Red or Dead by David Peace: From football to the battle against age, the war against death

Bill Shankly transformed Liverpool football club from second-flight also rans into giants. His resignation, after 15 years in charge, remains a riddle.

Red or Dead
David Peace
Faber & Faber, 736pp, £20
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. They’re the first three words of Red or Deadand repetition is soon established as both a theme and a style. The first scene depicts an unnamed man entering an office and confessing to “a voice from the shadows” that “the strain had proved too much”. In context, it seems clear that the man is Phil Taylor, the manager whose resignation in 1959 led to the appointment of Bill Shankly as manager of Liverpool and the transformation of the football club over the next 15 years from second-flight also-rans into giants. Yet the archetypal nature of the description suggests that this is something universal, that as one man feels the strain another rises to take his place, that the cycle turns as inevitably as one season follows another.
In David Peace’s other book about a football manager, The Damned Utd, the endless circling evoked Brian Clough’s paranoia as his drink-sozzled brain tried to process that, after moving to Leeds United, he was trying to work with players he’d spent the previous decade condemning and that they, not surprisingly, didn’t take kindly to his arrival. Shankly has little of Clough’s darkness and so, in this book, the repetitions – though they do represent the coach’s natural speech patterns – are simply a fact of life, and perhaps particularly a life in football.
Liverpool Football Club had drawn one-all with Scunthorpe United. Away from home, away from Anfield. On Saturday 27 January 1962, Liverpool Football Club went to Boundary Park, Oldham. And Liverpool Football Club beat Oldham Athletic twoone on the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. One week after that Brighton and Hove Albion came to Anfield, Liverpool. And Liverpool Football Club beat Brighton and Hove Albion three-one. One week later, Liverpool beat Bury Football Club three-nil.
And so on, for each of his 15 years at Liverpool. It’s true that the eye does usually skip over such passages, but then this is the unacknowledged fact of football: it’s one game after another, without respite. “Whilst you love football,” Shankly wrote in his autobiography, “it is a hard, relentless task that goes on and on like a river.”
At the press conference where he announced his shock resignation in 1974, Shankly described how “being a manager is often like steering a ship through a minefield”. There is, however, one crucial difference, which is that a minefield has an end, a boundary. Football just goes on. The Spaniard Juanma Lillo has said that each trophy, each success, is “a victory over the repetition”, but it is only a temporary victory. “A realised dream,” the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi noted, “ceases to be a dream.” Win one cup and soon there is another that needs winning. The relentlessness has consequences, most horrifyingly the suicide of Liverpool’s stressed club secretary between the two legs of the European Cup semi-final in 1965.
What Red or Dead suggests is that the repetition that is overt in football – one more game, one more season – underpins life outside football, too. It’s not just the churn of matches, the cycle of training, that is described with numbing circularity. Every night Shankly sets the table for breakfast: “Bill went to the drawer. Bill opened the drawer. Bill took out the tablecloth. Bill closed the drawer. Bill walked over to the table. Bill spread the cloth over the table . . .” laying out the knives, the forks, the spoons, the bowls, the glasses, the salt and the pepper pots, the jar of honey and the jar of marmalade, the butter dish and the orange juice. But it is through a change in the routine that we realise his daughters have left home, and in laying the table for one when his wife, Ness, has to go into hospital that his terror of being alone betrays itself to us.
The meticulousness is part of Shankly. Although Peace does at times hint at the man’s messianic qualities, his success was routed through incremental improvement and, yes, repetition. He didn’t dream bigger than any other manager of the age, he dreamed harder. He didn’t arrive at Liverpool and apply some magical formula: he just worked with greater energy and in more detail, his belief in the value of industry hammered into him during his childhood years in the Ayrshire coalfield. Meeting Harold Wilson, who as MP for Huyton stood tall with Shankly and the Beatles in the great Liverpool resurgence of the 1960s, he railed against unemployment and yet that was precisely what his decision to retire consigned him to, at the age of 60.
In 1959 he had walked up and down the training centre at Melwood with his coaching staff, picking up stones and weeding, making the pitches fit for the team he intended to build. By 1974, he was performing the same action alone in his small garden in West Derby. Once a paragraph of his life conveyed a dozen matches, each watched by tens of thousands of singing fans; after retirement it conveyed him washing his car.
Everything comes back to that decision to retire. The book is split into two parts: “Shankly Among the Scousers”, which begins with his arrival at Anfield, and “Every Day is Sunday”, which begins with his departure. In the first, Shankly, if not always happy, at least has a purpose; in the second, he is disillusioned and resentful of the club he made great. He does not want to intrude and yet he wishes he were part of it, insisting that there has to be a clean break but feeling slighted when his immediate successor, his former assistant Bob Paisley, asks him to stay away from the training ground. Given how inaccessible modern footballers are to fans, there is something endearing about his willingness to talk to everybody, to invite anybody in for a chat, even to play football in the street with kids who knock on his door, but there is also a loneliness there.
So why did he retire? That is the question that lies at the heart of the book and the riddle that lies at the heart of Shankly’s life. That he felt tired is not in doubt, nor is the fact that, by beating Newcastle 3-0 in the 1974 FA Cup final with a stunning display of possession football, they had reached some kind of apotheosis. But the implication of the book is that Ness’s illness, though she recovered, left him aware of mortality and made him want to enjoy life and spend time with his wife.
But, in retiring, he lost a lot of his reason for being. “Older and older, weaker and weaker,” the fictional Shankly reflects after defeat in the FA Cup final in 1971. “Bill knew that was the battle,” Peace writes. “That was the war. The battle against age, the war against death . . . The battle you could not win, the war you could never win. But the battle you must try to fight . . . Bill knew you had to try to beat death. You had to try, you had to try.”
Like Taylor before him, like countless players he had to move on, Shankly reached a point where he had to listen to the voice in the shadows. He came to regret it, but he did so on his terms, with the club on a high.
Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the Blizzard, the football quarterly 
Living the dream: Shankly, whose decision to retire from Liverpool after 15 years remains a riddle. Photograph: Liverpool FC via Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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