The decades have drifted past, yet still I recall those Sunday afternoons when Nessie Shankly's kindly voice would come crackling down the line. "I'm sorry, Bill's not here," she would say. "He's over the park, playing football with the kids. When will he be back, you say? When he wins, of course." And you could hear the chuckle as she put down the telephone.
Half-an-hour later the man himself would come on, a touch breathless, to tell of his part in the nine-goal thriller and of how he had laid on the winner, with the park-keeper tapping his watch and the mothers calling them in for their tea. And then Bill Shankly would talk football.
And I, the rawest of rookies, would listen, scribble and revel in the tutorial.
The results of the scribblings would appear in a weekly magazine. A senior colleague, a trusted friend of Shankly, had approached him to write a column. Bill mulled it over for a moment and then, suddenly, he beamed. "I'll do it, on one condition," he said. "I don't want any payment."
We waited for an explanation. "I had to pay a lot of tax last year," he said. "Next year, when I see the tax man, he'll say: 'You reckon you've declared everything, Mr Shankly, but you haven't told us what you earned from this football column. So I reckon we've got you.' And I'll say: "I never took a bloody penny for it, so who's got who, son? Eh?" And he cackled triumphantly, as we attempted to interpret the economics of his prank.
It was vintage Shankly; surreal, mischievous yet curiously naive. For all his apparent confidence he was an unworldly man. That surreal aspect was an important key to his character.
When they were playing in London, Liverpool would frequently stay at a hotel in Surrey. Occasionally, because he was a friend of my father, Shankly would invite me for tea. The players would all attend and the meal would be conducted in total silence, save for the manager. I recall him reminiscing about the virtues of Scottish football pitches. "St Mirren, great pitch, encourages passing," he would say. And the myriad internationals would nod gravely. "Third Lanark, good pitch, mebbe not a great one," the manager would muse. More nods. "East Fife, good grass, professional-grass," he would declare. More nods. And you found yourself searching for the hidden camera. And yet, you knew you were in the presence of an extraordinary man because of the way in which other extraordinary men would treat him.
A few hours before a Scotland-England international at Hampden, Shankly could be found holding court in the lobby of a Glasgow hotel. He would remove his jacket and shoes before ordering pots of tea and telling tales of ancient battles to an audience which, quite literally, sat at his feet.
From time to time, old friends would look by - Jock Stein, perhaps, or Matt Busby. They would willingly serve as witnesses for his stories. "Am I right, Jock?... Tell 'em, Matt." And they would smile and pass on, having tipped their hats to an equal.
While other managers would take refuge in a coaching manual, Bill had a way of making a telling assessment in a phrase. I once saw him at a match at White Hart Lane, in which one of his forwards had missed what I thought was a plausible chance. Shankly put me right. "Wasn't a chance to him, son," he said. A pause. "But it might have been a chance to Jimmy Greaves, eh?"
The Press thought him wonderful and he enjoyed his popularity. When he came to London, he would stand in the car park at Spurs or Chelsea, hat on the back of his head and thumbs in his belt, greeting a dozen reporters by their first names. "Could the London managers do that?" he would ask. And he did not expect an answer.
Shankly was aware of his reputation as a "character" but his charm lay in the fact that he never played up to it. I truly doubt that he ever articulated the phrase for which he is most famous, the one about football being more important than life or death. It is arch and contrived, things that the man himself never was.
Yet he uttered a host of unrecorded views and observations which were shrewd and colourful and occasionally lacerating. He had the rare and wonderful gift of making good players great and great players sublime. He created not merely a team but a club. And he left not merely a memory but a legend.
I mention these things because he died 25 years ago this weekend. I often wonder what he would have made of the modern game with its thrusting, grasping agents and towering mountains of money.
I should love to have heard him on the subject of bungs, with his language ripe and his contempt withering.
As well he never knew such times. As well he lived in the age he did. As well he died knowing just how much we loved him. There is a line on his captivating statue at Anfield which says, quite simply: "He made the people happy."
Bill Shankly would have settled for that.
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