At Home, at Anfield: Red or Dead

I first started seriously watching soccer with the 2010 World Cup, and when Premier League football started up later that summer, I began watching those games on the weekends. I kept an eye out for players that I’d seen competing in the Cup, but I didn’t form any particular club loyalties until early 2011, when Kenny Dalglish was appointed manager at Liverpool. I’m a sucker for sports history, you see, so even though I had no direct experience of Dalglish’s earlier career playing for and managing Liverpool from the late 1970s to the early ‘90s, the story of his return to Anfield (the team’s home stadium) resonated with me.

(As a rough analogy in American sports terms, imagine Phil Jackson wound up back with the Chicago Bulls—or with the New York Knicks, even.)

So I’d made a mental note about Red or Dead, David Peace’s novel about an even earlier period in Liverpool’s history, when I first heard about it earlier this year. Then I saw a finished copy at the Melville House display booth at BookExpo America, and with another World Cup coming, I moved it a bit higher up my reading list. I’m glad I did, though it’s easily the most challenging book about sports, fiction or nonfiction, that I’ve ever read.

Red or Dead is the story of Bill Shankly’s tenure as manager of Liverpool Football Club from 1959 to 1974, the stuff of legends on a par with Vince Lombardi’s time with Green Bay or Red Auerbach’s career with the Boston Celtics. Possibly even more legendary; I admit that I’m coming to the novel as an outsider, with an understanding of British sports culture that is more intellectual than intuitive, so at some level I have to estimate the emotional resonances.

That said, it’s clear how intently Peace feels those resonances, clear in every sentence he writes. Instead of telling Bill Shankly’s story in conventionally straightforward, almost journalistically observational prose, Peace adopts cadences and rhythms that generate an almost mythic aura, as he traces what feels like every single step of Shankly’s time at Liverpool. For example:

“On Saturday 3 March, 1962, Liverpool Football Club travelled to Fellows Park, Walsall. But Bert Slater did not travel to Fellows Park, Walsall. Bill Shankly had dropped Bert Slater. Bert Slater had played ninety-six consecutive games for Liverpool Football Club. But Bert Slater would never play another game for Liverpool Football Club. On Saturday 3 March, 1962, Jim Furnell travelled to Fellows Park, Walsall. It was Jim Furnell’s first match for Liverpool Football Club. Jim Furnell conceded one goal on his debut. And Liverpool Football Club drew one-all with Walsall Football Club.”

And that’s actually one of the more sparsely detailed accounts. There’s fifteen years’ worth of these match highlights (including the number of fans attending each game), peppered with locker room speeches, post-game conversations with opposing managers, and other behind the scenes anecdotes—not to mention a stirring invocation of the unofficial theme of Liverpool supporters, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fifteen years following Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club “away from home, away from Anfield” and “at home, at Anfield,” match after match. I recognize that for some readers, that’s going to be a tough sell.

It’s worth leaning into Peace’s language, though, for the portrait of Shankly that is built up through these details, and through his dialogue. Shankly’s love of Liverpool and the team’s supporters is evident from the beginning, and he makes a point of emphasizing that everything he did to improve Liverpool Football Club’s performance—from taking them from the second division of England’s multi-tiered football league to the top, to winning division championships to league cups to international cups—was about giving the people of Liverpool a football team worthy of the love they had to give. After one poor performance, he berates his players:

“So get out, get out now! While there are still some folk about. Folk who supported you, the folk who paid your wages today. Get out there now, walk among them now. And let them tell you what they think of you, what they think of Liverpool Football Club losing four-nil at home, at Anfield, to Everton. Because I tell you, what I’ve said will be nothing compared to what they say. Nothing. So get up, get out! Get up and get out there now. And walk among these people. And listen to these people. Listen to their words and remember their words. And remember those people.”

In the later section of the book, in the years following Shankly’s retirement from managing, Peace’s portrait tilts heavily toward hagiography. Bill’s always ready to play a pickup game of soccer with the local boys, or chat with fans, even give a man in a cafe his umbrella so he won’t have to get wet walking back to work. (“Your need is greater than mine,” he says when the man protests. “I mean, I can stay here till it stops. Or I can dry off when I get home.”) Frankly*, the effort to connect this goodness of heart to Shankly’s socialism, honed by the years growing up in a Scottish mining town, might be a bit too blatant in one or two spots. In the long run, though, Peace’s voice is as often poetic as it is relentlessly obsessive, and it can do much to help American readers understand why what Bill Shankly did fifty years ago weighs on British cultural memory in something like the way the home run derby between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris weighs on ours.

*The phrase “frankly, Mr. Shankly” does crop up exactly once, but not in any way that could remotely be construed as a Smiths reference. Nor did I find anything to indicate that Morrissey was thinking of anything other than a rhyme for “frankly” when he chose the name “Shankly.”

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

19 June 2014 | read this |