A neighbour remembers modest Bill Shankly
It is 50 years this week since Bill Shankly first arrived at Anfield, when Liverpool were languishing in the second division, writes Martin Roberts.
The Scotsman soon turned them into a team feared across Europe, and set up a managerial system with enough momentum to carry on after his shock 1974 resignation and make the club the most successful in English footballing history.
For those of us who used to bump into Shankly as his neighbours, however, the anniversary is about far more than hero-worship or nostalgia brought on by cringing defeats prompted by beach balls.
Nor is it simply a yearning for a time when Shankly’s Red Army used to pound the opposition and amass silverware, season in, season out.
Shankly evokes a not-too-distant but very different time when a manager at the top of the game would be content to live in a modest semi, drive a Ford Capri and feel guilty if the team’s followers saw a draw in return for paying two pounds at the turnstiles.
He lived among his supporters and was a good neighbour, true to his upbringing in a closely-knit coal-mining village.
I first met Shankly at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, a short walk from where I grew up in the 1970s, and where local kids would clamber up the perimeter walls to watch the team for free.
Our young hands were just small enough to grab the barbed wire for support without getting hurt, and we would rush through the gates at the end of the session to hunt autographs as the players departed.
“What are doing out of school, son?” the man himself asked me one day, to ensure I wasn’t playing truant.
A couple of years later, I timidly slipped a note under Shankly’s door to ask if he would autograph a copy of his autobiography, which I had bought as a birthday present for my grandfather, a life-long Liverpool supporter who was then in hospital. I knew that the personal touch would make his day.
Everyone knew Shankly’s house. It was painted red and white, and ironically was next door to Bellefield, Everton’s training ground, which perhaps prompted his famous comment that if the cross-town rivals were playing at the bottom of his garden, he would draw the curtains.
He was on the phone within minutes and told me to come round whenever I felt like it, which I did in short order. My grandfather was really made up by the present, which sadly turned out to be the last I was able to buy for him.
Shankly was among the first to offer his condolences when my grandfather died. He had phoned, guessing that something was wrong when he spotted my mother’s mini parked outside our house, rather than doing her rounds as the local health visitor.
My grandfather, by the way, was far from being famous — Shankly was just being neighbourly.
On a lighter note, I also remember him giving me a ticket for the F.A. Cup Final in 1977 — price £2.50! — despite the fact I wouldn’t have dared to ask, and giving me advice on my own modest sporting ambitions: “Eat hard, train hard and rest hard, that’s the way to be an athlete, my boy!”
Shanks lived the enthusiasm for football he did so much to inspire, and I’ll never forget the phone ringing while a European Cup match was on the television, then hearing a familiar Scottish voice proclaim: “The Kaiser’s scored!”
He was a familiar figure who lived modestly, but at least half of us in Liverpool were in awe of him. Shankly was, after all, the man we said could walk on water, and jokes comparing him to God were as common then as they became about Robbie Fowler a couple of decades later.
Shankly also had the charisma to rally masses of disappointed supporters almost to hysteria when thousands packed Liverpool city centre in 1971, after the Reds’ 2-1 Cup final defeat to Arsenal. He said, in effect, that he had rebuilt Liverpool after the successful 1960s side had aged, and it was a matter of time before greatness would come along.
That would have been demagoguery or empty bragging coming from anybody else, but he more than delivered, and that, I think, explains why people now stroke his bronze statue at Anfield on match days, even if it feels odd to see a man who used to drop round for tea treated like a medieval saint.
Then again, as Shankly himself put it: “Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s far more important than that.”
What are your memories of Shankly? Should he still be regarded as the greatest British manager of all time?
PHOTO: A statue of former manager Bill Shankly (R) stands outside Anfield, the home stadium of English Premier League soccer club Liverpool. REUTERS/Phil Noble