The story of Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club, written by David Peace whose output includes, amongst others, the "Red Riding Quartet" (sometimes referred to as Yorkshire noir), "The Damned United" and "GB84", about the 1984/85 Miners' strike. While the backdrop, which includes mini-descriptions of almost every match played by Liverpool F.C. during Shankly's reign, is entirely factual, many of the words uttered by the man and some of his actions, and those of his management team, his family, the ever-changing list of players etc. are fictional. It is broadly the same approach Peace used on "The Damned United" which covered Brian Clough's short (but troubled) period as manager of Leeds United F.C. However that novel could almost be seen as a playful short story compared with the intensity and scope of this one.
I used the word "intense" in relation to this book. There were plenty of other adjectives which occurred to me, viz.
Detailed (to a quite incredible degree) Repetitive Mannered Passionate Relentless Ritualistic Driven (both subject and author) Obsessive (both subject and author) Amazing Unique Poetic English grammar challenging (see below) Boring
I should explain my choice of this last adjective. It's hardly what you would expect in a five star review. The English football season follows a predictable flow albeit with variation in the results. Football training for a club follows a predictable flow with minor variation. But it is these subjects in relation to Liverpool F.C. which largely occupy the author in the first half - see later - of the book. And it is these subjects which concern the dedicated fan of a football club. Bill Shankly if we are to believe David Peace (and I see absolutely no reason not to), was not just manager of Liverpool, he was also a dedicated fan. This explains the attention Peace gives to each football season. He sticks to the same format each year as he does for each match and for each training session; in the process emphasising the similarities but also bringing out the subtle difference in results, telling us who scored the goals, who made the vital tackles, telling us about minor modifications to training etc. To the non-fan much of this is boring minutiae. Even to the fan this can sometimes feel like being bashed with a large (and regularly striking) hammer. But I believe this is all deliberate on the part of Peace, and intended to convey that combination of utter predictability and sometimes stunning unpredictability that is a football season
Anyone who's read anything by Peace will be aware of his propensity for taking English grammar to extremes. However it wasn't till I was somewhere round half way through that I noticed that he had introduced a fascinating new habit; ending a paragraph with a comma. At home,
at Anfield. Along lines like that. Maybe this is intended to give new power to the comma. Or maybe it's Peace keeping the reader on his or her toes.
Football is a game of two halves as the cliché has it. The second half in this tome covers Shankly leaving Liverpool and his life after managing the club he loved. It's considerably shorter than the first half and, in relative terms, lacking much of the familiar ritual, as indeed, Bill is missing the familiar ritual. In this half Bill discovers that the leaving of Liverpool is not how he thought it would be, Bill discovers the charms of Everton F.C., Bill tells a lorra stories (sorry, Cilla, couldn't resist!) and Bill crosses swords with Harold Wilson - more than once.
This book will not appeal to everyone. Liverpool fans who have never come across David Peace before will be in for a surprise. Those who persevere will be rewarded but there'll be several who give up after a hundred pages or so, if they get that far. Although I don't make a habit of reading sporting biographies I would imagine this is unlike any such book ever written. Of course it's not a biography. It's a novel. And it's a novel which gradually and painstakingly builds a portrait of a complex man, a man who had compassion, empathy and tenderness in spades yet who could be ruthless when it was required - and it was required regularly, a man with what we would now term "old-fashioned" values and yet one who could still turn a blind eye when he deemed it appropriate, and a man whose single-minded approach was the model for the successful football manager today.
A remarkable piece of writing, about a remarkable man.