Bill Shankly resigned as manager of Liverpool Football Club on July 12, 1974, less than a month after I was born. My first memory of him is of a blown-up sepia photograph on a friend’s living-room wall. The famous pose with arms raised, acknowledging the adulation from the Spion Kop. It was the closest thing to religious iconography that they had in the house.
How do you make sense of someone you never knew? The written accounts of contemporaries helped. In a tribute in The Observer after Shankly’s death, Hugh McIlvanney wrote: “His secret was that he sensed deep down that the only practical approach to sport is the romantic one. How else could a manager persuade grown men that they could glory in a boy’s game?”
Then, there were the memories of those that followed Shankly’s teams across England and Europe. Whenever I’ve gone to a Liverpool game, I’ve made it a point to search out the old-timers. Some were hard men, folk you’d fancy to chew glass or hammer in nails with their giant fists. But not one of them could talk of “Shanks” without a moistness in the eye or a catch in the throat. “He was one of us” was the constant refrain.
His devotion to both Scotland and his adopted city were absolute. On a European trip with Liverpool, he put ‘football’ next to occupation and “Anfield” next to address in the hotel registration form. When the receptionist tried to correct him, he said: “Lady, in Liverpool there is only one address that matters and that is where I live.”
The Shankly quote about football being more than a matter of life and death has been taken far too literally in recent years. All it really tells you is how much the game meant to him. David Peace, who has followed up the acclaimed The Damned United with a fictionalised biography of Shankly, Red or Dead, said in a recent interview: “I didn’t write the book for the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, but it is a story for every football supporter. Shankly was a man whose life was his work and his work was his life, and I wanted to explore why he was so consumed in football.”
Shankly’s politics were Socialist red, a legacy of the Ayrshire coal-mining community he grew up in, and that all-for-one mentality was the secret of the dynasty he built. It makes you wonder what he would have made of the current me-me-me culture where players a year into a four-year contract accuse clubs of betrayal for not selling them on to someone who’s made a more lucrative offer.
When Shankly won his second championship with Liverpool in 1966, Angelo Sormani was the world’s most expensive footballer, having cost Internazionale £250,000. You could buy a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost for £6,500. These days, a Rolls Royce Phantom will set you back in the region of £250,000. On Shankly’s birth centenary (September 2), Real Madrid announced the signing of Gareth Bale for around £86 million, 344 times the fee for Sormani. Modern football isn’t a hostage to inflation, but to silliness.
Over the coming season, you will see umpteen quotes about transfers being a dream come true. There will be exuberant kisses on the badge when a goal is scored. What you won’t see much of is sincerity and decency. The Shankly statue outside Anfield is engraved with the words: He made the people happy. There is no greater epitaph. No amount of money can buy you that.