How Bill Shankly forged the Liverpool FC dynasty

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Author Bob Holmes reflects on the dynasty Bill Shankly built at Liverpool, and how history is repeating itself with Jurgen Klopp and his successful side.

An extract from ‘Shanks, Yanks and Jürgen: The Men Behind Liverpool’s Rise Again‘.


‘The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.’ – Bill Shankly


The words are inscribed on the walls of the Melwood training ground, the Shankly Hotel and adorn the Spirit of Shankly website. They are etched on the minds of millions of followers and plastered everywhere you read eulogies to the great man. Neither Marxist nor Maoist, they are but a simple expression of the working-class values and aspirations of the time. Shanks was born two years after the Titanic sank and a year before the Great War began. Humble though his origins were, his disciples can justly claim that significant events happen in threes.

If the names of sporting and cultural icons carry more resonance than their political or academic peers, it is no stretch to call him one of the most influential British public figures of the late 20th century. Being one of the greatest football managers of all time was always going to earn him a place among the probables. But it was his wit, wisdom and sheer indefatigability that transcended the traditional boundaries. In short, it was the irresistible force of his personality that ensured a more enduring impact than the other two members of the immortal trio born in that fecund corner of the West of Scotland. He was larger than life.

Like Shankly, Stein and Busby did an awful lot more for their respective clubs and adopted cities than pick winning teams. Both were magnificent football men and admirably modest in life, but neither were blessed with Shanks’ charisma or genius for the outrageous gesture or hilarious quip. Eulogised by Hugh McIlvanney in Three Football Men, all were true maestros of their trade. Players were not only willing to go through brick walls for them, they would replace the bricks and re-lay the mortar. And trust them with their lives. It was their incorruptible amalgam of sound judgment, fairness and football sagacity that made them father figures to players of different generations. In Shanks’ case, he became a father figure to the people of Liverpool too.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 5, 2020: A statue of Bill Shankly pictured before the FA Cup 3rd Round match between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, the 235th Merseyside Derby, at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

No football club owes as much to one man as Liverpool FC does to Shankly. Not Manchester United to Busby or Fergie, not Celtic to Stein, not Arsenal to Herbert Chapman or Arsene Wenger, not Forest to Cloughie. And certainly not an entire city. With a successful team, a manager can lift the morale of a club’s constituents but Shanks’ appeal crossed the normal demarcations lines.

Even Evertonians, although taunted unmercifully by him for years, eventually came to acknowledge his contribution beyond the touchline. He had a gift for the sound bite that a politician would die for and if it sometimes smacked of the fourth form, he could turn it into philosophy. Like Muhammad Ali, he made us cackle and question in equal measures. And if Shanks lacked the global audience that Ali had, to players, fans and especially Red Liverpudlians, he was just as inspirational.

Formed in 1892 – from Everton’s rib if you want a Biblical parallel – Liverpool FC had won the league five times before he arrived. But the Liverpool we know today didn’t really take off until the 1960s. That was when Shanks, who called the club ‘a shambles’ on taking over in December, 1959, began to work his magic. He did not just stir a sleeping giant: he stoked the magma of a dormant volcano. And such was the eruption of spirit, pride and passion he wrought it was like a New Liverpool. And in the voice of the Kop, it became LIV-ER-POOL, those three syllables taking on a whole new significance.

Liverpool's legendary Bill Shankly. Turning towards the Kop end of Anfield, Shankly gets an ovation from the fans who idolised him when Liverpool became League champions.

But, as with Fergie at United, it didn’t happen overnight. Shanks was shocked by the enormity of the task and hamstrung by the board’s pallid indifference. It got so bad he was only talked out of quitting by, of all people, United’s Busby. It will forever be the biggest favour that club has done for their arch-rivals.

So frustrated was Shanks by the situation that he forgot his maxim about not giving up. Busby, who had played more than 100 games for Liverpool as a wing-half, reminded him that he was not 3-0 down with five minutes to go, but the score was 0-0 and he’d only just kicked off. Shanks listened to his fellow Scot, who was four years older and whom he respected, and decided to battle on. He gradually won the directors over, one by one.

Eventually he would bring about a transformation the like of which has never been seen in one city before or since. Naples had a frenzied couple of years with Diego Maradona but it didn’t last: Shanks created a dynasty that has. Allied to a simultaneous awakening of the music scene, it turned Liverpool into the most culturally vibrant place on earth.

Back in 1959, the club did not belong among the elite of English football: they weren’t even No.1 in Liverpool – Everton claimed the bragging rights. Then the Reds, who had done nothing for a dozen years, didn’t possess the aura of Busby’s Babes or Stan Cullis’s Wolves. Those two were the teams of the fifties. Liverpool had the fans but were something of a one-man team. They were often known as Liddell-pool after the legendary Billy Liddell, their standout player and one of the greats of the post-war era. But even with him they were also-rans in the old Second Division.

Yet it was as if their fans had been waiting for Shankly’s coming. Or at least a manager of his ilk, a leader whose ambition matched their own and whose every utterance inspired. Hailing from the game’s richest spawning ground and an international player, it seemed his destiny to find its most atmospheric stage and appreciative audience. No one knew it at the time, but this was not merely ‘the right fit’ but a marriage made on the Elysian Fields.

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly (left) with Kevin Keegan (right) at Anfield

If he’d not ended up at Liverpool, you feel such a force of football nature would surely have made its presence felt elsewhere. But even with hindsight, it is hard to see it happening on the same epic scale. Nowhere else had the same burgeoning sense of localism; or raging thirst for football fulfilment. Glasgow? The Scottish League was not a big enough stage and the city was riven by sectarianism. Newcastle? Shanks’ disciple Kevin Keegan briefly hinted at something similar but could not sustain it.

And long before anyone mentioned ‘the Geordie nation’ in the north east, Liverpool had forged its own distinct identity. More accustomed to immigrants than anywhere else – it had had a huge Celtic influx, mostly from Ireland but also Scotland and Wales – the city had shed its Anglo-Saxon reserve a hundred years ago. With people from the four corners, the cosmopolitan makeup bred a fiercely independent streak. By tapping into this as well as talking up the team, Shankly was able to harness the football hunger and ‘Liverpoolness’ to maximum effect. As Roy Evans would say: ‘Shanks was very keen on making Liverpool FC a very fierce source of civic pride. His intensity never took a day off.’



But there was an awful lot of work to do to turn the team around. When he pointed his little Austin A40 over the Pennines that December day in 1959, Huddersfield, the club he was leaving, were four places higher in the table than Liverpool. And his new club was in a bigger mess than he realised. Anfield had no means of watering the pitch, the toilets didn’t flush and the training ground looked, he said, ‘as if the Germans had been over.’ Jurgen Klopp would have enjoyed that. A decade and a half since the last Luftwaffe raid, and such talk still resonated. The idea of a German coming over to sit in Shankly’s seat, wear his shoes and mould his team was an odyssey not on anyone’s drawing board.

In 1959, Melwood was still used for cricket: the pavilion looked as if WG Grace might walk out to bat while the outfield had more rough than Carnoustie. Then there was the team: also a bit wooden and in need of major repair. But it was on that first unpromising winter’s day that Shanks made the best football decision of his life – to retain the team of coaching assistants, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett. He would sweep clean in other areas but for the revolution he was planning, he needed trusty lieutenants. He even found a venue for them to brainstorm. Not much bigger than Workington’s boiler room, the 12’ square cubby hole near the dressing rooms became the inner sanctum for football’s most storied conclaves: the Boot Room was born.

Like any new broom, Shanks desperately wanted to hit the ground at a speed his Austin A40 couldn’t reach. But his start was hardly auspicious: he lost his first two games with a combined 0-7 aggregate and his first signing was a dud. Crowds were below 30,000 and Nessie remembers he claimed his proudest early achievement was getting those toilets to flush. She also recalled that when Liverpool lost he would clean the cooker – to take his mind off it. Neither a cook nor a handyman, this was the most practical thing he did in the house.

Players he wanted – among them Brian Clough and Jack Charlton – were denied him but, as advised by Busby, he stuck at it. He introduced ‘sweat boxes’ in training where players had to react to the ball rebounding off wooden boards at different angles. It made them ‘control and pass’ not unlike Guardiola’s famous rondos. Shanks would say: ‘Liverpool’s training is based on exhaustion and recovery, twisting and turning: a fit team has a tremendous advantage.’ With Paisley holding a stopwatch, Fagan barking instructions and Shanks casting an all-seeing eye, it may have flouted the Geneva Convention, but the players daren’t complain: they were all in it together.

Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager (Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport)

Gradually, by sheer force of personality and changes to just about everything, his methods took effect. He drove the team to third place although only two went up. But there was a new mood, as well as a new pitch at Melwood and crowds started to return. George Scott, who had joined as a 15-year-old from Aberdeen, remembers: ‘Shankly brought fantastic self-belief, passion and enthusiasm to Liverpool Football Club and he demanded no less from us players. He used to say to us young players “without enthusiasm you are nothing”. He also had tremendous character and a great sense of humour, and also loyalty. When he came to Anfield he kept all the backroom-staff and forged a dynasty. He loved the supporters and they loved him. There has in my view never been another manager to compare to him in this respect.’

Shanks’ first significant signing was Gordon Milne, for a bargain £16,000 from Preston yet a Liverpool record. He was on his way – he just needed a stroke of luck. It came the following season and from, of all people, Everton.

Sir John Moores was Littlewoods Pools boss and a shareholder of both Everton and Liverpool. He also owned the Littlewoods chain of department stores so was anxious to keep the whole city – not just the Blue half – happy. He installed business partner Eric Sawyer as a director of Liverpool to help get them to join the Blues in the top flight. And in Sawyer, an accountant, Shanks found the extra ally that he needed. After finishing third again and with frustration mounting, he was even more determined to sign Yeats and St John. And in the summer of 1961, with Sawyer’s backing, he finally got them. It was, as he would later acknowledge, the turning point.


Liverpool squad 1962-63: (back row, l-r) Phil Ferns, Gordon Milne, Wilf Stevenson, Tommy Lawrence, Ronnie Moran, Jim Furnell, Alan A'Court, Chris Lawler, Gerry Byrne; (front row, l-r) Alf Arrowsmith, Gordon Wallace, Ian Callaghan, Roger Hunt, Ron Yeats, Ian St John, Jimmy Melia, ?


The Milne fee was blown out of the water as they spent £20,000 on Yeats from Dundee United, and £37,500 on St John from Motherwell. Yeats, a towering centre-half and St John, a Jack-in-the-box striker, were instant successes. Liverpool were unstoppable and in Shanks’ third season (1961/62) stormed to the Division Two title. Local boy Roger Hunt scored 41 goals. Ian Callaghan had played the first of his 857 games for the club and Gerry Byrne was also emerging. Coming through the ranks were Tommy Lawrence in goal and tough boy-man Tommy Smith, whom Shanks described as ‘18 years old when he was born’.

So chuffed was he to get Yeats that he invited the press to meet him by saying: ‘He’s seven feet tall – you can come in and take a walk around him.’ At 6’2”, Yeats was two inches shorter than Virgil van Dijk but a similar colossus in defence.

Just like Klopp almost six decades later, Shanks was building the spine of the team, deciding on the men he wanted and waiting patiently – even a whole season – for them to come. Even though Klopp paid world record fees for Van Dijk and Alisson Becker, his dogged pursuit of them has evoked comparisons with how Shanks did it.


* This is an extract from ‘Shanks, Yanks and Jürgen: The Men Behind Liverpool’s Rise Again‘ by Bob Holmes – available to buy now.

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