This is an article I wrote a year ago, and updated over the summer for inclusion on this site. Thought it was worth digging out again, given the other threads on the forum.
Sir Bob Paisley - Possibly the Greatest Man to Ever Live
I was in Tenerife, almost five years ago to the day, when I heard the news. I was gobsmacked. It felt like my own grandfather had died. As the saying goes, I remembered where I was when I heard the news: Bob Paisley had died.
Bob had been closer to mind than he had for a while, seeing as amongst my holiday reading was the newly-released hardback biography of Shanks by Stephen F Kelly, and so while I read about the most charismatic manager of all time, I was also reading about his indispensable sidekick, Bob Paisley, perhaps the brains behind the gusto. It was all the more weird reading about results on wet Wednesday evenings in the early sixties when lying in blazing Canary Island sunshine, and weirder still when I picked up a paper later one day that told of Bob’s death.
I knew Bob had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for some time, and it seemed especially cruel that someone who achieved so much should die of a disease that rots one’s memories away. Not for him the chance of growing old and weak with the one compensation of being able to look back on a truly remarkable life. That remarkable life was wiped from its very owner’s mind. A great man doesn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.
I don’t doubt that Bob was the greatest manager ever. When I hear all these current managers (such as Jim Jeffries and Walter Smith - i.e. Scots!) say that Alex Ferguson is the best ever manager, it makes me so angry. Alex Ferguson has spent fortunes in his time, and has six [now seven] championships and one European Cup as his major honours in fifteen years in the English game (yes, for all the hype and the knighthood, that still reads as just ONE European Cup, and okay, Ferguson had success at Aberdeen, but he has been a manager over three times as long as Bob was). Bob Paisley won six championships and THREE European Cups in NINE just years. The team Ferguson inherited was doing badly, granted, but please don’t tell me they were anything other than a sleeping giant, with lots of cash and players like Robson, Strachan, McGrath and Whiteside - not quite in our class, but not duffers either. It can’t be said that they were anything other than underachieving.
I even rate Bob above Shanks - I really do. Shanks is the reason we are all here now, and that is set in stone - he rebuilt us. But he did so with Bob Paisley at his side. So not only was Bob involved in our rebirth, he then took us that all important next stage - the stage where true greatness is achieved. And kept us there. The team Bob inherited had won the FA Cup in Shanks’ swansong in 1974, but in truth it wasn’t one of the best Liverpool sides (I’m going on what people generally believe - I was three years old at the time, and therefore not especially qualified to comment on it’s merits through first hand experience. I have of course seen lots of video footage of the 1970s teams, to give me some idea). A lot of the players that had been the cornerstones of the 1960s side had retired or moved on - St John, Yeats, Hunt. New players were in their place, although the likes of Ray Kennedy, bought to play up front, and Larry Lloyd at centre half, were not looking as good as their predecessors. One of Bob’s masterstrokes was turning Ray Kennedy, who looked like he had lost the fight for the job up front as a target man/battering ram, into a superb, skillful left-sided midfielder with a wonderful passing game. It’s the equivalent of Peter Reid deciding to turn Niall Quinn into a tricky winger (and no, that ain’t gonna happen). Bob took this team, changed it around, and bought new players, and made it his own. What Bob didn’t have, and what gets him overlooked in terms of accolades, was a larger than life personality. Shanks was a master with words about the game, whereas even his own players had difficulty in understanding exactly what Bob had to say. A good player was “whassisname” or “wadjamacallit”, and apparently everything was referred to either as the “gubbins” or the “doings”. Though his words were muddled, the message always got through, and was crystal clear.
Bob was similar to Gerard Houllier - both quiet, softly spoken men, but both hard as nails underneath. GH was ruthless in showing Paul Ince the door, but Paisley was faced with a more difficult expulsion. Ince was a prat who was causing GH problems behind the scenes, and therefore totally expendable. Bob had to show he meant business when, after retiring, Shanks would turn up at Melwood on a daily basis and watch training. All the players still called him ‘boss’, and Bob had to ask Shanks - in the nicest possible way - to stay away. He was in charge now, and that was the end of the matter. The last thing Bob needed was the massive presence of his predecessor looming large over him - it was hard enough following in his footsteps, without those footsteps still literally around him (It’ll be interesting to see how Ferguson’s successor does, given that Fergie will always be there in the background, ready to take the credit for whatever the new guy achieves, and no-doubt ready with an oversize oar to put in [or will he after all the recent turmoil at OT about his future? PT 7.6.2001]).
Then there were Bob’s dealings in the transfer market which were, to be truthful, nothing short of remarkable. Faced with the crisis of the exit of Kevin Keegan - a Liverpool legend - Bob goes out and signs Kenny Dalglish as his replacement: LFC’s greatest ever player (come on, you’re not arguing with that, surely? What do you mean you reckon I’m wrong here and it should be Ronny Rosenthal? Istvan Kozma?...). Bob went on record as saying he would have wanted both Keegan AND Dalglish, had he been presented with the option - but that would have just been plain unfair, and the other 21 clubs would have taken their ball away and sulked with “we don’t want to play anymore”. I love Mark Lawrenson’s story of when he met Bob Paisley to sign - he got into the car to find Bob sat there in his cardigan and slippers!
In this age of ‘flash’ we would do well to remember that Bob was about the bare necessities. Look at the players he bought: Dalglish, Hansen, Lawrenson, Nicol, Souness, Whelan, Rush, McDermott - just awesome talent, and nearly all of them the Football Writers Player of the Year or a runner-up at some stage. I know we didn’t rely on fancy tactics back then, but if you buy players as good as that - players who could think for themselves - then half the battle is already won. These days it is impossible to have a monopoly on talent like that, as back then you were picking from the British Isles, whereas now the world is a manager’s oyster. We have the homegrown Steven Gerrard as our heartbeat, but Arsenal have bought Patrik Viera, and he wouldn’t have been an option for these shores fifteen or twenty years ago. Bob had a smaller area to pick from. A lot of Ferguson’s credit is for the talent of homegrown players, and yet the likes of Cantona, Yorke, Stam, Schmiechel, Barthez, etc, are the reason United are/were successful - without Cantona and Schmiechel they would have not made the essential leap to Champions. So whilst Fergie bought well at times, he too had a wider group of players to choose from. Fergie’s buys weren’t picked up from obscurity. Ferguson’s buys were established internationals.
I’m not demeaning GH by the same measure, just saying that in1981 you picked players from these shores, and you had to unearth diamonds in the British lower leagues or in Ireland or Scotland (Whelan, Nicol, Rush, Lawrenson) rather than always cherry picking ready-made players. Spurs had Ardiles and Villa, but the influx of foreign talent was a dripping tap as opposed to the Niagra Falls of 2001.
But ignore all this - ignore the man’s achievements. Forget he was the best manager ever. That’s only half the story of Bob Paisley.
What I want to highlight first and foremost about Bob - what I want you all to remember - was that he was just a great man: an honest, fair man, who puts most current managers to shame. When I saw the awful loser and general moaner Alex Ferguson get knighted, and Bob with his three European trophies have nothing, it made me sick. So it’s Sir Bob, from now on. This was a man who went to Rome in 1977 to help us lift the European Cup for the first time, going back to the place he helped liberate in a tank at the end of the Second World War. How many modern managers can claim such noble feats outside of the game? [Addition: Ferguson even suggested this season that Bayern Munich didn’t deserve to win the trophy, and that United were disappointed, as they think they are the better team. Bayern topped both of their groups in the early rounds: Man U neither of theirs. Bayern then beat Man U - not once, but both home and away. Bayern then beat Real Madrid home and away. So it seems that to defeat the previous two competition winners so convincingly as well as winning their group stages - and the final itself, of course! - is not good enough. Man U, who have won the trophy as many times as Nottingham Forest, are of course the rightful heirs to the throne. How dare Bayern beat them to it? Would Bob have been so distastefully vulgar in defeat? PT 7.6.2001].
No great player or manager likes losing. All the greats hate losing - it’s what spurs them on, that avoidance of the sickening sinking feeling of collapse. But there’s this quality a true champion needs: humility. He needs to know when the better team won.
You have to remind people of Sir Bob, as people want to forget - after all, since the advent of the Premiership it seems that achievements in the game no longer exist if they pre-date 1992 (I read recently about how Andy Cole was one of the top scorers in the Premiership history, having reached 100 Premiership goals, and I thought how p*ssed off current players like Tony Cottee must be when overlooked, having scored bags of league goals when it was the plain old First Division - and I keep reading how we’ve never won the Premiership, as if the Premiership is anything other than the First Division with a flashy new name. Eighteen league titles, I don’t care what you want to call them other than that. Eighteen titles, six due to Sir Bob directly, and a good few more before and after his rein indirectly, such as when he helped out Bill; and, crucially, provided assistance for Kenny in the double winning season of 1985/6).
So in the end Bob himself forgot all he had achieved, and it is not right that the rest of football does the same. So please excuse me if I remind you all again in a few month’s time [hello! Is it that time already? 7.6.2001] - not because you will have forgotten, but in order that you may remind a few others, who perhaps support other teams, from whose minds he might have slipped. The Roma home tie is Bob Paisley Flag Day, and that’s great, that’s apt, but don’t stop there.
Right boys, get carving that bronze statue now. I want to see it right next to Shanks, out by the front of the Kop, so the two great men of our history are side by side once more, and so they can scare the living shit out of any opposing team who dare enter Anfield.