Faber and Faber (2013), 720 pages
Unknown Bookshop, €15.85
This is a big book about one of football’s biggest characters. Whatever team you support Bill Shankly is a legend of the game, in the same way that Matt Busby or Brian Clough are. Before Bill Shankly took charge of Liverpool in 1959 they were an average enough side having spent five years in the Second Division. Liverpool had never won the FA Cup and thoughts of playing European football seemed an impossible dream. In his 15 years in charge Shankly made Liverpool into one of Europe’s greatest clubs and laid the groundwork for even greater successes. From also-rans Shankly transformed the club into three time League Champions, two time FA Cup winners, and UEFA Cup winners.
David Peace has set out to write the story of Bill Shankly, who Peace sees as a kind of secular saint, from the time he becomes Liverpool manager, through his shock retirement in 1974, until his death in 1981. In some ways Peace’s adoration of Shankly makes this book unusual, there is no attempt to dig for dirt or seek scandal where there is none. Questions about whether Shankly let his football obsession detract from his family life or if his extreme control over players’ wages was necessary remain unexplored. The weight of evidence in Shankly’s favour that Peace amasses (such as giving a lift to two supporters on the team bus, giving a supporter his own tie when the club shop is closed, having a stack of photos of himself to autograph for anyone who calls to his modest home) mean that any negative thoughts the reader might have are overcome by the sheer weight of evidence in Shankly’s favour.
Peace’s style is not to everyone’s taste. His prose is easy to read and deliberately repetitive. There has been an extraordinary level of research with the scores, teamsheets, and buildup to many games described in detail. It is this almost obsessive level of detail that gives an insight into Shankly’s obsession with Liverpool. As soon as Shankly arrives at the club he demands improvements to Anfield and the club’s training facilities. He walks the Melwood training pitch with his backroom team and they pick up every bit of glass and brick, every weed, fill every divot, and then they turn around and do the same thing again until the pitch is perfect. The book is split into two parts, the Red half, where Shankly manages Liverpool, and the Dead half where he tries to cope with life in retirement.
The most fascinating part of this book is how Shankly was willing to do anything to help the club when compared to the modern culture where money seems to be the main motivator for some managers and players. The 1960s in England was an era of rapid social change but it’s easy to forget that the 1960s were closer to the 1920s then we are now to the 1960s. Shankly had old school beliefs, a kind of Christian Socialist belief system (chapter 3, in a perhaps ironic nod to Chernyshevsky or Lenin is entitled, “What is to be Done”). He was not too proud to pick weeds from the pitch, he believed players should be paid a fair wage for their efforts, nothing more or less, and he believed that Liverpool’s primary responsibility lay with performing honestly for their supporters. This was a different era altogether when there were two points for a win, when the Liverpool Board refused to allow television cameras into Anfield in case attendances dropped, where there were no penalty shootouts and vital European matches were decided by the toss of a coin. The Board of Directors wielded the final say over every aspect of running the club and Shankly has to go to them numerous times begging for momey to buy players. Shankly wanted success through fair play and hard work, “Yes, people wanted success. Yes, people wanted victory. But not by chance, not through luck. The name of your father or the name of your school. People wanted success through their effort, people wanted victory through their work. Not the toss of a coin, the roll of a dice. Through their effort and through their work. Their communal effort, their communal world.” (p. 274)
The Financial Times review of Red or Dead is critical of the fact that the book barely touches on the social issues of the day. The rise of football hooliganism and industrial disputes in England are barely described. But that’s the point. Shankly’s obsession is Liverpool Football Club. Players’ demands for increased wages are dealt with because they directly affect Shankly’s management of the club. Peace can devote pages to Shankly going about his daily routines because they show Shankly’s attention to detail, whether he’s setting the kitchen table for breakfast or picking his team for Saturday. It was in performing every act to the best of his ability that Shankly found meaning in life and through football he found immortality, “Bill knew that was the battle. That was the war. The battle against age, the war against death. The battle you could not win, the war you could never win. But the battle you must try to fight. Hour by hour. The war you must try to win. Day by day. . .On his knees, Bill knew you had to try to beat death. You had to try, you had to try.” (p. 374) And Shankly knew about death, he retained a fear of flying after the Munich Air Disaster which his friend Matt Busby survived and he was shocked by the 1971 Ibrox Disaster.
The Dead half of the book is painful reading at times. Unlike most managers Shankly retired at his peak. In his remaining years he struggles to come to terms with life outside football. But football still remains his life, he can’t switch off, he has to be asked not to train with the players at Melwood. Yet Shankly finds a sort of redemption in his continuing relationship with the people of Liverpool. Unlike today’s players and managers he was not cut off from the people. His door was always open to fans, he would play football with local children, and when the fans thanked him he would thank them for taking their time, spending their money, to support the world’s greatest football club.