“It was my idea to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Napoleon had that idea and he conquered the bloody world.”
There have certainly been managers who have won more than him, but few coaches have bestridden the English game with the same indelible intensity and force of character as Bill Shankly. Widely considered the greatest manager in Liverpool’s long and illustrious history, this most engaging of individuals is more than worthy of closer examination.
Born in an East Ayrshire mining village in 1913, Shankly endured a difficult childhood as his large family suffered from the poverty which blighted the area at that particular time. Indeed, Shankly’s difficult upbringing is thought of as being the catalyst for the staunch socialist views and tough exterior he later became famed for.
Discovering his gift for football at an early age, Shankly developed into a talented wing-back during his formative years at Cronberry Eglinton FC and the Glenbuck Cherrypickers. Attracting a good deal of interest from professional clubs Shankly signed for Partick Thistle in 1929 before getting his big break with Carlisle United in 1932. It was during his year at Brunton Park that the Scot became well-known in English footballing circles, gaining a £500 (a significant fee for the time) move to Preston North End.
Spending sixteen years as a first team player at Preston, Shankly established himself as a member of a successful side and played sufficiently well to be handed five caps for his country. Indeed, had it not been for the Second World War interrupting his career, Shankly could have gone on to become far better known as a player.
Following the conclusion of his playing career in the late 1940s Shankly immediately sought to forge a career in management, his former club Carlisle United presenting him with such an opportunity. The Scot’s impact on the club was immediate and impressive, Carlisle being transformed from a mid-table nonentity into title contenders within two years under his stewardship.
However, Shankly grew tired of the perceived tight-fistedness of the Carlisle directors and dramatically walked away from the club at the conclusion of the 1951 season. It was then that Shankly was to have his first interview for the Liverpool job but, lacking in significant managerial experience, was not selected to replace George Kay at Anfield.
During the remainder of the 1950s Shankly flitted between a number of clubs, the still green coach having modest spells in charge of Grimsby Town, Workington and Huddersfield Town. However, despite success deserting him during his formative years as a manager, Shankly’s force of character and his ability to motivate players was evident for all to see.
It was these traits, so it is said, that attracted Liverpool to him when Phil Taylor left the club in the November of 1959, an appointment which would change the course of British football history forever.
The Liverpool Football Club Shankly found himself at as the fifties drew to a close was nothing like the world-renowned institution we know it to be today. All those years ago the Anfield club was in the midst of an alarming decline, languishing in the second tier with just a single title having been won since 1923 and both the stadium and training facilities in a state befitting of a tawdry amateur outfit.
But Shankly changed all that.
In a radical shake-up of the club Shankly promptly released twenty-four members of the playing staff shortly after his arrival and, greatly to his credit, increased communication between the coaches in an effort to shape more coherent policies throughout the club. “The Boot Room“, as it became known, was where the likes of Shankly, Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley would sit and discuss tactics and ideas, formulating the strategies which would eventually see Liverpool rise to the top of English football.
In the early sixties, with Shankly modernising the club all the while, Liverpool’s new approach under their charismatic Scottish manager finally began to pay off. The 1961/62 season saw the club promoted to the First Division and continue to be shaped in Shankly’s defining image. Just two years later, on the back of a phenomenal ascent, Liverpool became the champions of England.
While the rest of the world concerned itself with the Cuban missile crisis and the perceived threat of Communism to the world order, Shankly was staging a revolution of his own, deposing Everton from the summit of the English game and forcibly dragging managerial methods into the modern era in the process.
His team of the 1960s – which contained club legends such as Ian St. John and Peter Thompson – went on to win another title in 1966, also enjoying some success on the continent as they reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1965 as well as the ’66 Cup Winner’s Cup final.
The turn of the decade saw Shankly undertake a transition as he laid the foundations for the incredible success Liverpool would enjoy latter half of the 1970s. The first wave of players that had flourished under the Scot were largely released and replaced by a younger crop of players, the likes of Ray Clemence and Kevin Keegan being given the chance to establish themselves at Anfield.
By that time Liverpool had, through Shankly’s sheer dogged persistence, become one of the most forward-thinking clubs in England. As Keegan once said of the iconic manager, “He put his character into the club in every facet from bottom to top”, the transformation of Liverpool Football Club was largely achieved through the sheer determination of Shankly to realise his ambitious vision for the club.
After a hesitant start to the new decade, Liverpool eventually found their feet again in 1972/73 as The Reds expertly navigated their way to the UEFA Cup title, Borussia Mönchengladbach being defeated 3-2 in the final with goals from Keegan (2) and Larry Lloyd. The same season also saw the Anfield side regain their First Division crown, Arsenal being beaten to the title by three points to confirm the permanence of Shankly’s incredible legacy.
The season which followed the double-winning year was to be Shankly’s last in charge of the club whose fortunes he had dramatically revived. 1973/74 saw Liverpool finish runners-up to Leeds in the league, but the club did not go without silverware as they beat Newcastle United 3-1 in the FA Cup final in what was to be Shankly’s final game at the helm.
With Shankly having taken on what was a struggling and poorly-financed Second Division club in 1959 and turned it into one of the most modern, visionary and successful teams in England by 1974, the Scot’s achievements with Liverpool cannot be overstated.
The first manager since Herbert Chapman to truly revolutionise football management in the UK, Shankly’s charismatic and engaging approach to leadership we see reflected in top-level coaches to this day. For that, for his commitment to Liverpool’s cause and his legendary rapport with the Anfield faithful, Shankly has become near-messianic figure on Merseyside.
William Shankly. One of football’s great modernisers.