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Aug 7, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 10: Shankly

Such was the charisma and wit of Bill Shankly, there is a danger that his career -- and, indeed, his life -- is eroded into digestible sound bites.

Bill Shankly transformed Liverpool from a ramshackle outfit to a well-calibrated winning machine.
Bill Shankly transformed Liverpool from a ramshackle outfit to a well-calibrated winning machine.

Football is more important than life and death; shutting curtains if Everton were playing in his garden; taking his wife Nessie to watch Rochdale reserves as an anniversary present. These are all reproduced on desktop wallpapers and T-shirts to convey the person Shankly was, to highlight the psyche of the man who would lay the foundations at one of the world’s most famous clubs.

However, his ability as a manager should not be forgotten either. Shankly took charge of second-tier Liverpool in December 1959 and achieved promotion within two full seasons, brought their first championship since 1947 within four seasons and won the club’s first FA Cup a year later.

There is far more to it than that. Liverpool were not in the second division due to bad luck; they were a roughshod operation when Shankly arrived, with the Melwood training ground ramshackle and the squad bereft of quality. Melwood is now a good training facility that has housed hundreds of international players: teenage prodigies, superstars and some of the best in the world.

That is all because of Shankly. Every blade of grass and every million-pound pair of boots that scuttled across them is because of Shankly. He was hired by unambitious directors motivated by money -- they could not have hired a manager more different to them. By the Scot’s own admission, he listed 24 players for transfer in his first month at the club, and all left within a year.

His final honours list at the club reads impressively. He brought Liverpool three first division championships, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup -- even more remarkable considering it spanned over a 15-year career at Anfield, a time when football was ever-changing. He was not worried of changing with it, either. While in the second division, he signed Scottish pair Ian St. John and Ron Yeats. St. John would score 118 goals for the club, while Yates would be a colossus in defence for a decade, captain of the side throughout the 60s.

Yet Shankly would exhibit ruthlessness; with no trophy since 1966, he realised his side needed to evolve. By 1971, St. John and Yates had both left the club, so too striker Roger Hunt and goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence. Shankly brought in Kevin Keegan and John Toshack, who would form an excellent pairing up-front; they joined goalkeeper Ray Clemence and Emlyn Hughes, both signed in 1967, but maturing as players in the 70s.

Before he retired in 1974, he would also bring Jimmy Case, Ray Kennedy and Steve Heighway to the club -- those three, along with Keegan, Clemence and captain Hughes, would lift Liverpool’s first European Cup in 1977.

Though Shankly is regarded as a traditionalist, his methods also resonate with more modern times: he had identified the necessity to regenerate the squad, to bring in younger players and nurture them into the first team with the club’s style of play imprinted on their minds and feet. How many clubs nowadays have tried -- and failed -- to do similar. In 1960s Liverpool, "holistic" would be confused with the Beatles’ latest B-side.

Shankly built a dynasty at Anfield on the pitch and built something special off it. He spoke of socialism, of working together and sharing rewards; he recognised that vital link between the players and the fans, between the city and the football club. They worked with each other and helped each other; football was a reflection of society, and vice versa.

So it showed. His side were hard-working on the pitch with an unforgiving spine; individual ability was only a supplement to teamwork and commitment which would found a relentless outfit eventually known as the "Red Machine." The people of Liverpool regaled in it.

Football became an obsession in a city that was already thriving with the success of Paul, John, George and Ringo. The image of Shankly standing on the steps of St. George’s Hall after his side’s FA Cup final defeat in 1971 to Arsenal, in front of thousands of loyal supporters, is a snapshot of the culture he created. Win together, lose together.

“Chairman Mao has never seen a greater show of Red strength,” he said. This is the one quirky comment, above all, to take note of. Shankly could have revolutionised a nation if he wanted to; instead, he simply settled for a football club that would become one of the biggest in the world.

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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