Updated: Feb 18, 2021
BY PETER JONES (this article originally appeared on World Football Index http://worldfootballindex.com/2017/11/bill-shankly-criticisms-baron-period-liverpool/ )
Bill Shankly will forever be known as a phenomenally influential manager at Liverpool, and because of this the six trophy-less seasons that followed the league title winning campaign of 1965-66 is often overlooked. Many Liverpool fans would be surprised he went that long a period without success, this six-year drought appears to have been forgotten. Shankly has always, and will always be regarded as a legend at Anfield. Doubting the abilities of Shankly on the red half of Merseyside is almost regarded as blasphemy, such is the stature of the man. However, this overlooked period must be examined.
Shankly’s first ever game in charge of Liverpool was a 4-0 defeat to Cardiff City. This may seem unrelated to this period, yet the newspaper report of the game provides an interesting quote. ‘Final blow for Bill Shankly was hearing the jeers hurled at the directors’ box by the disappointed Anfield fans. Still, Shankly was never afraid of arduous work as a manager. I fear he’s going to get plenty of it within the next few months’. The idea of Shankly having a tough time as Liverpool manager is never discussed due to the mystique that surrounds his name. Yet, he faced opposition from the fans in his first game, it will be interesting to examine whether it ever returned during his barren years at Liverpool.
Shankly did an excellent job of replacing the team that delivered his first Division 1 League Title, and creating the team of the early 1970s. One man who fell afoul of this was Ian St John, he recalled the day he was first dropped from Shankly’s team. St John says that when he looks back at his relationship with Shankly, ‘conflicting emotions rise to the surface when I think of him. I’m torn between love and hate’. St John was dropped by Shankly for a game and described it as ‘an ambush that came without a hint of warning’, this was because St John found out by reading the team sheet. It was not only that he had been dropped, it was that he believed Shankly should ‘have shown a little courtesy’, that upset him. St John believed ‘Shankly had let me down’. For a man who was thought of as a great orator and a great people person, this was a bad way to deal with a tender subject. All players must face the realisation that football does not last forever, but Shankly should have dealt with St John with more respect. He was only dropped to the bench, but this was a significant moment that marked the beginning of the end of St John’s Liverpool career. He had been at the club for eight years and he deserved to have been pulled aside and told by Shankly face to face, rather than reading a team sheet alone.
Similar to this is the story of Roger Hunt. He, like St John, was part of the 1960s side that won promotion, two Division 1 League Titles and the FA Cup. He felt Shankly did not treat his decline from first team football with respect. The use of substitutions was a very new part of the game, and during an FA Cup game in 1969 Shankly made his second ever tactical substitution shortly after the 70th minute. Shankly withdrew Hunt and he was ‘angry, frustrated and puzzled’. Hunt said, “I pulled my shirt off and threw it into the dugout before marching straight inside to have a bath”. This was out of character for Hunt but he believed ‘Shankly had lost faith in me … my confidence had been damaged’. The reaction triggered headlines which resulted in a ‘showdown meeting’ in which Hunt was prepared to either ‘ask to be transferred or quit altogether’. Although fans will note that Hunt ‘was past his best’, Shankly could have handled this period of his career with more empathy.
This illustrates how tumultuous events got with Shankly during this period, he was upsetting the players that he had built into a wonderful team. It appears he was too scared to tell these players that they were on a downward curve of their career, instead he just took actions that upset them. The startling fact of both St John and Hunt is that they appreciated their careers were reaching an end, but they did not think they were treated with enough respect. This seriously dampens his reputation by acting in such a manner. Both St John and Hunt continued to play for Liverpool FC but left the club soon after these events. They still loved their time at the club, but both seemed to lose respect for Shankly.
Both stories add to the claim that John Toshack made in the 1973 UEFA Cup Final. Controversially, Shankly had left Toshack out for the first abandoned game as he was returning from injury, Toshack was ‘furious’ and confronted Shankly, stating “you must be the luckiest man alive” and stormed out of Anfield. The next day for the replay, Toshack was reinstated to the starting team. Shankly had spotted that ‘The German defenders weren’t very big, and they never came out of their penalty box’. He utilised Toshack’s height and ultimately Keegan scored a couple of goals from these flicks and Liverpool won 3-0. Interestingly, Shankly does not mention this Toshack altercation in his autobiography. Whether it occurred or not the decision to put Toshack in the side was a master stroke. Keegan took many headlines for his two goals and missed penalty, yet it was clear that the recall of Toshack would pay dividends. Toshack’s inclusion in the replay of the final was viewed as a master stroke by Shankly. Be that as it may, had Shankly been so astute he would have played him from the start and not needed half an hour to change his mind. Toshack said that he and Shankly fell out that night. This seems hard to believe when you read the pages and pages of pro Shankly literature. However, when viewed in conjunction with the stories of St John and Hunt, Toshack’s story seems easier to believe. Shankly would have realised results were not going his way, he needed to make changes to restore success, but by doing so he upset loyal players. He was certainly not immune to mistakes and arguments during his tenure, which may diminish his god like image held by some hardcore Liverpool FC supporters.
A lot of praise has been afforded to Shankly for good signings, but they did not all work. Tony Hateley joined Liverpool as a new striker who was large in stature, as a record signing in 1967. His arrival marked a change of play as he was a man who was good in the air but not as good on the floor. This was an unnecessary change of footballing philosophy and did not work. Upon his arrival ‘the whole play changed’, when he left the team they quickly returned ‘to the ways of actually putting the ball on the floor again and actually playing a bit of football’. He did score 28 goals in his 56 appearances, but his style of play did not fit Liverpool’s. This is only a small example but illustrates the mistakes that were made in the transfer market.
Interestingly, during the period that Shankly was manager, three of the top four average attendances for a season were during this ‘barren’ period. During this time Liverpool finished second and third twice, they reached the FA Cup final and were playing European football for the entirety of the trophy-less run. Performances were so good on the pitch that the question, ‘Will Liverpool emerge as the team of the Seventies?’, was asked with the belief that Shankly had a talented team at his disposal. This may help to suggest why there was no uproar around Shankly, his teams were achieving relative success on the field. As well as this, his management was praised for providing ‘A Healthy Balance Sheet’, and for his form being ‘wonderfully consistent’. Shankly was getting by with his squad that was in transition, yet he did have a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way and, according to Bowler, had ‘bust-ups with directors at every club he went to’. His passion was often taken abruptly, and he would upset people within the club. His petulance is best understood by him being coined by Williams as a ‘serial resigner’, as he was no stranger to having arguments with the club.
Bob Paisley took the manager’s job after Shankly retired, he also worked as Shankly’s assistant for the entirety of his time at Anfield. However, in Paisley’s autobiography, there are only twelve pages dedicated to this. Twelve pages for his first fifteen years as a football coach; this highlights the frictions between the two men. Paisley knew how highly thought of Shankly was at the club and how scrutinised he would be for any criticism of Shankly. Instead of Paisley writing his complaints about Shankly, or issues that they may have had, Paisley just wrote the bare minimum to cover the Shankly era, without lying to the readers and upsetting hardcore Liverpool fans. Paisley said, ‘you certainly knew when Bill had had a tiff’, and that their ‘relationship certainly became uneasy’. Paisley goes on to say that ‘Bill was a boss man’ in that ‘If he advised you, you had to take his advice … His word was law’. Shankly was praised for his passion, but he was so determined that he upset his closest allies in achieving success. This is somewhat admirable, yet also foolish as he was upsetting peers on their pursuit to the top. Paisley won a lot more than Shankly with virtually the same team. Because of this some fans have even asserted that ‘Paisley must have been the brains behind Shankly’, this argument certainly has a lot of evidence. Regardless of this, it seems clear that Paisley does not have the same opinion of Shankly as many Liverpool supporters.
When Shankly retired from Liverpool, he ‘was willing to work for the club for nothing more than my pension’ and was keen to still ‘be involved in football’. Yet, he was turned away by the club, as Paisley felt he would want more power and control than was natural for a man who was not manager of the team. The season after he retired, Phil Thompson recalls that the players would arrive at training and ‘Shanks was already there, leaning over the veranda. We all said: “Morning boss”’. This was not a healthy relationship to have at a football club. It appeared that Shankly was undermining Paisley and this had happened at other clubs before, old managers hanging around and undermining the new manager, resulting in negative performances on the pitch. Like Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United, Paisley ‘knew that other clubs had run into all sorts of trouble from this particular problem’, he ‘didn’t want a situation like that at Liverpool’. This resulted in Shankly being shunned by the team he loved, he felt that it was ‘scandalous and outrageous’, believing he was thought of as an ‘embarrassment to some people’. This is a sombre end to a wonderful career, and when he died seven years after his retirement, Kelly believes he did so of ‘a broken heart’.
Despite this, if Shankly was less controlling, less of a ‘Boss man’, Paisley would have welcomed him into the club at a boardroom level. If this was the case, Shankly would have been a contrasting character and would not have won as many trophies. Nevertheless, it was Shankly’s character and being known by Bowler as a man with ‘a permanent scowl etched’ on his face, that upset some people. This can be attributed to his period of a lack of success, and a factor that diminishes his reputation.
Shankly certainly went through a tough period of transition, and this was described by John Williams as a ‘mini black hole’. The fact that a six-year stint without a trophy is only seen as a mini problem illustrates the mystique around Shankly. Williams would have been closer to the truth if he had labelled it an extended period of mediocrity. It was Shankly’s stubbornness that enabled him to remain in a job, he refused to accept Liverpool were not the best team in the country. One journalist said that ‘One of the greatest mistakes anyone can make in Soccer is to suggest to Bill Shankly that Liverpool at any time are not doing well’. Liverpool were at times substandard and deserved criticism. When they lost to ‘lowly Second Division Watford’ in 1970, Shankly knew he had to change things. He had such love and respect for this first team he had built that he ‘didn’t have enough about him’ to tell them it was the end of their Liverpool careers. This illustrates the weakness of Shankly, it was only when he finally realised his old players were substandard that performances improved. However, the way he treated these stalwarts of his two-time Division 1 League title winning side was too harsh, he lost the respect of some club legends and that certainly would have been something he was keen to avoid. Shankly certainly achieved a lot, but these arguments and managerial mistakes are buried away to keep Shankly’s god like status intact. Shankly’s autobiography was even banned by Liverpool in 1976 as he spoke badly of the club. He was so passionate that he upset people, yet he is so violently adored that these bad moments are ignored and overlooked. The barren period and the argumentative moments tarnish Shankly’s image as the man who delivered a golden age to Liverpool FC.
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