I only ever met Bill Shankly once. It was in the summer of 1981. Liverpool had just won the European Cup for the third time, having beaten Real Madrid 1-0 in Paris.
I’d popped in to see my Aunty Pat who lived in West Derby, not far from Liverpool’s training ground. Shanks, too, lived in the area (he was Shanks to everybody, of course, even those who weren’t acquainted).
Waiting for the bus back into town, I spotted a familiar figure coming out of the newsagents opposite. He was slightly stooped, a little more frail than you’d want to believe - but the twinkling eyes were unmistakable, at odds with such a pugnacious face.
It was definitely him. It was Bill Shankly. The first time I saw him in person had been 20 years previously, and in spite of him barking in my ear it was to be one of the defining days of my life. Subsequently, there’d been two further occasions when I passed Bill Shankly in the street. Both times I’d nodded humbly - or grimaced, more likely, so terrifying was the prospect of actually speaking to the great man. This time though, something came over me. It felt like a now-or-never moment and I was blooming well going to do something about it!
I bounded across the road, trying to think what to say when I caught up with him. The closer I got, the sillier I felt. I could now hear how daft I’d sound as I tapped him on the back and said something stupid.
In my own ear, even “alright, Bill?“ sounded trite. Yet everything I’d read, everything I’d heard, everyone you absorbed as a Liverpool fan growing up in the 70s suggested Shanks’d be an approachable, down-to-earth man - one of those characters of whom it’s said: “he had time for everyone.”
I wanted him to know I’d been there, in Paris. My brother and I had been on a great adventure - National Express to Victoria, boat train to Dover and a night crossing to Calais, arriving in Paris at first light, ready for anything. We were, as the song went, on the dole, drinking wine in Paree - and it was absolutely f*****g brilliant.
Everything was magical, from the Left Bank drinking dens to Alan Kennedy’s match winner, and the Reds were still walking tall from it. I wanted Shanks to know all this.
He was born in 1913 in Glenbuck, a mining village on the Ayrshire-Lanarkshire Border. It’s tempting to romance about football being more of a credo than a passtime among the tough Scots miners, but it remains a fact that in the years between the two World Wars, 49 men from the area became professional footballers. That’s a startling ratio: nearly 50 pros hailing from such a small catchment area over a 20 year period.
Shankly had 5 sisters and 4 brothers - Sandy, Jimmy, John and Bob, all older than he. By the time of the General Strike in 1926, it was next to impossible to make a living from the mines. Some moved on to other villages, others stayed put. The Shanklys stayed in Glenbuck where the population dwindled to around 500. But while Shankly was under no illusions about the harshness of his upbringing, he was fiercely proud of the ethics Glenbuck instilled in him: honesty; hard work; sobriety; family, team and community above all selfish concerns; and humour.
Everyone in Glenbuck was a storyteller or a wise-cracker. These would be the core values that defined Bill Shankly, and in particular his devotion to the team ethic.
The Shankly Brothers were a formidable five-a-side team. Five-a-side was a craze among the miners (indeed, when he signed for his first team, Carlisle United, Shankly was amazed and a little disappointed to discover the game hadn‘t yet travelled South).
Scratch teams travelled from all over the region to have a crack at the Shankly team. The legend endures that the boys went 3 years and over 300 games unbeaten. A love of football and an innate ability ran deep in the family. The boys’ Uncle Bob played for Glasgow Rangers, while their Uncle Will preceded Bill Shankly himself in playing for both Carlisle and Preston North End.
Each of Shanks’ brothers went on to become a professional footballer, and when young Bill’s turn came in 1932 he left Glenbuck with unshakeable principles - graft, teamwork, and five-a-side.
He wasn’t all blood, sweat and granite though. Shankly may have revelled in his physical likeness to James Cagney, but he developed into a very cultured wing-half, so much so that within a year of leaving Glenbuck he was playing alongside Tom Finney at Preston. Shankly’s proudest moment as a player came against Finney at Wembley in 1938, when Scotland beat a powerful England team 1-0. It was in many ways to be Shanks’ swansong as a player.
The Second World War stole 6 years of Shankly’s footballing prime. Coming back to Preston in 1946, he found opportunities limited. He’d left with assurances ringing in his ears, but not even a man of his word like Shankly truly expected those promises to be honoured.
Rather than hanging on grimly for his testimonial game, he called upon on all his reserves of pragmatism. He would, quite simply, become the greatest football manager of his generation. He accepted £14 per week to return to Carlisle as coach.
What followed was a cycle of disappointment and frustration for Bill Shankly. His tenure at each club he managed - he had stints at Carlisle, Grimsby, Workington and Huddersfield before finally getting the Liverpool job - was typified by a hurricane of enthusiasm and ideas ultimately being ground down to drudgery by the board.
Wherever Shanks worked, no board of directors matched his ambitions. He was progressive beyond his times in terms of training facilities, regime, diet, scouting and tactics, but his moribund board would seldom back his vision. At Huddersfield he signed a talented 15 year-old called Dennis Law. After he broke into the first team at 16, Shanks recommended improving Law’s terms and tenure - part goodwill, part good business - but the board saw no reason to increase the wages of a player they already had under contract. The following season, in 1956, the board wanted to accept an offer of £45,000 for Law, from Everton. Shanks went ballistic.
“Get out your diary and write this down. One day, Dennis Law will be transferred for £100,000.”
Such spats became the norm between Shankly and his board, and by the time Law was eventually sold, Shanks had moved on. Having been passed over in 1951 for the vacant Liverpool job, Shankly was thrilled when the chairman, T.V Williams, this time offered him the post. It was 1959, and Liverpool had been scratching around the top of the old Second Division, playing to huge crowds but very much the under-resourced, under-achieving leviathan that, say, Leeds United resemble today.
Shankly had been to Liverpool many times to pursue his passion for boxing, and he’d fallen in love with Anfield, too. Speaking of his first impressions though, it could have been Rafael Benitez talking.
“I’d heard Liverpool’s crowd and I thought - oh, what a place! But the situation was appalling. The potential was massive, but the prospects were non-existent. The supporters were, really, just hoping for a miracle.”
He inherited an overgrown, dilapidated training ground at Melwood - its water mains were serviced by one tap and a pipe - and a backroom staff of Joe Fagan, Ruben Bennett, and a recently-retired wing-half he’d come up against called Bob Paisley. In an astonishing display of faith and loyalty, Shankly summoned the three of them and told them he’d be keeping them on. This was not just out-and-out altruism, though.
Shankly was already well aware that loyalty, above all else, was the quality a manager required of his support staff. Fagan, Bennett and Paisley, who’d already been touting for new jobs, would be sure to repay their reprieve with absolute, unswerving commitment to Shankly’s cause.
What came next is the stuff of folklore. Shankly’s first, iconic signings - Ron Yeats, Ian St.John, Gordon Milne. Promotion from Division Two. The addition of Peter Thompson (along with a failed swoop for Jackie Charlton) to his ever-improving team. Winning the League in 64, the F.A Cup in 65, the League again in 66.
Legendary battles and travesties against Anderlecht, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund, when the Kop was a wall of sound and Liverpool took 80,000 fans to the Cup Winners Cup final in Glasgow (Hampden held 135,000 in those days!).
I experienced much of this vicariously, waking up to find souvenirs my Dad had brought back from the San Siro, or Ajax - or Reykjavik. I can well remember him chortling over a much-reported comment Shanks had made to Jock Stein. The night before, Liverpool had survived a siege from Glasgow Celtic in the semi-final of the Cup Winners Cup at Anfield.
In a pay-at-the turnstile era when anyone could take a bottle of into the ground, Celtic had brought 10,000 fans, an army to rank with the Spion Kop in terms of noise and ardour for their team. They’d felt they should have had a penalty at the death (which would have brought the teams level) and let their disgust be known in the form of hundreds and thousands of bottles hurled from the Anfield Road End onto the pitch.
Shankly turned to Stein and said: “Do you want your share of the gate money, Jock? Or will you just return the empties?”
I was first aware of the messianic status he’d cultivated when my Dad, notwithstanding the righteous ire of our mother, erected a framed photograph of Shanks halfway up the stairs. He’d touch it, 'This Is Anfield' style, each time he passed. Prior to that, the only wall adornments allowed had been of the holy variety - along with a strange, bubbly print of Conway harbour.
Dad argued that Shankly was our Saviour, too. Not long afterwards, I overheard a heated debate between Dad and our Liverpool-supporting neighbour John Jones about the acquisition of our newest player.
“He’ll be trouble, mark my words” said John. “He hasn’t been signed ten minutes and he’s been in a pub fight.”
“You’ve got to trust Shanks”, said Dad. “He knows.”
This is one of the few occasions I can recall when the two men who knew everything - Bill Shankly and my father - were wrong. The player in question was the 18 year-old Alun Evans, signed from Wolves in 1969 for £100,000 and arriving with a reputation on and off the pitch.
He became my first real idol and to this day I believe he could, and should have starred for England. Sublimely gifted, he was the Stan Collymore of his generation - fond of his nightlife, and a magnet for trouble. Most archive photographs show Evans with a boyish blond mop of hair and a savage scar running the length of his cheek - testament to a night club glassing incident. Shankly knew his players, but even Evans was too much for him. Like Collymore he moved on to Aston Villa, his genius untapped.
For me personally, the lifetime bond, that unique and potent and irrational love that you have for your club and you take to the grave with you came the day Bill Shankly barked in my ear. I’d spent the summer on 1971 trying to find a pair of Flemings (jeans worn by skinheads) to fit me. I’d washed cars, run errands and made promises, and in return I was going to be allowed to go to Liverpool’s first game of the season on my own.
It was a home game against Nottingham Forest and, for so many reasons, it’s a day I will never forget. Firstly, Kevin Keegan made his debut. Forget Alun Evans - here was a player who was small (like me) and called Kevin (like me). He was dynamite. He was everywhere.
He scored one and made one in a 3-1 win, and I bought a T-shirt with his autograph printed under his dimpled face. To this very day I sign the ‘Kevin’ bit of my name in the way that Keegan signed his. The second thing to cherish is that this was my first match in the Kop.
I’d been to lots of games intermittently since 1965 - some on my Dad’s knee in the Kemlyn Road stand, some with my Granddad Keeley in the Paddock or the Anfield Road. Most of those games I stood transfixed by the sight and spectacle of the Kop.
In those days You’ll Never Walk Alone was an unbelievable ritual. There were no sightseers - from one side of the Kop to the other it was an unbroken sea of scarves, everybody singing, a swaying, seething mass of red and white - 28,000 eddying souls in unison. I was obsessed with joining them so, small for my age as I was, I queued up, squeezed in and positioned myself in its least dense corner, the off-white wall in the top left-hand corner as you looked at the Kop.
It remains one of the most exhilarating afternoons of my life. For one thing, the noise was so loud that it actually trebled out into one long, squealing, oscillating alto note. It was like an electric current. You could feel it building through the steel of the crush barriers and, as it reached a crescendo, it’d go right off the scale, reverberating in your ears like an aural white noise. My ears were ringing for hours afterwards.
Another thing I recall about that game is my first sight of football violence. I had to go and meet my Granddad on the corner of Skerries Road and Anfield Road, and was initially confused by the crowd I got caught up in. There were about 30 or 40 biker-types - looking back now, I suppose they’d have been Rockers.
Looking back, too, they were Forest’s hard core, and they’d left the match early to come round to the Kop. Liverpool’s skinheads came charging down the Kop’s steps, but it was all over before it had even begun. The first few dozen out of the gates ran into the greasers. There was a bit of skirmishing, a few kicks and punches and a few bloodied noses before the police arrived and the Rockers ran back towards Anfield Road.
But as for me, I thought I’d just witnessed the Alamo. I stood there, tingling from the rush of adrenalin - that was great! A fourth momentous happening in a few short hours. For the other great moment that day had come two hours before kick-off when, pushing and shoving in the Main Stand car park, trying to get a glimpse of the players as they arrived, I was shocked by a gravely voice, right in my ear.
“Come on, lads. Make way.”
I turned around and there was Shankly - wearing the most disgraceful purple shirt you can imagine! I just stared at him, speechless, and moved to let him through. People talk of key moments and turning points in their lives, but this is the day I really felt part of something huge. I knew what it was to belong to that enormous life force that was LFC, and right there in front of me, in the form of Bill Shankly was Liverpool’s existential emblem - close enough to touch.
That was the start of my lifelong affair with the team Bill Shankly built. You revelled in Shankly’s mind-games and witticisms. It wasn’t his pithiest piece of oratory ever, but when he said the city of Liverpool boasted two great teams, Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves, it felt like you had Keir Hardie at the helm. He was a man of the people, and the way he rolled his ’r’s’, the very timbre of his voice could inspire you, making you feel you belonged to an unstoppable legion. So many and splendid were his epithets, indeed, that Shankly joined Chairman Mao in having his own Little Red Book published.
Ray Clemence, Steve Heighway and John Toshack joined Keegan, Tommy Smith, Larry Lloyd and thousands of kids like me on a journey through the early 70s that saw Liverpool win the League and the UEFA Cup in 1973, and the F.A Cup again in 1974. Malcolm MacDonald had said it’d be a rout and he was right: Liverpool’s 3-0 victory was one of the most one-sided finals ever.
It was as though Shankly knew that was to be his curtain-call. By no means as modest as folklore would have you believe, Shankly played to the cameras that day, driving his team on with series of arcane racecourse tic-tack gestures - and yet another hideous shirt. Striding across the pitch toward the travelling Kop to take his acclaim, Shanks was stopped in his tracks by two acolytes falling at his feet in adoration.
“Give ‘em a good polish, lads”, he said. “I’ve got to see the Queen in a mo.”
I was, truly, shellshocked when news of his retirement filtered through that July. It was 1974 and I’d only just started going to all the games, home and away. I felt betrayed. From the euphoria of winning the Cup (and it seems alien, now, to recall what feelings of joy and pride the Cup could evoke) it felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world. Shankly had gone. It was all over. How on earth do you replace that? No real reason was given for his departure, though rumours rumbled long after he was gone. Bob Paisley was appointed, Ray Kennedy signed and a new season started.
For me, the sad reality is that I soon forgot Shanks. The team I loved grew stronger and even better, and sent us out on adventures the length and breadth of Europe. I came of age watching Liverpool, and I think that’s what was in my head as I ran across the road after Bill Shankly. I’d heard stories that he felt shunned by Liverpool these days, disillusioned that his role in the club’s re-birth had not been fully acknowledged.
I was 19, and seeing this living legend in the flesh, I wanted to tell him - for what it was worth - that he was a hero. That he’d made a difference. That I was just one of thousands of young lads whose life he’d changed, forever. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to say any of this and as I caught up with him I knew I’d chicken out.
Slightly out of breath I just said: “Bill! Did you go?”
He turned around.
I think I’ve erased what happened next. I think his eyes showed confusion. He seemed to ask himself if I was taking the piss. Whatever, he was rattled and he didn’t want to chat. He made a growling sound, half-flapped his hand at me, turned and went on his way. The strange thing was that I didn’t feel depressed at all by the encounter.
I walked away thinking: “Wow. I’ve spoken to Bill Shankly.“ Two months later he died of a heart-attack.
Our next game after Shankly died was at home to newly-promoted Swansea City. There’s no suggestion that the Swansea fans would have knowingly shown disrespect to a figure such as Shanks, but the truth is that, drunk on the novelty of their foray into the Big League, the Swansea fans were still piling into the Anfield Road end singing lustily as the minute’s silence took place.
As soon as the silence was over Anfield - not just the Kop but the steady-goers in the seats as well - greeted the Swansea hordes with a deafening: “You’re gonna get your f****n’ heads kicked in!” Somehow it was a fitting aubade to Shankly - populist, passionate and pugnacious to the end.
After his retirement, Shankly gave an interview to Radio Merseyside. Looking back on his achievements with Liverpool.
He said: “I was only ever in it for the love of football. I wanted to bring happiness to the people of Liverpool.”
A statue of Bill Shankly stands outside the Kop these days. Its tribute is simple, but eternal. It says: “Bill Shankly. He made the People happy.”
Copyright- Kevin Sampson