Wednesday 13 December 2017

Time to rekindle spirit of Shankly

James Lawton

James Lawton

At a much earlier stage of Liverpool's journey to their battle for life, and proper investment, as the most successful club in the history of English football, Bill Shankly clambered on to the table of his little office beneath the main stand of Anfield.

He then adopted his most pugnacious pose, clenched his fists and declared of a new emerging young team: "They're going to go off in the sky like a great bloody bomb."

This was 40 years ago and they didn't, not quite. But the tradition of a winning team was firmly established, and the flow of European Cup wins under his lieutenants and successors Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan began soon enough.

What had been ingrained in the club was something desperate fans have been trying to regain over the last few traumatic years.

They call it the Spirit of Shankly and in this age of debt-laden chance and speculation by people who wouldn't know football passion from a hedge fund calculation, their position has, at times, seemed forlornly idealistic.

Fragment

However, their time may have come -- well at least a fragment of it -- if the prospective owners New England Sports Ventures (NESV) are allowed to bring to Liverpool some of the operating principles that have marked their success with the equally iconic Boston Red Sox, whose colours were worn by baseball's most fabulous figure, Babe Ruth, at the start of his career.

NESV are not entirely the shining white knights of professional sport, a fact that some blue-collar Red Sox fans have noted along with a rise in ticket prices, but in comparison to the currently besieged Liverpool owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, they have come from a different and superior planet.

Under NESV head John W Henry, hard principles have been pursued. The most significant one is that certain basics have to be attended to before any solid progress can be made. It is the performance of the team, the sense by the fans that the ownership understands this most fundamental dynamic.

This means that if the financial future of Liverpool is assured, if £200m-plus of debt and killing interest rates are cleared away, a little contact with the Spirit of Shankly might be regained.

One thing is pretty much certain: current manager Roy Hodgson is not likely to perform any of the Shankly rituals, least of all clambering on to a table and predicting some denotation in the heavens. Hodgson is not that kind of football character.

He is a coach, sound, conservative and well experienced in his travels around Europe, which before his successful stint at Fulham included spells in charge of Internazionale and the Swiss national team.

Whether this gives him the capacity to galvanise players like Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard will surely be one of the first major decisions made by a new regime. The gut instinct is that Hodgson's talent lies elsewhere, which means that, given the scale of NESV's intended investment, he will have very little time to establish that he is indeed the man to mend the meandering years of Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez.

On Merseyside, there lingers a belief that Benitez was much more a victim than a culprit but, when we put aside his initial success with the residue of Houllier's overwhelmingly mediocre transfer policy, it is a position that would surely not have been taken by the owners of a brilliantly revived Major League Baseball franchise.

Astonishing

Benitez, of course, made an astonishing impact at Anfield and he came with impressive achievements -- two La Liga titles for Valencia under the shadow of Real and Barca, and a Uefa Cup triumph.

The Champions League victory in Istanbul, and the reappearance in the final two years later, was remarkable, but what followed was both severely anti-climactic and perhaps indicative of what happens when a manager or a coach begins to believe too much in his own vision and powers.

Benitez's vision became increasingly flawed with a series of risible signings, relieved only by the fact that in Pepe Reina and Torres he did make moves of undoubted quality at either end of a building policy which, as the latest evidence underlines, had plainly failed.

The power, in the end, resembled nothing so much as that of a despotic schoolmaster.

Hodgson, without the kind of buttress provided for Benitez by his early success, cannot expect anything like the tolerance accorded to the Spaniard, who was reassured by banners declaring, 'In Rafa We Trust' even as the team was, demonstrably, falling apart.

Indeed, there are already rumblings of discontent on the Anfield terracing, which is hardly surprising after home defeats by Northampton and Blackpool. One thing can be assumed confidently: any declarative thumbs down by supporters -- or cries for the legendary name of Kenny Dalglish -- is unlikely to come any more quickly than a hard-headed assessment by the new Americans if they pull off the takeover.

In baseball, the pivotal role at a club belongs to the general manager, ideally a knowing figure who makes the player trades and puts the right field manager in charge. A little gravitas in the eyes of the supporters never does any harm and here may be a role awaiting Dalglish.

However, a closer study of English football will tell NESV that the three most successful clubs -- Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal -- share a common denominator. It is the presence of a major figure in charge of the team, someone who has unchallenged authority with his players and a strong empathy with the fans.

Alex Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti and Arsene Wenger will loom as giants in the appraisal of American bosses who have proved they know how to run a winning club. They will see that Liverpool's greatest need is such a leader, one that has been missing, critically, at Anfield since the spirit of Shankly and his men drifted off into the football ether.

NESV have also hinted that they are inclined more to enlarge Anfield, as they have done the famous Fenway Park back in Boston, rather than build a new stadium. First, though, they must renovate not the bricks and mortar, but that spirit of Shankly.

Irish Independent

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