‘He made the people happy.’
So reads the inscription on the statue of the late, undoubtedly great Bill Shankly, which stands outside Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium.
I knew those words because, in a previous life, I had the honour of being part of the team that commissioned the statue.
But only now, the best part of 20 years later, do I appreciate their true significance.
I had thought that Shankly made the people happy as a result of taking Liverpool from mid-table obscurity in the Second Division (as was) to League Championship, FA Cup and UEFA Cup success. In the way that all successful managers make the fans of their club happy.
What I hadn’t realised until recently reading David Peace’s compelling novel Red or Dead is that fan happiness wasn’t a nice-to-have, or a by-product.
For Shankly, it was the clear and present goal behind everything that he did during his trophy-laden 15 years at Anfield.
Whether delivering a spine-tingling team talk, inviting hitch-hiking supporters to travel on the team bus or giving his own club tie to a fan when the club shop had sold out, Peace portrays Shankly as a man driven, empowered and energised by fulfilling a very clear goal.
The needs and desires of all other stakeholders – including the board of directors and star players – were secondary to his over-arching purpose of making the people of Liverpool happy.
Would Shankly’s purposeful management style be so successful today?
Of course not, would seem to be the obvious answer. Surely an early 4-0 defeat at home to Cardiff City would cause a phone-in frenzy and a social media meltdown. Multi-millionaire players, overseas owners and omnipotent agents would provide insurmountable barriers.
I like to think differently.
I like to think that his inspirational ability to articulate the common good, the greater good, would stand the test of time.
That he would build a team, unlike so many we see today, that would be more than an eclectic collection of very rich young men, who mistake badge-kissing for commitment.
That he would fulfill their very human need to be a part of something meaningful, and that the fans would again respond by becoming a fundamental part of the team.
And I would wish him, and Liverpool FC, well. Fixtures against Stoke City excepted, of course.