In the first part of this somewhat impromptu review and analysis of what for me was and always will be the golden age of football obsession: the late 70’s and the 80’s, I had a look at the dynamic management and coaching duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor and how they took humble Nottingham Forest of the Second Division to the absolute pinnacle of European football in the space of just five and a half magical seasons (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.).
Without doubt part of what made Clough and Taylor’s achievements with Forest so outstanding and noteworthy was the way that they not only took on but overcame the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was Liverpool, steered and guided by the almost mythical Anfield Boot Room.
The Boot Room was pretty much what you would guess it is: a small room near to the changing rooms at Anfield used for storing the players’ boots that the legendary Bill Shankly converted into an informal coaches’ meeting room come clubhouse.
The original membership of the Anfield inner sanctum included: Shankly, Bob Paisley (an astute tactician with a real eye for a potential transfer target), Reuben Bennett (the closest to Shankly), Tom Saunders (the only one of the group with a full coaching certificate), Joe Fagan (First Team Coach and the one credited with creating the Boot Room by converting it into a pseudo-common room for coaches complete with upturned beer crates to sit on and topless calendars on the wall), and Ronnie Moran (possessor of a shrewd knowledge of the game and a renowned ability for getting the best out of the players).
Shankly was in his own unique style a virtually unstoppable force of nature taking over at Anfield in December 1959 with Liverpool mired in the Second Division and inheriting a squad that was in his judgement: “not good enough. I made up my mind that we needed strengthening through the middle, a goalkeeper and a centre half who between them could stop goals, and somebody up front to create goals and score them”, no small task there then!
From the very start of his time there Shankly set about: refurbishing the shambolic training facilities (his words), rebuilding the squad by placing a total of 24 players on the transfer list, all of whom had departed within a year, and bringing in better quality players starting with Ron Yeats a giant of a centre back and Ian St John who would score the goals.
It was on the training field however where Shankly truly revolutionised the team and their style of football. In concert with Paisley, Bennett and Fagan who were already on the coaching staff, he eschewed the long distance running on roads, so popular at the time but that Shankly hated, and instead insisted that apart from warm-up exercises or any special exercises needed to overcome injuries, the players trained on grass using a ball with all training drills geared towards his philosophy of “pass and move”.
It took three attempts, but Liverpool were promoted as champions in 1961-62. Once back in the top flight after a season of consolidation and further development of the squad Liverpool were crowned champions for the sixth time in their history in 1963-64 and the first time in 17 years. Shankly guided Liverpool to their maiden FA Cup victory, one of his stated ambitions, the following season and added a further league title in 1965-66.
On the European stage Shankly’s and Liverpool’s first foray into European competition ended at the semi-final stage of the European Cup when they were eliminated by Inter Milan in controversial circumstances in which Shankly described two of the goals in the decisive second leg as “illegal”. The next one in 1965-66 led all the way to the Final of the European Cup Winners Cup where they were ultimately beaten by Borussia Dortmund at Hampden. While not completely successful those two runs taught Shankly and Paisley so much about European competition and allowed them to develop an approach for two-legged matches of “containment away” and “attack at home” that would reap such success in the future.
Between 1966-67 and 1972-73, a period that Shankly described as: “a mediocre time in the late 1960s as we prepared for the 1970s” Liverpool were usually in the hunt for the title but just off the pace. They did however bring in two names that to this day signal a rich part of their history in: Emlyn Hughes in 1967 and a certain Kevin Keegan in 1971, as well as the likes of: Ray Clemence, Alec Lindsay, Larry Lloyd, John Toshack, Brian Hall and Steve Heighway as Shankly built his second great team.
That side went on to win the League in 1972-73 and also add the club’s first European trophy, the UEFA Cup. In 1974 Liverpool won the FA Cup in what would turn out to be Shankly’s final game in charge beating Newcastle 3-0, Shankly cited “feeling tired after all these years” as the indication that his mind was made up. Where Shankly had indisputably laid the foundations what was to come next surpassed even his achievements.
Despite having been at the club since 1939 as a wing half, physio and coach alongside Shankly, it is generally accepted that Bob Paisley was, to say the least, somewhat reluctant to step into the managerial shoes of his illustrious predecessor, infamously telling a shocked dressing room in his first training session as manager that he was: “only looking after the shop until a proper manager arrives”.
Liverpool finished second in Paisley’s first season at the helm but then went on to win not only the League title but also the UEFA Cup again in 1975-76. This was the start of Liverpool’s period of true dominance of English and probably European football.
The following season Liverpool not only went on to retain the title but also to win the European Cup for the first time in their history. The trophies just kept coming, a total of twenty in his nine year tenure as manager, comprising: six league titles, three European Cups, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup, Super Cup and three Charity Shields. That rate of 2.2 trophies per season is a return only beaten by a certain Pep Guardiola. Not bad for a self-avowed caretaker!
Astonishingly there was a period between 1976 and 1983 where Liverpool won either the league title or European Cup every year and only one season under Paisley (1980-81) where they finished outside of the top two. During that run only two other teams challenged that utter dominance: Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, as reviewed last week, who won the league in 1977-78 and the European Cup in 1979 and 1980; and Aston Villa under Ron Saunders and later Tony Barton who won the league in 1980-81, the season Liverpool finished fifth, and then the European Cup in 1982 as will be reviewed next week.
Paisley’s style was different to Shankly’s, whereas his predecessor was never happier than leading from the front, as record-appearance maker Ian Callaghan put it: “Bob was very reluctant to become manager because he didn’t think he was cut out for it. He was an introvert and preferred being in the background”. As Paisley himself once famously remarked that while Shankly wore steel tips on his shoes so people knew he was coming, he preferred to wear carpet slippers.
Paisley however possessed a ruthless streak that his predecessor didn’t, where Shankly dwelt too long over breaking up the first incarnation of his team once it had gone past its peak in the late 60’s, Paisley broke up the 1981 European Cup winning side (his third victory in the competition), jettisoning players of the calibre of goalkeeper Ray Clemence, midfielder Terry McDermott and striker David Johnson almost immediately.
Above anything else though Paisley’s greatest strength was to find players of unrecognised potential and to mould them into genuinely top, if not world, class players. He signed Ronnie Whelan from Home Farm in Ireland, found Ian Rush at Chester City and of course signed an unknown Zimbabwean goalkeeper from Vancouver Whitecaps in the form of Bruce Grobbelaar.
Even when he did have to sign big, such as when looking for a replacement for Hamburg-bound Kevin Keegan, he brought in Kenny Dalglish from Celtic and still made a reputed £60,000 profit on the deal.
Beyond the powers of the individual managers however it was the combined knowledge and tactical acumen of the Boot Room think-tank that made the succession and legacy planning so straightforward. It was more a case of next man up than having to find a replacement for a long-serving manager. When it came time for Paisley himself to retire in 1983 after 44 years at the club, Joe Fagan took up the reins and led the club to a further league title and another European Cup victory as part of an historic treble that also included the League Cup.
The pooled knowledge and wisdom ensuring that the philosophy, traditions and style of play were passed down from generation to generation, a process that became known as “The Liverpool Way”. The famed “Anfield Bibles” a series of notebooks which Paisley and Moran started back in the Shankly days detailed: strategy, tactics, training drills, injuries, opponents etc. what we would now call a coaching database.
It wasn’t all their own work however; they would invariably use the Boot Room as a kind of impromptu post-match suite in which they would invite opposition managers in to ‘share ideas’ over a bottle of beer or two. Former Chairman of Watford, Elton John, said “he felt more nervous visiting Liverpool’s inner sanctum than playing a gig before 100,000 fans in America”, but of course asked for a pink gin when he did visit although had to reluctantly content himself with the brown ale he was given as that or whisky were unsurprisingly the only options available.
Fagan reluctantly stepped down after only his second season as manager after the Heysel tragedy left him, in the words of Kenny Dalglish his successor: “a haunted man for the rest of his life.”
After seeing their rivals from across Stanley Park, Everton, win the title in 1985, Dalglish as player-manager led Liverpool to a League and FA Cup double in 1985-86 pipping their Merseyside rivals to the title in a close fought battle by just two points, with Dalglish himself scoring the clinching goal at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season, and then beating them 3-1 in an epic FA Cup Final.
Dalglish obviously wasn’t part of the Boot Room he was a player after all and therefore not part of the recognised cognoscenti, as he himself put it: “I never went in there after games for one very good reason – I wasn’t clever enough.” He did however carry on the success after missing out on the title again to Everton in 1986-87, they regained it the following season but the impact of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans went to an FA Cup semi-final never to return home, weighed heavy on Dalglish.
They went on to win the FA Cup but lost out at Anfield to Michael Thomas’ last minute heroics in the most exciting finish to a league season and a night none of us of a Gooner persuasion will ever forget. Dalglish’s charges rallied to win the title again the following season, the last time they did, but in February 1991 two days after a helter-skelter 4-4 draw in the FA Cup at Goodison Park Dalglish resigned, the emotion of Hillsborough and all the funerals and memorial services he attended were all too much.
The dingy room that used to host the Liverpool brains trust was demolished under the reign of Dalglish’s successor another legend of the club, Graeme Souness, and while they have come close to another title victory and have won European football’s biggest prize twice since those heady days of the late 70’s and early 80’s, they haven’t dominated the game as they once did since.