Today is the 26th anniversary of the death of the greatest man in Liverpool Football Club’s illustrious history. Bill Shankly died on September 29th 1981, aged 68. In those 68 years he brought unprecedented success to a side that were far from being the giants they are today, and laid the foundations for the glories that continue to this day.
When he joined the Reds in 1959 Liverpool were in the bottom of the old second division, in what is known misleadingly as The Championship these days. He set up his backroom staff which included Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, and tried to improve the facilities at the then-overgrown Melwood training ground. He introduced new training methods, and started to instil the pass-and-move mentality into his players. He made changes large and small to improve the side. One of those changes was that the players would be asked to all arrive at Anfield for training, from where they would be taken by bus as one group to Melwood. After training the bus would take them back to Anfield where they’d get changed out of their training gear and eat a meal together. Shanks felt this would improve team spirit and help the players bond much better.
He changed the rules at the club too, after demanding that he be allowed to choose which players were to be signed and also which team would play. Prior to this the Liverpool manager had never picked the team at Anfield. He signed players like Ian St John, Gordon Milne and the colossal Ron Yeats and in 1962 won promotion into the top flight. Two years later he won his first league title with the club, Liverpool taking the title of local rivals Everton, at that time a much more significant force in the game than they are today.
Everton were often the subject of his dry humour, including some of his most famous quotes:
- “There are only two teams in Liverpool; Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.”
- “If Everton were playing at the bottom of the garden, I’d pull the curtains.”
- “Never mind Alan, at least you’ll be able to play next to a great team.” (To Alan Ball after he signed for Everton).
- “I know this is a sad occasion, but I think that Dixie would be amazed to know that even in death he could draw a bigger crowd to Goodison than Everton on a Saturday afternoon.” (Speaking at Dixie Dean’s funeral).
An excellent motivator, it was Shanks who brought us the famous all-Red strip, which he introduced in a European tie against Anderlecht. At that time Liverpool wore red shirts with white shorts and socks, but Shanks felt Ron Yeats would look even taller and more intimidating if he wore red shorts too. Ian St John suggested the addition of the red socks, and the rest is history as far as the kit is concerned. Liverpool won the tie, and made it all the way to the semi-finals, quite some achievement considering this was their first venture into continental football. Shanks used the power of the Kop to help the Reds win the first leg of the semi-final. He had the FA Cup paraded before the kick-off, to help raise the volume further still, then let opponents Inter Milan go out onto the pitch ahead of Liverpool. He did this because he felt it would scare them. The Reds won that first leg 3-1, and only went out in the second leg due to some quite dubious decisions by the referee.
He shocked Liverpool, and the football world, by announcing his retirement in 1974. By that time he’d won three league titles, two FA Cups, and a UEFA Cup, along with that Division 2 title. His foundations allowed his successor, Bob Paisley, to turn Liverpool into a side that ruled English and European football in a way that has still not been surpassed – Liverpool became, as Shanks wanted, “a bastion of invincibility”.
Shanks put his heart and soul into the job, and had a relationship with them that is hard to describe. He would take time out to visit fans at their homes, to personally reply to letters from fans, even playing football in parks with them. More famous quotes from Shanks show how important he thought football was, including his response to someone who said he’d taken his beloved wife Nessie to a game as an anniversary present: “Of course I didn’t take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present,” he exclaimed, ” It was her birthday. Would I have got married during the football season? Anyway, it was Rochdale reserves.”
Before Liverpool’s history was punctuated by the disasters of 1985 and 1989, Shanks uttered perhaps the quote that is associated with him most of all: “Someone said ‘football is more important than life and death to you,’ and I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that!'”
His own life came to an end in 1981, in Broadgreen Hospital after being admitted with a heart attack. He’d refused to allow them to put him in a private room, and seemed to be recovering. But three days later he died, leaving a city and much of the football world heart-broken. But that’s not all he left us.