Any conversation about England’s most successful football clubs will inevitably draw up just two names: Liverpool and Manchester United. Whilst there’s no doubt that United deserve their name in that conversation, the majority of the club’s success has come under just one man in the form of Alex Ferguson.
Yet for the Reds the pantheon of great managers stretches back through the generations. From the moment that Bill Shankly made Anfield into a ‘bastion of invincibility’ and founded the modern day Liverpool, the club has enjoyed success from under the guidance of several managers. It can be broken down into pre and post Shankly, so I’ve opted to have a look at the man himself and those that came after him.
The founding father of modern day Liverpool Football Club. That is virtually all you need to know about Bill Shankly. He changed everything. The Scotsman was Liverpool’s ninth manager and completely altered the very fabric of Liverpool, turning the club from perennial underachievers into a winning machine. He established ‘The Liverpool Way’ and laid down the blueprint for everything that was to follow.
Shankly is arguably the most quotable sports people ever, with most of his gems going down in the annals of time. “Some people say football is a matter of life and death”, he once said. “I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it’s much more important than that”. Immortalised by the Shankly Gates that stand outside the ground and the statue of him in front of the Kop, everyone that followed him was simple trying to continue the traditions he’d put in place.
Bob Paisley is the greatest British manager of all time. Fourteen major trophies in nine seasons is an impressive haul by anyone’s standards, but when you consider that three of them were European Cups – including Liverpool’s first – it’s even more deserving of praise. Pro rata his trophy winning out to the length of time that Ferguson was in charge at Old Trafford and he knocks the Scot’s achievements into a paper cup.
Paisley was the very definition of a ‘reluctant genius’. The son of a cole miner who was a tank driver during the war, not many people thought the lad from the North-East would be able to fill the shoes of the great Bill Shankly when he announced his shock decision to resign in 1974. Fill them he did, though, even giving them a spit and a polish along the way. There aren’t enough superlatives to talk about Paisley’s reign as manager, so his trophy cabinet with winner’s medals from six league titles, three European Cups, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a European Super Cup will have to do.
Fagan was, of course, the natural successor to Paisley after his time in the Liverpool Boot Room. For many looking at the club from the outside it seemed a simple enough job to keep the well-oiled Liverpool machine rolling forward. The truth was quite different, with Fagan having lost Graeme Souness to Sampdoria and needing to do well in the transfer market to succeed. He did, winning a League, League Cup and European Cup treble in 1984.
The Heysel tragedy took its toll on Fagan like the Hillsborough Disaster later would for Daglish. Despite the protestations of the club who wanted him to continue he decided to walk away from the job. He would later offer advice to one of his proteges, Roy Evans, when he would pop into Melwood and have a quiet word with him. Quiet Joe was a great manager beloved by the players.
’King’ Kenny is, without question, the greatest living personality associated with Liverpool Football Club. Having won everything on offer as a player many thought the club had been too hasty in appointing him as manager after Fagan’s departure, but boy oh boy did he prove them all wrong. Dalglish not only carried on the traditions of his predecessors but he did so in glorious style. His 1987-1988 league winning team played some of the best football ever witnessed by the Kop.
It was the tragedy that rocked Liverpool and English football that ultimate led to Dalglish’s decision to walk away from the dugout. He was a giant of a man in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster, offering help and support to all of the families that had lost loved ones and being a pillar of support to the entire city of Liverpool. He went to as many of the funerals as he could and ensured that every single one of them was attended by a Liverpool player. There’s little doubt, looking back, that he was suffering post traumatic stress disorder like so many who had been present on that fateful day. A brilliant man who deserves our adulation.
Graeme Souness was one of the best players ever to pull on a Red shirt. A tough tackling midfielder with a tremendous eye for a pass, the Scot won everything there was to win as a Liverpool player. When Dalglish announced his decision to resign it seemed to catch the Liverpool hierarchy by surprise, so they needed to turn to someone who knew the club and had experience as a manager. Step forward Souness, who had shown at Rangers that he knew what it took to lead a team to glory.
It seemed like an inspired decision to begin with, just as it had with Dalglish before him. Sadly Souness tried to change too much too quickly as manager and lost the respect of a lot of his former teammates when he tried to lay down the law – laws that they knew he’d flouted only too often in his playing days. Perhaps he was, to an extent, ahead of his time. The fiery Scotsman tried to change the drinking culture and poor diet to something we would recognised as being more acceptable nowadays, but it had ‘worked for years’ as far as the players were concerned so there was large-scale resistance. In the end it was Souness who made way, not the diet.
In hindsight it might have proved a much more sensible decision to offer Roy Evans the manager’s job when Kenny Dalglish decided to call it a day, but at the time it was felt he perhaps didn’t have the experience that Souness offered for the role. He was always destined to be Liverpool manager, though, ever since the club’s Chairman, John Smith, said of his appointment to the backroom staff in 1974, “We have not made an appointment for the present but for the future. One day Roy Evans will be our manager”.
Roy had signed for the club as an apprentice in 1965 and had remained there ever since. When he was promoted to be a coach he had toyed with the idea of leaving to extend his playing career elsewhere. In the end Bob Paisley persuaded him that he could be part of something special at Anfield instead of being an unknown somewhere else. How right Paisley had been. Though Evans only won the League Cup as manager and will perhaps best be remembered as the manager in charge of the ‘Spice Boys’ who wore that horrendous White Suit in the FA Cup final against United, his team played some exciting football and he came very close to bringing the title back to its rightful home.
Frenchman Houllier initially arrived at Anfield as Roy Evan’s joint-manager, but it didn’t take long for confusion to take hold in the corridors of Melwood. Players wouldn’t know who was in charge, with Houllier saying one thing and Evans saying another. In the end it was the former Boot Room boy who magnanimously chose to give way, leaving the French manager who had stood on the Kop as a teacher in his youth to take sole charge of the club.Houllier’s reign was one of authority, ruling over the dressing room with an iron fist and doing his best to separate any cabals of players he felt was growing too strong.
Whatever else might be said about the Frenchman’s time in charge, it must be looked upon as a success. The treble in 2001 was a wonderful time to be alive for Liverpool fans, with wins over Arsenal in the FA Cup, Alaves in the UEFA Cup and Birmingham City in the League Cup cause enough for an open-top bus parade through the city. In the end being Liverpool manager got to be too much for him, as it has been for so many men. He had a heart-attack during his time in the dugout and though he regained his health he could never fully recover the managerial spark that had made his teams so difficult to break down.
If Jürgen Klopp has been ‘flying the plane while also trying to assemble it’ then Benitez was trying to take it higher than it had been in years whilst the owner of the airline was outside ripping off the wings and selling it all for scrap. The Spaniard arrived at Anfield despite the less than subtle overtures of a certain José Mourinho, replacing Gerard Houllier and immediately adding his name to the already bulging history books of life at Liverpool.
The reign of Benitez was somehow one that was marred by a, frankly, xenophobic press who swallowed the words of Alex Ferguson and his cronies whole and attempted to run him out of Merseyside, not impressed that the ‘fat Spanish waiter’ had made Liverpool into such an impressive machine. A Champions League trophy and an FA Cup win in his first two seasons as well as two ultimately unsuccessful tilts at the title is no small achievement for anyone. Perhaps those Liverpool fans who believed the nonsense printed by the London press nowadays look back with shame when they realise what could have been.
Despite the way Hodgson’s time on Merseyside is considered nowadays, the majority of Liverpool fans were open to giving the experienced old-hand time to prove himself when he took over from Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2010. With hindsight it’s clear as day that the man who would go on to manage England was the wrong choice for the Reds and you’ll find more than a couple of supporters keen to tell you they said as much at the time. For the rest of us, though, the press’ claim that he could ‘steady the ship’ seemed to be a fair one.
We were wrong. Hodgson was a terrible manager and his time at Anfield deserves the distain with which it is looked upon by most. He is the master at managing expectations, referring to Northampton Town as ‘formidable’ and being happy with a draw away to Birmingham City. He never bothered to even try to understand the culture of Liverpool’s supporters and his departure, in the end, took far too long to come. An awful manager during a dark time for the club.
Kenny Dalglish Mark II
There are two schools of thought regarding Kenny’s second spell at the club. The first suggests that he had been out of the game for too long and his tactics weren’t good enough. The second says we reached two cup finals, won one of them at probably would have taken the other to extra time if goal-line technology was in place back then. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Regardless, Dalglish is a real-life living legend and nothing can take away how much he’s done for the club and the city over the years.
The Ulsterman might not have seemed like the natural choice to take over from one of the greatest managers and players in the club’s history. Yet the 2013-2014 season saw the Reds playing the type of scintillating and exciting football the likes of which Anfield arguably hadn’t witnessed since Dalglish’s 1987-1988 season. With Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling causing defences all sorts of problems and Steven Gerrard’s role in the team revitalised, it looked though the long wait for a title might finally be coming to an end.
Alas it wasn’t to be. I don’t need to tell you what happened at the end of the season, except to say that Rodgers gave me, and many of us, the best Premier League season we’d witnessed. Sadly the wheels came off and the departure of Suarez to Barcelona, combined with Sturridge’s injury, meant Liverpool lost their mojo and Rodgers soon lost his job. A seemingly genuinely nice bloke, the Northern Irishman has plenty left to offer the game and hopefully his time at the club is looked back on with the kindness it deserves in the future.
The current incumbent of the manager’s office has barely had time to unpack his boxes, such is the volume of games he’s had to take control of since replacing Rodgers last year. He arrived with a pedigree, though, after turning Borussia Dortmund into Bundesliga champions and Champions League contenders whilst also making his players superstars along the way. Will he be the man to lead us back to glory? It remains to be seen, of course, but I’m more confident about it than I’ve felt in a long time.