The Boot Room Boys

INTERESTINGLY, Liverpool Football Club’s managerial heroes were not from the city of Liverpool. Bill Shankly was a Scot, Bob Paisley from the north-east, Kenny Dalglish is another child of Glasgow. Moreover, many of their most influential players have been from other parts of Britain: Ian St. John, Ron Yeats, Kevin Keegan, Dalglish, Ian Rush and John Barnes, to name but a few. The club’s golden age, in the mid-1970s to late 1980s, was built on adopting a more fluid European style of football, taught to them by Red Star Belgrade in 1973-74. And today’s talismanic coach, Jürgen Klopp, is from Stuttgart. 

While the sceptics criticise Liverpool for being an insular, siege mentality club, their influences are far and wide and were more cosmopolitan than their rivals for a long time. Some clubs have tried to adhere to a way of playing that epitomised their culture, but invariably, this has held them back. You could argue Tottenham, Manchester United and West Ham United, among others, were haunted by visions of their footballing past, a house-style that was mostly a myth. Liverpool modified their approach in the mid-1970s at a time when the Dutch and Germans were peddling “total football”. And these changes were formulated in a small corner of Anfield known as the Boot Room.

The BT film, The Boot Room Boys, is a delightful story about a corner of Anfield that will forever be part of the club’s DNA. The image is of a group of ageing men, beer bottles in hand, chatting over the finer points of the game, but this informal setting provided the backdrop for the likes of Shankly and Paisley to build togetherness, common goals and fresh ideas. 

No matter what you think of Liverpool, it was always hard not to respect and admire what they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, they could be machine-like at times, but they were also brilliant and could improvise with the best of them.

Success breeds arrogance in football, but it was not a sentiment you found on the pitch with Liverpool’s players – well, not very often. Shankly was a caricature in many ways, but Paisley was like everyone’s favourite uncle, arrogance was never associated with either, although Shankly could be a poor loser sometimes. 

Yet Shankly was clearly a special person, somebody who created the only true British football management dynasty: from Shankly to Paisley, to Fagan, to Dalglish. It is doubtful if any manager has left such an enduring mark on a club – not even Matt Busby. While so many iconic managers have left behind a club desperately trying to live up to the standards of the departing icon, Liverpool went on to even greater things post-Shankly. That somebody as unassuming as Paisley could succeed his mentor said as much about the strength of the foundations.

What was so good about the Boot Room Boys was the way it told the real story of how the club became a European force to be feared. Watch it, and come away with a very different opinion about Liverpool Football Club.

Busby, Shankly and Stein – the three kings bearing gifts and wisdom

FOOTBALL films invariably disappoint, but the documentary about three legends, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, is a chapter from the rich history of the game that reminds us it has not always been about corporatisation and hubris. Three humble men in many ways, confident of their own ability but very clear about to whom they were accountable.

Three Kings is about three giant men, whose power was built on the public respect for their abilities, their ethos and the fact they cared. All Scots from working class, mining backgrounds, these three men created the modern post-war game long before the likes of Wenger, Ferguson and Mourinho. They were the forerunners.

Shankly has always come across as slightly boyish and a little naïve, but here was a man as hard as granite, who identified with the fans on the terraces. There was no divide between capital and labour with Shankly – he worked for the people of Liverpool – “it’s you who pays our wages” – and he created a communion between the players, the supporters and those that ran the club. Liverpool under Shankly were not pioneers of a style of play, but they perfected a machine-like efficiency that fed-off the passion of the manager and the locals. 

Shankly’s record was overtaken by his successor, Bob Paisley – Shanks won six major honours with Liverpool to Paisley’s 13, but the cultural impact of Shankly was greater than anyone who took the role after him. Likewise, Kevin Keegan was never the player that Kenny Dalglish was, but Keegan is credited with kick-starting a revolution. Did Shankly retire too early? There’s no doubt he regretted leaving Anfield when he did, a strange move given he had just won the FA Cup for the second time. Given he was a football man through and through, whose life had been devoted to the sport, it was no surprise that he found himself lacking purpose in retirement. 

Similarly, Sir Matt Busby’s record at Manchester United was overwhelmed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-winning habits – eight versus 25. But Busby’s contribution was transformational in that he nurtured the concept of developing players, “polishing oiur diamonds”, and built a string of good teams. All teams built from within became “babes” after Busby’s creation of a near 100% home-grown side in the 1950s. They were the “Busby Babes”, many of whom died in the Munich air crash of 1958. While Shankly was more about the dynamic between him and the fans, Busby was like a father figure to his players. 

While Shankly’s departure clearly didn’t prohibit Paisley in 1974, Busby’s retirement, initially in 1969, left a gap that prevented his successors from fulfilling their potential. Nobody wanted to admit it, but Busby’s huge presence was a problem for Manchester United – certainly for Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell.

Celtic’s Jock Stein will forever be known as “the big man”, an imposing figure who could match Busby for presence – little wonder that when the United job became available, the club wanted Stein to take charge. At the time, Celtic were every bit as big as United, and certainly more successful. Stein was another manager who respected the role of the people in creating a club. “Without the fans, football is nothing,” he would say.

Stein’s record at Celtic was incredible, 10 league titles, nine Scottish Cup wins, six league cup victories and of course, the European Cup in 1967. Shankly loved Stein and said he had become immortal by winning the European Cup in Lisbon against an Inter Milan side he had no love for. “Jock has the blood of [Robert] Bruce,” he claimed. Stein died in 1985, suffering a heart attack at the World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Wales. He had left Celtic in 1978 – with a win rate of 70% – becoming full-time Scotland manager. 

Busby, Shankly and Stein all have statues in memory of their monumental contribution to football and to the people at their respective clubs. Much-loved figures, their achievements in terms of silverware may have been bettered by others, but no matter how many prizes future managers of Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic win, their legends will live on. Three Kings is a fitting tribute to these decent, principled men who, to quote the inscription on Shankly’s statue, “made people happy”.

@GameofthePeople

The Saint – Liverpool’s hero of 1965

IAN ST. JOHN became part of an exclusive band of footballers – he scored the winning goal in a Wembley FA Cup final, a crouching header that broke the hearts of Don Revie’s fledgling Leeds United and gave Liverpool their first FA Cup. 

But St. John’s career in football went way beyond the usual route. After his playing and managerial career, he suddenly turned up in the mid-1980s as the co-host of the laddish football show, “The Saint and Greavsie”.

This duo became something of a characature of two former pros having a good time talking about the game they loved. Always smiling, always ribbing each other and extremely blokey. The fans loved them, even though their shows were a mix of cliché, jargon, Tarbuckesque jokes and a little loose banter. In an era when football was the leper of British sport, they provided some light-hearted respite. Then in 1992, as English football started to get serious, the veteran pair disappeared. Seven years wasn’t a bad run, though.

As a player, St. John was, for a while, one of the best centre forwards of his time, skilful, good in the air for a relatively short man and direct. He was signed by Liverpool from Motherwell in May 1961 just before his 23rd birthday. Bill Shankly, the Reds’ legendary manager, said the signing of St. John and Ron Yeats in the summer of 1961 was the turning point for Liverpool in the 1960s. St. John scored 64 goals in his first three seasons with the club, including 21 in their league title success of 1963-64. 

He was never quite as prolific in the years that followed, often playing deeper and allowing the likes of Roger Hunt to benefit from his efforts. The most enduring image of the Scottish international remains the goal he scored to clinch the FA Cup after a gruelling and dour final. The game looked to be heading for a replay when he netted the winner: “St. John clipped in Callaghan’s angle centre off his plunging forehead with the clinical incision of a surgeon,” wrote The Times, who added that in scoring a landmark goal for the club, St. John had become the patron saint of Liverpool!

(L-R) Liverpool’s Ian St John, Geoff Strong, Ron Yeats, Wilf Stevenson, Gordon Milne, Chris Lawler, Ian Callaghan, Peter Thompson, Roger Hunt and Tommy Smith celebrate with the FA Cup after their 2-1 win

Sam Leitch of the Daily Mirror, who was critical of the approach of both teams, said St. John’s had scored a “header de luxe” that he had earned by toiling away against an uncompromising defence. One Liverpool banner at Wembley lived on many years after it first appeared: “Jesus saves, but St. John nets the rebound”.

A couple of days later, St. John was on the scoresheet as Liverpool beat Inter Milan 3-1 at Anfield in the European Cup semi-final first leg. They were beaten in an intimidating second leg 3-0 and lost the chance of a place in the final.

The FA Cup wasn’t St. John’s last medal with Liverpool as the Reds were league champions again in 1966. Although he was still a regular right up until 1969, the popular forward became a victim of Shankly’s rebuild, but it would take until 1973 for another trophy for the club. The Saint moved to Coventry, managed Motherwell and Portsmouth and then enjoyed that TV gig with Jimmy Greaves. He died on March 1, 2021 aged 82, but his place in Liverpool folklore had been assured years before. 

The Liverpool team of 1965 is gradually disappearing. Six of the 11 have passed on in the last eight years: Tommy Lawrence, Gerry Byrne, Geoff Strong, Tommy Smith, Peter Thompson and now St. John. A reminder that genuine heroes should be appreciated while they are still around.

@GameofthePeople