Great Football League Teams 31: Liverpool 1961-2
I grew up during a period of near total domination for Liverpool Football Club but one thing I shall always remember is a notebook my Dad had stored away in which he had kept a record of all the FA Cup results for several seasons in the early 1950s.
Poring through this, I recall my shock at reading the score line, ‘Gateshead 1-0 Liverpool’ – to such an extent that I suspected my father had been engaging in some earlier fantasy game – a homespun forerunner of Football Manager.
But that was the result on January 10, 1953 – a setback typical of a decade that makes current travails seem like small Cains. Just two seasons before, third division Norwich City had defeated the Reds 3-1 and the club were to follow up the Tyneside apocalypse with a slide into the second division – a period of torment that was to last eight full seasons.
A 9-1 loss to Birmingham City in December 1954 was the worst result of a mediocre first campaign down below as well as their biggest defeat of all time, and Liverpool finished eleventh after a 6-1 beating at Rotherham United’s Millmoor. Things did pick up, and under managers Don Welsh and Phil Taylor, half-hearted bids for promotion were launched later in the decade – but with gates dwindling to around the 30,000 mark, the doldrums were still engulfing Anfield.
The nadir came in January 1959 when a visit to Worcester City was rewarded with another early exit from the Cup and a 4-2 league loss to Lincoln eleven months later signalled the end for Taylor. Liverpool were looking for a new man.
Chairman Tom Williams announced the appointment thus:
Of the small number of who came up to the requirements, the board decided to ascertain the position of Mr. W. Shankly, now with Huddersfield Town, and eventually offered the management to him. He put the position before his board and, after expressing their regret at the prospect of losing his services, they have agreed that Mr. Shankly shall join Liverpool FC
Cometh the hour. The incoming Scotsman wasted no time bringing root and branch reform to Liverpool. Gone were the energy sapping country runs that had left the players too tired to perform at their best of a Saturday, replaced by intensive training in bursts and characterized by five a side games designed to hone skill and possession.
Shankly had learned from one of the game’s true greats, Tom Finney. The ‘Preston Plumber’ was the embodiment of that cliché of the man who stays behind for extra training, spending hours kicking the ball against a wall from all angles and initiating the tradition of the ‘Sweat Box’ – a technique that left the denizens of Melwood with razor sharp reactions.
Behind the scenes, the new manager insisted that the tradition of the side being picked by committee be dropped – and replaced by a dictatorship with him at the helm. Tellingly, the famous Anfield boot room dates to this era, with future legends Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan already at the club along with Shankly’s fellow Scotsman and trainer, Reuben Bennett.
His first game in charge ended in a 4-0 home defeat to Cardiff but the gaffer was having none of it when a visiting director extended his commiserations – ‘ save your sympathy, I can look after myself and I can look after my team’. Indeed, it took a few months for the new broom to fully extend its sweep.
The start of the 1960-1 campaign saw Shankly ruthlessly trim the squad but he already had an eye for a player – retaining hard as nails left back Gerry Byrne despite his inexperience, while bringing in Gordon Milne for £16,000 from Preston and Kevin Lewis from Sheffield United for £13,000, as well as a fresh faced youngster in Ian Callaghan.
The team finished third behind an Ipswich side chronicled in the third of our Great Teams series back in 2010, but future helicopter passenger and Brighton boss, Jimmy Melia, Alan A’Court and Roger Hunt all enjoyed fine seasons alongside Lewis, who was to finish top scorer. Unfortunately, that relatively lofty position still left the Liver Birds eight points adrift of a promotion spot.
If Shankly’s hiring is unquestionably the main reason for Liverpool’s revival, the arrival of Eric Sawyer of Littlewoods pools was also a major factor. Having been unable to summon up the funds to bring transfer targets Denis Law and Jack Charlton to the port city, the subsequent injection of lottery cash changed all that – and the arrival of another Scot, Ian St. John during the summer of 1961 for £37,500 was significant.
A Motherwell player until then, the future TV co-host was joined by Ron Yeats, a £30,000 capture from Dundee United and nicknamed ‘Giant’. In truth, players of this quality had no business being in the second tier and so it was to prove.
Liverpool raced out of the starting blocks with 10 wins out of 11; a 5-0 crushing of Leeds an August highlight. Attendances were up and 48,185 were to see Chelsea beaten in a 4-3 thriller in the FA Cup. League results continued to ne majestic as Yeats proved rock like at the back and St John and Melia weighed in with 18 and 13 goals respectively.
But it was Hunt, lest we forget, a discovery of the previous manager, who was to deliver most of the bullets – netting an extraordinary 42 times and confirming the promise that would see him end up as a World Cup winner four years later. The author of five hat tricks, he scored nine in the first six games and was simply unstoppable.
Southampton came to Anfield on April 21 after Shankly’s alma mater Huddersfield had delayed the party in a 1-1 draw two weeks previously. With St John out injured, Lewis came back into the team, securing promotion with a brace as the Reds won 2-0. The following Saturday, the players received a guard of honour at Home Park as they defeated Plymouth 3-2 in a processional run in. The Merseysiders stood well clear of Leyton Orient in second place.
Liverpool finished eighth behind Champions Everton the following year but would not have long to wait for their next title, collecting the Football League Championship trophy at the end of 1963-4 season. A European Cup semi-final with Internazionale followed in 1965 and then another English title in World Cup year. Hunt scored 29 times but this was merely the beginning.