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Shankly, William [Bill]locked

  • Philip Waller

William Shankly (1913–1981)

by unknown photographer, c. 1970

Shankly, William [Bill] (1913–1981), football manager, was born on 2 September 1913 at Manse Place, Glenbuck, Ayrshire, the last of five sons and penultimate of ten children of John Shankly, then a postman and later tailor, and his wife, Barbara Gray, née Blyth. Glenbuck was a pit village of about 800 people and, after elementary schooling, Shankly worked as a loader above and below ground. Glenbuck's principal male recreation was football. Over time it produced some fifty league professionals, including six Scottish internationals. Though their inter-war pay was generally inferior to that of stars of the entertainment world and their average length of career was seven years (Fishwick, 80), football appealed over most ordinary working-class occupations. At Glenbuck, where mines were failing, other options were few; and all five Shankly boys became footballers, as had their two maternal uncles: Robert Blyth who played for Glasgow Rangers, then Portsmouth, of which he became chairman, and William, who played for Preston North End, then Carlisle United, of which he became director.

This Uncle Billy, who was also a publican in Carlisle, gave Shankly his opening as a professional, when Shankly signed for the club in July 1932. He was paid £4 10s. a week when he made his first-team début against Rochdale on 31 December. After another fifteen appearances in the third division north he was sold for £500 to second-division Preston and received £50, a signing-on fee of £10, and weekly wages of £5. Shankly remained on Preston's books for the rest of his playing career—though he turned out for other teams during the war—and accumulated 297 league appearances, mostly at right-half, the first of them against Hull City on 9 December 1933, the last against Sunderland on 19 March 1949. His weekly pay was raised to £8 (£6 in summer) after his first season, when Preston were promoted to the first division; after 1946, it became £10.

Shankly was above all an energetic player, a tough tackler, fair reader of the game, and keen motivator. He scored rarely, altogether only thirteen times in the league for Preston, including eight penalties, and his first goal did not come until 2 February 1938, ironically in view of his eventual reputation, against Liverpool. He was a losing FA cup finalist in 1937 and a winner in 1938, the year he was first capped for Scotland. He played five internationals before the war, and seven during, when, as an airman who never flew, he was assigned routine jobs at various bases. At Glasgow he met a slater's clerk enlisted with the WRAF, Agnes Wren Stewart (Nessie) Fisher, daughter of James Fisher, a motor mechanic-cum-garage proprietor. They married according to Church of Scotland rites on 29 June 1944, when she was twenty-three and Shankly thirty. Two daughters, Barbara (b. 1945) and Jeanette (b. 1951), resulted. Nessie, a strong character, provided Shankly with a lifelong shield. He paid his own handsome tribute: 'I'd break my wife's legs if I played against her' (Kelly, 299).

Shankly's tenacity, uncompromising style, and experience as player marked him out for management, though it was personal connection that provided the initial invitation to take charge of Carlisle in March 1949. He moved to Grimsby in July 1951, then to Workington in January 1954; all three clubs were in the third division north and remained there under Shankly's management. Nor did he achieve promotion from the second division with Huddersfield Town, which he joined in December 1955. This undistinguished record is in part explained by scarce resources; investment in players and facilities was either unavailable or withheld, though no amount of attention could turn a dead-end club such as Workington into world champions. Shankly's forcefulness and ambition were otherwise recognized, and in December 1959 he was appointed manager of Liverpool—a post he had failed to get in 1951—at £2500 per annum. Here was a big club, then underachieving in the second division, where the team was placed below Huddersfield. Promotion was gained in 1962 and by 1974, when Shankly retired, Liverpool had won the league championship three times (1964, 1966, 1973) and were twice runners-up; the FA cup was also won twice (1965 and 1974), and Liverpool were beaten finalists in 1971. In Europe, Liverpool carried off the UEFA cup in 1973, having reached the finals of the European cup-winners' cup in 1966, and the semi-finals of the European cup in 1965 and of the UEFA cup in 1971.

Shankly's outlook was shaped by his origins in a particular place and family. Teamwork, necessary as much as natural in a mining community, became the cornerstone of his philosophy as football manager. Labour's political processes held no attraction. All politicians, even Labour's, were 'two-faced, even three-faced' (Kelly, 290). Shankly's socialism derived from Robbie Burns, not Karl Marx. It was with a life of the poet that he chose to console himself on Desert Island Discs in 1965; more important, in the category of luxury item—which must, according to the rules of the programme, have no practical use—he wanted to take with him the impractical football. As Shanks himself became a folk hero, he was courted by politicians who itched for his popularity to rub off on them. The OBE was conferred in 1974 and, at his death, delegates at the Labour Party conference in Brighton stood in silent respect. He always voted Labour but, at Glenbuck, he had seen trade-union officials manipulate the lives of miners just as company bosses did, and he cared for neither. The wider world, with its larger organizations and varied cultures, remained strange to Shankly, who regarded it with suspicion, even hostility. When Liverpool Football Club first entered European competitions, he blamed foreign skulduggery, corrupt officialdom, and bad luck for their defeat. This xenophobia was not reserved for foreign nationals. Abroad included everyone outside the club. His highest praise for any non-Liverpool player was 'fair … nae bad'. More commonly, they were 'rubbish … not fit to tie your bootlaces', as Ray Wilson, a member of England's world cup-winning side of 1966, discovered because, though he played for Shankly at Huddersfield, he had meanwhile joined Everton.

Shankly recognized that there were two teams in Liverpool, but Everton was not one of them: they were Liverpool and Liverpool reserves. He never tired of lauding his own players. Don Revie, manager of some outstanding Leeds teams, received regular Sunday morning telephone calls from Shankly following a Liverpool win, when every Liverpool player would be hailed as the world's best in his position. Absolute to the point of absurdity—'Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them it's much more serious than that' (Sunday Times, 4 Oct 1981)—Shankly exuded will-power, and his charismatic conviction animated players and supporters alike. With the Kop end at Liverpool's Anfield Stadium, where 24,000 of the most fervent fans stood, swayed, and sang, Shankly had a special affinity. He saluted them, with raised arms and hypnotic intensity of eyes, just as they saluted him. 'The Kop', he always said, 'was worth a goal start' (Kelly, 286). Characteristically, when required to register in hotels, he gave Anfield as his home address. It became a football fortress or, as some would have it, a shrine at which Shankly's Red Devils were worshipped. This nickname referred to the all-red strip which his team first adopted for a European cup match against Belgian champions Anderlecht in 1965. Liverpool had played in red shirt with white shorts and socks since 1896: it was Shankly, together with his centre-forward Ian St John, who conceived of their transformation, as a warning that Liverpool intended to become the dominant European side as Real Madrid had been in their all-white strip. That achievement eluded Shankly's teams, and he betrayed jealousy when the teams managed by his successor, Bob Paisley, did so, while Paisley, the ever unassuming former assistant, acknowledged Shankly's inspirational force as the foundation.

Deification by Liverpool fans, who kissed his feet at Wembley following the cup final victory in 1974, increasingly weighed on Shankly. Expected to heal the sick during hospital visits, he needed to explain: 'I'm no God. People seem to think I'm a miracle-maker' (Kelly, 290). The fortunes of his team—and of Everton, who won the FA cup and were twice league champions during the Shankly era—mattered the more in a city in catastrophic economic decline; yet Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s was also a popular cultural capital, and the cult of Shankly's personality echoed the theatre of hysteria surrounding the Beatles and other pop musicians, and allied artists, poets, and comedians. Shankly's standing cannot be measured without reckoning the structure of Liverpool Football Club, however. The Littlewoods magnate John Moores was a crucial figure. This was less visible than at Everton, where he became chairman and virtual dictator in 1960; but Moores was also a principal shareholder at Liverpool and he installed Eric Sawyer—the first non-family director of Littlewoods (Clegg, 166)—as his nominee on the board. This released money and, while Shankly never enjoyed unlimited powers to buy or sell, Sawyer's backing secured the pivotal players of the Shankly era, St John as leader of the forward line and Ron Yeats as defensive colossus. The support of the directors, chaired by first Tom Williams—another friend of Moores—and then by John Smith, and of the club secretary Peter Robinson, was therefore vital, though Shankly was never comfortable in their presence, conscious of his class origins and want of education. Posh homes and cars, and the country-club circuit of golf and bridge, were alien to Shankly, whose family resided in an unpretentious three-bedroomed semi, and whose off-duty recreations were limited to weeding (unselectively: flowers were at risk) in the garden and scouring clean the cooker. He was no great reader, still less a penman; but as a wordsmith, spitting phrases out in machine-gun style, raw, abrasive, and aphoristic, he excelled. The model here was James Cagney in his cocky, tough-talking screen roles; gangster and cowboy films were Shankly's favourites and, on television, The Untouchables series about Eliot Ness. Boxing thrilled him too; otherwise he was a football totalitarian: he talked about it tirelessly to journalists and anyone, and was always ready for a game, with his players on the training ground or with scratch boys and dads on car-park asphalt and urban wastes. Moreover, the match must continue until Shankly's side won.

Leadership at football came naturally to Shankly. The objects were clear-cut, to score goals and not to concede them. These were secured by collective and individual effort and skill. Their right combination involved complex, even mysterious, chemistry but Shankly believed it could be manufactured from quite simple ingredients and processes. A prerequisite was physicality. Most manual labourers were muscular but suffered wear and tear, from occupational hazards and ageing and also from self-inflicted or socially acquired disabilities, such as excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption or unsuitable diet. Shankly never drank, gave up cigarettes early, and always kept in condition. Like his father, a competitive runner, he would be one of the fittest men to die. In his own playing career he was rarely unavailable through injury and, as manager, he was unsympathetic to those that were. After discovering that the champion boxer Joe Louis had been sustained by steak, Shankly insisted on this (with chips and salad) for his Liverpool teams. Their training emphasized stamina; he was proud that they pressurized opponents to the final whistle. Tom Finney, whom Shankly had known at Preston, he revered as supreme, but it was his fitness as much as ball-dribbling that impressed: 'He was grizzly strong; he could run for a week. I'd have played him in his overcoat' (Kelly, 53, 213). Shankly thought the less of America, which he visited in 1964, for never having heard of Finney.

All this indicates that Shankly's greatest gift was as a motivator rather than tactician. In that sphere the fabled Anfield ‘bootroom’—the support staff of mostly former players, such as Reuben Bennett, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran, and, above all, Bob Paisley—was influential: scouting, coaching, scheming. Shankly tried to guard against his own impulsiveness and, in his early days at Liverpool, would consult his friend Matt Busby, shrewd manager of the great rivals Manchester United. Yet Shankly had his methodical strengths, and the institution of five-a-side games, training players in quick control, simple passing, and intelligent use of space, was central to his system. He understood too the need to conduct change within a stable framework. Like most managers at the start of his regime, he showed some ruthlessness in clearing out players whom he had inherited, where he assessed them as wanting; but the trickiest decision, having constructed a winning team, is thereafter to preserve continuity while simultaneously rebuilding. Shankly, for all his aggressive image, was sometimes thought too soft and slow about dropping star players who were past their peak; but he valued loyalty both as an ethic and as a device, and his sustained success at Liverpool entitles him to be ranked with the best managers of his generation, next to Jock Stein (of Glasgow Celtic) and Matt Busby, fellow Scots from similar backgrounds.

Retirement for Shankly was painful. He soon regretted his decision to resign, tried to retract it, and felt hurt about being sidelined by the club he had so well served, though this was essential for Paisley to establish his own authority. On 26 September 1981 Shankly was admitted to Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool, following a heart attack; he died there on 29 September, with his wife at his bedside. He was cremated at Priory Road crematorium, Liverpool, on 2 October. In life stocky, Shankly's stature was enhanced after death when in 1997 Tom Murphy's 7 feet 6 inch bronze figure of him, weighing three-quarters of a ton, was planted near the entrance to the Anfield Kop. It captured the famous attitude: club scarf about the neck, arms aloft, intense, pugnacious, victorious.


  • S. F. Kelly, Bill Shankly: it's much more important than that: a biography (1996)
  • D. Bowler, Shanks: the authorised biography of Bill Shankly (1996)
  • Liverpool Daily Post (29 Sept 1981)
  • Liverpool Daily Post (30 Sept 1981)
  • Daily Telegraph (5 Dec 1997)
  • N. Fishwick, English football and society, 1910–1950 (1989)
  • B. Clegg, The man who made Littlewoods: the story of John Moores (1993)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • BFINA, Arena, BBC 2, 28 March 1997
  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • photograph, 1970, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • S. Hale, photograph, 1975, Anfield stadium, Liverpool
  • T. Murphy, bronze statue, 1997, Anfield stadium, Liverpool

Wealth at Death

£99,867: probate, 21 Oct 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales