Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

Back to David Peace. Red or Dead is an unusual book. Peace has a unique style, recounting the minutiae of league seasons. He uses repetition to great effect: as the reds close in on the title in 1964, he repeatedly talks of the “sunshine, the lovely spring sunshine”. Some may find this style tedious. Yet I found it surprisingly appropriate for the inevitably repetitious football year. And very moving as the book moves on to the difficult retirement years after 1974. 

It reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Hornby’s acclaimed book recounted one man’s relationship with football, starting with uneasy outings to Arsenal with his father. Fever Pitch also took its reader on a journey through countless league games.

Shankly was a Liverpool legend. Yet he never really got over the loss of purpose that resigning the Liverpool hot seat involved. The club confronted Shanks when his habit of turning up at training was undermining successor Bob Paisley. Liverpool mourned when Shankly died in 1981, but Paisley proved even more successful as Reds boss. It was poignant that Liverpool’s first league game after Shankly’s death was against Anfield legend John Toshack’s Swansea City, with its many former Anfield stars including Tommy Smith. 

Although this is a novel not a biography, it gave me a new appreciation of one of the greatest managers the game has ever seen. Shankly was a decent man who saw the fans as the most important people. He showed great kindness to those fans, who in turn loved him. David Peace has written a great novel that is also a tribute to Shanks. 

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