Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Upon his arrival, Shankly needed results to win the supporters’ trust. The 1961-62 season proved to be the campaign when Liverpool were promoted from Division 2 into Division 1, as champions. This season showcased Shankly’s shrewd transfer market ability and management skills. The 1961-62 season was Shankly’s third at Anfield, twice he had attempted to lift Liverpool out of Division 2, twice he had narrowly failed and finished third.
He highlighted a list of ‘twenty-four names’ of players he wanted to leave the club ‘inside a year’, believing Liverpool were ‘overburdened’ with too many substandard players. One of the men on this list was club legend Billy Liddell, so good that for a lengthy period Liverpool were coined ‘Liddellpool’. When he played ‘his last game for Liverpool in 1960’ it was ‘twenty-two years after he had signed for them’. Liddell remains the oldest goal scorer in Liverpool’s history and is the fourth top goal scorer of all time. His final game was marked with a souvenir edition of the Liverpool Echowhere he was labelled ‘a player, a gentleman, a sportsman and the finest clubman the game ever knew’. Although the decision may not have seemed too hard to make as Liddell was now an aged player, it was still difficult to replace a man of that stature within the club. Nevertheless, Shankly did so and he was firmly building his own team when he entered the new season.
Shankly had frictions with the Liverpool board of directors. He described them as ‘gamblers on a losing streak who were afraid to bet anymore’. This was largely due to the thirteen years it had been without a trophy, and the six years they had spent in Division 2. Despite strong performances in his first two seasons, Liverpool were still not promoted and the board were not confident enough to financially support all of Shankly’s plans. This was until the arrival of Eric Sawyer. When Shankly arrived, he said Liverpool had ‘no money whatsoever to buy players’, though Sawyer was ‘an ambitious man’ and his arrival gave Shankly the backing he needed at a higher level.
Shankly put two players at the top of his transfer wish list, but the board still met his desires with scepticism, stating that the club could not afford them. However, Sawyer spoke up and said, “We cannot afford not to buy them”. Shankly went on to secure the signature of his two men, Ian St John and Ron Yeats, the two proved to be, according to Thompson, the ‘backbone of Liverpool’s success in the 1960s’. Shankly read in a newspaper that St John was looking for a move away from Motherwell, within twenty-four hours Shankly was in Scotland talking with the striker and within a week he had scored a hat-trick against Everton. £37,500 had been invested, a record transfer for Liverpool, but still only half of Shankly’s plan. It was questioned whether ‘any player has given greater value than St. John’, during his time at Anfield, this exemplifies his importance. He was described by the Liverpool Echo as ‘ipso facto, a great footballer’, he represented Liverpool for ten years.
Next, Shankly set his sights on fellow Scotsman, Ron Yeats. According to Ponting and Hale, Yeats was a ‘veritable man-mountain of a stopper’ and proved to be a great signing for Shankly. Yeats was put on the transfer list at Dundee after asking for a £2 raise in his salary, and much like with St John, Shankly wasted no time in capitalising on one of his transfer targets. Yeats recalled meeting Shankly for the first time in an Edinburgh hotel, Shankly quipped that the six feet two defender was “nearly seven feet tall”, and he told Yeats Liverpool FC were a Division 1 side. When Yeats corrected Shankly that Liverpool FC were only in Division 2, he replied, “We are at the moment … but when we sign you we’ll be in the First Division next year!”. Yeats was swept up in the charisma of ‘Bill Shankly – a great talker’, as Yeats labelled him, £30,000 later, he was a Liverpool player. The Liverpool Echo labelled ‘Yeats, a quiet, slow-spoken man off the pitch, is a tiger on it’, he went on to captain Shankly’s side to success and lifted seven trophies during his tenure.
Shankly had culled unwanted players, had backing from the board and secured his two most wanted transfers. These two players, according to Shankly, were ‘the very beginning of Liverpool’s rise, and they did more for the rise than anyone else. Yeats at the back, St John at the front’. The two men, combined with goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence, were described as the ‘backbone of the team’. Shankly had achieved a lot in a short amount of time and was ready to challenge for the Division 2 title. One key reason for the success of that side was Roger Hunt, he scored ‘41 goals in 41 league appearances’, in the 1961-62 season. Shankly had used Hunt extensively in the two previous seasons, nevertheless this proves the strength in his judgement. Shankly had orchestrated many departures from the team, yet the successes of those he retained display his managerial ability. He was not merely selling players to gather funds for a whole new squad, rather remoulding the one he had and making them a Division 1 side.
The 1961-62 season proved to be the campaign where Shankly lifted Liverpool out of Division 2, and ultimately never returned. This owed much to the big investment in Yeats and St John, who Shankly labelled ‘the corner-stone’ of his squad. As well as home grown players like Callaghan and Hunt, and another new signing, Gordon Milne, Liverpool had a promotion worthy squad. Shankly built a side in which the fans ‘had no fear of them losing’. They won their first six games of the season, when promotion was secured ‘The Reds were back where they belonged’. The league title was won in April with five games to spare, Kelly notes that ‘Shankly had unleashed a new phenomenon of crowd fanaticism and passion which would soon become a legend’. With the fans on side, Shankly carried Liverpool into Division 1.
The transition from Division 2 obscurity to this promotion winning side was a hugely significant event for Liverpool. Had this promotion not been achieved, and achieved so early in Shankly’s time at Anfield, this could not be viewed as a golden age for football on Merseyside. The promotion to Division 1 provided Liverpool access to a better standard of football, as well as more prestigious trophies on offer. In their second season in Division 1, Shankly won the Division 1 League Title. The following season, this feat was surpassed as Liverpool FC won the FA Cup for the very first time.
Article by Peter Jones