Paul Tomkins on Bob Paisley

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:

Here's an exclusive look into an abridged version of Dynasty's chapter on Bob Paisley.


In debates about who is the greatest-ever manager in British football, there is often a grave omission. Names routinely mentioned are those of Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, Brian Clough, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. In years to come, perhaps Arsène Wenger will warrant inclusion. But too often the name of the most successful is absent: Bob Paisley, a man who won three European Cups and, in the year after his retirement, his successor, Joe Fagan, with what was pretty much still Paisley’s team, won a fourth. In nine years, Paisley also won the league six times — fewer than Alex Ferguson, but at a far more prolific rate. Tommy Docherty, the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager, once said: “It annoys me when they talk about the great managers and he never gets a mention. He was the best of the lot.”

The problem in terms of perception is that Paisley inherited a team riding the crest of a wave. Also, unlike Clough, who’d succeeded at Derby, and Ferguson, who made his name at Aberdeen, Paisley hadn’t had success at another club first, so couldn’t point to that experience. And unlike pretty much every name mentioned, Paisley didn’t build up a club from a position of relative failure. Of course, he was still an integral part of the initial Liverpool revolution. And while he didn’t build Liverpool up from scratch, he definitely took a team he’d already helped fashion to a whole new level.

Then there was the fact that he didn’t talk a good game — not to the press, at least. He didn’t have the bullish bravado of Shankly, nor the style and swagger of a man like Malcolm Allison, whose style masked a lack of great substance. It says a lot about the man that Paisley turned up to sign Mark Lawrenson in 1981 dressed in cardigan and slippers.

Situation Inherited

John Smith, current chairman of Liverpool and TV Williams, former chairman, with Bob Paisley in 1974

John Smith, current chairman of Liverpool and TV Williams, former chairman, with Bob Paisley in 1974

Bob Paisley was a reluctant manager, telling his players that he only took the job under duress, and that it would only be a temporary appointment. He had grown used to Shankly threatening to walk away, but never doing so. So when the Scot actually did, the shock was immense. Peter Robinson said it was definitely “crisis time when Bill left. It was a bombshell and Bob was very reluctant to take the position.”

When Shankly did finally walk away, Paisley was left wondering why his former boss chose that moment to quit. Did he have doubts about rebuilding his side yet again, as older players like Tommy Smith, Chris Lawler and Ian Callaghan reached the latter stages of their careers? Or was it that he wanted to go out at the top? On the face of it there was no logical reason in relation to the team itself; it was clearly in great shape and on the rise. And only two players, Lawler and Callaghan, were in their 30s.

Shankly told Smith and Robinson that he wanted Paisley to have the job, and Paisley wanted Shankly to keep the job –– the best position in football at the time, and incredibly, like a hot potato, neither man wanted it, albeit for very different reasons. Shankly, now 60, was tired, and in need of a break from the routine after over 40 years in the game; Paisley, meanwhile, didn’t see himself as a natural leader or someone who, like the silver-tongued Scot, could liase effortlessly with the media. And at 55, Paisley was hardly a young man.

Having reluctantly agreed to take the job, Paisley wanted to quit some weeks later, albeit without his resignation becoming public knowledge. He was being hounded by two journalists, who were fiercely critical of him, and was finding the extra administration work that went with the role a struggle. What Peter Robinson saw as the club’s ‘inner cabinet’ –– John Smith, Tom Saunders and Robinson himself –- came together to persuade him to reconsider. Robinson dealt with the pressmen and Saunders was asked to take care of the admin.

As assistant manager to Bill Shankly, Paisley had a direct involvement in the signing and development of the players he would end up inheriting in 1974. While not the greatest team in the Reds’ history, the side was in good health when Shanks stepped down. After seven years without the league title, the club had landed its 8th championship in 1973 along with the UEFA Cup, and a year later, in Shanks’ swan song, beat Newcastle 3-0 at Wembley to land only its 2nd FA Cup. That season Liverpool finished runners-up to Leeds, who ran up 62 points, with Shankly’s men five points behind. But the strength of that team could be seen in the fact that no other side finished with more than 48 points, and indeed, 12 clubs had tallies in the 40s. After seven years without a trophy, this was a rebuilt team that was very much on the up when the changeover occurred.

The jewel in Paisley’s inheritance was Kevin Keegan, who would go on to become double European Footballer of the Year at Hamburg after helping Liverpool to the club’s first European Cup. Keegan would be the first cherished player the club would lose against its will, and as such, presented a challenge to Paisley that his predecessor hadn’t faced. In 1976 Real Madrid had been willing to pay £650,000 for Keegan, but he wanted to stay one further year — an inspired decision, as it culminated in the league/European Cup double. The fee Hamburg handed over was £150,000 short of what the Spaniards had been willing to pay, but by then Liverpool had achieved something far more valuable. And £500,000 still represented an English record.

Other players of seriously notable calibre were also in the squad in the summer of 1974: Ray Clemence, Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson were extremely well-respected England internationals with a good few years ahead of them, while Ian Callaghan, Tommy Smith, John Toshack, Alec Lindsay, Steve Heighway, Chris Lawler and Peter Cormack were top-class club-level players and, in some cases, fine players on the international scene. Other members of the squad included future Boot Room boy and manager, Roy Evans, and the man who would coach under Graeme Souness, Phil Boersma. Ray Kennedy, signed for Liverpool on the day Shankly resigned, proved a fitting parting gift. It would take him a while to make his mark at Liverpool, but he was another important part of Paisley’s inheritance.

Paisley, already doubted by many because of his nature, faced a baptism of fire. In the Charity Shield — a game for which he picked the team but had yet to be officially named manager — Kevin Keegan exchanged punches with Leeds United’s Billy Bremner (in the days when ‘raising your hands’ meant lamping someone good and proper rather than a tender touch of the cheek) and both received red cards. The two men threw off their shirts as they walked off the pitch; in what now seems an incredibly harsh punishment (and even did in more conservative days, before footballers baring their pecs and abs was the norm), Keegan, on top of a three game ban for fighting, received a further eight game ban for removing his shirt and thus bringing the game into disrepute. It’s a bit like a man on trial getting 15 years for murder and an additional 37 years for contempt of court. So not only was Paisley replacing the greatest manager in the club’s history, he was hamstrung by the absence of its best player for the first two months of the season.

State of Club

John Smith (later to be knighted for his services to football) had only recently taken charge of Liverpool. Appointed in 1973, the man known as the ‘dapper chairman’ was a major influence on the club over the next 17 years, until his retirement in 1990. His 17 seasons coincided with eleven league titles and four European Cups.

Despite his general excellence, Smith did incur Paisley’s wrath early on in their relationship as chairman/manager. Smith had just spoken to the local press about the current playing staff and potential transfer targets, and Paisley was furious. He made it perfectly clear that any further such disclosures would lead to his swift resignation. Smith apologised, and an important marker had been laid down by the new manager.

Peter Robinson, who would later be the chief executive and vice chairman, was the club’s general secretary. Robinson would go on to make his name as one of the game’s great administrators; it may seem like a contradiction in terms, as fans only really remember players and managers, but Robinson achieved an almost legendary status among those men who facilitate what happens on the pitch without themselves ever getting close to it. It’s clear that you need vision not just on the pitch but behind the scenes, and the partnership of Robinson and Smith was the Dalglish/Rush of the administration world.

Assistance/Backroom Staff

Paisley and his backroom staff: Back row - Tom Saunders, Reuben Bennett, Geoff Twentyman and Joe Fagan. Front row: John Bennison, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans

Paisley and his backroom staff: Back row - Tom Saunders, Reuben Bennett, Geoff Twentyman and Joe Fagan. Front row: John Bennison, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans.

Continuity was the watchword when Paisley was appointed manager in 1974. Nothing really changed behind the scenes; there was just a natural evolution. Paisley had played a large part in what Shankly had done, so he wasn’t going to dismantle it on the spot.

Joe Fagan became assistant-manager, and Reuben Bennett remained as part of the Boot Room until the late ‘70s. Following Ronnie Moran’s appointment onto the coaching staff on a full-time basis in 1968, Bennett’s role changed from head of training, with him now working under the broad title of ‘special duties’. One of Shankly’s final acts as Liverpool manager was to advise the 25-year-old Roy Evans to consider a future in coaching. Bob Paisley was also keen on the idea. He told Evans that although he was steady enough, he was never going to be a regular in the first team — and as such, he should look to the future and concentrate on coaching. Evans was reluctant to hang up his boots, as would be the case for most players in their mid-20s. Indeed, almost all, when faced with the same situation, would have sought to continue playing in the lower divisions. But clearly Evans had something about him in the way he thought about the game, and decided it was more prudent to join the Boot Room. And it was a decision that was justified, as he played an important role behind the scenes for the next 20 years, and then enjoyed four seasons as the club’s manager.

Tom Saunders continued to spy for Liverpool in Europe, making dossiers on unknown opponents from across the region, as well as working as the club’s youth development officer. Saunders brought Frank Skelly into the Liverpool set-up in 1973, to work as a scout; Skelly discovered Bruce Grobbelaar, who played for Crewe Alexandra, while on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps. But Geoff Twentyman, the chief scout, was perhaps the most important person at the club after the manager. Paisley’s trust in Twentyman was implicit. Paisley agreed to pay £300,000 –– a lot of money at the time — for scrawny Welsh teenager Ian Rush, without having ever seen the striker play; just as Shankly had never watched Kevin Keegan. Twentyman was the scout with the golden touch, and that continued throughout Paisley’s tenure. He discovered Phil Neal at Northampton Town and Alan Hansen at Partick Thistle — although the latter was a player who had once been on a four-day trial with the Reds as a 15-year-old. At that time, Hansen was more interested in golf, although he’d come to see football as his future career. Upon Twentyman’s recommendation in 1977, he was finally brought to the club.

Management Style

Paisley was man of few words, and those he did utter were invariably mumbled and garbled. Thingamajiggy, whajamacallit, gubbins and doins. The players nicknamed him ‘Dougie Doins’, such was his inability to remember the names of opposition players or to speak particularly coherently.

If at times he struggled to choose the right words, he did at least carefully consider what his intended meaning was. In the build up to games, he was famed for giving the opposition what he called a ‘bit of toffee’ — the act of flattering them, so that they perhaps had an inflated opinion of themselves. As opposed to denigration, it gave them nothing to rail against. ‘Toffee’ was designed to encourage complacency, not a thirst for revenge. The most famous instance was a young and up-and-coming Gordon Strachan, who’d been playing very well for Aberdeen, who Liverpool were due to meet in the European Cup. Paisley praised him to the hilt. The danger is always that it can inspire such an opponent; but, as planned, the player wilted under the attention, perhaps even believing his own hype.

Not noted as a motivator, Paisley was clever enough to get the best out of his men. His treatment of the young Ian Rush highlights how he goaded a player to respond positively. Rush had played a handful of games, but had yet to score. “All you ever want to do is to lay the ball off all the time. You’re afraid to take responsibility on your own shoulders,” Paisley told him. Rush grew irritated. He barked back that he thought it was about retaining possession at Liverpool. “Your trouble is that you’re frightened to think for yourself,” Paisley told him. “As a centre forward, your main job in the team is to score goals. But you haven’t scored a single goal for us yet. That’s why you’re not playing.” He told Rush that he needed to adopt a more selfish attitude, at the right time and place — with the place being the penalty area and the time when the ball was at his feet. The row continued, until Rush, arguing back that he could score goals, yelled at Paisley “You can stick your club!” before storming out of his office, convinced he’d just put himself on the transfer list. Just as the door was closing, Paisley said, “We bought you to score goals for us. Why don’t you go out there and prove you can do that?”

From a tense situation, with a promising young striker wanting out of the club, Paisley had kept his cool and, rather than consigning the angry young man to a swift exit, had set a fire burning within. If Rush really wanted to leave, he could, but Paisley waited to see a positive reaction first. It proved instant: Rush scored six goals in his next five reserve games, and as a late sub against Finnish part-timers Oulun Palloseura he finally registered his first Liverpool goal: a simple tap-in, but it was a start. Rush began the next match, against Exeter in the League Cup, and scored two more, deciding that even in the company of world-class stars he was going to be selfish if the situation dictated. Having scored three goals against inferior opposition, Rush was retained in the starting line-up against Leeds, and this time responded with his first league goals: a brace, fired past John Lukic, the keeper who would be in Arsenal’s goal when they won the league title at Anfield eight years later. Rush, who had set his heart on a move to Crystal Palace following his row with the manager, was now a fully-fledged top-flight goalscorer. And from that moment, he never looked back. The wily old manager had roused the wiry young striker into releasing his full fury on First Division defences. For a man not noted as a motivator, it was a canny piece of work.

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