TODAY, on the 33rd anniversary of his death, we pay tribute to Bill Shankly, one of the world’s greatest football managers. This revealing insight into this sporting genius is delivered by Shankly’s late wife, Nessie.
LIKE many great men, Bill Shankly’s character was not without its quota of paradox. He could be extremely beneficent. He could also be brusque and occasionally brutal.
I met him initially when Liverpool visited Southampton. At the after-match press conference, one small but pugnacious reporter adjudged, quite wrongly, that this was his lucky day: he ventured that the Reds had been comprehensively below par.
Shankly’s eyes were fixed on his highly polished shoes. His response came laced in sarcasm. ‘And what do you know about football, son?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘I take it you’ve managed teams since you talk with such authority?’
Thankfully, he was far more amenable when I travelled to his semi-detached home in Bellefield Avenue, Liverpool, in 1980 – just a year before he died. I’d just begun writing for the Daily Star and was naturally trying to avoid any unnecessary confrontation. Long emancipated from managerial duties, Shanks was in a contemplative mood and happy to review the days when he took Liverpool to three First Division titles, two FA Cup victories and one UEFA Cup triumph. After Nessie supplied us with tea and scones, we were free to discuss the majesty of old.
‘Who was your most memorable signing?’ I asked him. ‘Ron Yeats,’ he replied, with scarcely a pause. ‘I remember him vividly even now all these years later. He was wearing a light grey suit, a bit like yours, son. He was a colossus, a handsome colossus, with that black crinkly hair of his. I took him out to the centre circle and I walked round him, appreciating the view. “Listen, son, it’s no’ Anfield you should be at…it’s Hollywood!” ’
Golden days, golden words. Such memories were filtering through my mind some years later when I was in Birkenhead interviewing the manager of Tranmere Rovers, John King. Now King, in his second incarnation with Rovers, was an estimable Londoner who had taken Rovers to new and fashionable heights.
Be that as it might, I was berating myself as I sat there listening to the doctrine of life at Prenton Park. Why was I here? I asked myself. Without aiming a scintilla of disrespect towards King, shouldn’t I have been aiming for more important matters? Okay, that was disrespectful, but it was also true. An idea was slowly forming in my mind.
Over the water at Anfield, Liverpool were in a bit of a predicament. Graeme Souness had won the Reds the FA Cup only days after emerging from life-saving heart surgery. But he had toiled in the subsequent months to make a managerial fist of a team he once dominated. Liverpool were playing keepy uppy with mediocrity, or worse. What would the late Bill Shankly have made of their lowly profile?
My mind had migrated again to a location just across the Mersey. It was in that semi-detached just around the corner from Everton’s training ground at Bellefield. Shankly, of course, wasn’t there any more to dispense his rather caustic wit, but what about his widow, the splendid Nessie, I wondered? Would she see me? Would she remember me? Would she mind if I knocked on her door and asked her to comment on the current state of the team her husband so patiently built?
There are some newspaper adventures that can be classified as expeditions for wild geese; there are some that are meant to happen, as if preordained. This belonged to the latter category. Twenty minutes later, Nessie answered that famous red door and, bless her, insisted that she remembered me. Suddenly, we were settled in the lounge where Bill and I had talked all those years ago; and, significantly, the fortunes of Graeme Souness were about to plummet in a fashion that even he might never have imagined.
There was, however, only one way this conversation was going to begin.
‘Bill died eleven years ago last September,’ said Nessie. ‘You try to get over it, but you never do. I still follow Liverpool’s fortunes. When they’re playing, it’s just like Bill being here and waiting for the match to finish.
‘He would generally ring me if they were playing at home: tell me he’d be back in half-an-hour. He always had steak on a Saturday…he loved his steak. Medium to well done. Didn’t like it with the blood running over.
‘His mood was according to how the team had played. Oh, I would know the result. Even if they’d won, sometimes he’d be a bit quiet. I’d know there was something ticking over in his mind, so I wouldn’t say anything to him. I’d just let him take his time to talk to me.
‘When he was uptight, he’d go into the kitchen and clean the cooker, or the windows. I think he took his aggression out on that cooker. At those times, he was like a rocket; I was the only one who could bring him back down to earth. At other times, he was great.’
Nessie was now locked into a day of remembrance. ‘His memory lives on. Not one day goes by without my thinking of him. I was so proud of him. It never went to his head. You know, I’ve never said this to anyone before, but he couldn’t quite grasp the amount of success they had over the years. He didn’t or couldn’t quite understand the enormity of it. It was like a huge snowball.
‘When he came here, in 1959, they were in the Second Division and struggling. It took him a couple of years, maybe three, to get them back up to the First. It was hard work, all hard work. But he loved it. I often told him to take his pyjamas and sleep at Anfield. He never took me up on that offer.’
Shankly’s sense of humour possessed the cutting edge of a Stanley knife. Once, he had labelled Southampton as the Alehouse Brawlers. This may or may not have been after watching his centre forward, Alun Evans, being dispatched into the air by the fearsome Jake McGrath.
What is certain is that when the hooligan cells, complete with bars, were built at Anfield, Shanks was waiting for the Southampton coach to arrive. On spotting McGrath, he invited the big centre-half to follow him. He led him down to one particular cell.
‘Here, John,’ he said, ‘I’d thought I’d show you your personal dressing room!’
Nessie shook with laughter when I recounted this story to her. ‘Bill was spontaneous,’ she said. ‘He didn’t write things down, he just sort of said them, according to what was going on at that moment. He made me laugh, but he also made me cry. Like when he was worried. But I never cried in front of him. It was when they were playing away that I’d sit down and have a good weep. That was the time for weeping.
‘Why would I weep? Because he put so much of himself into football. It was his whole life. As he said, football was more important than life or death. He actually believed that. But I didn’t. No, not really. The game was just his whole life, I don’t think he could have lived without it.’
This woman for most of her life had been a queen consort, standing behind the throne of her husband and scarcely uttering a word in public. Now the words were coming out in a torrent.
‘In a strange way, Bill was comfortable out of the limelight. He didn’t like to go anywhere on holiday, apart from Blackpool. We’d go to the Norbreck Castle and we had a suite there. He loved it; the air was so clean. It seemed to do him good He wouldn’t walk along the prom because he was too busy playing football with the waiters. They had a team, you know. The waiters used to look forward to his going. They had a great little team.’
But the finest home fixture, according to Nessie, was back here in Bellefield Avenue. It was like a shrine and people came to worship.
‘Kids would come to the door,’ shecontinued. ‘They were all invited in. Everyone was. “Make them a cup of tea, Nessie,” Bill would say. He knew they felt the same as he did. Passion. They still come here now. They’re grown up, married with kids of their own, but they still come.
‘You know, it took a lot out of Bill when he left Liverpool. He was lost in a way. But, in another way, he was seldom at home, away giving talks and making after-dinner speeches. Even that didn’t fill the void. He didn’t pack in too early, though. He was tired, love, I just think he’d had enough. It was the constant pressure, wasn’t it?’
It was fascinating copy – copy I knew the Star would never exploit to its fullest potential – and yet we were moving inexorably to the reason I was here. What would Bill Shankly have made of what was happening to Liverpool at that particular time?
Nessie Shankly’s eyes went straight for her shoes. It was, uncannily, a facsimile of the time at Southampton when that reporter crossed the line. ‘Oh, gosh, the only way I can put it is I’m glad he’s not here. I think he would be devastated. I’m glad he didn’t see Hysel and, of course, Hillsborough. And I’m glad he didn’t see what’s going on now. My cooker would have been a whole lot cleaner than it is now. That’s for sure.
‘I haven’t met Graeme Souness, love, but I feel sympathy for him. You’re bound to feel that. I think his brain must be in turmoil. Football is not just about a manager and players; they’ve got to be linked in some way.
‘ I don’t think at the moment there’s a link between the managerial side and the players. Oh, I could be wrong. But just reading the papers, I get this feeling. I also don’t think there’s the same atmosphere. It used to be family. Bill looked after them. He called them all “son.” They were all his sons. I remember when Tommy Smith’s father died, Tommy was only a youngster. His mother asked Bill to keep an eye on Tommy. And he did.
‘Sometimes he was quite angry with him, but he was the same with them all. If they made a mistake, he pointed it out to them – he didn’t shove it under the carpet. Graeme is a different personality to Bill.
‘Bill didn’t believe in being a player and going right into management. He started his stint right at the bottom and worked his way up the divisions: Carlisle, Grimsby, Workington, Huddersfield, and Liverpool. All the rungs of the ladder. Graeme has made mistakes, I think, but then, who’s perfect?
‘I just put the TV on for the result, but when I see some of the results I want to cry, love. I don’t but I want to. But what can I do? Bill’s not here to tell me. You know, he never had a sustained bad run like this. But, as I said, this would have broken his heart.’
I was with Nessie Shankly for almost an hour that memorable day. My second trip to the Shankly household had been as rewarding as the first, although it would have been difficult for Souness to appreciate such feelings. He was sacked a few weeks later.
*Adapted from Fingerprints of a Football Rascal. Amazon Kindle: £2.56