David Peace may justly be called an experimental novelist. He is prolific, original, sometimes incomprehensible. His novels have variously and challengingly been set in Yorkshire, Japan…and in football.
I had decidedly mixed feelings about The Damned United, which dealt imaginatively, some would say arbitrarily, with Brian Cloughs’ disastrous 44 days at Leeds United, whose players he had excoriated as cheats who never deserved their medals.
I wasn’t convinced by his picture of Clough, or the melodrama he made of the story. From a personal point of view, I felt the way he dealt with an incident in which I happened to play a crucial part was exaggerated and gratuitous; and not merely because he didn’t attribute the source!
When Clough came out of the Derby dressing room at the end of a European Cup game his team had lost to Juventus, he told the waiting Italian journalists, “No cheating bastards will I talk to. I will not talk to any cheating bastards.”
He never used the F word which Peace imputes to him. When he closed the dressing room door the Italian reporters besieged me, demanding a translation. I tried to avoid giving one, but Brian Clough then re-opened the door and insisted, “Tell them what I said, Brian.” This I did which resulted in the inevitable headlines next morning in the Italian press.
Peace doesn’t try to romanticise Clough but at least one reviewer of Red or Dead describes his biographic novel of Shankly as a hagiography. By bizarre contrast Shankly is described as “a saint, one of the greatest men who ever lived,” which stretches the very limits of hyperbole.
Over a good many years I came to know Bill quite well, and came greatly to like him but never detected the odour of saintliness. As chance had it, he played in the very first professional match I saw, as a 10-year-old; in January 1942 for Scotland versus England at Wembley. He was at right half the left half was Matt Busby and Scotland were outplayed 3-0. Anecdotes of Bill in his managerial days, following an impressive career at Preston North End, abounded.
Once, when managing Huddersfield Town, he suddenly told a group of players at the end of training, “Right, you five put on white shirts, you’re England. The other four and me will wear blue shorts; we’re Scotland.”
The game began and Mike O’Grady a future England international left-winger but then a youngster went past Shankly with ease to score; then did it once more. When it was about to happen a third time Shanks brought him down and snarled. “Do that again and I’ll break your effing leg!”
Saintly was hardly the way he treated injured players at Liverpool; it was well known that he would not speak to them. Alex Lindsay, an England left back, once told me in a German hotel on tour, “He can treat you like dirt.”
When it came to his club, he could evince tunnel vision. After a European Cup match in Amsterdam when Ajax had beaten Liverpool 5-1 he complained, “That’s terrible; a team playing at home and they play defensive!”
In the Liverpool dressing room after Liverpool had lost the FA Cup Final at Wembley to a late goal by Charlie George, he was approached by his skipper, Emlyn Hughes, who told him, “I’m very, very sorry, Boss; that last goal was down to me. I was knackered,” to which Shankly replied, “That’s all right Emlyn, everybody makes mistakes,” sending Hughes away, consoled. Looking after him, Shankly remarked, “And that’s the c…. who lost us the Cup Final!”
It was in the European Cup of 1974 that Liverpool’s tactics were exposed as obsolescent by Red Star Belgrade. I saw the first game in Yugoslavia when Liverpool were outplayed; and Red Star then beat them at Anfield. To his credit Shankly realised something radical must be done and he summoned his coaches, Bob Paisley among them, to the famous Boot Room, where it was decided that patience was a virtue, hyper direct play and the long ball self defeating and the tactics changed profitably from that day.
Ironically, Liverpool under Shankly never won the European Cup though they might have done had they not – as a gloomy Italian journalist told Shanks they would be after they’d beaten Inter 3-1 at Anfield just days after winning the FA Cup Final – been cheated by a bribed referee. Shankly’s revenge by proxy came two years later in Lisbon where Celtic managed by his friend Jock Stein – “You’re immortal Jock!” defeated Inter. Afterwards Helenio Herrara, Inter’s controversial egotist manager was harangued from either side by two Celtic coaches. “I told them to,” Shanks said.
Another recent book deals with the story of Welsh football. Favourably reviewed by a knowledgeable reviewer, his article to my surprise made no mention of Ted Robbins the very heart, soul and inspiration of Welsh football, the man, an ideal manager but officially the Secretary of the Welsh FA for decades, turned Third Division toilers into dazzling stars once they put on the red shirt. The man who could even overcome the mean spirited behaviour of English clubs who wouldn’t release his players. “Get your feet under the table, I’ll be your Daddy!” he would tell the men whom he inspired.