Red or Dead, by David Peace
Reviewed by Keith Duggan
Red or Dead
Faber and Faber
Next year is the 40th anniversary of Bill Shankly’s retirement as manager of Liverpool Football Club. When he stepped down, after the 1974 season, Shankly had succeeded in his life’s work of taking a football club in a declining docklands city and reshaping it in his own broadly socialist vision. He had worked and preached and coached until the people’s club had become not just the best club in England but also the irreplaceable voice and spirit and wit of its city. His parting gift was a team ready to embark on a wave of unprecedented domestic and European success – and a series of dry, Scottish one-liners now engraved into the football lexicon.
Despite a comically solemn approach to fitness – he predated Jane Fonda as the ultimate health nut by a full decade – Shankly died in 1981 at the relatively young age of 68. So he was spared the disgrace of Heysel and the catastrophe of Hillsborough and the gradual transformation of English football into a global franchise and a stock-market toy.
David Peace’s comprehensive and painstakingly detailed journey through Shankly’s obsession with Liverpool Football Club marks a return to the territory he has uniquely claimed as his own: the mindset and feel of northern England in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is a natural companion to The Damned United (2006), his lauded and controversial fictional portrait of Brian Clough’s doomed 44-day period in charge of Leeds. While Clough is presented as a flamboyant football savant battling demons real and imagined, the Bill Shankly dreamed up by Peace is altogether more secure in his world view. But like Clough he was eccentric, like Clough he was lonely, and like Clough he was haunted by football.
Peace’s customary motifs of style are all present: the repetitions, the incantatory prose, the staccato sentences. So too is the uncanny, magical knack he has for summoning the atmosphere of that time in a way that more acclaimed and pointedly literary writers cannot match. He uses none of the usual devices, such as period or pop-cultural references, but still transports us back to the 1970s as the reader follows Shankly – referred to as “Bill” throughout the 15 years when he moved only between his kitchen, the bedroom he shared with Ness, the training ground, the great football stadiums of England and Europe and the occasional reluctant holiday in Blackpool.
As Peace presents it, Shankly’s life was as localised as anything presented in the dramas of Shelagh Delaney except that on Saturday afternoons he became a mortal god. If we read once about how Shankly liked to set the breakfast table the night before – “Bill opened the pantry door. Bill took out a jar of honey and a jar of marmalade. Bill walked back to the table” – then we read it a dozen times. The point is that Shankly’s glory was achieved through the perfection and repetition of small tasks such as cleaning the oven or passing a football.