Aidan Smith: ‘Bob Paisley was a quiet genius at Liverpool’

Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen were more equal than others in Bob Paisleys  Liverpool team.  Photograph: PA
Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen were more equal than others in Bob Paisleys Liverpool team. Photograph: PA
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So what are you going to do tonight now that Line of Duty is finished? The BBC series has been hailed as the best crime thriller ever, with Adrian Dunbar receiving special commendation as TV’s finest copper. It’s good but is it that good? The rush to acclaim is quick and unanimous these days, at least until the next greatest thing comes along. Me, I’m far more interested in the part Bill Shankly played in the drama.

Immersing himself in the role of Ted Hastings, the policeman who watches the police, Dunbar thought a lot about the Liverpool legend. The actor viewed his character as a frankly terrifying triple-decked Scottish disciplinarian sandwich: Fulton Mackay, Alex Ferguson and Shanks. “Leaders of men,” explained Dunbar. “Highly moral, straight-talking and terribly loyal to their people.” It was yet more approbation for Shankly, and there was more for Kenny Dalglish last week, too, when it was announced he is to have one of the Anfield stands named after him, the first individual to be granted the honour. All of which leaves Bob Paisley, subject of the new book Quiet Genius (Bloomsbury).

Paisley, the Liverpool manager with the Scottish name who wasn’t Scottish, was never going to be the inspiration for an irascible, tough-talking, sardonic, fearless, Calvinist crusader. He’d be much more use in the creation of another instantly recognisable TV type: the genial bumbler baffled by the changing world who had just shuffled in from the allotment.

But quiet he was and genius he was, as Ian Herbert’s terrific biography confirms. Paisley’s team finished each season having lifted an average of 1.5 trophies. That’s more than Fergie, more than anyone, so he is the greatest British manager of all, with a win rate which will probably never be beaten. Yet his personal style was in such dramatic contrast to the occupants of the dugout today – all the self-mythologising controversialists, all the trendy guys trying to outdo their rivals with the tightness of their breeks, all the polished practitioners of the post-match sound-bite.

One of Paisley’s important signings, Mark Lawrenson, told me recently how it was the boss’s downhome demeanour and the absence of flash or fuss which persuaded him to sign for Liverpool in 1981. “Arsenal and Man U both wanted me,” Lawro said. “Man U offered more money and Terry Neill tried to sell Highbury from the point of view of the heating under the marble floors. But it was always going to be Liverpool and all the more so after Bob came to collect me from my hotel. I’d been suited up for three hours to meet a man who’d just masterminded another European Cup triumph but who was wearing slippers and an old pullover with a stain on it and a tear in the ‘V’. He looked like your grandad.”

Paisley, right, may not have been Scottish but the backbone of his team certainly was. And were there ever signings more important than the three secured by Paisley in quick succession in 1977-78 – Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen? Shankly used to say that every English team needed two Scots in it. Three, though, and you were inviting trouble. Paisley had no bother from his tartan trio after he allowed the Liverpool players to draw up their own rules and govern themselves. Everyone was equal, although some were more equal than others.

Herbert hilariously reveals that Dalglish had a friend well-placed with McVitie’s who ensured a steady supply of biscuits to the dressing room, but the triumvirate kept all the chocolate ones for themselves and the others had to make do with digestives. On away trips Hansen roomed with Alan Kennedy who was “virtually the valet in the relationship, often bringing Hansen his breakfast”. Meanwhile Souness, romancing the reigning Miss World, Mary Stavin, could summon reserve players to keep an eye on the beauty queen if he was going to be late for their assignations at Ugly’s nightclub.

While Anfield self-policed it seems that Souness assumed the Line of Duty role, conducting rigorous checks to ensure standards were maintained. Returning from FA Cup defeat, some players started a singsong. “Souness marched down the back of the bus with a face like thunder, ready to throw a punch at the offenders,” Herbert reports.

Souness may have been stepping out with a glamour girl but, to quote from Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From the Blackstuff in which he had a cameo, the midfield enforcer was “better looking by far”. He and Dalglish in their Pierre Cardin trousers used to tease new boy Ian Rush over his drainpipes and love of the 2 Tone bands, the Scots preferring ELO and the Commodores. Meanwhile there was Bob in his bobbly jumper preoccupied with his radishes – but Paisley and Champagne Charlie struck up a winning friendship.

Souness was the only player who the manager regularly met outside of the stadium and the training ground. The setting for these confabs was the garage run by the second-hand car salesman responsible for helping get Souness to Anfield. Souness already appreciated Paisley’s sense of humour, which he reckoned was “too sharp” for some of his team-mates. Presumably, though, the whole dressing room got his joke after the same Alan Kennedy’s chaotic Liverpool debut: “They shot the wrong Kennedy,” quipped the boss.

Liverpool’s self-determination was an amazing thing when you hear about players now who constantly need a cuddle, can’t be criticised, exist in an over-cosseted bubble, can’t be trusted to keep hold of their passports and probably need help lacing their boots. Souness didn’t need a cuddle when Joe Fagan, standing in for the indisposed Paisley, declined to pick Souness for a game at Tottenham when his fitness was in doubt – he needed a gin and tonic. He’d downed three and written his transfer request before Paisley appeared to remind his deputy who was in charge of these radishes – sorry, elite, fiercely-driven footballers. Two-nil down at half-time, Paisley sent on Souness who inspired the comeback to retrieve a point.

To paraphrase the Commodores: easy like Saturday afternoon. What a player, but what a manager too.