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.

Theirs was no disgrace – the day Chelsea’s youngsters humbled Liverpool

AT THE mid-point of the 1977-78 season, FA Cup success and avoiding relegation was all Chelsea could hope for – a far cry from the early 1970s when the Blues, under Dave Sexton, won two trophies and reached three consecutive cup finals.

An over-ambitious rebuilding project contributed to Sexton’s downfall and in 1974, the departure of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson ripped the heart from the team. Despite receiving half a million pounds from their sale, Chelsea never replaced them. Sexton left just seven months after chairman Brian Mears had backed his manager in the Osgood-Hudson affair, and the club limped-on in 1974-75, eventually appointing Eddie McCreadie. In some ways, making a change with three games to go hinted the board had accepted relegation.

McCreadie, with his shades, slimline cigar and well-groomed appearance, looked very much of his time. He provided motivational soundbites and emphasised his faith in players he had worked with in the reserves by making 18 year-old Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins his captain.

In 1975-76, Chelsea struggled with consistency in the second division and then came more bad news in the summer of 1976. The club’s relegation and falling gates meant Chelsea’s financial position had become precarious. This made the 1976-77 season vital for their survival, although Steve Finnieston, a member of the squad whose career straddled the Osgood-Hudson era and the crisis, was sceptical about talk of the club going under. “I have always felt there was no way Chelsea would have been allowed to fold.”

The players took a pay cut and promotion was won, thanks to some bright, inventive football. But for the second successive summer, the club made the wrong type of headlines: McCreadie, the architect of promotion, resigned over his personal terms of employment.

Tommy Langley, like most of the squad, was on holiday when the news broke: “We never even got to say goodbye to Eddie. It was a big blow, but we should have been able to handle it because Ken Shellito was his successor, someone we knew so well.”

Chelsea returned to the first division, but found the transition difficult. Finnieston was injured early on and goals were hard to come by. Shellito raided the club’s young talent pool, a decision that brought some temporary relief, notably when the 19-year-old Clive Walker started for the first time.

This was a player whose reputation had been growing. He had scored prolifically in the reserves in 1976-77 and the handful of people who watched Football Combination games had been muttering about “a young lad who scores spectacular goals and runs like an Olympic sprinter”.

Walker inspired a mid-season flourish for Chelsea in 1977-78 just in time for the FA Cup. There was a snag, though, as the third-round draw had paired the Blues with Liverpool, the Football League and European champions, who were formidable in every sense of the word. “We were never in awe of them,” said Finnieston. “We respected them, but we truly believed that on our day we could beat anyone.”

But Chelsea would have to go into the game without their prized asset, England international Wilkins. Ironically, his absence had coincided with Chelsea’s best spell of the season. He was unfit, so Shellito brought in the veteran Charlie Cooke.

Ray Lewington remembers Shellito made a significant tactical change. “We adjusted our game plan. We normally played a diamond formation, but we went slightly more defensive with a 4-4-2 line-up. But we had Clive [Walker] and he proved to be the match winner on the day.”

Liverpool kicked off and looked very assured. Chelsea lacked nothing in energy and were clearly “up for the Cup”. In the 16th minute, Walker threw the ball to Bill Garner, who controlled it and returned it. Walker went past Jones and forced Phil Thompson to flinch and get out of his way. He then unleashed a left-foot drive that completely caught Ray Clemence out. “I am sure Ray misjudged it,” recalls Walker. “The shot had a slight swerve – it was something I did, I almost always hit my shots across the ball and this time, the timing and power were absolutely right.”

Chelsea were still a goal ahead at the interval, but the crowd anticipated a second half onslaught. Five minutes into the restart, though, Chelsea extended their lead, Walker deftly chipping a free-kick into the area, Phil Neal only partially clearing and the substitute Finnieston, who had replaced Cooke, shooting low past Clemence. “Jock was brilliant at finishing in the box and that loose ball was made for him – he hit it so well.”

Within two minutes of that second goal, the game became even more surreal with Chelsea’s third. Ian Britton, scurrying down the flank, slipped past Emlyn Hughes but Neal robbed him with a back pass that lacked power, and the eager Langley nipped in and clipped the ball into the net, over the goalkeeper’s sprawling body. “Phil played it back blind and was made to pay for it. But we knew it wasn’t all over,” said Langley. He believes Liverpool “woke up” after that third goal. David Johnson walked the ball into the net after 60 minutes to make it 3-1, but then Walker added a fourth five minutes later.

Britton sent over a cross that fell onto the chest of Bill Garner. He unselfishly slipped the ball to his left, finding Walker who shot home from close range with his left boot. “I knew that was it, then. There were 25 minutes to go and we were 4-1 ahead. They were not coming back,” said Walker. Liverpool did score again, though, an 81st minute header from Kenny Dalglish. Nobody had foreseen a 4-2 win for Chelsea.

In the next round of the FA Cup in 1978, Chelsea disposed of Burnley 6-2. The fifth-round draw was relatively kind, an away tie at Orient, but after a 0-0 draw, they slipped up at home, losing 2-1. Staying up was the priority and a few weeks later Chelsea beat Liverpool again, this time 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea finished 17th at the end of the season, but a year later went down after an appalling campaign.

On the evening of January 7, 1978, however, Fulham Road was buzzing. On the short walk back to the tube station, shuffling through the papier-mâché of discarded newspapers and police horse dung, Liverpool’s fans were visibly shocked. “No disrespect pal, but shipping four goals to a team like Chelsea is an absolute disgrace.” There was disrespect in his tone and, if only he realised it, theirs really was no disgrace.


Photos: PA

Commentary Box: A Passion Play

LIVERPOOL is a passionate football city, that’s what we are told. Liverpool Football Club’s fans are, arguably, the most ardent of any supporters in Britain. It is a devotion that has been built over many years, from the Shankly era, through the cultural highs of the 1960s and, in spite of the disasters of the 1980s and the city’s economic decline.

But the club has never truly got over Heysel and Hillsborough and these seismic events contributed to Liverpool losing their role as the driving force in English football as the Premier League era began. Even if Liverpool win the Premier in 2019, it will be the longest period that the club has ever gone between titles – 28 years. Liverpool’s “era” ended in 1990, although since then, they have won nine trophies, including a fifth European Champions League. It has hardly been beer and sandwiches at Anfield.

Before the first wave of success under Shankly, Liverpool sunk as low as mid-table second division. The influential Scot laid the foundations for a dynasty, possibly football’s only true empire, that went on beyond the golden years and was successful in handing the baton on from the republic’s instigator to Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan to Kenny Dalglish. Little wonder that the decline has been so hard to take for Liverpool’s fans, especially as the balance of power shifted some 35 miles away to industrial and footballing rival Manchester, to the only other club that could claim – under Matt Busby – to have created a culture with any longevity. The notable difference between the two is that, unlike Liverpool, Manchester United were unable to effect a workable succession plan for Busby and, much later, Sir Alex Ferguson. Liverpool, at least, maintained the Shankly legacy for a decade and a half. The leitmotif started to go astray in the 1990s.

Liverpool fans seem to take exception not only to United, but also to any “new money” club like Manchester City and Chelsea. Doubtless, they have the same contempt for Paris St. Germain. So when they were drawn to face City, England’s champions-elect and representative of the zeitgeist of modern corporate football, Liverpool’s loyal droves were eager to show the Abu Dhabi-backed club they were entering a world that was once bread and butter for Liverpool. Inflicting discomfort and making a point was the name of this game.

Liverpool – and other – fans claim that both Chelsea and City haven’t got a history, but that’s total nonsense. History is created on a daily basis. The correct summary of both clubs’ past is that they do not have a particularly successful history. Liverpool have just that, but times change and new clubs, thankfully, emerge in every generation to challenge the status quo. To be brutally honest, hegemony is never good for football, whoever might be at the top. It dulls the impact, removes unpredictability and induces a yawn. Liverpool’s period of dominance was great for their fans, but it was uninspiring for the neutral and for the followers of clubs forever in the shadows. The same applies to the 1930s with Arsenal and the 1990s and United.

There’s utter resentment that clubs that have been beneficiaries of enhanced investment are now overtaking some of the traditional “winners” in football. But if change never happened, Newcastle, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers would all still be at the pinnacle of the game. The clubs that have attracted huge investment have also welcomed the financial impetus because they could not compete with the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds of this world under normal circumstances. Chelsea and Manchester City were two of football’s great underachievers. That’s not to say such artificiality is good for the broader game, but that’s why it happened – the desire to tip the balance. It’s interesting, though, that the biggest critics of “new money” are those clubs that have become accustomed to being at the top, institutions who clearly fear the newcomers as if they were marauding vandals climbing the barricades.

Should Liverpool be that resentful? Although it cannot be compared to the huge sums involved today, Liverpool were one of the first clubs to sell shirt sponsorship when, in 1979, they agreed a four-year deal with Hitachi that earned them £ 50,000 per season. At the time, this was seen as the club “selling its soul”. Furthermore, the club’s fans tried to induce the type of investment that City received from Abu Dhabi more than a decade ago, did they not? When the club was owned by the unpopular George Gillett Junior and Tom Hicks, fans urged the duo to sell the club to Dubai International Capital, the sovereign wealth fund of Dubai. Had that happened, who knows who would now be sitting at the summit?

It’s also worth noting that Liverpool’s golden era was not underpinned by the creation of talent from its own stable, but a combination of shrewd acquisitions and, latterly, financial clout that enabled them to buy big. There were 26 players who played in Liverpool’s four European Cup finals between 1977 and 1984. Of those, only six were what could be called “home grown” – Jimmy Case, Ian Callaghan, David Fairclough, Sammy Lee, Tommy Smith and Phil Thompson.

The big name signings included Ray Kennedy (£200k), Kenny Dalglish (£440k), Graeme Souness (£350k), David Johnson (£200k), Mark Lawrenson (£900k) and Craig Johnston (£575k). Liverpool’s big strength in those days was the ability to spot modestly-priced raw talent – Ray Clemence, Kevin Keegan, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, Ian Rush and Phil Neal, to name but a few. That pipeline no longer seems to exist, indeed Liverpool’s expenditure in top names, which they were able to do because of their European success, climbed significantly in the late 1980s – in both 1987-88 and 1988-89, they paid-out almost £ 4 million in transfer fees, a marked change from 1985-86 when they spent just £ 400,000. This was all at a time when English clubs were banned from Europe.

Today, Liverpool, like City and Chelsea, are big spenders and locked into the current mode of transfer business – hence, the club is the biggest user of intermediaries, paying some £27 million in the past year to agents and middle-men. Like it or not, Liverpool are as much part of the bloated world of top-level football as the clubs their fans despise – and would they complain if another middle eastern investor made Fenway an offer they could not refuse?

Hence, the events that took place before what was an exhilarating Champions League tie. There was something quite feral about the drama – just watch the video clips (of which there are many) to see the near-crazed expressions. The footage inside the City coach is almost terrifying, one wonders what would have happened if some fans had actually got into the vehicle. It’s also clear that a lot of this going on among police vans and hi-vis jacketed policemen. Where was the control?

If nothing else, this entire incident played into the hands of those that champion out-of-town football grounds, rather than those locked into the inner city. There was something strangely Hitchcockian about it all – the closing scenes of The Birds as Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren slowly drive though a landscape on which thousands of birds are menacingly perched. What can Liverpool expect for the second leg – has April 4, 2018 set a dangerous precedent?

Photo: PA