The fighting philosophy of Bill Shankly

An interview from The Guardian on December 17 1968. Eric Todd talks to a players' man who has always been 'daft about fitba'.

Like the state of holy matrimony, an interview with Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool, is not to be entered lightly. There is an element of chance about them both; in neither is the course of events predictable. Shankly has to be heard to be appreciated. Like Jim Sims, that much-loved slow bowler for Middlesex in years gone by, he expresses himself through the corner of his mouth. There the comparison ends. Sims favoured the confidential drawl, Shankly fires his words as if with a Gatling gun. And he does not often miss.

Thirty years have passed since my first sight of Shankly playing at Deepdale in the company of the Beatties (not related), the O'Donnells (brothers), Jimmy Milne, Jimmy Dougal and Harry Holdcroft, that most handsome of goalkeepers. Even in those days Shankly was a busy, fussy character who always played with his palms turned outwards, creating the remote illusion of a sailing ship striving for that little extra help from the wind.

"Naw, naw," protested Shankly, when I suggested that analogy. "It gave me strength. Did ye notice too that ah played on ma toes all the time? Like a ballet dancer? That gave me strength in ma calves, and ah've still got it. Preston was only a sma' place - Jim Taylor, the North End chairman, called us a village team - but it was a fine club who believed in modern methods. Ah lairned a great deal wi' Preston and ah've always tried tae pass on some o' those lessons.

"Ah was always daft about fitba'. Ah went tae Carlisle whan ah was 17 an' a half, moved tae Preston in 1933, an' finished pleyin' in 1949 when ah went tae Carlisle as their manager. They were a useful side but they hadnae a great deal o' ambition. But ah had. So when ah had the offer tae take over at Grimsby because they ware strugglin', ah went an' took less wages. Frae Grimsby ah went tae Workington, who were facin' extermination. They offered me a bonus if ah could save them. Ah got ma bonus. Then ah went as assistant tae Andy Beattie at Huddersfield an', when he left, ah took his place. Ah was made manager o' Liverpool in 1959 an' the rest you know. An' by the by, ah was never sacked in the whole o' ma life."

Shankly sipped his tea, long since cold, before he set off on a new theme. "People often ask me if ah ever made a mistake. Well, tae my mind 'mistake' is a misused word, especially in fitba'. For example, ye might say it was a mistake for a club tae buy such an' such a player but that is nae necessarily true. The player might not be able tae settle down or to fit in. He might no' suit his environment. Just bad luck. A fitballer's no' like a hat or a coat that you can leave at a shop if it doesna' fit or suit ye."

"Mind you, there are some managers ah've known who have gone about things the wrong way. The manager above all things should be solely responsible for the playing and training staffs and all tactics. He must be able tae coach and tae explain such basic things as how tae kick a ball and how tae pass it an' control it. In other words, he must know what he's talking about. What good is it tae go tae a golf professional for lessons if he disna' know the game? The same wi' a fitba' manager.

"Mind you, ah wouldna' say the best players make the best managers, although ah think that's been more the case in recent years - but a manager makes things so much harder for himself if he can't explain the game to his players. An' even that's only half the battle. Tae get the best out of his men, the manager has tae work tae a tactical plan they understand which need not necessarily be the one he'd like himself. For instance, at Liverpool we have Ian Callaghan and Peter Thompson, two of the best wingers in the game. They are as near tae the old orthodox wingers as there are, so why should they be used in any other way? It wouldn'a be fair for one thing. Natural ability is far too precious tae be messed about wi'."

"Before ah forget ah must just tell ye about Denis Law. When ah went tae Huddersfield, ah had charge o' the resairves, an' this wee boy o' 15 was one of them. Ye wouldna' hae thought so tae look at him but he had everything. He was fiery an' he was talented an' he was earmarked tae be a star. He was tae become one o' the greatest players ah ever set eyes on. Aye, he was that."

After this diversion Shankly picked up his management thread as if he had never left it. "As for me, if they're no' satisfied wi' me, they'll get rid o' me. We have a responsibility tae the people o' Liverpool. There was a great potential at Anfield when ah went there and ah like tae think ah have helped tae realise that potential. We have got tae try and maintain the high standard we have set, keepin' in line wi' other teams wi' ambition, an' mebbe winnin' the League Championship again. That would gi' us a record haul of eight league titles, one more than Manchester United and Arsenal."

Shankly is young enough to have expectations of seeing that day, successful enough to withstand those tribulations to which so many of his kind have succumbed, patient enough to go on making a living until he can retire and take Nessie, his long-suffering wife, on their first real holiday in 25 years. When they went to a football match during their honeymoon, Nessie had a hint of what was in store in the years ahead. "A wonderful, understanding woman," said Shankly, whose present idea of a holiday is to stay in bed until mid-morning.

He neither smokes nor drinks but sees no reason why others should not do so - in moderation - and he has a lively sense of humour, although he is not conscious of it. If he were asked to think of something funny, he would be a slow starter. He is, however, master of the "off the cuff" type of humour and frequently reduces his players and press conference to hysterics with asides he had meant to be taken seriously. The sayings of Shankly are as forthright and weighty as the sayings of Mao. In the streets around Anfield they are also much more respected.

Shankly is not impressed easily nor is he a willing subject for embarrassment. When he put through his own goal in Tom Finney's testimonial, he was no more remorseful than a lad caught pinching jam from the larder. Only once, perhaps, did he go close to blushing. He played in a game alongside Frank Soo of Stoke City and afterwards a Scottish selector among the crowd went up and put his arm round Shankly's shoulder. "Well done, Soo," he said. "You played a blinder." "He thought ah was the Chinese because of the way ma hair was cut," explains Shankly, and his chuckle is that of a corncrake in search of a mate.

I think it would be an exaggeration to say that Shankly is regarded generally as a "popular" manager - except at Anfield, where the Kop acknowledges him to be omnipotent. He is not as aloof as he used to be but he is not easy to know, not easy to draw out. His conversation, like the man himself, is fitful. He speaks in Morse, as it were. But for all that he is, and always has been, among the genuinely dedicated managers and his success as a player and as a manager has been achieved the hard way. He has in his time made mistakes over transfers - that is my view, not his - but he covered them up effectively. Above all, Shankly is a players' man who knows that if he fights for them, they will fight for him. It seems a sound philosophy.

The Duke of Wellington is reported to have made sure personally that his troops - who did most of the work - had comfortable billets. Shankly subscribes to the same principles and now squeezes the duties of accommodation inspector into his already congested schedule.

Before I left him, Shankly summoned the manager of a hotel and gave him his instructions. "There'll be, eh, 17, in the party," he said. "So, eh, that'll be 17 fillet steaks - ah'll let ye know how we want them done when we arrive - wi' chips. For afterwards, eh, there'll be 17 fresh fruit salads an' fresh cream. Right? Then for breakfast, eh ..." A players' man indeed.

Copyright - The Guardian

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