Football has its greats. It has its brilliant players. Modern or otherwise, you can always argue love for one, or dislike for another. Even now, in the era of Lionel Messi, argument can be made, if not won, about Cristiano Ronaldo being a better player. Brilliant players will always exist. The light of a brilliant player will always shine bright. Their glow may flicker and wane, but the candle will continue to burn.
Football has its greats. It is easy to wax lyrical about footballers because since the very first Match of the Day, the very first match report or the very first photographed picture of a player scoring a goal, their brilliance has always been recorded. Not only can their skill be measured in titles and trophies, but it can be valued in goals scored and minutes played. Caps earnt and years at the top. Players can always be judged. Hence why the conversation will always go on. But with a manager, things are slightly different.
Football managers are always in or out of fashion. In the catwalk that is the Premier League, a manager can have one bad season and be sacked, or one good season and become a genius. The fickle nature of the football fan only becomes enhanced because of the readily available ability to have your voice heard. One man’s legend is another man’s Judas. Great and loyal one minute, on the scrap heap the next.
A manager’s ability to linger in the memory is altered because they live and die by their decisions. Brendan Rodgers’ decision to keep Luis Suárez in 2013 didn’t receive as much notice as his decision to let him leave the following year because failure followed soon after the latter. It’s understandable, if not a little short-sighted. But football is short sighted.
José Mourinho has just been sacked, merely months after he won the Premier League, so what chances do managers from decades passed stand of being remembered if the Special One is sacked in not-so-special circumstances?
Sir Alex Ferguson will be remembered for his brilliance at managing Manchester United as an institution in the same way that a director of a business can be held in high esteem for turning around a troubled company, because that is what basically happened. He turned around that rowing boat and transformed it into a cruise-liner, forever to sail the seas as one of the greatest footballing masterpieces.
Brian Clough, for all of his problems and off-the-field attention, will forever be remembered in a favourable light, and rightly so. His work with Derby County and Nottingham Forest should never be underestimated. The club Forest was before he took over is akin to Bill Shankly taking over a beleaguered Liverpool during the 1950s. And the speed at which he brought the European Cup back to these shores for the club shows how important he should be to the British game.
But there is a manager who is arguably better than them all, but whose name rarely gets a mention in the same light as the above during today’s conversations. This is Liverpool’s greatest ever manager, Bob Paisley.
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Read | Bill Shankly: it’s not how you arrive, it’s how you leave
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A quiet man with a heart of gold, Paisley took over the mantle from Liverpool’s messiah, Shankly, in uncertain terms in more ways than one. Approached by Liverpool’s then secretary Peter Robinson, Paisley was reluctant to take the top job from one of football’s all-time great servants.
Persuaded into accepting the challenge, Paisley is described as telling his players how he “was only looking after the shop until a proper manager arrives.”
Well, if he was only looking after the shop, then he should have gone into business more regularly. Winning nothing shy of 19 trophies in a mere nine seasons, Bob Paisley took a club that was successful and transformed them into the greatest club in world football at the time. Winning the league title on six occasions, the European Cup three times, a UEFA Cup, the League Cup three times, five Charity Shields and one European Super Cup, Paisley is a true footballing great.
Bob Paisley plastered Liverpool’s name across the continent, and in winning the European Cup for a third time in Paris became the first manager to win it thrice with the same club. It’s a feat that is still intact to this day.
In the years when it took a truly great team to win the European Cup, and only the league winners qualified, it typifies how the County Durham-born schemer paved the streets of Anfield with red, white and gold.
The Champions League today may be held in the highest of esteem, but it has been created to offer the most amount of teams possible the grandest of chances. This is great and during a time where fans are treated like consumers – and a lot of fans act this way – teams are added to the pot to thicken the load. To give us more, more, more. But this does dissolve the quality of a once platinum competition. Paisley owned the trophy during his time at the club. He owned Europe. Platinum Paisley was the king of football.
It’s easy to banish my argument as merely a fan propelling a former manager into a light he doesn’t deserve, but at a time when football was tougher and competition was closer, Bob Paisley was the talk of his profession. And he has the awards to prove it. Six times during his nine years at Liverpool Paisley won Manager of the Year, but even during his most successful spell as a footballing man, it never changed his approach to football and to his methods.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the only manager who should come close to Paisley for praise, is often used as an example of a man who created a dynasty. A man who, over a massive period of time, transformed a club over and over again. The former Liverpool manager, like Ferguson, was one for knowing when the time was right to allow a player to leave. Paisley knew when the record was beginning to skip.
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Paisley remains one of the most charming men to have ever worked in English football
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In 1977, one of Liverpool’s greatest ever strikers, Kevin Keegan, decided he wanted to leave the club, signing for Hamburg for £500,000. In a situation that looked lose-lose, Paisley signed a Scottish player who had spent his whole career with Celtic. In bringing Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool, Paisley moulded him to become the greatest player to ever play for the Reds, and one of the club’s most influential figures on both sides of the touchline. Bob Paisley had been handed a blow, had soaked it up, and had turned it into a win. Like so many times during his career, he let his actions speak louder than his words.
It is not only Dalglish that the Liverpool great signed. Ian Rush and Bruce Grobbelaar were plucked from Chester and Vancouver respectively. Mark Lawrenson, Alan Kennedy and Graeme Souness were brought in during the height of his tenure – all players famous around the Isles for their successes and achievements. All signings worthy of praise. But who did he recycle? Who did he realise had had their day for the club?
As the old guard and the trusty soldiers of Shankly’s army began to wane, Paisley knew that things needed changing. Liverpool greats such as Tommy Smith, Ray Clemence and John Toshack were all sold on, sacrificed for the good of the team. And these are only a few examples.
Bob Paisley created teams and destroyed teams. He won trophies and he spoke softly. His 50 years at Liverpool in total typify the man and his desire to get on with the job at a place he loved.
Before working as part of the off-the-field staff, Paisley had a career with Liverpool as a player, signing with the club in 1939, yet not making his debut for the Merseyside team until 1946, seven years later, because of the Second World War – a war in which he actively took part in on the front lines.
Appearing as club captain numerous times, the most famous occasion of Paisley’s playing career is a game that went on to define his coaching and man-management style: the FA Cup final of 1950.
Playing in the semi-final versus Everton, Paisley scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win. Liverpool, through to the final, would play Arsenal in their first ever appearance at Wembley. Despite playing a significant role in the team progressing through the rounds, and having made 28 appearances that season, Bob Paisley was dropped from the team. Liverpool would go on to lose the final 2-0, beginning a relationship with the FA Cup that saw Paisley never manage to bring the it back to Anfield, as player or manager. This day would leave its mark on Liverpool Football Club history.
Speaking of his omission from the 1950 cup final, Paisley said that this was a great learning curve for him as a person and later as manager because it allowed him to approach tough decisions, such as dropping players, in a way that was moulded by his own experiences. Leaving a player out of an important game can often be the tough reality of football management, but Paisley knew how this felt. And he knew how to approach the process of disappointing a seasoned pro. All because of one day in 1950.
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Read | Kenny Dalglish: a king among men
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During his time at Liverpool, Paisley held various positions, roaming between physiotherapist, coach, assistant and finally manager. Like any man taking over from a legend, Paisley was ready to create his own way of managing and establish his own imprint on the team, differentiating himself from his friend and mentor, Shankly.
It is well known by those around the club at the time that Paisley thought Shankly was much too loyal to the players he had at his disposal, using the fact that players were never fined under his stewardship as example of having a touch too soft to control players, whilst seeking success on multiple stages.
Paisley could have had a point. Although Shankly forged the club into a great name in world football, during the period of 1966-73 his teams never won a trophy. Clearly, although he still won three more trophies after the above time period until he resigned during 1974, there was a stagnation between what the club needed and what the players and management were doing. Could this have been down to the players knowing their manager a little too well? We will never know with any certainty, but Paisley made sure this would never be the case under his stewardship.
Past tales from former players tell us that although he was a quiet and shy man off the field, Paisley took the approach of being able to handle his duties with ruthless efficiency and startling accuracy. A man with strong will and incredible knowledge, former midfielder Graeme Souness stated that Paisley was “the best judge of a player I have ever seen” – not bad for a man often spoken about as merely reaping Shankly’s rewards.
Another attribute to his management style was a knack for spotting a weakness in the opposition. “There wasn’t anything on an injury side or a football side that he didn’t know,” said Phil Thompson, Liverpool’s former captain.
“He would look at any player and spot a weakness,” spoke Alan Hansen. “One match, Liverpool are playing Chelsea, and he comes to Kenny Dalglish and he says ‘I’ve been watching some tapes and occasionally the Chelsea ‘keeper will stray off his line’. Six minutes into the match, it’s played into Kenny’s feet, he turns, doesn’t look up and chips the goalkeeper.”
It’s brilliant first hand evidence of Bob Paisley’s eye for weakness and ability to portray his instructions and information simply and effectively. He let the players play, and gave them snippets of information along the way; a technique that worked a charm during his fruitful years in charge of Liverpool.
A big man with a love for the quiet life in the background, Bob Paisley should be spoken in today’s terms as the greatest manager in English football, if not European football. Only Pep Guardiola has a better trophies-per-game ratio than the big Englishman, and will no doubt go on to surpass everyone in the game as a manager, but for now, let’s hear more of Bob Paisley. Let’s give his name what it deserves: the time of day.
By Luke Chandley. Follow @_Lukall_