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Paisley, Robert [Bob]free

  • Philip Waller

Robert Paisley (1919–1996)

by unknown photographer, c. 1981

Paisley, Robert [Bob] (1919–1996), football manager, was born on 23 January 1919 at 7 Avenue, Hetton-le-Hole, co. Durham, the second of four sons of Samuel Paisley (1894/5–1978), coal hewer, and his wife, Emily, née Bunker. His soccer talent was brought on at Barrington junior and Eppleton senior schools, but it began on the streets with him booting pigs' bladders donated by his uncle, a Co-op slaughterman. Though sturdy—the physique was part inherited and part developed by pushing coal barrows uphill to his grandmother's—Paisley was short; and he was rejected, after leaving school at fourteen, by Sunderland (of which he was a fan), Tottenham, and Wolves. He joined his elder brother at the mine as a surface worker; shortly afterwards he was shocked to see his father borne past with arm injuries so severe that he was unfit to work for five years. Like most pitmen, Sam Paisley wanted his sons to avoid mining and Bob became an apprentice bricklayer while continuing with his football. In 1937 he signed for Bishop Auckland, the top amateur club, to play for 3s. 6d. per match, the maximum expenses rules permitted; and he was in the team that won the amateur cup. Liverpool Football Club scouted him; he joined it on 8 May 1939 for a £10 fee and £5 per week.

Paisley's formal first-team début was deferred until 1946 because he was drafted into the 73rd Royal Artillery as a gunner in October 1939. For four years overseas from 1941, in the north African and Italian campaigns, Paisley spent his leaves playing football for his regiment and the combined services. A left half, he was noted for resoluteness, an aggressive tackler, defensively solid; but his distribution was generally uninspired. He was conscious of this, and also that even the best players of his generation appeared trapped within what he called 'their own skill bracket' (Keith, 29). 'There hasn't been a player yet without a weakness', he said (ibid., 336). This perception of what players lacked was the platform of his shrewd planning in building teams of complementary parts which disguised their individuals' lopsidedness and exploited opponents' frailties.

Paisley made 253 league and 25 FA cup appearances for Liverpool, and scored thirteen goals. He earned a league championship medal in 1947 but he was mortified in 1950 when omitted from the FA cup final side, in spite of having played in every previous round. His reaction to his disappointment cannot be overestimated in the history of the club. Wembley appearances were pinnacles in every player's career. Liverpool lost in 1950, and Paisley was left pondering might-have-beens. At his nadir in spirit he considered quitting Liverpool; but he neither did that nor succumbed to press inducements to sell his story. The test of character was telling. When, as trainer and manager, he too dropped players from crucial games, they knew that he knew their feelings. He never shirked hard decisions. No player was allowed to believe himself bigger than the club. Ironically, an FA cup win also eluded Paisley as manager.

Paisley was appointed captain in the 1950–51 season but a succession of struggling sides saw Liverpool relegated in 1954, the first time since 1904. Retirement beckoned. To re-start bricklaying at the age of thirty-five was unappealing, and a newsagency or greengrocery appeared no better. It was a director, later chairman of Liverpool Football Club, cotton broker Tom Williams, who invited Paisley to become reserve team trainer. Paid less than he had been as a player, Paisley was more importantly kept in the game. His wage was supplemented by his wife's as a primary school teacher. They had married on 17 July 1946, when he was twenty-seven and she, Jessie, daughter of Arthur Chandler, an organ builder, was aged thirty. They had two sons, Robert and Graham, and a daughter, Christine.

Few football trainers in the 1950s were themselves trained. Having taken a correspondence course in physiotherapy, Paisley was more qualified than most. He proved to have uncanny diagnostic skills and magic hands, a practical grasp of psychology as well as of physiotherapy. The rejuvenation of Liverpool in the 1960s under Bill Shankly involved Paisley's promotion to first-team trainer, then to manager's assistant; a perfect partnership, according to those who played for them, with Paisley supplying steadiness and tactical subtlety to Shankly's messianic passion.

Shankly's retirement in July 1974 was sudden, though not surprising in a man who lived on the edge. Paisley succeeded as manager of Liverpool F. C. without the job being advertised. Liverpool's boardroom knew their man, perhaps better than Paisley then knew himself. His reluctance to step out of the shadows was genuine and, at fifty-five, he did not expect to remain long. He was underestimated outside Liverpool. People saw an avuncular, even grandfatherly, figure, quietly spoken but generally lost for words. The image was not entirely false. There was no flashiness about Paisley. Normally a half of lager and lime was his tipple; and a meal out was to his local Chinese or chippy. Swanky clothes were not his style either. Relaxation at home involved looking—nothing more—at the garden and tinkering at an electric organ, on which he could pick out 'Amazing Grace'. His principal escape was to friends in the horse-racing world such as Frank Carr and Frankie Durr. He placed a bet daily but it was rationed, never more than £3 even when he was earning over £50,000 p.a. as the most successful manager in the country. And it appeared related to football: Paisley studied the training at stables and temperament and form in horses just as he did with players. His love of boxing was similar. His office under Anfield's main stand was, to put it mildly, modest. Brian Clough, manager of Nottingham Forest, compared it to 'a foreman's hut on a Wimpey site' (Keith, 212).

Counting the trophies that Paisley's teams accumulated, it is easy to forget the problems and pressures. His first trial was dealing with the aftermath of an ill-tempered charity shield match against champions Leeds. The next months saw Shankly's reappearances at the training ground, where some players addressed him still as ‘boss’; and a spell of eight games without a win caused Liverpool's slide down the league table, exit from the cup winners' cup, and a clamour for Shankly's reinstatement or promotion to director. The board stood firm; so did Paisley. What followed was an unprecedented record of nineteen trophies in eight years: three European cups, one UEFA cup, one European super cup, six league championships, three league / milk cups, and five charity shields. Liverpool was regarded as the world's best team at this period. Between January 1978 and January 1981 the team established a record of eighty-five consecutive matches unbeaten at ‘Fortress Anfield’. Paisley was appointed OBE in 1977. Some suspected that the climate of soccer hooliganism cost him a knighthood. In popular estimation he was ‘manager of the millennium’.

Paisley's judgement of players was unrivalled. From his first signing, the full-back Phil Neal, a succession of talent was brought to Liverpool: Terry McDermott, Joey Jones, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Alan Kennedy, Ronnie Whelan, Ian Rush, Bruce Grobbelaar, Craig Johnston, Mark Lawrenson, and Steve Nicol. Equally, local ability was nurtured, such as Phil Thompson, Sammy Lee, Jimmy Case, and David Fairclough. Paisley's teams, like Shankly's, were famed for durability. No first division club used fewer first-team players in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—some fifty-two per decade—yet this continuity masked a readiness to remove players who had peaked. Paisley did not spare even the captains Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson, and attention was always paid to grooming reserves so that seniors battled for places. 'Nobody has the right to win anything they haven't earned', was Paisley's philosophy; and players chorused the credo that 'First is first, and second's nowhere' (Hansen, 22).

Paisley was not just a driver of men. As Alex Ferguson reflected after his team of Scottish champions, Aberdeen, suffered 'annihilation' by Liverpool in the European cup in 1980, Paisley was 'full of cunning'. Sometimes this involved flattering the opposition before difficult games: what Paisley called 'giving them a bit of toffee' (Keith, 280–01). Dealing with the media was inescapable, though unloved by Paisley, whose preferred profile was low. He could show irritation and on occasion banned players from talking to reporters before matches, though he progressively cultivated a few such as John Keith of the Daily Express, who became his biographer. It was his understanding of players and tactics that mattered most, blending the best of continental European and British styles. 'Hold on to the ball, keep passing it, and let other teams do the chasing' (Keith, 282) was the strategy. At training players were schooled to operate as a unit, with an emphasis on positional intelligence.

There was no rigidity in the Paisley method: 'It's not about the long ball, and it's not about the short ball; it's about the right ball', Alan Hansen remembered him saying (BBC1, 22 Feb 2001). Mental as well as physical fitness was what Paisley looked for in a player: not just wholeheartedness but those vital ingredients vision and anticipation. He impressed on them that, 'at the highest level, the first two yards are in the head' (Hansen, 77). Emlyn Hughes identified Paisley's 'greatest attribute as a manager … [as] dealing with strengths and weaknesses, the opposition's and your own … in plain and simple language' (Keith, 136). The gentle Geordie dialect helped keep spirits high. Players enjoyed mimicking Paisleyisms, especially his all-purpose deployment of 'doin's'. Tommy Smith recalled: 'He often left us doubled up laughing. But only because of his delivery. He always got his message over and you didn't cross him. He demanded that everyone played to their maximum and gave their best. He was uncompromising in that' (ibid., 115).

Paisley preannounced his retirement during the 1982–3 season, to be succeeded by Joe Fagan, the next senior member of the bootroom staff, whose tradition of analysing play and players had been nourished by Paisley. Paisley now joined the board as a director. His dependability was again proved in a crisis. In 1985, in a crush at Heysel Stadium in Brussels before the European cup final, Liverpool fans precipitated the deaths of thirty-nine Juventus fans. The club was banned from European competitions and, his decade's work practically negated overnight, Paisley unobtrusively served as counsellor for two years to the novice player–manager Kenny Dalglish. Alzheimer's disease thereafter crept up on him. He resigned from the board in 1992, though the club made him honorary life vice-president. He died at Arncliffe Court Nursing Home, Arncliffe Road, Halewood, Lancashire, on 14 February 1996, from bronchopneumonia and dementia, and was buried at St Peter's Church, Woolton, Liverpool. He was survived by his wife and their three children. He was commemorated by the Paisley Gateway to the Kop entrance at Anfield, opened by his widow in April 1999.


  • R. Paisley, Bob Paisley: an autobiography (1983)
  • J. Keith, Bob Paisley: manager of the millennium (1999)
  • S. F. Kelly, Bill Shankly (1996)
  • A. Hansen and J. Tomas, A matter of opinion (1999)
  • K. Dalglish and H. Winter, Dalglish: my autobiography (1996)
  • The Times (15 Feb 1996)
  • The Guardian (15 Feb 1996)
  • The Independent (15 Feb 1996)
  • Daily Telegraph (15 Feb 1996)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, 1981, repro. in Keith, Bob Paisley
  • photograph, 1981, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photographs, repro. in Keith, Bob Paisley
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£205,005: probate, 10 June 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales