Book Review: Red or Dead
David Peace has established himself as one of Britain’s most vital novelists of recent times and following on from the success of The Damned United (the film version of which has been reviewed in these pages), the Yorkshireman last year turned his attention to the game across the Pennines. Here, Jon Arnold – @The_Arn on twitter – treats us to a review essay of the new novel and a quite superb piece of writing it is too.
Liverpool fans ask only one thing from their manager – everything. Few clubs idolise their managers like Liverpool, to the point where it’s almost the footballing equivalent of a papal election. The manager is expected not only to deliver a successful football club, a club that makes the supporters dream, but he’s expected to understand the club and supporters. To understand what makes them tick, why they pay their hard earned money to support the team. Bob Paisley knew, and delivered. Joe Fagin knew, and delivered. Kenny Dalglish knew, and delivered, especially in the darkest hour of both club and supporters. But then things changed. Souness didn’t deliver, and with the sale of the story of his heart operation to The Sun, showed that he didn’t know. Roy Evans, steeped in the clubs history, couldn’t deliver. Houllier seemed to know, and for a while he delivered. Rafael Benítez knew, and for much of his time, delivered. He fought on the side of the club and fans in the civil war against Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which is why he remains largely beloved by the fans. Roy Hodgson neither knew nor delivered. And Brendan Rodgers? He shows every sign of knowing, and every sign of being able to deliver.
All this started in December 1959, with the appointment of Bill Shankly to replace Phil Taylor. It’s with the Liverpool board offering Shankly the manager’s role that Red Or Dead begins. Like Peace’s previous footballing novel, the deservedly celebrated The Damned United, it’s the story of one manager’s relationship with a club. Like The Damned United it tells the story of the manager’s time at the club and the personal aftermath. And like The Damned United it’s incredibly successful in recreating the manager’s voice, the public façade. The language is deliberately simple, incantative and repetitive, reflecting the subject’s personality and methods. It’s another astounding piece of ventriloquism which Peace sustains throughout the book. You can almost hear the Glenbuck growl as if Shankly were still alive, as perfectly as Shankly’s ghostwriter John Roberts recreated it in his autobiography.
But although the form is the same, it’s a very different novel. The Damned United is a story of a failed reinvention, a manager and a club almost perfectly wrong for each other. The events take place over only 44 days. Red Or Dead is the story of perhaps the most successful reinvention in British football, one that took a successful club from the upper reaches of the then second division to the company of the continental elite. It’s perhaps only rivalled in modern times by Ferguson’s revitalisation of Manchester United and Chelsea’s Abramovich funded rise. Both came from a significantly higher base than Liverpool’s, but both were also sparked by the presence of charismatic, ruthless managers. Red Or Dead, in contrast to The Damned United, is told over the last 22 years of Shankly’s life, divided into two unequal halves (but both of 45 chapters, making a 90 chapter whole). The first half, the bulk of the book, covers Shankly’s fourteen and a half year time at Liverpool. It covers him taking over a club in a state of decay on and off the pitch. Melwood, the training ground, is a mess. Training methods, even for the 1950s, are prehistoric. Mediocrity is an aspiration. And then Shankly takes over and, through force of will and hard work, transforms the club, bringing them league championships, their first FA Cups and even their first European trophy, the 1973 UEFA Cup.
The power of Red Or Dead lies in locating and recreating the secret of Shankly’s genius. It tells you upfront, in the first three words of the story: Repetition, repetition, repetition. Shankly’s is a genius of sweat, of relentless work ethic. And this is where Red Or Dead is so different to other football books. Other football books talk of romance, and of ideas and history. Of what made men and teams unique. Red Or Dead largely foregoes that. Instead, it concentrates on the aspects of football that don’t generally make interesting reading because of their mundanity. It concentrates on the sheer hard work needed to run a successful football club. The details that need to be attended to. From the weeding and clearing up that needed to be done on the training ground. The eternal search for an improvement in training methods, in improving fitness. The planning, from pre-season to cup final. The scouting and acquisition of players, the justifying of every purchase to a board. The battles for power with the board. And the weekly, unceasing grind of matches, of an endless stream of opposing teams to be overcome. This is Red Or Dead’s revelation, of hard work building an empire, of the attention that needs to be paid to details. Of one man setting an example and asking others to follow him. And inspiring them to work hard for the greater good, in this case the good of making the people of Liverpool happy. Red Or Dead captures football’s relentless rhythms as perfectly as they’ve ever been caught. It builds verses out of the endless litanies of training, of team sheets, attendance numbers, passing movements, scorers and results and shows how they make up the poetry of seasons. And it builds an epic from the poetry, showing what sacrifices are needed just to maintain standards, how it drains people. In that sense it’s an often exhausting read, the detail and repetition Peace uses to evoke Shankly and his team working almost too well. With that in mind it’s worth pointing out that the book is best savoured over days and weeks to achieve the full effect – it might also leave you with an extra admiration for the longevity of the likes of Ferguson, Roux and Wenger. But, like the eventual results of the hard work of Shankly and his team, perseverance rewards the reader by exposing the human being at the heart of the anecdotes and one-liners. It’s an approach that, almost perversely, finds fresh ways to marvel at what Shankly achieved.
This being a work of fiction based in fact though, Peace finds room for all those familiar stories, sugar to sweeten the porridge. He tells the story of how Shankly introduced Ron Yeats, asking the men of the press to marvel at his defensive colossus. He tells the story of how he changed Liverpool’s strip to all red. The story of how Ian St John knew his time was up when he was told to take one of the scrawnier Christmas turkeys. How he’d already outflanked the league winners of 1972-73 over pay rises without it becoming an issue. The addressing of the Kop, and the people of Liverpool. And, of course, the banter with other managers. It makes clear that Shankly was a master of mind games well before Clough, let alone Ferguson or Mourinho. And it shows how the endless grind of hard work isn’t all grimness, that trophies are not quite the only joy of football. Football needs the flair to go along with the hard work. But nevertheless, it cannot function without the hard work.
And then, sticking to Byron’s dictum that all farewells should be sudden, Shankly quits. He almost leaves in triumph, his Liverpool side demolishing Newcastle 3-0 in the FA Cup Final (though as Peace makes clear, the 1-1 draw away to Spurs that marks his final game is really a footnote). And with that decision to quit the second half of the book begins. Its first subtitles is ‘Everyday Is Sunday’ – riffing, like Morrissey (Steven Patrick not Johnny), on Sundays of the 1970s being the day of rest, a day when all the shops and offices were shut. The morning after the game, the well-earned time off. The second subtitle is Shankly Agonistes, a riff on Milton’s Samson Agonistes. That poem is based on the biblical tale of how Samson was brought low, the source of his strength taken from him. Peace has chosen his subtitles wisely. The repetition that characterises the first half is still present, though here transferred to domestic chores, in the same painstaking detail which characterised his approach to his job at Liverpool. But the key is what’s missing. Routine. The routine of the football season vanishes. It’s telling that the second half is almost a series of short stories strung together with no particular rhythm to them. Slowly at first, as Shankly can’t quite bring himself to let go of the club he built. The repetition of training, of the next game providing a man with purpose, fades out as the team becomes Bob Paisley’s team. And what Peace brings out beautifully is that the sense of purpose which drove Shankly at Liverpool never finds another outlet. The relentless work ethic remains, but without any outlet. Shankly remains eternally a socialist at heart, the man of the people giving everything he can to make them happy but at heart his is a bleak retirement. After a first half where Shankly’s personality and work has built up Liverpool it’s heartbreaking to see time rendering him almost yesterday’s man, though never an unappreciated one by the people of Liverpool. Peace’s portrays of Shankly in repose is that of a man losing touch with the game and the times.
What renders the account of Shankly’s retirement so poignant is the socialism that lay at the heart of his philosophy of life. Shankly is always a Red, with or without the club he made. There are myriad acts of kindnesses, some drawn from accounts on Liverpool forums. These make it abundantly clear why he was so well loved by fans and players – treasured possessions are given to those in need, his house is open to all callers, advice and help is freely dispensed and he’s always available for a kickaround with kids. He gives so much, seeing it as duty, and asks for nothing back. Indeed, it’s almost impossible for him to think of anyone repaying him as a tale of a golf club dinner and the presentation of an award to Kevin Keegan show. He gives his all, and asks nothing in return. If you want to carry a metaphor for football being the Merseyside religion far enough, you can easily see how Shankly’s messianic status arose. And then there are the two chats between Shankly and the other great socialist associated with Merseyside through the Sixties and Seventies, Harold Wilson. Within the bound of football, socialism and poetry they’re unguarded, entertaining and telling in a way that’s near impossible in the modern age of media training.
It all ends, as it has to, with Shankly’s death. Like the leaving of Liverpool, it’s a sudden thing, with only a few tiny foreshadowings. Peace, thankfully, doesn’t end the book on a sour note but carries the religious parallel for one final step. Shankly finally finds peace in his death, the satisfaction of a job well done and one which tells us that perhaps the actions of his retirement weren’t quite as purposeless as they seemed, but part of his wider work. In truth, Shankly retired from his job but never from his vocation as the heartbeat of a city. And in his portrayal or the repetition, the dedication, the generosity and the monomania Peace brings that out. He brings us the nuts and bolts of how a modern myth was built, a myth buried by forty more football seasons. He reminds a modern audience of how greatness was built, and how Shankly’s dedication to the fans of Liverpool Football Club and the people of the city made them love him. This is the tale of how one man turned Liverpool red, the myth told anew. And in doing that it does for Shankly what Shankly did for Liverpool. One last great kindness for a life in service.