As part of our celebrations of Liverpool FC's 125th anniversary year, we have asked several esteemed writers to offer their view on what exactly makes the club so special.
Our latest article comes from acclaimed author David Peace, who has penned a letter to Bill Shankly explaining why he chose to detail the Scot's legendary Anfield reign in his book 'Red or Dead'.
Dear Mr. Shankly,
Since I have taken the extreme liberty of attempting to paint a portrait of you in words, I feel it is only right and proper to try to explain how and why I chose to imagine you, sir. Not in the hope of your blessing, but in the hope of your forgiveness.
Back in April 2011, the phone went and a man I had never met before, a film producer called Mike Jefferies, said, “I really like your novel the Damned Utd and for years I’ve wanted to make a film about Bill Shankly, and so do you fancy writing the script?”
And before Mike could say another word, I said, “Yes. But I don’t write scripts, I write novels. So I’ll write a novel about Bill Shankly, starting today …”
And at that moment, standing with the phone in my hand, I turned to the rocking chair that was in the window and, I swear to you, Mr. Shankly, on my life, I saw you there, in that chair, looking at me, smiling at me.
In truth, you had been there all along, sir, if I had only looked, if I had only listened.
You had managed Huddersfield Town – briefly, too briefly – the team my grandfather supported, the team my father supports, and therefore the team I support. And so I had grown up hearing your name, spoken with reverence because of all the things you had gone on to achieve at Liverpool Football Club, and the way you achieved those things, the principles – the Socialist Principles – with which you had achieved those things.
But your time at Liverpool Football Club was not my time. My only real “footballing memory” of you is watching your Liverpool team tear apart Newcastle United in the 1974 FA Cup Final on television, my father constantly talking about you, pointing you out every time the cameras cut to you on the bench, moving your arms, moving your hands, like a great conductor, a puppet master. But then you were gone, resigning that July.
Of course, people still talked about you, but it wasn’t like these days; you didn’t go on national television as a pundit, you didn’t write a column for a national newspaper. You just stayed at home, in your Liverpool home. Not that I had noticed.
And so that day in 2011, I stopped everything else and I started trying to write about you, sir. But, as usual, I went about things the wrong way.
Out of habit, I was drawn to the mystery, the mystery of why you resigned; why did you resign in July 1974? You were still relatively young, sixty years old, and had just created your second great Liverpool team, the team which had just taken apart Newcastle United in the Cup Final, the team who were poised to achieve so much, not only in England, but in Europe. So why then, suddenly, did you just walk away? And what then became of you, sir?
I do believe it is a mystery. And I also believe, at its heart, any book, any story, needs a mystery. But as I began to investigate, to try to solve this mystery, I also began to realise that this mystery is only half the story, at most, because as I began to read the books that have been written about you and Liverpool Football Club, all the biographies and all the histories, and of course the book you wrote yourself, and as I began to speak to people who had known and worked with you, I realised you cannot try to know and write about the resignation and retirement of a man, if you do not know and then write about the work of a man; and what work it was, Mr. Shankly!
Yes, I thought I knew about all you had done for Liverpool Football Club; the titles and the cups and so on. But I was wrong again, I knew nothing: nothing about the state of Liverpool Football Club when you became their manager in 1959.
Yes, I knew a bit about the great journey you and the club then went on, this incredible climb from the bottom of the Second Division to the top of the First Division, the first FA Cup for Liverpool Football Club, and on into the 1970s. But this story, your story, this club’s story, is more than just another rags to riches, zero to hero footballing tale. Because while I knew that narrative, I did not know how you had written it. And not just you, Mr. Shankly. Because it was never about you, was it, Mr. Shankly?
It was about the people; this union of the club, and all who worked for the club, with the supporters, all the people who came to watch Liverpool Football Club. And so it is a collective narrative; collectively written through collective sacrifice and collective struggle; this incredible, unprecedented communion between you, the staff, the players, the club AND the supporters, the boys on the Kop, as you called them.
But there were no short cuts, nothing easy or overnight about the success, about this story; it took time, it took work; commitment and effort, sacrifice and struggle. Collective sacrifice and collective struggle, day in, day out, match after match, season after season. As you yourself said, “Whilst you love football, it is a hard, relentless task which goes on and on like a river. There is no time for stopping and resting …”
And this was what I wanted to capture, in the style and the words of the portrait I was trying to paint of you, Mr. Shankly. Of this river – with all its rhythms, with all its routines – going on and on, day after day, season after season. The sacrifices this river exacted, the struggle this river demanded, in all its many repetitions. Because this was the work, this was your life; this was you, Mr. Shankly.
And so as I was going through all the books, all the newspapers, every account of every game you had managed Liverpool Football Club, I knew this had to be the first half of the book: your work, your life, sir. All that sacrifice, all that struggle, all that WORK, day after day, match after match, season after season. Because people forget these days, so people have no idea and therefore no inspiration of what needs to be done and then WHAT CAN BE DONE.
And if I’m not mistaken, Mr. Shankly, your favourite book, from your childhood in Glenbuck to your retirement in Liverpool, was a biography of Robert Burns. You saw Burns not as a romantic womaniser, but as a revolutionary socialist. And then you drew on this book, this understanding of Burns, as an inspiration, in your own work and in your own life.
So I just hope someone, somewhere may read Red or Dead and draw a similar inspiration from your work and from your life as you drew from the life of Robert Burns, and which you then gave me: as the very antithesis of our times, as an antidote to these times, on and off the pitch. That is all, Mr. Shankly, except to say, thank you, Mr. Shankly; thank you, for everything.
Yours sincerely, David Peace
The fee for this piece has been kindly donated to the LFC Foundation.