Paul Tomkins on Bob Paisley

Unique Methods

One of the greatest lessons Paisley learned was as Shankly’s assistant in the Scot’s final season in charge; a lesson that helped the Reds go on to conquer Europe. Red Star Belgrade had beaten the Reds 2-1 in Yugoslavia, but Shankly and Paisley were obviously confident going into the second leg with Chris Lawler’s away goal in the bag. However, despite Lawler scoring again, Liverpool were beaten 2-1 for the second time, as the Yugoslavs sat back and counter-attacked. Shankly praised Red Star’s ability, but said Liverpool fans would never pay to watch football like it. However, privately it prompted the Boot Room into a stern look at how football was changing. The more patient continental approach seemed the way forward. Also, after a decade with Tommy Smith and Ron Yeats as brutish stoppers, and with Larry Lloyd a like-for-like replacement, the Boot Room concluded that the position needed someone more technically adept, able to bring the ball out of defence and start attacks, rather than just repel them. Circumstance intervened. With Lloyd injured, Phil Thompson, originally a midfielder, moved back to fill in. Smith moved to right-back and Emlyn Hughes partnered Thompson at the heart of the defence. Partly by design, partly by fortune, the new formula was hit upon.

Shankly later explained the change that took place from 1973 onwards. “We realised at Liverpool that you can’t score a goal every time you get the ball. And we learned this from Europe, from the Latin people. When they play the ball from the back they play in little groups. The pattern of the opposition changes as they change. This leaves room for players like Ray Kennedy and Terry McDermott, who both played for Liverpool after I left, to sneak in for the final pass. So it’s cat and mouse for a while waiting for an opening to appear before the final ball is let loose. It’s simple and it’s effective … It’s also taken the spectators time to adjust to it.” For his part, Paisley noted that “We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside. The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”

The European experiences of the 1960s certainly helped form the way the club treated continental football. “Travel, and its effects, is the most underrated part of the game,” Paisley recalled. “When English clubs first competed in Europe they went on their holidays. They were excited about going to exotic places and used to spend almost all week away. We cut it down to spending as little time as possible in the country — as late as we could get in and as soon as we could get out. That was our philosophy. We’d train until the last possible moment at home before starting our journey, because what training we did abroad was only going to be a light session. We’d take our own water, too. That’s not to say the water was tampered with abroad. But it is different and you never know how people react. Different water can cause stomach upsets, for instance.”


Ray Clemence offered a particularly apposite analysis of what made Paisley such a good manager. “For me,” Clemence said, “he was a better coach than motivator of men, but a shrewd judge of a player and very strong tactically.” Despite this, Paisley never saw himself as a tactician. “I didn’t talk tactics because I wasn’t taught tactics. I was merely advised on certain things about my game.”

Having spent so long around football, and then worked with an innovator like Shankly, not to mention the other Boot Room boys who pooled their knowledge, Paisley had great wisdom. He just had a deep understanding of the game, and all its component parts. “He could assess all positions,” Clemence said, “even my speciality of goalkeeping.”

It wasn’t that tactics were distrusted, but the modern terminology and jargon certainly was. “There are people who can talk me under the table about football,” Paisley once said, “but if they had to explain what they are talking about they would be under it.” While the Reds rarely set up specifically to counter the opposition (although European away games were treated differently to those at Anfield), that did not mean in-game changes weren’t made. Paisley was tactically astute, but there was little tampering with a system ahead of games. The coaches adapted to the circumstances as the play unfolded — shifted players around if need be, or made a substitution — but the first instinct was to go with their natural game. And a big part of Paisley’s great tactical brilliance was knowing which players were needed, and where they would fit into the team. Get that right, and the tactics are more able to dictate themselves.

There can be no greater tactic in football than finding intelligent, gifted and adaptable players who can think for themselves, and forming a harmonious blend in a team. It obviates some of the need for clever thinking on a game-to-game basis; that took place with the overall masterplan. Phil Neal never had to worry if he wanted to go on an overlap; someone would have the nous to cover him. Neal was told that if he joined an attack, to stay with it. He was now a forward, until the move broke down. If Paisley had been fielding a ‘fancy Dan’ right-winger who didn’t track back, then the team would be in trouble; but that wasn’t the Liverpool way. Such a player wouldn’t be in the team to start with.

While Paisley rarely changed a winning team, he did alter the formation — at least in his early years. Having bought Kenny Dalglish to replace Kevin Keegan, he explained how that changed: “Because of the difference between them, there was a change in Liverpool’s style when we signed Kenny. With his subtlety, a 4-4-2 formation with the accent on passing was clearly our most effective line-up, whereas in the past we had often employed 4-3-3 as well.”

Paisley understood about the flow of a game, and in an age when only one substitute was allowed, he was loathe to use it lightly. He told David Fairclough that he preferred to use him as a sub, because his pace and direct running could help turn a game in Liverpool’s favour. But if the Reds were holding onto a slender lead, Paisley was rarely tempted to make changes. “I’d really rather have someone limping around, as long as he isn’t doing damage to himself,” he said, “because if you bring on some young sub, he just raises the tempo of the game, running around like a blue-arsed fly, and then all of a sudden the whole flow of your game can disappear, and you can finish up losing it.”

Ray Kennedy stands out as the player who benefited most from Paisley’s wisdom, and whose tactical realignment gave the Reds a new dimension. Kennedy, bought by Shankly as a burly centre-forward, replaced Toshack as Kevin Keegan’s strike partner at the start of Paisley’s first season, and he did well enough. But the manager then moved the former Arsenal man a little deeper, to play behind the more established strike pairing. Kennedy again showed some quality, but it was only the following season that he nailed down a role in the side — on the left of midfield. Clearly Kennedy had the skills necessary for the role — excellent control, an eye for a pass, and the ability to score goals — but given his size and previous role, it still wasn’t an obvious move to make. But it worked to perfection; Kennedy was reborn.

While tactics have always been part of football, there were arguably fewer variations back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Formations were most likely to be 4-4-2, although in the case of Liverpool, the role of Dalglish between midfield and attack might have been described as 4-4-1-1 in today’s game. It’s fair to say that football has evolved tactically since the days of Shankly and Paisley; that’s only natural, as all sports develop over time. But the progression of ideas and methodologies has clearly been accelerated by the advances in technology. Television has accelarated the proliferation of systems by which comparisons can be made, while computer software has enabled managers to look into all aspects of the playing style of both their own personnel and that of the opposition. There was less information readily available to hand in the ‘60s and ‘70s. One problem Paisley faced was that, due to the Reds’ success, everyone could see how they played; but checking out the opposition wasn’t as easy in return. John Neal, the Chelsea boss, observed: “It’s strange really, but every manager in the land can recite precisely how Liverpool play because they see them so often on television. But how many managers know how to beat them?” In turn, scouting the opposition, particularly in Europe, was taken very seriously at Liverpool. Before the European Cup Final of 1977, Tom Saunders watched Borussia Mönchengladbach in person on no less than six occasions.

The greatest strength of Bob Paisley, though, had to be his ability to sign the right players for his team, allied to an excellent sense of when to let existing players go. Not only were his signings on balance the best of any Liverpool manager, but he never kept a player past his sell-by date. Unlike Shankly, Paisley was ruthless when it came to letting older players go. He didn’t enjoy the process, but he didn’t let any sentimentality cloud his judgement.


Paisley’s weakness, if he had one, was his inability to communicate particularly clearly. Dealing with the media was fraught, and even his own players were sometimes left scratching their heads. In 1977, England striker David Johnson, who’d cost a club record £200,000 a year earlier, went public about his frustration with Paisley. “The manager and myself, for some unknown reason, have never really been able to communicate and so a feeling of unrest has affected me.” But it seems churlish to pick up on Paisley’s failure with words. His record proves that more often than not he got his message across to the team, and that was the main thing.

Historical Context — Strength of Rivals and League

Nigel Clough's Nottingham Forest proved an obstacle to Liverpool's ambitionsWhen Bob Paisley took charge, Leeds United had been the club’s greatest rival, having just pipped the Reds for the league title in Shankly’s last season. But while the Yorkshire club struggled after replacing their legendary manager (Don Revie), Liverpool moved from strength to strength after replacing theirs. In what seems almost unthinkable now, Manchester United were relegated that eventful summer in 1974, although they’d finish 3rd in the top division two seasons later. At that time it wasn’t unheard of for promoted teams to take their momentum into the First Division, as Nottingham Forest showed in 1978 by winning the league as a newly promoted side. Manchester United’s new-found momentum quickly faded, and although they beat Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final, it would not be until 1980 that they made any kind of serious title challenge, finishing two points behind Paisley’s men. Two third-placed finishes in 1982 and 1983, both times considerably off the pace, was as close as they would come to challenging Paisley’s domination. Ron Atkinson succeeded Dave Sexton in 1981, after the latter had been in charge at Old Trafford for four years. Sexton had previously been the manager of QPR, where he had come within a whisker of landing the league crown. The west Londoners found themselves top after playing their final game of the 1975/76 season, but Liverpool’s late win over Wolverhampton Wanderers pushed Rangers down to second, and Paisley had the first of his six league titles.

With Revie taking charge of England in the summer of 1974, Jimmy Armfield, these days a respected pundit on BBC radio, led Leeds to the European Cup Final in his first season, suffering a 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich. Assisted by Don Howe, who later found greater fame after returning to Arsenal, Armfield was responsible for rebuilding Don Revie’s ageing side, and under his stewardship Leeds never finished outside of the top ten. The Elland Road club qualified for the UEFA cup, and reached FA and League Cup semi-finals, but were never a serious threat to Paisley’s Reds.

In 1981 Aston Villa emerged as a force, albeit temporarily, winning the league under Ron Saunders, followed 12 months later by the European Cup (with Tony Barton now in charge following Saunders’ resignation), before the Midlanders fell out of the picture. Ipswich, managed by Bobby Robson since 1969, were also fully established as a strong side by the end of the ‘70s. They gave Liverpool a fairly strong run for their money in 1982, but finished four points behind the champions. Robson had taken perennial strugglers Ipswich to 4th in 1973, and in the following nine seasons, the Portman Road outfit finished lower than 6th only once, in 1978 — when a 1–0 victory over Arsenal landed them the FA Cup. Ipswich finished 3rd in 1977 and 1980, and were runners-up to Aston Villa in 1981, in what was Liverpool’s worst league campaign under Paisley, when the Reds finished 5th. It was however a season in which Liverpool won both the European and League Cup, and Ipswich landed the UEFA Cup. When Bobby Robson took charge of England in 1982 the Suffolk club quickly fell away into mediocrity, posing no threat to the Liverpool manager during his swan song. In Paisley’s final season, Watford, with a youthful John Barnes raiding down their left wing, emerged under Graham Taylor, finishing 2nd in their first season in the top flight, albeit 11 points adrift of the Reds.

Paisley in his role as physio attending to Phil Boersma on 12th September 1970Bête Noire

It’s fairly clear that Brian Clough was the only major thorn in Paisley’s side during his time as Liverpool manager. Derby County, previously managed by Clough but now led by Dave Mackay, won the title in Paisley’s first season, two points ahead of Liverpool in 2nd. Clough, after a stint at Brighton, moved to Leeds in 1974, but lasted only 44 days. However, by the start of 1976, he pitched up at Nottingham Forest, and a great rivalry with Bob Paisley was set in motion. In 1977, when Liverpool won their first European Cup, Nottingham Forest were Second Division Champions. A year later, they were supplanting Paisley’s side as Champions of England. A year after that, they usurped the Reds as European Champions — beating Liverpool in the 1st round of the competition — and retained the trophy a year later. But in a tit-for-tat exchange, Paisley, whose side had regained the league title from the Midlands club, then took back possession of the European Cup too. Forest remained a top-half team for the remainder of Paisley’s career, but never rivalled the Reds again. However, Clough, who had experienced a hostile rivalry with Don Revie, had nothing but respect for Paisley: “He’s broken this silly myth that nice guys don’t win anything. He’s one of the nicest guys you could meet in any industry or any walk of life — and he’s a winner.”

Pedigree/Previous Experience

Untested as a manager beyond the environs of the reserves’ Central League, it’s fair to say that Paisley’s pedigree was seriously questioned. He seemed the archetypal no.2, a willing assistant but someone who didn’t exude natural leadership skills. It is all the more amazing to think that the man who won six league titles and three European Cups only managed for those nine years. He started at the top, and went out at the top.

Defining Moment

Paisley greatest challenge presented itself off the pitch — or rather, on the training pitches. What could be more of a test for Paisely than seeing his great friend and predecessor, Bill Shankly, turning up at training during his first season in charge?

Paisley was the club’s new manager. But becoming ‘boss’ was his greatest challenge. Shankly, appearing at Melwood, was being called ‘boss’ by the players, even though he was no longer in charge. Shankly’s presence, while far from malevolent, undermined Paisley. A newspaper article, in which Paisley was horribly misquoted as saying that he had run the show even during Shankly’s time, cut deep into the Scot’s heart. He should have known that his former assistant would never say such a thing, and even though Bob, who was blameless, apologised, the damage was done. Shankly never turned up at Melwood again. In time both men acknowledged it was the right decision, but the circumstances behind it were unfortunate.


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