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Shankly's secrets revealed after fifty years
on 17 March 2013
Great men have their deeds memorialised in verse and prose. But only the greatest of the great have the anniversary of their birth celebrated as well. There can be no more worthy recipient of that honour than one William Shankly, who first saw the light of day on Tuesday the 2nd of September 1913 and whose illustrious career in the sport of football as a player but more so as a manager has been covered in numerous books, magazines, videos and dvds. But those who thought his every word had been repeated and dissected tenfold were wrong. In the summer of 1962, as Liverpool Football Club prepared for its first season in the English First Division for eight long and painful years after relegation in 1954, Shankly agreed to a 14-week series being published in the Saturday Football Echo, known locally as The Pink Echo, this series explaining in his own words how the club finally shook of the shackles of the Second Division to reclaim its place at the top table again. These remarkable articles lay dormant for half a century before being discovered by a journalist who, thankfully, immediately realised their importance. Originally published in the Liverpool Echo under the title "The Hard Road Back" and released with that title as an e-book in 2012, the title has been aptly changed to reflect the uniqueness of this treasured find. Most stories about and quotes attributed to Bill Shankly came after his first tangible successes as Liverpool manager in terms of the major prizes that were available for him to win. But this is different because Bill is writing here "about a job he felt was only just starting, without knowing what would transpire when Liverpool returned to the top flight". The most glorious days lay ahead but this is about the important first step to that glory, the struggle to get out of the Second Division and the desire to compete with city neighbours Everton at the same level again because there had not been a League meeting between the two clubs since January 1951 with the only competitive meeting since then coming in an F.A. cup-tie at Goodison Park the season after Liverpool's relegation when the Reds had remarkably beaten the Blues by four goals to nil.
Bill Shankly's oratory skills were legendary; as was his memory. I once heard someone ask him if a Liverpool goal of the past had come from a cross from the right or from the left. He answered without hesitation but with complete conviction. The same power of instant recall from memory is found in this diary on numerous occasions. He made notes which would have helped him but so good was his memory that I doubt if he even bothered to look at old match-reports in the newspaper for which he was doing this series. I checked a few things as I read. I could not fault him on a single fact. His memory when it came to match-details was flawless. Granted most of the matches he writes about had only taken place in the previous twelve months but, had he not possessed the attributes to be a successful manager, he could certainly have been a successful sports-reporter. His entertaining match-reports are also, in some cases, weather-reports and news-reports. This book is indeed "a goldmine of stories" and "an early insight into Shankly's character".
Shankly had only been Liverpool's manager for two and a half years by the summer of 1962. He knew that there was a risk involved in taking the Liverpool job : "Nobody can guarantee success and certainly not quick success, yet it seemed to me that the latter was being demanded and therefore the risk was doubled." The average age of the first-team squad he inherited in 1959 was twenty-four and a half with only Dave Hickson (30), Fred Morris (30) and Billy Liddell (37) being thirty years old or over. He knew changes had to be made ... and quickly ... to the playing staff but was reluctant to make any immediate changes to his backroom staff. He praises the support and input of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett and says that between them they "reorganised the whole training system". But there wasn't instant success. There was a horrible 4-0 home defeat by Cardiff City in his first match in charge, after which Jimmy Melia apologised on behalf of the whole team : "We're sorry, boss. We were too eager to impress". The boss was pleased with Melia's honesty because he knew that "more is learned from defeat than victories". He also recognised that the player's comments meant that the new manager had "a nucleus of players who respected me, were willing to fight for me, and alongside me". The first tactical change came almost immediately. Melia was moved to the right-wing to replace Fred Morris (who never played for Liverpool's first team again) and Jimmy Harrower, who had impressed in the Reserves, was brought in as a "deep-lying outside-right (Shankly's description) with Roger Hunt playing in the role of poacher at centre-forward alongside Dave Hickson". Billy Liddell returned briefly to replace Melia, who was not happy playing on the wing, and ultimately Ian Callaghan replaced Liddell. Shankly knew that Liddell, now thirty-eight years old, could not be a permanent solution but he had no qualms about replacing him with a man twenty years his junior : "In Callaghan, I felt that we had a youngster who showed real promise of becoming a Liverpool player of the future". And how prophetic was that because Cally would one day equal and pass Liddell's impressive appearance total for the club!
At the end of his first half-season in charge, Bill Shankly's honest assessment was that he "knew we fell a long way short of being a championship team". Kevin Lewis was the only major signing in the summer of 1960. Although Gordon Milne also arrived during this summer, he was seen more as one for the future with Lewis being recruited "for immediate strengthening of weaknesses".
The fixture-schedule was as gruelling in 1961-62 as it was fifty years later. So there were many long train and coach trips, such as away matches at Sunderland and Norwich in the space of four days as August turned into September; then more away matches to the same timescale at Brighton and Newcastle before the end of September. The travel problems did not end after the final whistle at Norwich. The coach booked to take the Liverpool party from Carrow Road to the railway-station failed to arrive and the home goalkeeper's car was used to convey Liverpool's manager and as many of his players as could squeeze into it to the station while the rest of the party had to follow behind on foot.
For the trip to Southampton in December the club took the unusual (for the time) step of flying to and from the south coast. Shankly realised that this was an option that should be used more often : "That one can be home from a game played over 200 miles away in three hours after the final whistle provides a fact against which it is difficult to find any suitable argument".
The vagaries of the British weather also proved disruptive. Long before all-weather pitches and under-soil heating, matches in Yorkshire against Leeds and Rotherham at the end of December (both lost by a single goal) were played in atrocious conditions. The manager's comments were straight and to the point : "Frozen and dangerous pitches, like playing on an ice-rink. Neither game should have gone ahead". But these weren't the remarks of a sore loser. He regularly and graciously praised the victors after his team had been beaten. But when Rotherham came to Anfield in the spring, it was clear that he had not forgotten what had happened in the winter : "We showed them what we could do when this fixture is played under decent conditions", he said after a comfortable home victory by three goals.
The recruitment of the Scottish duo of Ian St. John and Ron Yeats was directly linked to the team's success. Both made their club debuts in Bristol on the opening day of the season. Shankly had had his eye on the pair for a while, saying of the Saint "what was needed was a player who could create openings, score goals and, at the same time, lead the line"; and of big Ron "I saw Yeats as the man to weld our defence together in the way St. John could the forwards". His assessment of the value of these two crucial signings came when he summarised his whole squad after the early-season matches : Yeats "is performing like a giant" and St. John "is working hard and knitting the front line together". He knew he had struck gold with this pair.
After thirteen League matches the team had, partly thanks to St. John's influence, scored thirty-seven times and conceded only seven, four of which were own-goals (two each for Yeats and Dick White), proof enough that the reorganisation of a defence which had conceded 58 goals in the previous season was definitely working. Roger Hunt's forty-one League goals helped massively at the other end and it was clear from early in the season that there was unlikely to be a repeat of the near-misses of the previous six seasons in which the team had finished 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 3rd & 3rd again. The Second Division title was clinched with five matches to spare with the manager declaring that promotion was "the proudest moment of my footballing life". As well as praising the resilience and focus of his players, Shankly recognised that "Bob Paisley's reading of a game has been of the greatest value on numerous occasions".
As he looked back on the Second Division season that had just finished while at the same time trying to prepare for the First Division season that was about to start, Bill Shankly considered that "the success achieved last season added to the experience gained will undoubtedly prove a major asset in the future". But even as he wrote that sentence, he could not have realised how prophetic those words would come to be, that he was very close to completing the team that would dominate English football in the middle of the decade, already knowing that some of the missing pieces of his team jigsaw were close at hand with, for example, Chris Lawler being included in the squad to play at Middlesbrough with the manager's accurate perception already telling him that he had "a very promising defender of whom I have the highest hopes for the future".
This was indeed a pivotal season that saw the club's return to the First Division. Perhaps we only realise how pivotal it was when we look back on it and consider what has happened in the years that followed. Did Shankly really know in 1959 that this was the job that was made for him ? Probably he did. He knew the potential of the club and he knew about the passion of the supporters. Having seen for himself the massive queue that snaked around Anfield by supporters desperate for a ticket for an F.A. cup replay at Preston, he was "once again reminded of the tremendous importance of L.F.C. to our supporters and of our responsibility to them". He wanted to help "build Liverpool once more into one of the leading clubs in the game". He probably meant the English game even though his successor and loyal lieutenant Bob Paisley would conquer the continent as well as the country. The crux of this book is that at the time the articles were published in the Echo, Bill Shankly might not have been an inexperienced football manager but he was still an inexperienced Liverpool manager, having only held the position for around thirty months. This must have been fascinating reading to the supporters of the early-1960s, avidly taking in the manager's words about how and why he changed the team to bring the success the supporters were so desperate for, how he was so ably supported by not just his coaching team but also by the Chairman and Directors of the time, how his never-ending quest for the right players saw him cover "several thousand miles in my search for talent, not only for our immediate needs, but also for Liverpool teams of the future". Shankly continued to do that for another dozen years and when he chose to retire in 1974, he could do so with his head held high, knowing that his methods had worked and that, if continued by those who succeeded him, there was no reason why the club couldn't continue to grow in the vision that he had created. But this was the start, this was the season when it all took off; and this is a journey that will thrill the Liverpool supporters of today as much as it did the supporters of fifty years ago. As the centenary of Bill Shankly's birth gets closer, I consider that this is the most important piece of literature about him that has ever rolled off a printer's press.