Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bill Shankly and Liverpool - The People Are The Times

Bill Shankly, Liverpool, Football

Growing up in Belfast in the Seventies there were overwhelmingly two main teams that captured the support of young people and adults alike in the city - Manchester United and Liverpool.

I have recently been watching some wonderful footage relating to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who was in charge there between 1959 and 1974 - the extraordinary scenes of celebration at Anfield at the end of the 1972-73 Championship winning season, former Liverpool striker and player-manager of Swansea Town John Toshack wearing the red jersey during the silent tribute to Shankly upon his death in 1981 and the reception that his widow received while attending celebrations at Anfield on the last day of the terraced  Kop in May 1994.

The passion, pride and populist appeal of Shankly has been discussed in depth in many books and documentaries - the best of which being the Hugh McIlvanney BBC Arena special The Football Men about the Ayrshire-born Liverpool manager and his contemporaries Matt Busby and Jock Stein of Manchester United and Celtic who both hailed from similarly tough working class mining backgrounds in Lanarkshire in Scotland.

Perhaps the greatest and oft-recalled of so many commentaries from Bill Shankly was that delivered to thousands of cheering fans at Liverpool's St George's Hall in 1971 and following the 2-1 defeat by Arsenal in that year's FA Cup final:

Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday at Wembley we may have lost the Cup, but you the people have won have conquered. You have won over the policemen in London. You won over the London public and it's questionable if Chairman Mao of China could have arranged such a show of strength as you have shown yesterday and today. Defeat? What is that? A detail brothers and sisters, a footnote in the struggle for supremacy. We. You and Me. Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool. Together we can conquer the world. Since I came here to Anfield....I've drummed it into our players - time and again - that they are privileged to play for you. And if they didn't believe me - they believe me now.

Prior to 1971 under Shankly Liverpool FC had won two First Division and one Second Division League Championship titles, one FA Cup and three FA Charity Shields. Subsequent to that St George's Place speech Liverpool would win a further League Championship, an FA Cup, an FA Charity Shield and a UEFA Cup in European competition under his management. His successor at Anfield Bob Paisley would win an extraordinary twenty honours for the Merseyside team in nine years off the back of Shankly's legacy - six League Championships, three League Cups, six FA Charity Shields, three European Cups, one UEFA Cup and one UEFA Super Cup.

Some other words of wit and wisdom from the former miner from Glenbuck that are still remembered with fondness and pride around the world to this day include his welcome to fellow Scot Ian St John on arrival at the club - 'Son, you'll do well here as long as you remember two things. Don't over-eat and don't lose your accent." When one of football's most resolute Sixties and Seventies hard men Tommy Smith turned up for training with a bandaged knee he was admonished with the barbed  "Take that poof bandage off, and what do you mean YOUR knee, it's LIVERPOOL'S knee!"  He did however underscore at another juncture to the very same Anfield Iron that "You son, could start a riot in a graveyard."

Bill Shankly's mastery of the rich art of bowelling - the jet black, sarcastic and surreal leg pulling and stirring whose geographical epicentre is located between the three great shipbuilding port cities of Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow - knew no bounds and especially with regard to the blue half of Merseyside. After Alan Ball had signed to Everton he congratulated him with the words "Don't worry Alan. At least you'll be able to play close to a great team". He also would observe "In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside - Liverpool and Liverpool reserves".

As for the union of hearts and minds across the brotherhood of Europe, Shankly would once tell a translator, while being surrounded by overenthusiastic Italian journalists, "Just tell them I completely disagree with everything they say!'"

Tom Darby's Talking Shankly includes the recollection of Liverpool's Brian Hall who supplemented his income while playing in the reserves - and studying at Liverpool University - with bus conducting shifts. On arriving at Anfield in uniform, as prior to a stint on the buses, Shankly noticed the young player's lack of height and commented "Bloody hell! It looks like we've signed Jimmy Clitheroe". Then, upon hearing who Hall was, he added, "Hello son, great, aye. You're the boy from university. Tell me, laddie, do you need a university degree these days to be a bus conductor?"

Towards his adopted home of Liverpool and its people Shankly most certainly held little back on an emotional level - "I'm just one of the people who stands on the kop. They think the same as I do, and I think the same as they do. It's a kind of marriage of people who like each other." Hence with regard to the famous 'This is Anfield' plaque, which both teams run under to enter the stadium ground, Shankly underscored "'This is to remind our lads who they're playing for, and to remind the opposition who they're playing against." His own autobiography in turn noting  "Above all, I would like to be remembered as a man who was selfless, who strove and worried so that others could share the glory, and who built up a family of people who could hold their heads up high and say 'We're Liverpool'."

Comparing a great socialist thinker and true leader of men of this ilk to the monstrous and buffoon-like leaders of the British party of labour in the past thirty years is truly tear-inducing. Similar feelings may be elicited in turn from watching the black and white clips from the Panorama current affairs series in 1964 showing The Kop in its magnificent and electrifying glory with 20,000 souls singing The Beatles' She Loves You in generational unison. A working people and a sense of place literally vaporised by deindustrialisation, asset stripping and political and cultural contempt from the metropolis in the Eighties.

A feeling indeed that so many people share now in modern London where the staggering demographic and physical changes gathering pace on a weekly basis  induce profound senses of dislocation and alienation through any rational observation. The local independent bookshop beside where I work in North West London has recently put a selection of books about beekeeping in the inner cities in its shop window to add to the grotesque Kafkaesque gloom.

A million miles indeed from those lost shadows of Merseyside, West Central Scotland and Ulster on the ethnic frontier of Britain and Ireland - a shared political and industrial history and a common ground of personality, warmth and so much laughter.

As with regard to that very fraught social distance from the metropolis, a scene in the final series of BBC Scotland's Burnistoun showed three teenage boys playing their computer games in a bedroom only to be interrupted by their mate Marky Boy whose life was ruined by taking an Ecstacy-like Thatcher Pill which turned him into a cross-dressing English Conservative leader - "Sorry man sorry….I’ve bin gettin ma heed aff bout shipyards all day. I tell ye ..see by the time I’m done we the Scottish…they’ll no forget me."

Likewise, a youtube clip of the most recent Paul McCartney tour from one Liverpool gig included a scene when the singer was recalling the old days of Merseybeat and an incident involving Cilla Black. As the crowd hissed - and an obviously taken aback McCartney weighed up the surprising scorn for a fellow Home Counties resident, Merseyside exile and national icon - one member of the audience scoffed "Welcome back to Liverpool Macca!"

Alike the Shankly years in this pool of life, the people still are the times.


  1. Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.

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    1. Many thanks for your kind words Alam. Another lovely story in the Darby book has Shankly visiting a very sick girl in hospital who subsequently died. He did not want to turn up at the funeral due to press intrusion but went privately and watched from a distance. When he revealed this to somebody and was asked in turn if the parents ever knew what he had done, Shankly replied "That's not important". What a giant of a man - SB