Martyn McLaughlin: How Bill Shankly’s style of socialism made him a football icon

A new documentary, Shankly: Nature’s Fire, confirms the late Liverpool manager’s enduring appeal, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

A new documentary, Shankly: Nature’s Fire, confirms the late Liverpool manager’s enduring appeal, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

For all the glittering prizes accrued by Bill Shankly during his career in football management, it is a memento from his formative years which best captures his essence.

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It has long been hidden from view, kept not in a museum or trophy room, but amongst a clutter of pots, topsoil, and bric a brac in the garden shed of Jeanette Carline, the late Liverpool manager’s only surviving daughter.

You might think the location inauspicious, but this particular artefact is at home in such modest surroundings. The item in question? A rickety miner’s lamp – the very one Shankly carried down the pits in the Douglas Valley at the tail end of the 1920s.

At the time, fresh out of school and yet to grasp the escape route offered by sport, Shankly earned 2s and 6d a day for his toil beneath the ground at Glenbuck, the East Ayrshire village where he was born and raised.

For those with an interest in the historic ties which bind together sport, heavy industry, and socialism, that dusty old lamp is like the Holy Grail.

I first learned of its existence when in Liverpool last year to interview Ms Carline for a radio documentary on her clan’s famous patriarch. She and her family were generous with their time, and pleased that more than four decades after he secured his third and final league championship with Liverpool, Shankly and his legacy continued to attract new acolytes.

By the end of the week, there will likely be a few thousand more, eager to learn about one of the most mesmeric figures in the history of 20th century Scotland.

A new feature-length BBC documentary, ‘Shankly: Nature’s Fire’, is a timely study of the peerless Ayrshireman. It arrives in a year when the English top flight – a league where managers from this nation were once so dominant that Sir Alex Ferguson coined the phrase, ‘Scotia Nostra’ – was without a single Scottish representative in the dugout until yesterday, when David Moyes took over the West Ham United job.

The film provides a long overdue retrospective of Shankly some 36 years since his death, time enough in which to blunt the detail of his life and times.

There is a generation of supporters who know him only for his epigrammatic talents. (“If you can’t make decisions in life, you’re a bloody menace,” he once remarked. “You’d be better becoming an MP.”)

The documentary – which is being shown this evening at Glasgow Film Theatre and on BBC Two Scotland this Sunday – acknowledges Shankly’s oratory bite, but also acts as a corrective to slipshod, slapdash portraitures which seldom delve beneath the quips and aphorisms.

Ultimately, it looks to pinpoint the alchemy that caused an entire city to fall under his spell.

There is no definitive answer, though the search for illumination is instructive. Out of a cast of erudite and informed contributors, including Hugh McIlvanney and Irvine Welsh, the former Scotland forward, Ian St John, comes closest to articulating Shankly’s mysterious pull. “You learned from him that it was about giving rather than taking,” he explains.

The lesson was designed for passing drills on the pitch, but it applied equally to how the club’s players and staff conducted themselves off it. Delivering success for Liverpool was not an ambition but a civic obligation. Nowhere is that more evident than in the speech he gave on Merseyside in 1971, one of the most beguiling in the history of sport.

“I’ve drummed it into our players time and again that they’re privileged to play for you,” he told the crowd to rapturous applause. “If they didn’t believe me, they believe me now.” It is not Shankly’s words that are remarkable, but the context in which he delivered him. Liverpool had just been defeated in the FA Cup final, yet through sheer force of character, their manager claimed his own victory.

It is such traits which set Shankly apart from those other titans who emerged from the Central Belt coalfields. Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein won more honours than their compatriot, yet Shankly proved that glory was not measured in achievements alone. To him, a trophy was a reward for graft and camaraderie.

That, I suspect, is why he kept hold of the miner’s lamp for all those years. Glenbuck was not just the starting point for his journey; it informed everything he stood for. This is a village where Keir Hardie once emboldened exploited miners to stand up against Charles Howatson, the rapacious local laird. Anyone offering the young union leader an audience was threatened with a cut in wages or, worse still, eviction; undeterred, they gathered at night, united and defiant.

The coal industry may have been in terminal decline by the time Shankly came of age a few decades later, but its doctrine was indestructible. He melded it with tactical acumen, transforming Liverpool from a ramshackle second division outfit into one of Europe’s most feared teams.

It is little wonder that fans of the club still regard Glenbuck as a place of pilgrimage, even though the village was abandoned long ago. Fittingly, the documentary follows some of the thousands of supporters who journey north from Liverpool every year to pay tribute.

Those captured on film making the trip include Emma Parry, Shankly’s granddaughter. It is her first time visiting Glenbuck and the experience is revelatory. “It’s like he’s more famous now than when he died all those years ago,” she says at one point. It is an acute observation. Long may Shanky’s legacy and ideals prosper.