David Peace: Bill Shankly “Red or Dead” Book Festival

What is it about Scottish football managers that make them stand out from the rest?
That is a question that football analysts and sports writers have so often raised in print and discussion. And it continues to this day, with so many Scotsmen (particularly in England) dominating many of their major clubs at managerial level.

But there are four men in particular who stand head and shoulders above the rest. Four strong men, whose achievements will be almost impossible to eclipse, and who have not only produced great teams, but great clubs, sometimes virtually from nothing. Sir Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Sir Alex Ferguson, and the subject of David Peace’s new book, Bill Shankly.

For those not too familiar with Shankly the man and the football icon, he was an obsessive individual, who in 1959 took a struggling 2nd division team by the name of Liverpool FC, and within a dozen years made them, through his own iron will and gritty determination, one of the biggest clubs in the world. The foundations for this great success were initially built by the visionary genius of this man. Shankly was a proud and patriotic Scot, but during his lifetime would become almost a demi-god on Merseyside, and whose legac, is still very much alive and well on the terraces of Anfield.

David Peace had earlier written the much acclaimed (and equally controversial and much derided) book The Damned United, which took an almost imaginary peek inside the mind and psychology of Brian Clough, during his ill-fated 44 day tenure as manager of Leeds United in 1974.

For his new book, “Red Or Dead”, Peace wanted to take on a much more hopeful, optimistic and ennobling subject to explore. Something far removed from dark despair and thwarted ambitions. He found it in Bill Shankly, and sought to encapsulate a portrait-like image of the man and his achievements. He also wanted to capture his biting humour (which was razor sharp and equally legendary in its own way) his compulsive energy, his deep and abiding love for his adopted city, and his absolute passion for the game of football.

Shankly also had an unusual philosophy of the game that often set him apart from his contemporaries. He cleverly utilised football as a metaphor for what he perceived as his brand of socialist soccer. An unusual idea in this day in age perhaps, but for Shankly, it was deeply fundamental in his way of thinking about the game. For him it was not the wayward and unorthodox individualism of one player, but it was the team, always the team, and his team, steeped in red and playing for each other.

A simple and durable philosophy perhaps, but one that Shankly adhered to all throughout his career, and which brought his beloved club universal success, on a scale he could only dream about in 1959.

The only sad and depressing point during the authors look at his subject was the mystery surrounding Bill Shankly’s shocking and abrupt resignation in 1974. This was an event that took the football world completely by surprise, and was treated almost like a death in the family amongst his Red Army of fanatical supporters. And it was equally surprising as Peace revealed during the talk, that such a revered and respected figure in the game was almost shunned by his former club during his final years.

A tragic postscript for an individual who gave more than most to the beautiful game, and whose raw, abrasive staccato growl, belied a man of depth and compassion and whose like we will probably never see again.

Lawrence Lettice