Paul Tomkins on Bill Shankly

Paul Tomkins' book, Dynasty, is a reassessment and an in-depth analysis of every manager of the club over the last 50 years. For more information on Paul Tomkins visit his homepage.

Here's an exclusive look into an abridged version of Dynasty's chapter on Bill Shankly.


It’s impossible to imagine what Liverpool Football Club would now be like had Bill Shankly never arrived; his imprint remains so undeniably unique. Sleeping giants tend to awake sooner or later, but the man from Glenbuck was like a thousand alarm clocks sounding within the club’s inner halls. He took a tired team and a run-down institution and made them great. He did so on a relatively tight budget, and although the club would go on to even better things in his absence, he set the ball rolling. It was as if he took a tiny sphere of impacted snow, and released it down the side of an Alpine mountain; in time it grew and grew, until it was a giant snowball that caused an avalanche.

Having lost his way a little in the middle-to-latter part of his reign — seeing his ageing team hit a wall — Shankly faced something many great managers have encountered: the need to start again and rebuild. Few managers build one great side, let alone two. But that’s just what he did.

Whether or not Shankly ever stopped to consider that he was building a dynasty that would last well after his death is debatable, but there’s no doubting he wanted the club to be the best during his time in charge — a ‘bastion of invincibility’, as he famously put it.

Situation Inherited

Overgrown, unkempt and tired: the Melwood training ground that greeted Bill Shankly in December 1959. It had been five years since the club lost its top division status — after a half-century spent continuously in the big league. He didn’t need to think too deeply to see the disrepair behind the scenes as a metaphor for the club as a whole. Beyond implementing anything too fancy, it simply needed some care and attention, and the installation of a little pride. Anfield itself wasn’t in much better shape. There was not even any plumbing to enable the pitch to be watered — something Shankly rectified, to the tune of £3,000.

It’s a truism in football that a manager doesn’t take control of a side where all is well; rare are the appointments when everything is rosy, but of course, even those exceptions bring their own problems: replacing a retiring great can be more difficult than taking over from a sacked halfwit. Calling it quits while at the top would be the situation Shankly would ultimately present to his successor, Bob Paisley. But for Shankly in 1959, the problems were rife. Liverpool, league champions as recently as 1949, were now in the old Second Division. Phil Taylor had grown tired trying to get a big club back into the top flight, and resigned four years into the job.

Players Inherited

The squad Shankly inherited was not without talent and hope for the future. Of course, its most famous name was that of the legendary Billy Liddell, but he was just a month short of his 38th birthday when Shankly took charge. Alan A’Court was a fast and tricky outside-left in his mid-20s, and Ronnie Moran, at the same age, was a strong leader from right-back. Jimmy Melia was a talented ball-player capable of scoring goals as an inside forward, and played twice for England. Up front, Dave Hickson was a brutish centre-forward who had been signed from Everton, for whom he’d scored 111 goals in 243 games. Hickson had previously played under Shankly at Huddersfield, and although he scored 38 times in 67 appearances for the Reds, his disciplinary record proved problematic. At 30, he was not one for the future — but Roger Hunt, who had started to force his way into the first team picture, clearly was. Gerry Byrne was another future England international who had already made the breakthrough, although he was transfer listed when Shankly arrived. Then there was Ian Callaghan — the 18-year-old midfielder given his debut by the new manager five months into his reign. Callaghan would be twice that age when he played his final game for the club. Players like Hunt, Byrne and Callaghan meant that the strongest First XI had an average age of just 24. Clearly there was potential for the team to develop, but of course, it needed the right leadership.

It’s a myth that Shankly completely overhauled the squad almost overnight. If large squads are seen exclusively as part of the modern game, it may surprise younger readers to know that the playing staff in 1959 amounted to 40. The minimum wage of £20-a-week meant it was possible to have more players than were actually needed; unlike the present day, far fewer of the squad were actually part of the first team picture. It was a big playing staff containing a lot of dead wood. Shankly reckoned that 24 of them had to be got rid of, and within a year he had done so; but these were largely peripheral figures. Some of the older players, such as Liddell, retired, leaving a core of those Shankly inherited who would help the club regain its First Division status, and, before long, lead the charge to becoming champions of England.

State of Club

Although the board promised Shankly a handsome war chest — £60,000 — in order to entice him into the role, the main reason they appointed him was his ability to work on a shoestring budget. At Huddersfield he had generated more money than he spent. The Liverpool board’s mentality was strictly small-time, and frugality appealed to them. While Everton’s manager Johnny Carey was spending £82,000 on three players — before receiving an interest-free loan from John Moores to further strengthen the side — Shankly found himself working on a budget that had yet to stretch to the far lower amount he’d originally been promised.

Sir John Moores (left) and his brother Cecil Moores, founders of the Littlewoods Empire

Sir John Moores (left) and his brother Cecil Moores, founders of the Littlewoods Empire

The board also began interfering in team selection. As unthinkable as this seems in the modern age, the time had not long passed when the directors of football clubs were responsible for selecting the side; in that sense, Shankly was distinctly new school — no-one from the boardroom was going to be involved in the running of his team. “At a football club,” he once said, making his thoughts as plain as ever, “there’s a holy trinity — the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques”.

John Moores, owner of the multi-million pound Littlewoods empire, was a shareholder at Anfield, but a board member across the park at Everton. It was the Toffees who were on the receiving end of his generosity from 1960 onwards. He was not allowed to sit on the board of both clubs, even if he wanted to, but he could nominate someone to sit on Liverpool’s. He chose Eric Sawyer, the accountant in charge of Littlewoods’ finances. It would prove to be the turning point in Shankly’s time at Liverpool. Suddenly he had someone willing to loosen the purse strings and agree with his vision of investing in top-class players. If the crème de la crème of the the British game were not going to join a Second Division outfit, even if the club could afford them, then at least Shankly could be competitive in the transfer market for the standard of player he felt was needed: those with real quality, and who were up-and-coming. Unlike the other board members, who were stuffy and aloof, Sawyer was a man to whom Shankly could relate. Indeed, the two would share cups of tea and have two-way discussions, rather than Sawyer, as was the wont of his fellow board members, telling the manager how to run the team. Without the arrival of Sawyer, it’s hard to see how Shankly would have survived, let alone thrived. The Scot was constantly talking about resigning; without the intervention of the new director, he might well have been true to his word.

It also helped that Shankly began selling players for reasonably considerable fees –– raising £20,000 –– while his culling of an oversized playing staff reduced the wage bill. So while he demanded more money to spend, he wasn’t proving to be some reckless maverick with no appreciation of monetary matters.

In May 1961, with the help of Sawyer, Shankly took things to the next level. Ian St John was signed from Motherwell for £37,500 –– more than doubling the previous club record. St John had been a target of Shankly’s when at Huddersfield, and now the diminutive striker was looking for a move. Another player Shankly had coveted while in charge at Leeds Road was Ron Yeats, the giant Dundee United centre-back. Unlike St John, Yeats wasn’t looking for a move, but Shankly persuaded him to swap life in Scotland for a team he mischievously described as a “First Division side”; when Yeats quibbled, the manager pointed out that they would be, with him in the team. The fee was £30,000. Shankly famously told the journalists gathered at the press conference to “Just walk around him. He’s a colossus!”

Problems with the board did not end, however. In 1962, with Liverpool about to start the new campaign in the top division \ decade away, left-winger Johnny Morrisey was sold to arch-rivals Everton, against Shankly’s wishes, and for just £10,000, to add insult to injury. (A year later, Morrissey was a league winner at Goodison, to rub salt in the wounds.) Shankly was irate, but having steered the club back into top flight he was not about to walk away in a huff.

As the trophies started arriving in the mid-’60s, and as Shankly continued offloading players to balance the books, the problems died down, and an uneasy truce was generally maintained.

Assistance/Backroom Staff

Unusually for a football manager, Shankly chose not to bring in his own men when he moved to Anfield from Huddersfield. Trust is a big part of football management, and no manager can work with the feeling that someone in his direct command is not pulling in the same direction. As such, relationships built up in the early days of a manager’s career become cemented, to the point where it’s often actually a management team that is appointed. There’s always the likelihood that a manager joining from outside will put the noses of those already at the club out of joint, particularly if they had harboured hopes of landing the job themselves. But Shankly was happy to work with those employed by the club when Phil Taylor retired.

It proved to be an inspired decision; the entire future of Liverpool Football Club, long after Shankly’s retirement and even after his death, rested with those Shankly agreed to keep on. Bob Paisley, the former physio who would go on to win six league titles and three European Cups as manager, had just been appointed first-team trainer; meanwhile, running the reserves was Joe Fagan, who’d win the club’s fourth European Cup as part of an historic treble.

Shankly with his backroom staff: Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Reuben Bennett

Paisley acted as an important buffer, keeping problems with the players away from the manager. Shankly totally ostracised those with injuries — they were no use to him, and he wanted them fighting to be fit again — and on one occasion Paisley had to placate a young Kevin Keegan, whom the manager had called a malingerer. Paisley felt Keegan, who would later become famous for walking away from management roles when upset, was prepared to quit football on the spot. But the assistant manager dealt with the problem, without Shankly getting wind of the player’s distress.

Reuben Bennett had been appointed as the head of training the year before Shankly’s arrival. Bennett had played for Dundee with one of the other three Shankly brothers plying their trade in professional football, so Bill was aware of him prior to their working together. It just so happened that the two Scots hit it off brilliantly. Perhaps because he never went on to manage the club, Bennett is one of the less-heralded members of the original Boot Room. Finally, Albert Shelley was still at the club, albeit in an unofficial capacity, having been a trainer under George Kay in the 1940s. Shelley retired in 1959, at which point Paisley was promoted, but it didn’t keep Shelley from turning up to help with the more menial tasks.

Clearly Shankly was taking a gamble by retaining the existing staff. It’s easy with hindsight to see it as the exact opposite, given what we now know about the men at his side. But the club was underachieving when he arrived, and no-one on the staff had yet done much to prove himself, so a clean sweep could possibly have been justified. Instead he chose to keep them on and give them a chance, in the confidence that they would all move onto his wavelength; all he wanted in return was their absolute loyalty. “I don’t want anyone to carry stories about anyone else,” he told his new coaching staff. “If you come and tell me a story about someone else, whoever you’re telling the story about won’t go, the one who carries the story will go. I want everybody to be loyal to each other. We’ll all get together and have that one big strength.”

On the books in 1959 was 25-year-old left-back Ronnie Moran, another Boot Room legend in the making. Seven years later Moran, having lost his place in the team to Gerry Byrne, was appointed onto the coaching staff. Moran remained a player for another two years, both of which were spent in the reserves, helping the development of the younger players. In 1968 his appointment to the coaching staff became full-time, and he would remain there for another 30 years.

Then there were the men entrusted with finding future Liverpool players. Geoff Twentyman, a player who had left the club shortly after Shankly’s arrival in 1959, was recruited in 1967 as chief scout. His contribution in that role cannot be overstated. In the next six years Twentyman recommended Ray Clemence, Steve Heighway, Kevin Keegan, John Toshack and Jimmy Case, all signed during Shankly’s time, although Case would make his debut under Paisley. Twentyman was told to focus on the lower leagues, to spot up-and-coming young players who could acclimatise to Liverpool’s methods in the reserves. Quickly spotted in these insalubrious locales was 19-year-old Ray Clemence of Scunthorpe United, and within a couple of years, two 21-year-olds –– Alec Lindsay of Bury and Larry Lloyd of Bristol Rovers –– were added. Twentyman was absolutely crucial in the building of Shankly’s second great Liverpool team. Although Shankly almost always wanted to see those recommended to him for himself before committing to a transfer, without Twentymen recommending such talented prospects the club might never have prospered for a second time under the Scot, and the legacy could have petered out like an infertile bloodline.

One more vitally important appointment was made by Shankly. In 1968 Tom Saunders, a teacher and trainer of the Liverpool Boys team, was recruited as youth development officer — the first appointment of its kind in British football. Saunders remained in the role for almost two decades, with David Fairclough, Jimmy Case, Phil Thompson, Sammy Lee and Steve Heighway amongst those local lads who were under his command, either rising through the youth ranks or procured from local clubs as teenagers.

But the key to it all was when Shankly joined forces with Paisley — akin to John Lennon meeting Paul McCartney across the city two years earler. The best double acts operate on the same wavelength, but with different skills and attributes. They share a common ground, but one veers to the left, the other to the right. They balance each other out, and harmonise; singing different notes to make one cohesive voice.

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