Greatest Managers, No. 4: Bob Paisley
Quiet, relentless success is a description to sit well with Bob Paisley.
Bill Shankly may be the warrior poet whom Liverpool fans hark back to in times of trouble, but it was his right-hand man, and successor, who took their club to true greatness. He is the most successful English manager of all time, and he was British football’s most successful conqueror of Europe, too.
A shy, rather bumbling public persona gloved an iron-willed operator never afraid of making tough decisions in the pursuit of trophies. In 1950, as a player with Liverpool, he scored in a Merseyside derby FA Cup semi-final yet found himself dropped for the final. A harsh lesson was forever acted on; he may have seemed like a warm-hearted and avuncular boss, but sentiment rarely played a part in his own selections.
“I was to learn that praise from Bob Paisley was rather like a snowstorm in the Sahara,” said Graeme Souness, Paisley’s captain for his final two seasons in charge.
“He may have been regarded as a fatherly figure by the supporters, but let me tell you, he ruled at Anfield with a rod of iron. You could tell when he was about by the changed atmosphere in the dressing rooms and training ground. He was a commanding man, and there were few who dared mess around with him.”
Paisley’s hard edge is further revealed by his succession of Shankly in 1974. The Liverpool board had to pressure the 55-year-old to take the job. However, once it was his, Shankly, whose house looked over the Melwood training ground, was banned from coming on the premises. There was now room for only one man to be called "boss."
“He’s trying to get right away from football,” Paisley said of Shankly after his first league match in charge. “I believe he went to Everton.”
Souness was the type of astute signing who continually bolstered Paisley’s Liverpool from a position of strength. The Reds were European champions, but the midfielder’s signing in January 1978 made them yet stronger. At Wembley in May, it was Souness’ pass that put Kenny Dalglish past the FC Brugge’s defence to secure yet another continental crown. Dalglish had been signed the previous summer, the perfect panacea for Kevin Keegan’s departure to Hamburg.
A keen eye for a player who might not be the best available but suited Liverpool perfectly stemmed from Paisley’s years on the backroom staff; he began his post-playing career as a physiotherapist. Members of the fabled "Boot Room" spent much of their time traversing the country to watch potential new players. Sometimes, Paisley and Shankly would enter a stadium in disguise.
“I’ve watched many matches with him not involving Liverpool and very little escapes him,” said Tom Saunders, the club’s youth development officer and fellow Boot Room member. “When a goal’s scored, he’ll have the complete move analysed in a flash, and he’ll often emphasise the contribution of players running off the ball who were not directly involved.”
By the time Paisley was manager, he seemed almost incapable of making a bad signing, notwithstanding the ill-fated purchase of Frank McGarvey from St Mirren in 1979. Even then, Liverpool still got back the £270,000 they had paid from Celtic.
He was also a master of finding the right positions for players. Ray Kennedy was a bustling centre-forward signed from Arsenal on the very day Shankly resigned. With Keegan and John Toshack the chosen strike partnership, Paisley converted Kennedy into a left-sided midfield playmaker whom Jimmy Greaves labelled “the player of the '70s."
The flashy tactical terms of the day were ignored by Paisley, but his team were always rigorously organised. Shankly’s final season had seen Red Star Belgrade destroy Liverpool in the European Cup. A previously direct style was abandoned for a possession game far better suited to European competition. “Pass and move” swept all before it, both at home and abroad. Simplicity was key. There was no need for flannel.
“Some of the jargon is frightening,” Paisley told the Liverpool Daily Post as his retirement approached in 1983. “They talk of ‘getting round the back’ and sound like burglars. They say, ‘You’ve got to make more positive runs’ or ‘You're too negative.' That sounds as though you’re filling the team with electricians. But people talk like this without real depth or knowledge of what they’re really talking about.”
Paisley’s team won the UEFA Cup in 1976 before taking possession of its senior partner in 1977 and 1978. And after Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest had repeated Liverpool’s feat, a third crown was claimed when beating Real Madrid in Paris in 1981. They got there from the semi-final after Paisley had motivated an injury-hit team featuring untried youngsters in Colin Irwin, Richard Money and Howard Gayle into defeating mighty Bayern Munich in their own stadium.
Shankly’s quotes may decorate banners to this day, but Paisley was no less a leader of men, and better blessed as a team-builder. His predecessor’s reign hit a flat spot in the late '60s when the team was allowed to age. Paisley avoided stagnation by repeatedly freshening. The message was always made clear; everyone was dispensable, places had to be fought for. The loss of Keegan was widely viewed as disastrous, but Celtic’s Dalglish was a player even better suited to the Paisley plan.
“Kevin was quicker off the mark, but Kenny runs the first five yards in his head,” explained Paisley.
The involvement with Liverpool straddled the club’s golden years. On the coaching staff when Shankly arrived in 1959, Paisley remained involved beyond his own retirement. When Dalglish was taking his baby steps as player-manager in 1985, it was Paisley holding his hand. Liverpool won their first ever double of Championship and FA Cup in Dalglish’s first season.
Strangely, Paisley had never won the FA Cup as a manager. He could quietly content himself with having won just about everything else.
ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.