Book Review – Bill Shankly: The Lost Diary

Book Review – Bill Shankly: The Lost Diary
March 27, 2013 Chris Rowland

By Chris Rowland.

When I think of Bill Shankly, I think of how he spoke – as distinctive as a speech by Churchill or a song by Sinatra. Yet reading this book I didn’t hear that voice. I didn’t hear ‘todee we pleed wi’ greet coheesion, eeeh…’ Instead I hear a measured, ordered, calculating yet utterly passionate and driven individual pursuing a plan, a vision if you like, that transcended the immediate need for points.  Shanks had one eye on the present and the other on a future of building Liverpool into a ‘bastion of invincibility’ (spellcheck suggested a Basildon of invincibility, which is something quite different!), ‘a team so good they’d have to send a team from bloody Mars to beat us.’

Released 100 years after the great man’s birth, The Lost Diary dates back to the summer of 1962, when Liverpool had just finished as champions of Division 2 and were preparing for life back in the top flight, and tell the story of the promotion season just completed.  Shankly had only been Liverpool’s manager for two and a half years by the time he agreed to a 14-week series of in-depth personal columns in the Liverpool Echo’s football special newspaper, the Football Echo – the ‘pink’, if any of you are old enough to remember it – revealing his innermost thoughts on his great Anfield master plan.  It was called ‘The Hard Road Back’, which was also published as a Kop magazine e-book in 2012. The magazine’s editor Chris McLoughlin provides the foreword to the book.

Within two years Liverpool were league champions, then the following year won the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s long history after 73 years of trying, then became champions again the season after.

This book contains rare archive material, comprehensive player statistics and a special player summary. It features some absolute gems and, as you would expect, it is packed full of fascinating insights into the state of the club then, how Shankly identified and pursued transfer targets, how he ran the club, the support he got from the directors.

What struck me most about the book was how many of the issues that occurred then are still the subject of intense discussion and scrutiny today. Of course there are aspects, such as the travel by rail to a game at Carrow Road via London (where they’d spent the Friday evening ahead of the game on Saturday as there weren’t any suitable hotels in Norwich!) which highlight how much the game has changed in the intervening 45 years, yet so much of it highlights how much things stay the same. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose indeed.

Shanks, scarf and kop

For example, he made this point about transfers:

“If one were to accept all the points of view expressed in public, then one would be faced with the absurd position of providing almost a completely new team. When all is said and done, only those on the inside of a club know all the facts.”

And on the imprecise science of bringing young players through, he had this to say:

“Because we have put these boys on the staff, it can be inferred that we have a high opinion of their present ability and promise for the future, although nobody can tell how a player will develop.”

Chris Lawler, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan were just three locals who came through the ranks on Shankly’s watch, as well Steve Heighway, Brian Hall and the cut-price signings of Keegan, Clemence, Neal  – not a bad return.

We’ve had endless debates on here about whether Rodgers should adapt his tactics to the players he has or select/acquire players who will fit those tactics. Ahead of the first game of the season, Shanks made his position clear when he wrote:

“The coaching and playing staff, with the players, had spent a lot of time on tactical plans to suit the type of players we had …”

It’s also instructive to read Shanks’ thoughts on the ‘weighting’ of points from certain more difficult games:

“My study of the fixture list gave me the impression that the early matches were difficult ones. I wanted a good start to the season for both practical and psychological reasons; in my estimation every single point gained from the early games were worth far more to us than their actual face value, a point of view which I stressed to the team.”

In a section entitled ‘Know Your Enemy’, Shankly spells out his dedication to researching opponents thoroughly; another area where Rodgers has come under criticism:

“It was my policy to see these games with a view to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these sides. Even if a team has no particular strong or weak point, many of them play to a pattern which can easily be detected, and the advantage of knowing this pattern beforehand, to me, is obvious.”

Shankly was rigorous in seeking any advantage for his side; famously, at Sunderland for an early evening kick off on a sunny evening in late August 1961, he tried to time the rate of the sun setting behind one end so that the Reds should know which way to kick in the first half! As it turned out, Sunderland saved him the problem by winning the toss and choosing to kick towards the sun anyway, as they liked to attack the other end second half, as we do the Kop. We were 2-1 up at half-time with a last-minute goal by one Brian Clough reducing the deficit. We eventually won 4-1, with two apiece from Hunt and St.John. Hunt was to score 40 league goals that season.

Shankly had quite a team behind him helping him probe any weaknesses in the opposition:

“It has been the aim at Anfield for the training staff of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett to read the game as it ebbs and flows and try to find flaws in the opposition, with a view to making suggestions at half-time which would be of benefit to the players. Each of these three men has proved his ability in this sphere.”

How about two more burning issues of our time, tiredness of the squad and squad rotation? At the start of that promotion season, Liverpool played five games in 15 days, travelling 1290 miles to away games at Bristol Rovers, Sunderland and Norwich – all with the same starting XI. In all that same XI played for 11 consecutive games before changes were finally forced in the 12th. The season ended with five games in 10 days – Southampton at Anfield on the Saturday when we clinched the title, Stoke at home on Monday night, Stoke away the next day (!), Plymouth away on Saturday then finally Charlton at home on Monday!

Back to that rail journey to Norwich – apparently the train broke down at Colchester and the team only arrived in Norwich 30 minutes before kick-off – and it was Shanks’ birthday! As the man said:

“That particular day was one of the hottest of the year and the discomfort of the heat in the train, which was reminiscent of the atmosphere of a Turkish bath, did nothing to help our state of mind.”

Shanks’ birthday present from the team was a 2-1 win. After the match the coach booked to take the Liverpool party from Carrow Road to the railway station failed to arrive and the Norwich goalkeeper agreed to use his car to ferry Shankly and as many of Reds players as could squeeze in to the station while the rest of the party had to follow behind on foot. Imagine that now!

Shankly knew he’d struck gold with the signings of Scots Ian St. John and Ron Yeats. Both made their club debuts at Bristol City on the opening day of the season. Shanks had had his eye on the pair for a while, describing the Saint as “a player who could create openings, score goals and, at the same time, lead the line”. Of Big Ron he said: “I saw Yeats as the man to weld our defence together in the way St. John could the forwards”. Someone to weld our defence together? Nothing changes.

In our first season back in the top flight under Shankly there was even en echo of the unpredictability that has afflicted us this season, best encapsulated by the two games against Spurs, who we beat 5-2 at Anfield before losing 7-2 at White Hart Lane just three days later. We finished 8th, still our joint-lowest finishing position in the 50 consecutive seasons in the top division since our promotion, equalled in 1993/4 under Souness and 2011/12 under Dalglish.

Is the book a must read for Liverpool fans? Well yes, obviously. Not least because it was written before the glory days returned to Anfield, on the eve of the dynasty being established, so it’s not a book of self-aggrandisement. Shankly may or may not have foreseen quite how far or for how long this train would ride – though his public statements suggested it was never in doubt – but witnessing the thought processes that informed it is as fascinating as anything could ever be for a Liverpool supporter or a football historian.