|Clough and Shankly|
In an early scene in David Peace’s new novel, Red or Dead, the Liverpool Football Club players are anxiously waiting to meet their new manager, Bill Shankly. It is December 1959 and the club has been scuffing along in the Second Division for five years. Morale is at rock bottom, the Anfield ground is literally falling apart, and Liverpool hasn’t won anything for a generation. Shankly is a working class lowland Scot who has gained a reputation as a hard taskmaster. Stories begin to circulate around the dressing room about Shankly’s psychological acumen, his tactical genius and his knowledge of football lore:
“Yeah I heard a story too. When he was manager at Carlisle. They were two down at half time. And they come in the dressing room. And the first thing Shankly does is grab the captain by the throat and he says, Why did you kick off the way you did? And the captain says, Because I lost the toss, Boss. So Shankly says, Well what did you call? And the captain says, Tails. And then Shankly calls him every name under the sun. Every bloody name there is. In front of the whole changing room. And then Shankly says, You never call tails. Everyone knows that. You never call tails!”
This was Bill Shankly in a nutshell: obsessed by details, mercurial and ever so slightly crazy. From day one as Liverpool manager Shankly instituted a new fitness regime, he watched what the players ate and drank, banned smoking and concentrated on the simple skills: passing, dribbling, passing again, faster and faster every time. Most of this was unheard of in English football in 1959 and Shankly’s team began to prove their worth. They won the Second Division title, got promoted, won the First Division title and then the FA Cup. They took home silverware in Europe and they won more league championships and FA Cups. The team Bill Shankly built became the greatest football club in the world in the 1970’s – although its period of supreme dominance came after Shankly’s shock retirement in 1974.
Red or Dead is a thematic sequel to Peace’s previous best selling novel The Damned United which was about Brian Clough’s brief, disastrous tenure as manager of Leeds United. Clough and Shankly were among English football’s most important and influential managers of the post war era and in a few delicious passages in Red or Dead the two men interact and swap stories. In what must have been a libel lawyer’s nightmare Red or Dead also offers us scenes with the still living football legends: Kevin Keegan, Tommy Smith, John Toshack and Emlyn Hughes. There’s also one hilarious scene, which I hope is true, where Shankly and Bob Paisley fake a groin injury to striker Ian St-John.
Although there’s plenty of football in it, Red or Dead isn’t just a soccer novel – it’s also an acute psychological portrait of Shankly the man: an introverted extrovert, a loving husband, a mesmeric leader of men who longs for the anonymity of the terraces at the famous Anfield Kop.
Shankly came from an impoverished Scottish mining village and his steadfast socialism is unpacked in two conversations with Labour leader Sir Harold Wilson; in a dazzling moment Wilson shows Shankly his most prized possession: a photograph of Wilson’s beloved Huddersfield Town signed by Nikita Khrushchev.
David Peace’s prose style has been much commented on and criticised and it’s probably a good idea to read the beginning 20 pages of Red or Dead first, to see if you can hack it. Peace, who has lived in Japan for many years, has composed Red or Dead as a kind of repetitive Zen chant. Indeed, his method is so unwavering that there are passages in the book where the use of leitmotif and repetition reminded me of Jack Torrance’s manuscript in The Shining. But repetitive chanting is also the language of the football terraces and perhaps what Peace is doing here is giving us a flavour of what it is like to be a Red fan for ninety glorious minutes every Saturday.
With its technical innovation and remarkable prose it is extraordinary that Red or Dead didn’t make the Booker Prize longlist. Extraordinary though perhaps not surprising: Peace’s world is working class, northern, socialist and the love of football in Red or Dead is sincere, communitarian and quasi religious – a million miles removed from the sophisticated, ironic, metropolitan stance of, say, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.
It's possible that Red or Dead may annoy some casual readers but their patience will be rewarded if they can last until the end. Peace isn’t just telling a story in this novel he’s also trying to teach us a new way of telling stories; like Bill Shankly, Peace is an artist determined to drag his chosen profession into exciting terra nova.