Bill Shankly: Revolutionary Socialist


No socialist in sixty years of British life has had more followers than Bill Shankly; no-one on the left has had greater success. Taking over as manager of Liverpool Football Club in 1959, with his team struggling in the second division, he had by his retirement in 1974 guided Liverpool to three league titles, two FA cups and the club’s first European trophy, the UEFA cup. He had built the structure for the team that would over the following decade go on to win a further 4 European Cups, and 6 League titles. This was a domination both at home and abroad which no other team in all the long history of English football has ever come close to matching.

A part of Shankly’s charisma came from the way in which he related his brand of football to a philosophy of collective endeavour, “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.” Shankly kitted his Liverpool side all in red. “Chairman Mao has never seen a greater show of red strength”, he said after one performance. Shankly insisted that the key to victory was the passion of the supporters. The first football “fanatics” to be seen on television were the Liverpool fans, swaying on the terraces, in their club scarves, joking, singing.

Few writers could be better placed than David Peace to bring Shankly into fiction. His Red Riding Quartet told the story of the 1970s and early 1980s with a radical bleakness. There was no space for innocence in these stories, not a policeman but one on the take. In GB84 Peace explored the mindset of Thatcher’s go-betweens, the shadowy figures who financed the efforts to break the Miners’ Strike. Peace has also written previously about football, with The Damned United telling the story of Brian Clough 44-day spell at Leeds. Writing in a style where myth, history and the occult mix, Peace is arguably the most ambitious novelist in Britain today.

Even David Peace however struggles to bring Shankly’s story successfully into fiction. There are difficulties here, which he only partially overcomes.

A reader of the Sun or the Mirror may content themselves with a generic report of their team’s latest game, for the paper’s treatment of the highlights is likely to last no more than a minute’s reading, but a novel demands that the writing holds the reader’s interest for hundreds of pages at a time. Peace didn’t have this problem in The Damned United as Clough only led Leeds for four League games. Shankly by contrast led Liverpool for over 750 games; and his triumphs, the League titles, were the product of long, campaigns with his Reds pulling ahead only at the end.

Peace’s style exaggerates the humdrum nature of the games. Many reports begin, “On the bench, the Anfield bench, Bill watched…” The attendance numbers are given. He conveys the chants of the crowd, and there are games for which the word “LI-VER-POOL” appears more than 200 times in 1000 words. Reports of home fixtures end, “Liverpool drew … At home, at Anfield.”

There are certain advantages to this way of writing. The evolution of tactics and the increased fitness of the players themselves have tended to make football a much more cramped and repetitive game than the sport of even a hundred years ago. I remember watching even the Liverpool sides of the early 80s (the period just after Peace’s book), for whom every attack would begin with Grobelaar rolling the ball to Hansen, and the defenders passing it to each other, and if need back to Grobelaar. Even then, this was immensely repetitive. To write about football in a way which makes the mundane appear fantastic (in the style, to be anachronistic, of a Sky pre-match advertisement) is actually to do your reader a disservice and patronise them.

Peace’s writing is at times beige: a dull and uninspiring background. By allowing some games to be uneventful, Peace gives himself the space to build up to more important matches, as for example the away game at Hillsborough in 1963, where, Peace suggests, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, was first sung. In Peace’s account, Shankly is aching with the fatigue of defeat, in his muscles, “beneath his skin, within his flesh. Through his bones and through his blood. His red, red blood.” The song is sung as Shankly returns to his team’s dressing room and begins to heal. In the context of the mundane, the special is made to appear truly extraordinary.

Any reader will grasp the effect Peace seeks; and yet the writing at times is consciously art-less, and some readers will complain that they could have written the words themselves. Like the modern art of a century ago, when compared to a doodle; it invites the reply: “you can paint like Picasso? Go paint then”. But Peace isn’t Picasso and even I, an enthusiast, found my attention waning at times.

A second problem Peace faces, and only partially resolves, is the character of Shankly himself. On his account, Liverpool’s manager had no excesses, was well read outside football, loved his wife selflessly, and carried some of the burden of housework for her. Shankly genuinely believed that the best player in his team, or even he himself, was worth less than the most passionate of his supporters. In order to win his historic wager – on the capacity of the working-class population of Liverpool to remake their team and the game through their passionate support – he was selfless with his own time, thanking supporters with gifts of tickets and, on occasion, of his own clothes. Shankly lived in a modest working class home, barely negotiated himself a pay rise, and tried to resist in every way the creeping commercialism of his times. Everything he believed, he lived.

All of us have seen activist projects which failed because their leaders were selfish, or because their senior followers rallied to protect the party from the victims of an injustice. Unlike small children, we know irony.

In an age where working class heroes, or at least those worthy of the label, are rare Shankly’s fictional biographer faces a challenge. The Shankly of this novel was better than anyone any of us are ever likely to meet. He does not develop as a character, he has no demons to overcome, his joy is not the source of his subsequent despair. Peace’s Clough was driven to succeed even at a club where he was likely to be hated; Shankly by contrast is simply a fixed point of goodness.

Since Lukacs, the usual response of writers to a character of this sort has been to invent a thwarted admirer (Salieri to Amadeus’ Mozart), so that the tension between the two protagonists give the plot its energy. In real life, Shankly had no antagonist, history supplies no-one for the author to develop into a rival.

Peace’s answer is a different one. If the story has a motor it is Shankly’s own sense that the game is unforgiving of the old, and the determination with which he gets rid of successive players on whom he had previously relied. This provides a theme building up to the final quarter of the book in which Shankly is retired, tries and fails to find a new role for himself at the club and is rebuffed. Shankly suffers a real, if modest, moment of incomprehension and bitterness.

There is a suicide in this book, but of a minor character. Otherwise, little goes wrong. There will be readers who find the book passionless in consequence, lacking the dark forebodings of Peace’s previous historical novels.

Was Shankly the greatest manager? Long ago, in the different context of cricket, CLR James compared the greatness of Bradman and W. G. Grace, pointing out that for all the statistical triumphs of the former, he did not change the relationship between cricket and society, built nothing that lasted, achieved only for himself.

Shankly’s sole comparator, on this test, is Ferguson, the manager who was in pole position to profit from the Premiership era, with all the subtle ways in which it concentrates resources upwards – the Sky TV deals, the overcompensation of success in the Champions League, Bosman and the escalating proportion of club turnover that the clubs are required to shell out on their players. Shankly’s achievements – a kind of fan culture, the Boot Room, European success – came in a shorter period than Ferguson was allowed. Their meaning was rooted in the values of the left, just as Ferguson was the perfect manager for a neoliberal age.

So as not to offend anyone, Peace makes no judgment on any other team (not even the Leeds side which Clough so hated); and even Liverpool’s rivalry with United, Peace carefully underplays by emphasising Shankly’s close friendship with their manager Matt Busby, who was, of course, a former Liverpool captain.

Shankly’s socialism was always vague. It was, after all, primarily a footballing rather than a political concept. While he undoubtedly had an idea of the potential power of class loyalty, his socialism was vague enough to take in a general feeling of goodwill to individuals as different as Chairman Mao and Harold Wilson.

There are moments in this novel, where the idea has knees and elbows. At times, Shankly’s well-meaning Socialism excludes those who are not worthy of the label. In Romania, his hosts refuse to serve Liverpool with the drinks that have been ordered, and Shankly assumes that their food or drink is being tampered with. He shouts: “You are a disgrace to International Socialism. You are a disgrace to your party.” Let us hope we never have to use that insult again.

Would Liverpool revive if only a new Shankly could be found? Some of the tricks attributed by Peace to Shankly – negotiating a potential £100 pay rise for all his players at the end of one season, then offering each player individually the unbelievably generous sum of £80 (far more than any of them had expected) – could not work today. Perhaps Peace makes too little as well of the source of Liverpool’s transfer wealth. They were never the richest club in English football, nor the highest payers, but unlike today the club was at least financially competitive. Peace lets one scene with an accountant introduce the Moores’ family wealth. A darker book might have made a little more of the compromises this must have involved.

The team’s progress was made possible in part by the loss of jobs on Liverpool, by the pre-history as it were of the terrible unemployment of the 1980s. The fans’ passion did not come from nowhere, but was a displaced form of class struggle against the perfidy of the regional and national capital, Manchester and London.

The feelings of anger and bitterness are still there. In London, a new generation of Toffs are concentrating wealth upwards even more visibly than before. Peace’s novel appears sandwiched between two images on the inside front and back covers, the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike and the 1981 March for Jobs.

The dockers are fewer than they were; socialism cannot be achieved simply by replacing the footage of the 1970s, on an ever-faster speed, until at one point the steel industry is saved, the car plants restored, and the Thatcher-Cameron hybrid defeated. Simply calling for a repeat of the past, without a recognition of the new, becomes just another preparation for defeat. There will be strikes in future, including mass strikes. But when the class moves next it will be a different set of people, with different ideas, in different organisations to the ones of 40 years ago.

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