Shankly. Busby. Stein. The holy trinity of managerial greats. Football men. West of Scotland men. Labour men too.
David Peace’s The Damned United recreated Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 days in charge of Leeds United. In Red or Dead it is Bill Shankly’s time as Liverpool Manager, from 1959 to 1974. A novel, and an archive. A story and a sharing of a very public life, where every game, every result is recorded.
Shankly matters and is revered not just because of the trophies his Liverpool team won, and the foundations for even greater triumphs under Bob Paisley who followed him, but as the philosopher of everyman. “Some say football is a game of life and death. It’s much more important than that.” “There are two great teams in Liverpool. Liverpool and Liverpool reserves.” And, for any Celtic fan, after the 1967 European Cup final, to Jock Stein, “John, you’re immortal now”.
Peace’s book charts every game, every attendance, every goal. How do you write such a thing without it simply becoming a list? Peace’s answer? Dive into the list. Make the list the medium. “On Saturday 7 March 1964 Ipswich Town Football Club came to Anfield, Liverpool. That afternoon thirty five thousand five hundred and seventy five folk came too. In the forty first minute Ian St John scored. In the forty eighth minute Roger Hunt scored .” Anfield is “At home> at Anfield”. “The Kop. The Spion Kop”.
On and on. Over and over, through the seasons, year after year. Winning. Losing. Preparing. Celebrating triumph. Reflecting on loss.
Ultimately though, the book is not about football. It is about work. The work that makes us. The work that confers identity, sense of purpose. And what happens when it is gone. What happens when it’s over. This is the heart of it. Shankly’s retirement. His life after. His watching of the club do even better. Being part of it and not part of it. Turning up at training every morning after retirement only to be told, eventually, and inevitably, not to come.
To anyone contemplating early retirement, this book is a warning. A hymn of praise to the work ethic. You get one chance. You can’t start over, do it all again. How does any of us come to terms with that? The lucky few may reflect on every chance seized, the great triumphs they enjoyed. For most, there will be regrets, wondering about the road not taken. How we cope with that is how we cope with life. This is about far more than football.
Bill’s post retirement routines are laid out in the most minute detail. “Bill put on his shirt. His tangerine shirt. Bill went to the dressing table. Bill opened the top drawer. Bill took out his cufflinks. His gold cufflinks. Bill closed the drawer. Bill did up the cuffs of his shirt. His tangerine shirt. Bill went to the wardrobe ”
I confess I eventually began to skip pages about Bill setting the table, Bill eating his breakfast and Bill clearing the table. Perhaps there is some metronomic literary thing I didn’t get. Perhaps you can’t separate medium and message. But I felt myself wanting to move on, to find out what happened next.
Shankly’s era was one where the battle was more even. Money mattered less. Pre oligarch.Pre billionaire’s plaything. Pre Sky revenue. Pre awarding a world cup to be played in the desert heat of Qatar. Derby County could win the league. Nottingham Forest could win the European Cup. Twice.
Childhood football memories help define us, our own identity, who we are. Early world cups. Long hair and bubbly perms. Kevin Keegan and his Ford Capri. I remember Shankly retiring, early it seemed, unexpected. I remember when Liverpool dominated football. I remember Kenny Dalglish being transferred from Celtic to Liverpool for £440,000. I don’t know why I remember the fee but I do. It felt like the beginning of the end of Celtic as a great team, able to battle with the best.
Now the game is different. Could a Derby County win the league today, or a Nottingham Forest the Champions League? Is it all moneyball? Atletico Madrid won the Spanish league last year and reached the Champions League final on a fraction of the budget of Europe’s bigger clubs. It can happen, but it’s much harder, rarer.
So the game has changed and the times have changed. But father still tries to confer love of the game on son. I sit every morning with the Panini stickers and my five year old. He doesn’t yet understand the difference between club and country, but I tell him about the World Cup. I tell him about Messi, Ronaldo, about the Dutch, about Brazil, Argentina, Spain. It’s still a beautiful game.