An era ends today when Liverpool train for the last time at Melwood. For 60 years, the West Derby base has been the launch pad for the club’s ascent to greatness. The move to Kirkby with its ultra-modern facilities makes sense for Jurgen Klopp and his staff because it brings together the first team and the academy but they are leaving a place where the plans for a football revolution were plotted and developed.
Liverpool bought Melwood between the first and second world wars but it had been barely used when Bill Shankly was appointed in 1959. The Scot was shocked by the state of Anfield but the training ground was worse. The legendary manager first visited it with his wife Ness. There was a run-down cricket pavilion and an expanse of untended fields that looked more like waste ground.
“It was just a wilderness,” Shankly recalled. “But I said to Ness: ‘Well, it’s big and it can be developed. At least there is space here.’”
Melwood had barely been used. Until Shankly’s arrival, players did their training in the main stand car park. The surface was a mixture of concrete and asphalt. Running, which comprised so much of 1950s football training, took place around the surrounding streets. Inside the stand was a small gymnasium. These were not conditions conducive to producing great teams and it showed on the pitch.
Before Shankly could put things right on match day, he needed to revamp the team’s preparation. It started with simple, hard work and manual labour at Melwood. The manager and his backroom staff extracted rocks from the ground, levelled surfaces and made the pavilion habitable. They began a do-it-yourself programme to make the training ground usable. The physical part was the easiest bit. The philosophical changes to the way the club operated required much more effort.
Shankly inherited Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett. They expected to be replaced quickly. Even then, managers preferred to surround themselves with their own appointments. Keeping the trio around was arguably the greatest of all Shankly’s decisions. They became the core of the Boot Room brains trust, the men who would turn Liverpool from a second division side into European champions.
“As far as the training staff was concerned,” he later wrote, “I was most fortunate in having a really first class team and no praise can be too high for their efforts. Between us we set about preparing a plan for improving the training routine and the facilities which at that time existed at Melwood.”
The ugly, inadequate patch of land three miles from Anfield became a crucible of innovation within the game. Unlike most football thinkers at the time, the Boot Room did not take a one-size-fits-all approach to fitness. “It may be a new thought to some people that different players require different exercises and quantity of training, but such is the case,” Shankly commented. “One of the most difficult problems in training a team is to size up the requirements of individuals to reach and retain peak fitness.
“Does, for instance, a comparatively slightly built man like Jimmy Melia require less training than a heavily-muscled chap like Ronnie Moran, or does he require more? We have found that Moran does not need the amount of work which Melia does, in spite of his size.”
Moran became an integral part of the Boot Room once he retired as a player. At Melwood, his sergeant-major bark resounded around the pitches.
The collegiate nature of decision making was explained by Shankly with reference to his experience during the second world war. “A tactical session is more like a good discussion group in the Forces with me as the officer leading it,” he said. “Just as a good officer realised that he was not the only one present who knew anything about the subject under discussion, so I try to be at a tactical talk.
“I start the ball rolling, but anybody who has anything to say knows that he is expected to say it.” The Scot chose the right men to go into battle with and at Melwood they honed the troops.
By the time the old cricket pavilion was replaced with a red-brick complex with changing rooms, a gym and a sauna, a new age was under way for Liverpool. Along with personalised training programmes, new ideas to help the team reach maximum efficiency were discussed constantly. The staff kept logs of each day’s training which were cross-referred to results to check whether there were any identifiable patterns emerging. It was an early, clumsy form of analytics but the attempt to analyse and contextualise preparation was ahead of its time.
The famous sweat box – where players had to hit numbers on portable shooting boards arranged as a square – is still a staple of training across the world. The emphasis on game situations at a time when many in England were obsessed with running and fitness made Melwood one of the essential stop-offs on the grand tour for those who sought to learn about coaching.
For a long time all sorts of visitors were welcome to watch Liverpool’s day-to-day preparation. Local youths clambered up the breeze-block walls to sit and eavesdrop on the sessions and watch the remarkably competitive five-a-side games. School children flocked to the entrance to collect autographs as the players clambered onto the coach that took them to and from Anfield every day. Not only was the training ground a football laboratory, it was a social hub in a city obsessed with the game. In more recent, more cynical years, it became a place of secrecy, where onlookers were discouraged by increasingly obtrusive security. Once, though, it was somewhere where it was possible to go and look behind the curtain of the People’s Game. Few observers left disappointed: the magic was as strong at Melwood as it was at Anfield.
It is right for the club to move and unite the entire playing operation on a single campus. Shankly would approve. Yet something of the game’s history will disappear when the area is redeveloped. The Duke of Wellington was said to have claimed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. European Cups, Champions Leagues, 14 titles and numerous other trophies were likewise won on the pitches of Melwood, a site that holds a special place in football’s heritage.
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