He mixes ev­ery­day speech with the the­atrics of a movie gang­ster. Be­fore Shankly, no one spoke like Shankly

The Sunday Post (Newcastle) - - OPINION - – Writer Bar­ney Ronay

In 1997 a plaque was un­veiled in Glen­buck com­mem­o­rat­ing the 55 pro­fes­sional foot­ballers the min­ing vil­lage pro­duced dur­ing the last cen­tury.

Among them was Bill Shankly ac­com­pa­nied, even here, by what have be­come his defin­ing ep­i­thets: “The leg­end, the ge­nius, the man.”

This seems to be more than just a lo­calised view. “I watched his ge­nius un­fold,” wrote Tom Fin­ney in 1993. “A great man, a great man­ager and a great psy­chol­o­gist,” en­thused Kevin Kee­gan. No men­tion of Shankly, it seems, is com­plete with­out a mag­is­te­rial turn of phrase.

Shankly’s achieve­ments as a man­ager were un­doubt­edly great. Be­tween 1959 and 1974 Liver­pool won the League three times, the UEFA Cup once and the FA Cup twice, suc­cess achieved by re­con­struct­ing the club from within. When he was ap­pointed Liver­pool had spent the past five sea­sons in Di­vi­sion Two and, in his own words, “the place was a sham­bles”.

Shankly re­leased 24 play­ers in his first two years, but kept hold of the boot-room per­son­nel – Joe Fa­gan, Bob Pais­ley and Reuben Ben­nett – who would re­main at the club through­out its sub­se­quent suc­cess. By the time he re­tired, Shankly had laid the foun­da­tions for 15 years of do­mes­tic and Euro­pean dom­i­na­tion.

Great, but not unique. His record is sim­i­lar to that of Don Re­vie at Leeds over the same pe­riod. Re­vie also took a strug­gling club into Di­vi­sion One, build­ing a team and a way of play­ing that brought two League ti­tles, Euro­pean suc­cess and a cer­tain er­adefin­ing swag­ger.

Shankly’s ge­nius ex­ists out­side his bare achieve­ments. He re­mains a foot­balling archetype: an ar­rest­ing, vivid, rev­o­lu­tion­ary voice.

Everybody knows the quotes. “I want to build a team that’s in­vin­ci­ble, so they’ll have to send a team from Mars to beat us.” “Me hav­ing no ed­u­ca­tion, I had to use my brains.” “I don’t drop play­ers, I make changes.” What was once fresh and star­tling has be­come fogged by layer upon layer of rep­e­ti­tion. Was Shankly ac­tu­ally funny? Or just a com­pul­sively wise­crack­ing boss.

Shankly, like any­one, could be boor­ish: “The trouble with ref­er­ees is they know the rules, but they do not know the game.” Or plat­i­tudi­nous: “If you are first you are first. If you are sec­ond you are noth­ing.”

For the post-Shankly gen­er­a­tion it is tempt­ing to ask ex­actly why quo­ta­tions such as these have been fever­ishly tran­scribed for the past 30 years. Shankly’s ge­nius, on the cold hard page, eludes us. What we need is Shankly the voice. And for­tu­nately, the voice still ex­ists – in the form of the gate­fold dou­ble al­bum Shankly Speaks.

Billed as “a feast of a lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”, Shankly Speaks show­cases a lengthy in­ter­view recorded over two days at the Adel­phi Ho­tel in Liver­pool in 1981. There is no pre­am­ble: as soon as the nee­dle touches the record Shankly speaks, hold­ing forth on what the sleeve notes de­scribe as “pro­duc­ing great teams”. The voice is a nim­ble bari­tone, rapid but still lan­guid.

In fact Shankly’s sen­tences have a dis­tinct dra­matic rhythm, which the voice seems to reach for in­stinc­tively. Talk­ing about “the Liver­pool sys­tem”, he says: “You need op­tions, two peo­ple to take it off you. Three. Choices,” and it’s as though he’s out­lin­ing some mag­i­cal for­mula.

Pressed on the fun­ni­est mo­ments dur­ing his time in the game, Shankly de­scribes the older play­ers at Glen­buck telling “ex­ag­ger­ated tales” to “lift away the gloom” and he laughs, a sur­pris­ingly child­ish gur­gle. It’s a sound you want to hear again: con­spir­a­to­rial and un­self­con­scious; in the laugh you catch a glimpse of Shankly’s tal­ent for in­spir­ing deep af­fec­tion in those around him.

Shankly Speaks does ex­actly what it prom­ises: Shankly does in­deed speak. But rather than the trum­peted “in­sights”, what stays with you are the qual­ity and rhythm of the voice. More than just a sil­very phrase-maker, Shankly com­mu­ni­cated a pas­sion for the game, for a club and for a re­gion never be­fore ex­pressed through the me­dia. He spoke di­rectly to the sup­port of his own and ev­ery club, us­ing not quite the lan­guage of the ter­race but a hy­brid of ev­ery­day speech and the wise­crack­ing theatri­cals of a movie gang­ster.

Shankly brought a US-style democrati­sa­tion to the lan­guage of foot­ball. Where the pre-Shankly English man­ager was a mute, faux BBC-ac­cented stam­merer of plat­i­tudes, Amer­i­can sports­men had a voice of their own and Shankly, by de­sign or historical ac­ci­dent, brought this ver­nac­u­lar to foot­ball.

Shankly is vi­brantly still with us. Ti­tles and cups will al­ways be won, but foot­ball’s most lyri­cal icon, whether on vinyl or in the post-match pos­tur­ing of a Shanklyite man­age­rial de­scen­dant, will con­tinue to speak.

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