They are Liverpool’s next two Premier League fixtures, those which towards the end of the 1950s were linked and proved to be of longer-term significance despite being fourteen months apart; one of them era-defining and the other reflective of the challenge facing the central character, Bill Shankly.
Only two Liverpool players that featured in a 5-0 defeat to Shankly’s Huddersfield in October 1958 and then a thumping to Cardiff in Shankly’s first game as Liverpool manager are still alive. One of them is 90-year-old former captain Johnny Wheeler who until last season was a regular spectator at Anfield. The other is Jimmy Melia who at 80 is still working as a coach at a soccer academy with links to his boyhood club in Texas, where he has lived for more than a quarter of a century.
Melia is sharp and full of stories but when asked about what happened at Huddersfield’s old Leeds Road ground all those years ago, his mind is taken instead to a home fixture against Huddersfield in 1959 when Liverpool – under Shankly’s guidance – would have won with Melia scoring once had it not been for a headed own goal by Dick White four minutes before the end. Another 2-2 draw thirteen months later remains Huddersfield’s last league point against Liverpool in 58 years.
It was an occasion where Billy Liddell struck a shot so fiercely that a heavy ball of true leather somehow burst. He also missed a penalty.
Melia had grown up on Perhyn Street next to St Anthony’s Catholic Church on Scotland Road, the thoroughfare once divided by sectarianism that leads out from Liverpool’s city centre towards Anfield and the north end. He was surrounded by football and footballers.
Bobby Campbell, who later managed Chelsea, lived on the same street while Melia went to school with Johnny Morrissey, the winger who Liverpool sold to Everton under Shankly’s nose, prompting him to offer his resignation only to be convinced not to carry out his threat by Matt Busby. One of Melia’s first jobs as an apprentice at Liverpool was to help install floodlights at Melwood by digging ditches with Len Ashurst, a defender who achieved hero status at Sunderland. Melia’s playing career was beginning just as Bob Paisley’s was ending.
“Bob was very aggressive and a winner of the ball, more like a Nobby Styles,” Melia recalls. “But boy, was he a very good reader of the game.”
Huddersfield 5, Liverpool 0 was the day Shankly recalled Liverpool’s directors heading home from West Yorkshire “in single file with their shoulders slumped, like a funeral procession.” Liverpool had lost seven of their twelve league meetings with Huddersfield during the 1950s and this emphasises why the result was not considered a shock or reported as one.
Liverpool suited being in the lower-reaches in the old Second Division, as Horace Yates pointed out in his Liverpool Echo match review, where he hinted rather than concluded that Phil Taylor’s conservativism was costing the team: “Liverpool’s back passing has become an infection,” he wrote “This was a game in which scarcely anything went right for Liverpool. Huddersfield were faster to the ball, found their men with much greater precision and had the scoring finish to match their effective approach.”
That was as scathing or as forensically analytical as it got for Taylor in the papers. Everton were the back-page news that Saturday, winning 3-1 at home to Birmingham City in the First Division – as they were the following weekend after an amazing match at Tottenham where they scored four but conceded ten.
It was only when Shankly came that Melia realised what was wrong with Liverpool and that related to the way decisions were made, undermining the presence of the manager.
“I think we made some bad signings,” Melia says “The directors were buying the players and the manager wasn’t really in charge. They’d meet every Tuesday night at a board meeting and pick the team for the following Saturday. The directors weren’t coaching the players or had any proper understanding of the players’ abilities or personalities so there was always an element of favouritism or guesswork.
“On the Wednesday, the players would get the Liverpool Echo and see what team we were playing in. It might sound ridiculous now but that’s the way it was and we didn’t know any different. Shankly hated it and every three months he’d threaten to leave because of the board. It was only through getting results that they started to bend to him.”
That 4-0 home defeat to Cardiff in his first game illustrated the scale of Shankly’s task.
“Graham Moore was their centre forward and he destroyed us even though he didn’t score,” Melia remembers. “We worked all week on set pieces all week, defending and attacking corners, free-kicks and throw-ins. But when it came to the game we weren’t as concerned as we should have been about what Cardiff could do from open play. And we forgot about playing. They pulled us apart.”
To listen to Melia is, perhaps, to listen to James Milner. Like Milner, Melia considered himself an attacking central midfielder in modern terms but Shankly decided that a positional change was necessary to help the team and unlock his potential.
“I scored lots of goals but he put me out on the right wing. I did ok but it didn’t feel natural. When Ian Callaghan came through he switched me back. He told me that I was ahead of my time, that I could see the game – and that I could see it a lot better now that I’d played in a different position because it helps to understand the responsibilities of the players around you. I don’t think it was a part of any masterplan of his but he made it seem that way.”
“Shanks, he made all the players feel like we were the very best players,” Melia continued.
“We later played Huddersfield at home. Ray Wilson had played for him and he would win the World Cup. Shanks ran through their team and what he thought of them. ‘Number 3 is Ray Wilson – WAS a good player.’ Shanks was such a likeable person. We knew he didn’t necessarily always mean what he said about players from other teams but his jokes about them made them seem human, which of course they all were. He’d bring them down to a level where you respected them but didn’t fear them. It was the same with Manchester United.
"He had this routine whenever United came to Anfield where he’d enter the dressing room, look in the mirror and brush his hair before looking out in the corridor, seeing who was walking past. ‘I’ve just seen Bobby Charlton, he’s smoking a cigarette before the game; his eyes look really tired.’ He’d go back outside and then report back that Denis Law had an injury – ‘He’s hobbling about, Gerry [Byrne], you’ll deal with him.’ Then he’d look for George Best – ‘He’s been out all night, lads.’”
Melia would become a manager himself, taking Brighton & Hove Albion to the FA Cup final of 1983, a period where his commitment to wearing a pair of white shoes was legendary. From afar, he believes there are comparisons to be made between Jürgen Klopp and Shankly because both possess “raw, natural enthusiasm.”
“Importantly, Klopp’s playing the Liverpool way, which Shankly created. This is attacking football with fearlessness,” Melia says. “The players he signs all have good basic skills. The passing is good. They make the right choices and they’re aggressive. He’s got better with the defence too. They look much tighter. I think as players gain more confidence from winning games regularly 1-0 than they do every now and again by three or four. The narrow victories inspire trust. Van Dijk has helped with this. He’s like Ron Yeats in terms of the impact he’d had and it’s probably harder for players in his position than it’s ever been because full backs are so attacking now, leaving space behind which he has to cover. With time, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t captain. He’s awesome.”
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