Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bill Shankly - Red or Dead

"Why did they make you almost into a god? Because I mean, you were their man, weren’t you?”

Bill Shankly is legend. Bill Shankly was born in a Scottish mining village, surrounded by poverty and hunger. Bill Shankly was the lad who worked down the pit before unemployment came and before football offered an escape. Bill Shankly was the player that captained Scotland. Bill Shankly was the man that became a manager. Bill Shankly was the manager that took Liverpool Football Club from mediocrity to greatness. Bill Shankly is legend. Bill Shankly is important for those people who, like me, are both a Red and a Red. Bill Shankly was a socialist. With considerable style David Peace’s book, Red or Dead, tells his story:
“In 1959, Liverpool Football Club were in the Second Division. Liverpool Football Club had never won the FA Cup. Fifteen seasons later, Liverpool Football Club had won three League titles, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup. Liverpool Football Club had become the most consistently successful team in England. And the most passionately supported club. Their manager was revered as a god. Destined for immortality. Their manager was Bill Shankly. His job was his life. His life was football. His football a form of socialism. Bill Shankly inspired people. Bill Shankly transformed people. The players and the supporters.”
And Red or Dead is very much the story of Bill Shankly, a point that Peace is keen to emphasise, “This book is a work of fiction. And so this book is a novel.” It is also a fascinating book – as much for the style in which Peace writes as for the subject matter. Reading its 700 plus pages reminded me of the time when, going through a religious phase aged 12 or 13, I tried to read the Bible: the dull repetitive staccato sentences, the creation of a singular voice shared by all the characters. At times one half expects to read how Shankly begat Paisley, who in turn begat Fagan, who then begat Dalglish...

In one way it's a deeply alienating style of writing, one where you can't help but want to skip whole paragraphs, occasionally whole pages, which you recognise from previous chapters. As David Renton remarks in his review, the work can become "beige"; the excitement of football matches dismissed in a single line. Yet the prose lends itself well to the cycle of the football seasons and the monotony of training. It attempts, with moderate success, to give a collective voice to the Liverpool fans. When the style begins to fracture in the latter stages of the book it brilliantly captures Shankly’s post-retirement disorientation. Bereft of the certainties and routine of the game he loved, Shankly is left with memories, old age and the regret born of mortality. “I only wish,” says Shankly, “that I could do it all over again.”

But in one way, one very specific way, Red or Dead works sublimely. With no quotation marks and no footnotes one is never sure what is historical fact and what is artistic license. By fusing biography, history and fiction, Peace is, in effect, writing myth. It is a style well suited to Bill Shankly who, like no other manager, lends himself to the process of mythologizing. There have, of course, been other great managers, other great characters. But none match Shankly.

Matt Busby, Shankly’s close friend, achieved greatness with Manchester United, but his story was always too painful, too tragic, too real to become myth. Alex Ferguson’s legend is still in the making and has grown under the constant glare of rolling news coverage and an explosion of sports journalism. Brian Clough, so successful and so adept at the one-liner, perhaps comes closest; his myth enhanced not so much by what he achieved as what might have been – had the Football Association ever allowed him to manage the English national side. The difference between Shankly and Clough is encapsulated in a single word. Legacy.

Shankly is the embodiment of the origin myth. Shankly was the beginning of the Liverpool way, the Anfield way, the bootroom, the thirty years of unprecedented success. Liverpool can boast other managers with greater achievements - Paisley with his three European Cups, Dalglish and his Double winning side of 1986 - but their success was built on Shankly’s work. It was Shankly who laid the foundations, constructed the team, envisaged the potential of a side struggling in the second tier of English football. If the club fell by the wayside in the 1990s it was because they had forgotten all that He had taught them.

And as with all myths, at least those with some basis in reality, the writer has a tendency to accentuate the positive and downplay the less appealing aspects of its subject. Peace is no different. Shankly is a master tactician, a motivator and a shrewd operator in the transfer market. Of this there is little doubt. But only passing reference is made to the fact that he was underwritten by substantial sums of hard, cold cash. Shankly broke the club transfer record on numerous occasions; he made Alun Evans the first £100,000 teenager. Success could not have come otherwise.

It is an interesting consideration given the way in which Shankly’s politics are alluded to continually throughout Red or Dead. Shankly was a Christian socialist, at the heart of the people’s game, and playing that game by capitalism’s rules. He was a man with illusions in politicians and the Labour Party, an advocate of a fairer society, a believer in the benefits of hard work and discipline. “But my mother never believed in holidays,” Peace has Shankly say. ”She used to say. Every day you wake up and you can get up and you can do your work, that is a holiday. That is what she believed. That is how she raised us.”

Shankly breathed his politics into his team, where no one player was more important than the whole: “Liverpool depend on each other. It’s collective. Everyone working for each other. It is a kind of socialism. Pure socialism. Everyone doing what they can for the rest”. For Shankly, the people who stood on the Kop were part of that collective. The most important part. That is why he spent countless hours individually answering sacks full of mail from fans. That is why he gave away free tickets whenever and wherever he could. That is why he would play twenty-aside games with kids at the local rec. He understood what it cost the working class supporters, financially and emotionally, whenever the team lost. That is why his myth is so persistent. That is why, when Liverpool’s billionaire owners were tearing the club apart, the fans who fought back could think of no better name than The Spirit of Shankly.

If David Peace had set out to write a biography of Shankly, Red or Dead would have been a failure – albeit a glorious one. Instead, with considerable courage , he recounts and in turn helps create Shankly, the man, the myth, the legend.