Bob Paisley: the gentle giant who couldn’t stop winning

Bob Paisley: the gentle giant who couldn’t stop winning

This feature is part of The Masterminds

GOOD FOOTBALL TEAMS require direction and leadership. The captain functions as the on-field general, rallying the troops in the heat of competition. The manager is really the captain steering the ship, navigating the crew through football’s tempests save for 90 minute bouts where he must lead from the other side of the chalked white lines. Purists for good poetry appreciate the abstract and strength of statement and Walt Whitman’s opening lines to the poem-turned-extended metaphor applies to football in ways many will overlook: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won …”

For Bob Paisley the fearful trip was taking over from club legend Bill Shankly – a man whom he had neither the personality nor the outwardly influence of. Or so he thought.

And so, Bob Paisley’s tenure at Liverpool must have seemed like a glorious cycle of déjà vu. A title is won and the celebrations ensue. The fervent crowd recovers from its restlessness; the revelry of the occasion is dulled only by nerves soaked in the pre-match suds of lager coursing through the supporters’ collective bloodstream.

For those not in attendance, emotions are further heightened by the myriad of libations pub crowds take in with cranked necks, proud eyes, and half-full pints all raised toward the television hanging in the corner. The exaltations give way to formalities on the pitch as the cup awaits hoisting.

A receiving line going up the stairs forms and it’s generally the skipper who proudly climbs the staircase to claim the silverware. This is football. And yet, it’s not often that we see a team of seasoned winners – players who have resigned their star-studded roles to keep the machine well-oiled – give the honour to their gaffer, their boss; the manager. Such was the scene when Liverpool won its last League Cup under Bob Paisley. Graeme Souness, the captain, made way for Bob Paisley, The Boss.

The right standards are everything. Bob Paisley’s likability might have been innate, but it was his charisma and institutional knowledge of all facets of football that allowed him to have such an impact.

Paisley’s upbringing saw him romping around coal mines and job sites. His cough medicine wasn’t administered by a silver spoon, but rather a ferrous feeding tool. Money was sparse, as was food, and such strife and endeavour either make or break an individual. Bob Paisley’s upbringing might not have afforded him money or luxury, but it afforded him qualities that the Everyman and he could share. A meagre life made him ‘one of us’ for the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, and footballing talents ensured his escape from a life in the coal mines and laying bricks in County Durham.

It’s no wonder that a quiet, softly-spoken man was able to make the transition from ex-Liverpool player to self-appointed physiotherapist to first team training to assistant manager when not many could do so at a single club. The man exuded class and calm and once spoke of the importance of speaking softly so people actually make the effort to listen. Paisley knew man-management was about being listened to over being heard.

He also spoke about the importance of being authentic at all times: “There’s no way anybody imitating can be great. If you want to do it you got to be yourself. If you stray away from that line, there’s nothing for you. You’ve got to be yourself and if that, at the end of the day, is not good enough … then you’ve just got to accept that. I couldn’t go on and say things or do things that Bill did. But I could do them in a more cunning sort of way.”

And did he ever; at the end of the 1982-83 campaign, at the age of 64, Bob Paisley retired from Liverpool as the most successful manager in British football. In a fitting documentary narrated and hosted by the ever-witty Brian Clough titled, Bob Paisley – A Champion’s Farewell, the breadth of Paisley’s accomplishments at Liverpool continue to shine brightly.

Winning league titles in 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, and 1983, League Cup triumphs in 1981, 1982, and 1983, European Cup victories in 1977, 1979, and 1981, the UEFA Cup 1976, and the UEFA Super Cup 1977 are quite the standard. Only the FA Cup remained elusive for Bob Paisley (as a player and a manager), much like Brian Clough.

PaisleyBob Paisley was a reluctant star in the limelight

Looking across the landscape of what Bill Shankly built and Bob Paisley continued to build at Liverpool, it’s easy to assume the magic was concocted in the manager’s office, then filled with grey, steel filing cabinets with sliding drawers, each holding a detailed dossier of every player on the books at Liverpool past and (then) present along with scouting reports of teams throughout Britain and Europe.

But, as many familiar with the legend and folklore of Liverpool Football Club’s glorious past know, the minds in charge of the club continually caught lightning in a bottle in the club’s famous Boot Room. They included Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans, Joe Fagan and, of course, Bob Paisley, who once said: “At the end of the day, and I thought well, the only thing you can do, is say look, come in and have a drink — win, lose, or draw.”

The genius behind the idea of a special space for pure football talk and strategy is remarkable. The Boot Room became a hub of ideas and mutual respect for Liverpool staff and opposing coaches.

“It started initially with Joe [Fagan] and I as somewhere we could talk and air our views and, on match days, as a place to have a drink with visiting managers and backroom staff. We tried to win every game, but no matter how the match was, we liked to relax afterwards and have a drink with the opposition. Just talking about the game is a most interesting aspect of football.

On Sunday mornings we’d go in and talk about the Saturday game. There were differing opinions and disagreements and everyone put their oar in. But it was all done in the right manner. We liked everyone to air their views and you probably got a more wide-ranging discussion in the Boot room than you would in the boardroom. But nothing spilled out of there. What went on was within these four walls. There was a certain mystique about the place, which I also believe there should be about the dressing room. What’s said in there should, by and large, be private too.”

However, it was on Anfield’s pitch where the lid on that bottle was removed and pure footballing fulmination was unleashed on opponents year after year. What did that magic look like? To understand the dynamism of total team football at Liverpool where the attacking, midfield and defensive blocks moved in territorial unison, it’s best to view where players in those blocks would be deployed and positioned compared to a conventional team. One would be right to envision the defenders trailing the midfield that was catching up with the attacking pair.

The Liverpool sides under Paisley featured scenes and flashes of a marauding curly-haired Kevin Keegan carrying the ball through the attacking space devoid of many options going forward, or so it would seem. Keegan would find his number 10, a supporting John Toshack taking up a position on the left wing.

Toschack, seeing nothing on going forward –  this is where that magic of total team movement ripped opponents to shreds – located an advancing back (already in an advanced position) in Emlyn Hughes or Alan Hansen about 30 yards from opponent’s goal.

Posting up on the other team’s centre-back may have been Keegan or Toschack, but that would be predictable. Instead, midfielders Jimmy Case or Steve Heighway would show and receive the ball to feet allowing Keegan or Toschack to drift unmarked like red-clad wraiths to receive the final pass as the third-man running for an incredible finish that admittedly looked so routine as goals at Liverpool were expectations, not events.

Paisley’s magic and influence empowered Ray Kennedy – converted from a striker to a midfielder by Paisley – being forced outside and back, which triggered Phil Neal to become an available outlet for a layoff pass. Remember that third man running? Most defences did not, and Neal, Tommy Smith or Phil Thompson would find Toshack with Keegan running off him.


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In later years, the lethal striker combination would be composed of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush – the goal-scorers mattered, but not nearly as much as the machine that was Bob Paisley’s Liverpool. The proclivity of Paisley’s teams to attack and defend together coincided with what is known as “The Liverpool Way” of playing football.

One of the more redeeming qualities of Paisley’s Liverpool sides was their versatility. A team with the ability to connect passes and play a Brian Clough-esque style and standard of ‘keep it on the deck’ football is dangerous. A team willing and able to switch from possession-based tactics to route one or counter attacking football is ruthless.

Paisley’s brand of football was purposeful. Attacking intention was instilled into his teams, as evidenced by the second leg 6-0 demolition of Hamburg at Anfield in the 1977 European Super Cup. In what looks like a training ground exercise in counter-attacking, Phil Neal cuts out a pass intended for Ferdinand Keller, pivots and finds an open Ray Kennedy who has no other thought but to exploit the usable space in the midfield on the dribble. He plays in Terry McDermott who scores his third goal of the match. The entire sequence was composed of three passes.

It all seemed so simple. Liverpool’s football under Paisley showed how a team could transition from winning and regaining possession to scoring 90 yards down the field in three to four passes. And this wasn’t hoof ball, but rather a clinic in pinpoint passing over distance. Bob Paisley wasn’t kidding when he said, “It’s not about the long ball or the short ball, its about the right ball.” In football, there’s a phrase good coaches use with young players: ‘make it easy for the other man to play the game’. Liverpool players played for one another through selfless, supporting and fluid football.

Displays of Tommy Smith bending a pass with the outside of his boot into the path of Ian Rush never breaking stride showed just how Paisley’s sides were intelligent and anticipatory in their predation on the pitch. Paisley’s back-line executed the diagonal pass into space with precision; his wingers executed the ability to delivery quality, first-time service on-the-run with excellent technique; and his strikers timed their runs to perfection. The football was so synchronous that compared to today’s ‘death by a thousand passes’ style the world covets, Paisley’s was ‘death by four passes and a shot’.

There’s apt football phrase about replacing legends at a club: “Nobody wants to be the man to follow the man. You want to be the guy after that.” One wonders how anyone would fit the boots vacated by the legendary Bill Shankly. Like any coaching nucleus, compatibility is a non-negotiable and in Reuben Bennett, Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley, Shankly found an agreeably brilliant staff.

Paisley was the type of assistant who embraced the role and viewed it as a profession, not a chore. And it’s no surprise that Shankly, according to his biographer Stephen Kelly, was “the great motivating force behind Liverpool; it was Paisley who was the tactician.”

Where Shankly saw the need to splice fitness with football, Paisley was the man eager to implement five-a-sides in training to hone the touch-and-go football in such a way that Liverpool elucidated the need to play with purpose in what came to be known as “The Liverpool Way”.

Paisley also mandated methodical cool down routines for the players after training and match play. Football management is defined by the big accomplishments, yet success or failure is dictated by attention to detail (or lack thereof) – something Paisley understood from spending years as a Liverpool player and 15 years as an assistant to Shankly.

So much of Paisley’s success as a manager started well before he reluctantly took the reins from Shankly at Liverpool. Although Paisley grew up poor and was subject to hardship of the coal industry’s oscillation between scarcity of jobs and food and outright barrenness of the both, he had an appreciation for simplicity. Much like Shankly, whose upbringing was defined by resiliency in the face of abject poverty, Paisley’s appreciation for hard work and football set him on a path of service and application for club and country.

Read  |  Why Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of football’s greatest managers

As a wing-half during his playing days with both Bishop Auckland and later Liverpool, Paisley’s career was stop-started by the Second World War, where he served with distinction for the Army on assignment with the Royal Artillery as a gunner in the 73rd Medium Regiment.

During his time in the Army, Paisley was contracted at Liverpool along with teammates such as Matt Busby and Billy Liddell while stationed in England. In 1941 the war took Paisley away from England for four years, where he fought the Afrika Korps in Northern Africa in key conflicts, the taking of Sicily and the liberation of Rome by the allied forces (he would return 33 years later when Liverpool won the 1977 European Cup Final in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico).

It wasn’t until 1946 that Paisley made his official debut for Liverpool in a post-war competitive match in the FA Cup against Chester. During that first full season, Paisley’s Liverpool side secured their first title since the 1922-23 campaign.

His qualities as a manager weren’t far off from his qualities as a man. Such a humble and dutiful upbringing essentially brought out in Paisley a complementary yet opposite character to Bill Shankly. He once said: “If I could go walk down the street and no one notices me, I’m delighted. Let’s face it, Bill didn’t do that.”

The never-assuming nature of Paisley never detracted from his ability to problem-solve as a manager. From inheriting – albeit reluctantly – a Liverpool side built and grafted by the great Bill Shankly to replacing the star-struck, Hamburg-bound talisman Kevin Keegan with Celtic’s ace, Kenny Dalglish, Paisley’s ability to evolve an already-dominant Liverpool to a footballing factory is a testament to the man’s knowledge of footballing application. It wasn’t enough to replace a club icon in Keegan with Dalglish – but the refusal to let the Liverpool machine stall that solidified Paisley’s impact as a manager. Dalglish, who many consider the greatest ever Red, not only replaced Keegan, he took Liverpool to new heights as a player and manager.

Paisley knew what was required to win and he didn’t have to tangle with the press or shout it from the rafters to prove he was right. Much like the man’s results themselves, which remain outstanding, Liverpool and Paisley’s accomplishments are only overshadowed by how they were attained, which says a lot for a man whose sides averaged two pieces a silverware a year.

Time and time again, people remember not that Liverpool and Paisley won, but rather how they played. From the classy conduct of the manager to the standard of football Liverpool played under his direction, method and result melded under Paisley in superb fashion. Alan Hansen surmised Paisley insatiable appetite for success by saying: “If there was one word that Paisley hated, it was the ‘C’ word: ’Complacency’.”

In the end, the simplicity of Paisley the manager threatens to sell the magnitude of his success short. Phrases like, “Win the game then worry about how you play,” and “Mind you, I’ve been here during the bad times too — one year we came second,” seem arrogant to a new generation of Liverpool supporters; however, when all you know is success – like Paisley’s Liverpool – failure hits just that much harder and stings that much longer.

Bob Paisley instilled a pedigree at Liverpool that – when all the roles were played out – lasted half a century. For a man who used to make £10 a week in season and £8 a week in the off-season, who never wanted to be noticed, who loved and lived for his players and football club, the game was about maintaining a standard. However, like all great managers and football men, they irrevocably raise that standard in ways nobody can fully understand and even fewer can hope to reach.

Over the years, greats in the game have shared triumphs and tribulations. Like pictures frozen in footballing folklore, images of these men hoisting silverware or being hoisted up by their players is a sight to behold. But there are two shared elements that shine brighter than any cup or medal – and that is the twinkle in their eye and the smile on their face knowing they had become gods amongst men in the sport.

Football remembers Bob Paisley, the son of a coal miner from a mining town, as one of the game’s greats. You would not be wrong to consider him a diamond in the rough from the north-east of England. Just remember, for every one diamond, you’ll find a thousand pieces of crushed coal.

Brian Clough, a wordsmith himself, paid homage to the man from County Durham who would go on to be Liverpool and Britain’s most successful manager at the time when he said: “Bob had a castle when he started. It had been built by Bill. An incredible man; I loved him like a father. But Bob had to do it his way.”

And that’s what Bob Paisley did – in the most Aristotelian ways, made winning, like excellence, not an act, but a habit.

By Jon Townsend  @jon_townsend3

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