Book Review: Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager
Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager
by Ian Herbert
Published by Bloomsbury
Before Liverpool’s 4-3 victory over Crystal Palace at Anfield in mid-January, the Kop’s mosaic celebrated what would have been Bob Paisley’s hundredth birthday and it’s worthwhile to begin by recollecting his achievements at Liverpool. In a 9 year managerial spell from 1974-83 he won 6 league championships, 3 European cups, 1 UEFA cup, 3 League cups and a European super cup. His ratio of 1.5 cups per season is better than Sir Alex Ferguson or Brian Clough. He’s one of only three managers to win the European Cup/Champions League 3 times (alongside Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane). Paisley, a tough tackling wing half who won the league as a player with Liverpool in the 1946-7 season, is also one of only four people to have won the English league title as both a player and a manager (Kenny Dalglish, George Graham, Howard Kendall and Bill Nicholson are the others). He is the most successful English football manager of all time.
Despite these incredible achievements, Ian Herbert is probably correct to assert in his admirable biography that Paisley has not really received the recognition that he should have, given the scale of his success. There are a number of reasons for this, not least his predecessor as Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly. The charismatic, witty and voluble Scot is justly acclaimed for his visceral connections with the fans and his achievements in taking Liverpool out of the old Second Division and establishing the club as a national force by winning the league title 3 times as well as the club’s first FA Cup and European trophy. But Paisley achieved much more than this. Shankly made Liverpool one of the best teams in England, Paisley made them the best team in Europe.
Like Shankly and many other former managerial greats, Paisley came from a humble working-class background and was born in the shadow of the pits in Hetton-Le-Hole, County Durham. He was to retain his occasionally impenetrable north-east accent all his life. After a spell at Bishop Auckland, he was signed by Liverpool in 1939 and so began a 53 year association with the club as player, captain, oddjob man, physiotherapist, assistant manager, boot room sage, manager and director. The book covers all this in good detail but rightly concentrates on Paisley’s period as manager.
Paisley was initially reluctant to take over from Shankly who obviously cast a huge shadow. Reading the book now, one is struck by how fortunate Liverpool were to have him in place as so many clubs have struggled to renew themselves when a legendary manager – Busby, Revie, Clough, Ferguson etc. – has left. Liverpool may be the only example where the ‘legend’ was exceeded by his successor although Liverpool encountered their own difficulties with managerial succession when Dalglish left in 1991.
Paisley’s strengths as a manager lay in his estimable knack of finding the right blend for the team. Sometimes this involved astute repositioning of players such as Phil Thompson moving from midfield to centre back or Ray Kennedy from striker to left midfield – and even the most successful Liverpool teams had regular players who were good rather than great – Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, David Johnson, Sammy Lee for example – but who still played a key role in the side alongside the more obvious talents like Hansen, Souness, McDermott, Dalglish and Rush. The collective ethos and hard work first espoused by Shankly were developed into a more sophisticated possession-based approach which took the club’s pass-and-move tradition to a new level. He was also a shrewd observer of weaknesses in the opposition.
Despite his avuncular and occasionally absent-minded persona, Paisley was utterly ruthless when it came to dropping players, easing them in after time spent in the reserves, or selling them when their ’legs had gone’. He was wary of fancy football language, no ‘false nines’ or ‘trequartistas’ for Paisley, even if Dalglish arguably played as one, and he kept his tactical instructions to a minimum. He preferred players who could think for themselves. This has perhaps led to a reputation that he was no great tactician – Jonathan Wilson barely mentions him in his masterful history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid for example – but this is somewhat unfair. His preference for defenders who could play the ball out from the back, an emphasis on possession-based football and attacking width from the full backs rather than wingers all seem very contemporary. His 1978-9 team which won the league scoring 85 goals and conceding only 16 was one of the best combinations of rigorous defence and attacking flair ever seen in this country.
Paisley’s biggest weakness was his communication style. He was softly spoken with a strong accent and an occasional tendency to forgetfulness and malapropisms. This would sometimes cause mirth and exasperation in his players but he was helped by the forceful personas of his boot room lieutenants such as Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan and the opposition scout Tom Saunders. His innate shyness made dealing with the press difficult and he tended to rely on the same trusted journalists. He did though possess a sharp footballing brain and an understated wit. After Alan Kennedy had a terrible game, he was greeted by Paisley in the dressing room, saying ‘They shot the wrong Kennedy!’
He was a genuinely humble man with no pretensions, who often picked up new signings in his own car wearing an old cardigan and slippers. Despite despite being unafraid of making tough decisions on his own, he also generously listened to, and frequently took on board, the opinions of those close to him. One of the real strengths of Herbert’s book is in discussing the collective manner in which Liverpool was run. The club’s chairman John Smith and secretary Peter Robinson played a key role in securing the players that Paisley wanted. But it was the club’s fabled boot room, a sanctuary – players were not allowed in – that was at the heart of the collective approach to management. The regular meetings there of Paisley, Moran, Fagan, Saunders and Roy Evans made it into a think tank for assessment of tactics and the players of both Liverpool and their opponents. In the days before Opta and Prozone, notebooks were filled with details of players’ performances and strengths and weaknesses. Opposition managers would be invited for a drink after the game and while supping their beer or whisky would be subtly pumped for any information that could be used to Liverpool’s advantage. Herbert recounts that former Watford owner Elton John was once invited into the hallowed space but his request for a ‘pink gin’ was met with a can of beer.
For modern readers, the book’s reminders of the 70s and 80s provide some amusement as well as relief that times have moved on. The rivalry with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest is explored well. The author also mentions the heavy drinking culture among the Liverpool players as well as the widespread gambling (Paisley himself was almost as obsessed with horse racing as football) and the macho ‘banter’ which tolerated no weakness and could be cruel to the young and the shy. He also touches on the racism among some older players towards the club’s first black player, Howard Gayle.
Herbert, a former Liverpool Daily Post and Independent reporter, has researched his subject with impressive diligence. There are dozens of biographies listed in the bibliography and he has also carried out interviews with many of Paisley’s former players and contemporaries. Paisley’s family have also contributed so that we get to see recollections of the man as well as the manager; including the revealing sight of Bob’s handwritten diary from a trip to the USA in 1946.
This book is a must read for LFC fans of a certain age who remember the events described and revere ‘Sir Bob’ but it also has much to inform and delight younger fans and those of other clubs. In providing the fullest picture yet of this ‘quiet genius’, Herbert has written a valuable addition to the short shelf of essential football biographies.
Craig Fowlie (Craig can be followed on Twitter at @socscipublisher)