Billy Liddell'People who saw him play say he was as good as Kenny and Gerrard'
Billy Liddell's remarkable Liverpool legacy has been brought to life again in a new book that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Scot's birth.
A talismanic figure during a period of uncharacteristic struggle for the club following the Second World War that interrupted his early professional career, Liddell’s immense talent and absolute loyalty were such that those fortunate to watch him in the flesh argue he has never been surpassed at Anfield.
The forward racked up 228 goals in 534 Liverpool appearances – still the fourth-highest total in Reds history – between his debut in 1946 and final game 14 years later.
After helping the club lift the league championship in 1946-47, Liddell rejected multiple opportunities to move elsewhere as Liverpool dropped into the Second Division and toiled there for eight seasons.
His outstanding quality, punctuated in particular by the power of his finishing, jarred with the team’s overall capabilities in the 1950s but gave the supporters a hero to cling to. “Give it to Billy,” they sang, while nicknaming the club ‘Liddellpool’.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of Liddell’s birth in Townhill, football historian and writer Peter Kenny Jones recently published a new book in which the legend’s incredible life story is retold in all its glory.
Supported by a family connection to Liddell’s sister, Rena, Liddell at One Hundred: A Family Portrait of a Liverpool Icon features contributions from those who knew him best, plus interviews with the likes of Ian Callaghan, Jamie Carragher and Alan Hansen.
Liverpoolfc.com caught up with Peter to discuss how the book was researched and written, the scale of Liddell’s achievements and impact on Merseyside, and more…
How do you start researching someone who played in that era? It must be so difficult…
A big part of what I wanted to do was speak to as many people as possible basically. I’ve called it A Family Portrait of a Liverpool Icon so I wanted to make sure you could hear the stories that maybe haven’t been told before and speak to the people who knew him best. By speaking to his sister, she then got me in touch with other family members and that kind of went off in one way. Then I tried to speak to supporters who had seen him and they could say, ‘My mate watched him’ and that would go off in a different direction. And then I tried to speak to as many former players of the club as well; the club helped me with that and put me in touch and again it kind of just all went off in different directions in terms of getting to know what the man was like.
On the side of history, Stephen Done from the museum sent me a lot of pictures and stuff that I could use and research. Also stuff like the LFC History website, and my dad is a programme collector and buying some myself off eBay and just trying to build the story of what it was. Obviously the newspaper articles are a massive help. There’s not many videos you can use but I managed to get as much as I could basically and you can get an idea of what type of player he was, and by the newspapers you can go game by game.
A video tribute to Billy Liddell
Having done all that research, what was Liddell’s level, if you could try to draw a comparison? What kind of level are we talking about?
I’ve spoken to quite a few people and everyone I’ve spoken to that has seen him play has said he’s as good as, or better than, Kenny [Dalglish] and [Steven] Gerrard. So at the level he’s at for them – and obviously it’s hard to say because he played a lot of his football in the Second Division – but he was head and shoulders above the club at the time, he carried them and obviously they were called ‘Liddellpool’, that’s how important he was. So I think you’ve got to say he’s in that conversation, if those people that have seen him play have said he is.
Obviously I’ve spoken to some of his biggest supporters and maybe they will be a little bit biased – and maybe I am after I’ve written a book on him – but I think for him to be mentioned as highly as them, I reckon he’s as important as those players. I think there’s a lot of comparisons with Gerrard in the fact that when Gerrard was playing he was above the level of the team and Billy certainly was as well, so as a figurehead who would score the last-minute winner and pick the team up by the scruff of the neck and get the win, I think that’s what he did really and that was his level.
Comparing him to current players, I think he’s a bit of a combo between James Milner and Mo Salah. Milner in terms of he played every position at the club, other than in goal, because he was so versatile and so fit and he played until he was 38 – he was the oldest post-war Liverpool player when he retired. And then Mo Salah because his goalscoring was a joke, I think it was eight out of nine seasons in a row he was the club’s top goalscorer [in the league]. That’s coming from outside-left – he wasn’t playing as a traditional No.9 where you get the goals, he had to work a bit harder to get it. So I think it’s not a bad combo, a combination of those two.
On his goalscoring, do you think he would have had a shout of being record LFC scorer if it were not for the war? Because he lost six seasons early on…
In the research I did I added on the goals and appearances he got during the war just for Liverpool and I think that puts him just behind Roger Hunt and Ian Rush in terms of goals. But that’s ignoring the fact he played for a lot of other teams during that period – he played for Chelsea, he played in Canada and Scotland, he went round the world and he also fought in a war. That’s ignoring all of that and just adding those numbers on. So I think definitely. If you add the war years onto them he would have been much higher up but then obviously a lot of other players have got that same thing, it’s just unlucky that’s what happened in his period of football. But the numbers speak for themselves, I think.
Did you get to the bottom of why he did stay at Liverpool? Presumably he had offers to go when the club was in the Second Division – do you know why he didn’t?
[There were] two big offers he had when he was in the Second Division. He got offered to go to Aston Villa, he was in his 30s and obviously it would have been a good move for him because Liverpool didn’t really look like they were going up; they had a lot of near misses but it always seemed to fizzle out before the end of the season, it wasn’t like they had last-day heartache. But that move showed that he was still appreciated in the game and he definitely could have been a First Division player. He also got offered to go to Colombia, when they removed themselves from FIFA and gave a blank cheque. They got loads of players to come in, [Alfredo] Di Stefano is probably the most famous one that went and played over there. They didn’t have the salary cap that FIFA was implementing, so they could pick amounts they wanted to pay. Both times he didn’t even think about it, just straight away he said no.
I think you have to go back to the war again because with him he had fought in a war, his dad had died, and he had lost a few family members. His whole family had to move down to Liverpool, so I think for all that he had a lot invested in the city already and to move again would have been hard. He was a part-time player, he was doing his accountancy on the other side and he had the job security for when he retired. If you look at it in the modern day, if he had been offered the £100 million that he probably would have been worth, I think it would have been a different one. But because the finances were basically a level playing field across the board and he was so happy and settled in Liverpool and he had a job set up for afterwards, it meant there was no real point for him to leave and obviously he really appreciated how much the fans loved him and what the city had given to him. So, I think just loyalty is why he stayed.
What was his life like when he did finally retire? What did he do?
He had his accountancy job lined up and then he went to work in the Liverpool University as a bursar, so he did that for quite a few years and he remained really active. He did a lot of charity work, worked for a lot of boys’ clubs and the scouts and stuff like that. He made sure he gave back to the city basically. And he played a lot of football, like five-a-side and six-a-side and 11-a-side with his work, he played badminton and squash and he used to take his sons swimming. So, he was definitely very active. And Scottish dancing was a massive thing for him as well because I think that also made him feel so settled when he first came. He felt really settled through that.
He was really religious; he went to church, he was a Sunday school teacher as well. When you look at his schedule – it goes into how much he was doing – he was barely home but he was really committed and just doing as much as he could. And Liverpool still mattered for him – he went to all the home games and quite a lot of the away games, he went to Wembley a few times when the club were doing better. He just tried to be an active member of society and try to help the city that helped him.
What are your big hopes for the book? Is it to put him back into that conversation and raise the awareness of him?
Definitely, because as I said I consider myself quite a big Liverpool fan and someone who likes the history side of it as well – and I didn’t know much about him. I knew he was called Billy Liddell and his team was called ‘Liddellpool’ and I knew he must have been quite good, that’s probably about all people my era probably know, and maybe even older than me as well. Hopefully it introduces him to a few new people and they go, ‘You know what, he was actually quite good.’ And the people who saw him maybe they’ll get memories back of him, and that’s been the best thing as well, just speaking to a few people already who have said, ‘I totally forgot about that game or that goal and you have brought it all back.’ He should be remembered as high up as Kenny and Gerrard, if the people who have watched him have said he’s that good. It’s easy to get lost in the modern day and hopefully his name can come back to the forefront. It’s his 100th birthday, it seems like the perfect time to celebrate what he did for Liverpool and hopefully let his name carry on.