In our first Cult Heroes column we took a look at Paolo Di Canio, a modern day foreign footballer who earned the adulation of the West Ham faithful. This week we focus on Bill Shankly, the man who transformed Liverpool Football Club from the depths of the English Second Division into a “bastion of invincibility” that went on to rule England, before ultimately conquering Europe.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
This line from Shankly is possibly the greatest ever quote on football.
Of course, anyone can give passionate responses in an interview to win over the fans. Actions speak louder than words, and Shankly’s actions more than matched his legendary words that football fans recite on a more than often basis.
Upon his arrival at Liverpool in 1959, Anfield was a crumbling wreck of a stadium. Such was Shankly’s drive for change and commitment to hard work that he, along with his number two Bob Paisley, went to Anfield on a non-match day and proceeded to dismantle the decaying dugouts and rebuild them from scratch. Shankly’s socialist philosophy offered an explanation for his inclination to work hard.
“The socialism I believe in is a way of living. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.”
On the pitch, it took just four full seasons for Shankly to lead his men from mid-table in the Second Division to a 1st place finish in the top flight. A year later in 1965, he guided Liverpool to their first ever FA Cup win. Liverpool won the League title again in 1966.
While seeing his side face continental opposition in European competition, Shankly became convinced that the patient and possession based tactics and strategies of the European clubs could be successfully implemented into English football. Liverpool fell into a brief decline during the late 60s to early 70s as an ageing squad struggled to adapt to Shankly’s new tactics. This resulted in Liverpool legends like Ron Yeats and Ian St. John being released, and new blood brought in, with Steve Heighway, Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence arriving on Merseyside. The new breed of players took to Shankly’s new continental inspired system and Shankly’s second great Liverpool side was born.
The UEFA Cup came to Merseyside in 1973 as Shankly lifted Liverpool’s first ever European trophy. That very same season also saw the Reds win the league title for the 3rd time under his unprecedented leadership. They narrowly missed out on the title the following season, but picked up the FA Cup by beating Newcastle United in Wembley, in a game that proved to be Shankly’s last.
When Shankly retired in the summer of 1974, he left a young talented squad at the new manager’s disposal. The new manager turned out to be Shankly’s assistant, Bob Paisley. Under his reign, Liverpool picked up a further six league titles, as well as three European Cups and three League Cups. The fact that all that silverware found it’s way to the Anfield trophy cabinet in just nine years under Paisley makes his reign as manager all the more impressive. And yet, despite Paisley’s astonishing trophy haul, he was never idolized by Liverpool fans in the same fashion that Shankly was, and still is today.
Shankly, whether by his own intention or not, had established a cult of personality on Merseyside that Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung would’ve envied.