Searching for the secrets of Shankly

The legendary former Liverpool manager is the subject of two new biographies. Ken Jones reports
Click to follow
It would have appealed to Bill Shankly's ego, to an innate sense of mischief, that this week's publication of two books about his life and times coincides with mourning for his successor.

Bob Paisley's great achievements, after taking up a torch many believed to have been passed on prematurely, justified all the tributes that followed his death last week and were echoed at Wednesday's funeral, but nobody will ever be more closely associated with Liverpool Football Club than Shankly.

Not simply for the transformation he worked at Anfield. Not just the epigrammatic wit. Nor the rasping accent and staccato delivery so many attempted to impersonate. What set Shankly apart was the sense of community he was born to in the South Ayrshire coalfield.

In tracing Shankly's progress from the village of Glenbuck, the locality such a prolific breeding ground for footballers that it produced more than 40 professionals, Dave Bowler (Shanks: The Authorised Biography of Bill Shankly, Orion, pounds 16.99) and Stephen F Kelly (Bill Shankly: The Biography, Virgin, pounds 14.99) come across flaws that became sadly manifest in the bitterness that marred his retirement.

Slights, real and imagined, were never far from Shankly's contemplation, ceaselessly intruding upon his passion for the game and fuelled by a natural objection to privilege. Bowler writes: "His upbringing in a mining community where you could lose your job at the whim of a mine owner left a scar. Although football was a very different field, Bill still felt very keenly the class barriers in the game and had little time for directors in general... The lack of job security that was a part of everyday life for working people remained with him throughout his life in some degree."

Unlike Sir Matt Busby, who was from a similar background, the guile Shankly brought to bear on his players never ran to dealing with directors. Unswervingly a socialist, he conducted a crusade on behalf of the people he understood best: working people.

Arthur Hopcraft's book The Football Man, published in 1988, contains this splendid passage about Busby: "To watch Sir Matt Busby move about Manchester is to observe a public veneration. He is not merely popular; not merely respected for his flair as a manager. People treat Busby in the way that middle-aged priests of compassionate and sporty nature are often treated: the affection becomes rapidly more deferential as they get closer to the man."

Shankly had a different effect on supporters of the clubs he managed, experience at Carlisle, Grimsby, Workington and Huddersfield merely preparation for the role in which he would become internationally famous. Seeing themselves mirrored in Shankly's boundless enthusiasm, they never questioned his decisions.

Football clubs are not known for their gratitude to managers, however successful. Even Busby knew the disappointment of unkept promises. Jock Stein, perhaps the most astute manager British football has ever known, the first to lift the European Cup, felt insulted by the minor role he was subsequently offered in Celtic's affairs. Tottenham Hotspur's disdainful rejection of the plans Bill Nicholson put forward on retirement was disgracefully contemptuous of the marvellous work he had done for them.

Probably, it was after Liverpool defeated Leeds in the 1965 FA Cup final that Shankly's deep-rooted mistrust of directors was given fresh impetus. While the idea of growing rich from the game is unlikely to have entered his mind, he felt that the bonus held out by the Liverpool board was derisory. "You've never won the Cup before and yet that's all you think it's worth," he snapped.

Shankly's strength came from the womb - as a player he knew no fear and had remarkable stamina, his values those inseparable from the hard and dangerous life of a collier. As Stein once put it when recalling his own years underground: "I knew that wherever I went, whatever work I did, I'd never be alongside better men."

This was implicit in Shankly's character. Shirkers, no matter how talented, appalled him. The key to his success was an acute sense of football's romance, the glory game, but toughness was not an act he put on for the benefit of reporters. Once, after a match at Highbury, he was asked to inspect a leg wound Tommy Smith had inflicted on Arsenal's captain, Terry Neill. "Aye, Tommy's a hard boy," he said.

An interesting thing about some footballers is the contradiction that becomes evident in management. A dour half-back, Nicholson assembled the most brilliantly effective team in Tottenham's history and was represented on the field by Danny Blanchflower, who was the complete antithesis of himself as a player. Conversely, Don Revie, a gifted inside-forward who tackled at three-monthly intervals, came to regard hardness as essential.

What Shankly shared with every consistently successful manager you can think of was absolute belief in the fundamentals of touch and accurate delivery. Long or short, it is a passing game that has no accommodation for self-indulgence. In Shankly's mind, the essence was simplicity. Kelly writes: "When Shankly arrived at Anfield in December 1959, training had been as haphazard as everything else. There was no system, no logic, no structure. From day one he instituted a methodical system with ideas he had already formulated and tested at Huddersfield and elsewhere. Much of it, he maintained, was derived from his days at Preston. `We trained to be football players at Preston,' he always said proudly."

It became a habit with Shankly and his staff to disparage coaching but few in the game were fooled. "You only had to look at the way Liverpool performed and listen to their players to know that Shankly, in his own way, taught the game," Terry Venables said.

When you heard the game explained in Shankly's voice, you felt that it reached its full measure of importance in those rasping west of Scotland tones. His own particular hero, Tom Finney, told Bowler: "He never thought that just being able to play was enough. You had to do the work, too. He didn't have time for people who didn't look after themselves properly."

As for jargon, nobody has ever ridiculed it to better effect. Watching in retirement, Shankly heard a coach cry out, despairingly: "Apply the principles." He shook his head. "Jesus Christ," he growled, "in my day they shouted `justify your inclusion'."

As for the incantations for which Shankly is hugely famous, the best I think was told one night by the Welsh international, John Toshack, who has since made a name for himself as a coach in Spain. Thwarted by Peter Shilton's brilliant goalkeeping, Liverpool had been held to a replay by Leicester City in an FA Cup semi-final. "We didn't see Bill until a few minutes before the kick-off, then suddenly he was standing in the doorway, hands thrust into the pockets of his raincoat. `You know how this lot feel,' he said. `They feel like a man who has gone eight rounds with George Foreman [then the undisputed heavyweight champion] and taken a battering. Then the lights go out and he has to fight him all over again.' It was perfect, the best team talk I've ever heard."

Such a talent for imagery lingers on the mind. It is more than 14 years since Shankly died from a heart attack in his 69th year - but when you think of what a great football manager looks like, whose name springs to mind?