I first saw Liverpool play live in December, 1966 when I was 14 years old. By the time I left school three years later, I was in a position to be able to travel extensively throughout England and further afield to watch Liverpool play. By the end of the 4th season of the 1970’s not only did I have nearly 200 live matches behind me but I was also able to witness personally the type of success that regular travellers in the 1960’s had experienced. The 1973-74 season ended with Newcastle United being humbled at Wembley in the most one-sided F.A. cup final since 1960, only a year after the League championship and UEFA cup trophies had been paraded through the streets of Liverpool by Bill Shankly and his team.
Just weeks after that Wembley final, news of Shankly’s retirement was greeted with shock and disbelief. Once the initial shock had passed, supporters’ thoughts turned to wonder who could possibly replace a man who frankly had seemed irreplaceable. In the end the club, now under the chairmanship of Sir John Smith, decided that a policy of ‘promoting from within’ would serve the club’s interests better than appointing an outsider. It later emerged that Shankly had been keen for Jack Charlton to succeed him but the club’s decision to make Bob Paisley the new manager was validated by the astonishing run of success he achieved until his own retirement in 1983.
So what did we know about Paisley at the time of his appointment in the summer of 1974? Not much really, except that most supporters knew he was a former player who had played over 250 times for Liverpool’s first team in the years immediately after World War Two, winning a First Division championship medal in 1947. We also knew that he had been one of Shankly’s loyal lieutenants during the success of the mid-1960s. As Paisley’s managerial career progressed from its early days in the mid-70s, we got to learn more snippets of his playing days, for example that despite scoring the crucial opening goal in the 1950 F.A. cup semi-final with Everton, he was the only man of the eleven that beat Everton who was not picked for the final, Laurie Hughes replacing him for the Wembley showdown with Arsenal. Bob would later say that this experience was invaluable because when he later as manager had to leave a player out of an important match, he could say to that player that he knew how it felt … and the player would know that was the truth.
Did I have any doubts that the club had appointed the right man at the time in 1974? No, in that I respected the club’s judgement; but Yes, in that I wondered how effective Paisley would be as someone who had neither managed a top club before nor ever shown any great desire to do so, especially as he had to follow the legend that was Bill Shankly. That was difficult enough on its own without Paisley having to deal with the aftermath of the bruising Charity Shield encounter with Leeds United at Wembley, in which Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner were both sent off. The ban Keegan subsequently received meant that he missed the opening dozen competitive matches of Paisley’s first season in charge, although the team made a decent enough start without him by winning 5 of the first 6 League matches before losing 3 of the next 4.
Until 1974 it is doubtful if Bob Paisley had any great ambitions to become a manager. His own playing career had finished twenty years earlier, with his final League appearances for Liverpool coming in the dreadful relegation season of 1953-54. Liverpool was the only League club Paisley represented in competitive matches so it wasn’t a major surprise that the one-club man was invited to join the backroom staff, first under Don Welsh, then Phil Taylor (who, like Bob, had ended his playing career in 1954) before the arrival of Bill Shankly in December, 1959. Bob had become a more or less self-taught physiotherapist, another important asset to his already great knowledge and experience as a player. Bob coached Liverpool’s reserve-team for a while but it was as Shankly’s right-hand man that his post-playing career really took off and his contribution to the three First Division championships and three cups (two domestic and one in Europe) that were won between 1964 and 1974 cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps Bob never really wanted the top job and it’s certainly true that he never seemed comfortable with being interviewed and the whole media side of things. What he was definitely comfortable with, though, was the tactical side of the game of football. The most well-known example is his conversion of Ray Kennedy, Shankly’s final signing, from a lumbering forward into one of the most feared and respected midfield players in Europe. Bob said that of all the players other managers and clubs enquired about while he was in charge, nobody received more attention than Ray Kennedy. Over the years Bob’s tactical awareness and his use of substitutes (something his predecessor had never seemed too comfortable with) turned many a possible defeat into a draw … and many a draw into a victory.
As Bob’s first season unfolded, it soon became clear that he would have to prove he could cope with the ‘marathon’ called the League Championship because of early exits in the three cup competitions. In the end he fell just short with defeat in the final away game at Middlesbrough meaning that Derby County could not be caught no matter what happened in the final home match. The new manager did make use of his substitute more often than not in his first season; however, we didn’t really see the full benefit of this until the following season, when the 18 year old David Fairclough was first introduced into the team, making 19 appearances with 12 of those coming from the bench.
Were we as supporters disappointed that 1974-75 ended without a trophy? Yes, of course we were because we had got used to winning prizes again in Shankly’s last two years in charge. But we had seen enough of Bob’s teams and tactics to be confident that further success wasn’t too far away ... and we were right. Bill was often on his feet during a game, barking out orders; but Bob rarely left his seat in the dug-out, except maybe to celebrate an important goal with his staff. Paisley’s personality was quite different to his predecessor’s. But his vast knowledge of the game gained since he made his professional debut for Liverpool way back in 1946 could not be questioned, nor could his desire to learn even more about different aspects of the game until he was finally ready to take the top job for himself.
Bob Paisley’s record as Liverpool manager is without parallel in the modern game. Even two and a half decades after he stepped down in 1983, he remains the only man to have led three teams to victory in the European cup competition, and at a time when it was only open to champions. Only once during his 9 years in charge did his Liverpool team finish outside the top two positions in the League … and even then (in 1981) they won two cups to compensate for that rare failure to challenge for (and usually win) the English championship.
Shankly had been 60 years old when he retired in 1974. Bill’s decision had been sudden and unexpected. Bob was 64 years old when he took charge of a Liverpool team for the final time in May, 1983; but everyone had known long before that 1982-83 would be his final season as manager, which meant that the club had plenty of time to think about who would succeed him. If the spectre of Shankly’s success had hung over Paisley in 1974, how much harder it must have been for Joe Fagan in 1983, given the astonishing success that Paisley had enjoyed.
Paisley was offered and accepted a position on Liverpool’s Board of Directors after he stepped down as manager. He was crucially always available to the club’s first-ever player-manager, Kenny Dalglish, as the club tried to recover from the trauma of Heysel in 1985 that led to a long exclusion from European competitions. Kenny got the plaudits for leading Liverpool to the League & F.A. cup ‘Double’ in 1986 but we can be sure that Paisley’s contribution was every bit as important as that which he had made to earlier successes in the previous two decades.
Bob Paisley remained on Liverpool’s Board until 1992, the year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The condition became progressively worse until his death in February, 1996 at the age of 77. On the day news of his death broke, the BBC devoted a large chunk of its midweek Sportsnight programme to Paisley’s achievements with numerous players and even rivals praising him as one of the greatest-ever managers in the English game.
Bill Shankly knew what he was taking on in 1959, a once-proud club with great potential and passionate supporters. Fifteen years later Bob Paisley also knew what he was taking on, a once-again proud club that was starting to rack up the prizes at home and abroad. The mis-1960’s and the early part of the 1970’s brought silver in terms of trophies won; but what Bob did from then on until 1983 was pure gold, a succession of great teams and important prizes, the like of which had never been seen before in the English game and probably never will be again. As Liverpool supporters we owe Shankly a lot but it could be argued that possibly we owe Paisley even more? Bill might have laid the foundations but don’t forget that not only was Bob there too at that time in the club’s history but he continued the work that Bill had started and took it on to an even greater and unprecedented level.
Written by Christopher Wood for bobpaisley.com
"Bob pinpointed strengths and weaknesses better than any manager I've ever played for or ever met. He wasn't great with words but when he did say something, you always took notice because ninety-nine times out of a hundred he was spot-on. He had this line about the first two yards at the top level being in your head. When he first said it to me I thought it was rubbish. But the more I played the game, the more I realised it was so true."