged me for days."

It is the great enigma in the lifework of the football man who won for Liverpool so much more than three league titles, two FA Cups and the Uefa Cup. Shankly could take a player to the stars but he could never contrive a safe landing. So often there was a gnawing sense that the only closure on glory would be spiked with a degree of bitterness, a sense that he had taken the best and sometimes quite cruelly discarded the rest.

Hunt, who left Anfield shortly after his only dispute with the manager, somewhat sadly confirms the truth of it.

"Bill Shankly was a magnificent manager, I admired and respected and loved him in so many ways but there is no question that when you had slipped out of his favour there was really never a way back. It was as though he was suddenly embarrassed to be around you."

Hunt's rupture was only superficially healed after he threw down his Liverpool shirt in the second half of an FA Cup replay with Leicester City in March 1969 after being replaced by Bobby Graham.

Anfield was stunned by the hero's gesture of frustration and the following day the manager berated the player who had scored so regularly and, like so many of his team-mates, played through injury.

"Of course I regretted what I had done the moment after it happened. It was early in the days of substitutions and Shankly had not done what is probably commonplace in the game today. He hadn't explained that substitutions were about tactical changes as well as injuries; he didn't say that the victim – and that is how I felt that night when there were 58,000 in the crowd – had no reason to read into it anything sinister.

"We patched up the row but I never felt our relationship was the same again. Soon afterwards he said another club had been in for me and when I protested that I only wanted to play for Liverpool, he said, 'I just wanted you to know of the interest [Hunt would soon sign for Bolton Wanderers] and that we will not stand in your way.' I thought that down all the years I had never been told of any interest and of course I knew what this meant."

None of this though will dilute the pride of Hunt when he goes with other members of Shankly's team to Anfield on Wednesday night for the league game against Wigan Athletic to mark the anniversary.

"When I reflect on those years I can only feel proud to be part of it – and I can only repeat that Shankly was unique and brilliant and that when he met up with the Liverpool fans it was a marriage made in heaven. To see the passion he created was amazing wherever you went, in the dressing room, on the terraces and in any corner of Liverpool. He didn't just take over a football club he took over a city. He lifted the place so high it was unbelievable and if you were a player you would do anything to stay in the team.

"When we won the title in 1964 he didn't use any more than 14 players. It was unacceptable to be injured. You became a non-person, so of course you played on in almost any circumstances.

"I have many memories of him but one stands out above all others. It was when we were all on the balcony of the city hall after winning the Cup for the first time. Shanks addressed the crowd. He got a red handkerchief out and waved it to all the people, which it was reckoned were as many as a quarter of a million. He had them in the palm of his hand, just as he had his players.

"When I think of that now the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I suppose they always will. Bill Shankly didn't come in and out of your life. He claimed it – and he would always have a large part of it."

Fifty years from the day he walked into Anfield everyone touched by him knows that. It happened, after all, only yesterday.