Given that any excuse to write about Bill Shankly is a good excuse, did you know that it is 49 years since Liverpool played their first game under the man who would be instrumental in transforming the club from Second Division also-rans into champions of Europe? Not that Dec 19 1959 was a momentous moment in the club's history - Liverpool were walloped 4-0 by Cardiff City in front of a crowd of 27,291 at Anfield - and Shanks saw enough to convince him that he would have to embark on a major shopping spree.
The Liverpool board of directors did not share Shankly's spendthrift notions and although a transfer bid was made for the Leeds United centre-half Jack Charlton, the modest offer was swiftly rejected. Seeking new players in his own uncompromising image, Shanks then tried to sign Hearts' granite-hard Scottish international Dave Mackay, only for Tottenham to snatch the inspirational wing-half from under his nose. Less than a month after arriving at Anfield from Huddersfield Town, Shankly threatened to resign unless funds were made available.
Having successfully called Liverpool's bluff, Shankly set about assembling a team which he felt could not only win the Second Division championship but become a force in the land; centre-half Ron Yeats, whom he called his Red Colossus, arrived from Dundee United and was immediately appointed captain ("You're so big, when you lead out the team you'll frighten people..."), followed by Ian St John, Gordon Milne and Willie Stevenson, before Liverpool finally clinched promotion as Second Division champions in 1961-62.
More importantly Shankly's passion for Liverpool won him the unstinting affection of the Kop, who embraced the former Ayrshire miner as one of their own; bluff, gruff but with a devastating sense of humour. The admiration was mutual: "The word 'fantastic' has been used many times," said Shankly, "so I would have to invent another word to fully describe the Anfield spectators. It is more than fanaticism, it's a religion. To the many thousands who come here to worship, Anfield isn't a football ground, it's a sort of shrine. These people are not simply fans, they're more like members of one tremendous family . . ." On one occasion, Shankly erupted from the dug-out to berate a Merseyside bobby for kicking a fan's scarf along the track: "Don't ever do that- it's the lad's very life."
To a man, the Liverpool players also adored their gaffer, who never failed to describe every one as a 'Superman in Red'. "I don't believe everything Bill tells me about his players," laughed his close friend, Jock Stein. "If they're as good as he claims, they'd not only have won the European Cup, but the Ryder Cup, the Boat Race and even the Grand National." Tales of Shankly are legion, but my favourite concerns a European trip on which he was required to fill in a hotel registration form. Under 'Occupation' he wrote Football, and under 'Home Address' the single word Anfield. "But, sir, we need your full home address," protested the woman at reception. "Young lady," came the reply, "in Liverpool there is only one address which matters and that is where I live."
Shankly always insisted that his greatest signing was not Ian St John, Roger Hunt or even Kevin Keegan, but his loving and beloved wife, Nessie. Although never as demonstrative as her husband, Nessie, too, came blessed with a nice line in humour. Such as the time she was asked to confirm the rumour that Bill had taken her to a Tranmere Rovers game by way of a wedding anniversary present. "Not true," she said firmly. "It was to see Accrington Stanley..."