Paul Tomkins on Bob Paisley

Transfer Masterstroke

Paisley and Dalglish celebrating at Wembley winning the double in 1986Without a shadow of a doubt Bob Paisley’s transfer masterstroke has to be Kenny Dalglish — quite simply the best player ever to represent the club. Dalglish wasn’t cheap: £440,000, an English record in 1977, although still £60,000 less than the club had just received that summer from Hamburg for Kevin Keegan. Having sealed the deal, Paisley said to Peter Robinson “We’d better get out of Glasgow before they realise what they’ve done.”

Other signings are in close contention, though. While no player eclipsed Dalglish in terms of quality, others were bought for far less, represented the club far longer, and won lots more medals. The £100,000 spent on Alan Hansen was a case of daylight robbery — the best value for money out of all Paisley’s signings. Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol were all taken from relative obscurity to form the backbone of 1980s Liverpool FC; indeed they were all valuable players in Dalglish’s own time as manager. Graeme Souness was another inspired signing who offered excellent value for money. But despite his British-record fee, none can eclipse Dalglish; a player who made everything come together on the pitch. “I just hoped that after the trials and tribulations of my early years in management, someone up high would smile on me and guide my hand,” Paisley recalled. “My plea was answered when we got Kenny Dalglish. What a player, what a great professional!”

Dalglish’s time north of the border brought incredible success. Five Scottish Championships, four Scottish Cup-winners’ medals, one Scottish League Cup-winners’ medal and a hugely impressive haul of 167 goals for a striker who was so much more than just a finisher. It seems crazy now to think that plenty of people doubted the wisdom of the signing, and wondered whether or not he could hack it south of the border. But it’s easy to forget how influential Kevin Keegan had become by 1977, and how irreplaceable he seemed. Dalglish not only made a seamless transition, but he actually improved the team. However, Paisley, a long-time admirer of the Scot, had wanted both players in the same team. He felt great players could always play together, and he appreciated their contrasting styles. “Kevin’s ability to run with the ball would have been complemented by Kenny’s outstanding ability as a purveyor of it, his liking for people being around him enabling him to capitalise on his great vision. Kevin injected a racy tempo with his mobility whereas Kenny stroked the ball around.” Dalglish was someone who read what team-mates and opponents did, whereas Keegan reacted to them.

Dalglish was handed Keegan’s no.7 shirt, so comparisons were inescapable. But he got off to a great start, scoring after just seven minutes on his league debut away at Middlesbrough, and then again on his home debut against Newcastle. In his debut season he notched 30 goals, including the winner in the 1978 European Cup Final at Wembley, as the Reds retained the trophy.

So was Dalglish better than Keegan? Tommy Smith, who played with them both, has no doubts, saying “Dalglish was the better player. His talent was heaven-sent.” And Paisley was also in no doubt: “Of all the players I have played alongside, managed and coached in more than 40 years at Anfield, he is the most talented.” When Liverpool met Hamburg in the 1977 European Super Cup, Liverpool thrashed Keegan’s new team 6-0, with Dalglish the star of the show. The ghost of Keegan had been lain to rest.

Paisley’s Liverpool went on to dominate English football for the remainder of his days in charge, with Dalglish the fulcrum for the attacking play. In 1979 they regained their league title with a record number of points — 68, under the old two points for a win system. They were undefeated at home, and conceded just 16 goals in 42 games. Dalglish scored 25 goals that season and was voted Footballer of the Year. Paisley’s Liverpool retained the Championship in 1980, won the League Cup three years in a row between 1981 and 1983, and won the second of what would end up being three consecutive titles in 1983. With Dalglish in the team, the Reds also won two more European Cups. Dalglish was in his pomp, and became Footballer of the Year for the second time in 1983.

Expensive Folly

Considering that by 1982 several top-flight managers had flops on their hands who cost as much as £1.5m, Paisley’s failure with David Hodgson, bought for £450,000, is therefore easy to put into perspective. Not quite 22, Hodgson was a young pace merchant who lacked that extra something special to flourish at Liverpool. He started well, scoring four times in his first six games, but only scored six more in his remaining 43 appearances. Two years after his arrival he was sold to Sunderland for just over a quarter of the fee originally paid.

Frank McGarvey, who, relatively speaking, cost more than Hodgson when he was signed for £300,000 in 1979, would be another obvious candidate, particularly as the Scot never even played a first team game. But within a year Liverpool had sold him for £325,000. As such, he can almost be considered a non-signing.

One Who Got Away

Not many players dared refuse Liverpool by the time Paisley was in charge. The club had the money to go for all of its main targets — in contrast to early life under Shankly, and in more recent years — and Liverpool had by then reached the pinnacle of the European game. When Kevin Keegan left for pastures new, Liverpool were linked with Arsenal’s Liam Brady and Birmingham’s Trevor Francis. However, Brady, while respected, was not on Paisley’s radar. Francis, meanwhile, was seen as too injury prone; Paisley felt it was crucial that players could be called upon all season long. And anyway, he’d already lined up a replacement: Kenny Dalglish.

One player the club did fail to land was Mark Lawrenson — initially at least. Although he was finally signed in 1981, the Reds had bid £75,000 four years earlier, when the stylish Preston centre-back was only 19. At the time Lawrenson moved to Brighton, whose manager Alan Müllery outbid Paisley with an offer of £112,000. After four years on the south coast it cost Liverpool a club record £900,000 to bring him back to the north-west. Even then, Liverpool almost missed out; Müllery had agreed to sell him to Manchester United. Fortunately for Paisley, the club’s hierarchy were at the same time agreeing to sell him to Liverpool.

Joe Jordan, the tough Scottish centre-forward, admitted he had turned down Liverpool in 1978, opting instead to move to Manchester United for £350,000, a record transfer between English clubs. A few days later Paisley moved to sign Graeme Souness, for £2,000 more. Jordan would be the one left with regrets, while Souness and Paisley instead collected medals.

Budget — Historical Context

Once Manchester United were promoted back to the top flight in 1975, they continued to spend heavily to try and regain top billing in English football. The side that beat Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final (including the substitute) cost on average almost one-third of the English transfer record: 30.7%. Liverpool’s twelve men, by comparison, cost only a quarter of the record: 24.6%. Come forward six years, to the 1983 League Cup Final, and United’s team, though much changed, was still at an almost identical percentage of the record fee. However, Paisley’s side, with the addition of Dalglish, Souness and Lawrenson in particular, now cost 36.1%.

In between, United, who were runners-up to Arsenal in the FA Cup in 1979 and in the league to Liverpool in 1980, fielded a more expensive side; the team that lost to Arsenal at Wembley in 1979 averaged at 40% of the English record. Bryan Robson, the English transfer record holder between 1981 and 1987, was absent from the 1983 League Cup Final, significantly reducing the average cost as they lost 2-1 to Paisley’s men, while in 1980 United had signed Nottingham Forest’s Garry Birtles for £1.25m. Also in the side in the early part of the decade were Ray Wilkins, signed from Chelsea for £800,000 in 1980, and Gordon McQueen, who broke the English transfer record in 1978 with his £495,000 move from Leeds. Lou Macari and Frank Stapleton were another two expensive players still in the ranks.

But apart from 1980 and a couple of cup finals three years either side, United were not the main rivals to Paisley’s Liverpool. That honour belonged to Nottingham Forest. Unlike United, Forest were initially lacking in big-money signings. The team that won the 1979 European Cup cost just over 20% of the English record. It included Larry Lloyd, sold by Paisley for £240,000 in 1974 but who, two years later, was picked up by the Midlands club for just a quarter of that figure. In goal, Peter Shilton had cost £270,000 in 1977, a month after Paisley’s capture of Dalglish set a new record at £440,000. Otherwise it was mostly bargains and home-grown talents, with one exception: Trevor Francis, the country’s first million-pound footballer, who arrived at the start of 1979. By contrast, Garry Birtles cost Clough just £2,000 in 1976.

One team who spent extremely big at the start of Paisley’s reign was Everton. Burly striker Bob Latchford set the new English record, at £350,000 in 1974, at a point when Everton were on the up; the Toffees had ended 7th in the table after three bottom-half finishes. Midfielder Martin Dobson cost £300,000 that same summer — a new record for a cash deal (Latchford’s move involved player swaps, and was valued at £50,000 more). The 1974 signings moved towards the million mark with Jim Pearson, a striker who cost £100,000. Everton finished 4th the next season, just three points off Derby County and two points behind Liverpool. In 1976 Everton signed two players for a combined £400,000, one of whom was the talented Duncan McKenzie; a year later they bought Dave Thomas from QPR for £200,000 and goalkeeper George Wood from Blackpool for £140,000. John Bailey, a left-back who cost £300,000, was added in 1979. Billy Bingham, and Gordon Lee, who took over in 1977, both spent lavishly, but Everton finished 11th and 9th in 1976 and 1977 respectively. They did reach the League Cup Final in 1977, only to be beaten by Aston Villa, and lost to the Reds in the FA Cup semi-final when McKenzie had a goal disallowed for handball (a decision Evertonians are still bitter about). A couple of bright seasons followed, with 3rd and 4th-placed finishes, but they were miles off the pace both times, and then they finished 19th in the 22-team league a year later. Everton eventually did come good in the mid-’80s; by then, however, Bob Paisley had retired.

League Championship: ‘75-76, ‘76-77, ‘78-79, ‘79-80, ‘81-82, ‘82-83.
European Cup: 1977, 1978, 1981. League Cups: 1981, 1982, 1983.
UEFA Cup 1976.

P W D L F A %
Overall 535 307 132 96 955 406 57.38%
League 378 212 99 67 648 294 56.08%
FA Cup 36 20 7 9 62 27 55.56%
League Cup 53 32 13 8 98 31 60.38%
Europe 61 39 11 11 140 49 63.93%
Other 7 4 2 1 7 5 57.14%


Whether or not Bob Paisley is Liverpool’s greatest manager, he is certainly the man who lifted the club to its zenith. Indeed, in terms of achievements in relation to time spent in the job, he cannot be bettered in English football. Alex Ferguson has since exceeded his number of league titles and, along with Brian Clough, come close to matching Paisley’s three European Cup triumphs. But Ferguson, at the time of writing, has been in the job for two-and-a-half times as long. The only way Paisley can be overlooked for the top spot in the pantheon is on account of inheriting a successful side to start with. Modest to a fault, he credited his predecessor. “Bill Shankly set such a high standard,” he said. “Liverpool have been geared to this sort of thing for 15 years. I have just helped things along.”

However, with the work he put in behind the scenes, particularly his tactical acumen and how he offered a crucial counterpoint to Shankly’s abrasive edge, Paisley was heavily responsible for Liverpool rising out of the old Second Division in the first place. Allied to the incredible success he achieved once he’d taken full control of the team, you have testimony to a quite remarkable football man, who died in 1996, at the age of 77, after Alzheimer’s Disease had cruelly claimed his remarkable set of memories.

Ron Aktinson, a rival manager at West Bromich Albion and Manchester United, perhaps coined the greatest summation of the man: “If Bob Paisley had been on the continent or in America, in whatever capacity or field he worked, and achieved what he achieved, I think he’d be rated higher than the President, the Lord Mayor, the King or the Queen or whatever.”

Copyright - Paul Tomkins


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