Bill Shankly saw heroism in the relentless struggle

A new novel about the former Liverpool manager as the sweep and heft of an epic

Alex Ferguson always said he would work for as long as he had his health. Then, last Christmas, his wife's sister died. "She lost her best friend," Ferguson said. "She's isolated a lot now, and I think I owe her my time."

In David Peace's new novel about Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, the protagonist faces the same conflict between ambition's lure and human vulnerability.

Peace's last novel set in the world of football, The Damned Utd, was based on Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds United, and had the claustrophobic feel of a psychological thriller. Red or Dead takes as its canvas the 22 years from Bill Shankly's appointment as Liverpool manager in 1959, through his unexpected retirement in 1974, to his death seven years after that, and it has the sweep and heft of an epic.

It begins with three words – “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” – that foreshadow what the story is about and how it will be told.


Repetition was characteristic of the ancient epic, where the recurrence of familiar phrases and passages helped the teller of the tale to remember and organise the story as he recited it from memory. Readers of The Damned Utd will remember how Peace used repetition as a kind of incantatory technique. In Red or Dead he takes it to the next level.

Using techniques of the epic doesn’t necessarily turn your story into one, and there are times – “Bill picked up his pen. His red pen. Bill addressed the envelope. Bill put down his pen. Bill picked up the letter. Bill folded it. Bill put the folded letter into the envelope...” – when the story groans under the weight of its own formal devices. But the function of the form gradually becomes plain.

If at first the formulaic match reports – "In the third minute, Ian St John scored. In the fifty-fifth minute, Roger Hunt scored. In the sixty-fifth minute, Alan A'Court scored... " – make it feel like you are following a life through Championship Manager textflashes, in aggregate they begin to convey the relentless character of the struggle and of the man. Match after match, year after year, the repetitious rhythm establishes the intensity of the obsession, the immense accomplishment.

Rasping growl
In Peace's short repetitious sentences we hear the echo of Shankly's voice, the expressive, rhythmic, rasping growl that could assume a gangster's menace, a preacher's fervour, or a comedian's sly drollery.

Much of what the character says is reconstructed from things Shankly really did say in various books and interviews. In one interview, recorded in 1981, Shankly was asked why he retired, though the club had begged him to stay. “I left Liverpool because I was the manager of Liverpool. I was the manager when I left. And that was the satisfaction I got. Not that I was gloating about it. But I had won. So I left when I had conquered Everest. So I left because I was satisfied that I had proved a point. That I was the manager of a big club. If I wanted to buy a player, or give a player something, there was no arguments about it. All the arguments were won.”

Shankly knew the argument could never really be won, because it never ends. It's not about the summit, it's about the climb. Albert Camus wrote of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a rock uphill only to see it roll back to the bottom: "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy."

What happens, then, when you take away the struggle?

Life in retirement
That question is explored in the second part, after Shankly has quit. The narrative continues with the same relentless rhythm, but now the epic style agonisingly counterpoints the crushing deceleration of life in retirement. Four pages once teemed with matches, goals, thousands of folk singing "Liverpool, Li-ver-pool!" Now Shankly takes four pages to wash his car.

We saw him and his staff weeding the Melwood pitch in the early empire-building days, now we see him weeding his little lawn alone. His struggle now is to come to terms with his redundancy.

As a manager Shankly persuaded good players they were great players. He had a visionary gift for finding the extraordinary in ordinary things. Late in the story, an Italian TV crew interviews Shankly outside Anfield. They are surrounded by dereliction. “The newspapers and the crisp packets blowing across the pavements. Across the broken glass, across the dog shit. And the man from Rome said, ‘This city is like a cemetery. .’.”

Shankly: "I do not deny the things you have seen. I do not deny the things you have heard. No, no. But men hear what they want to hear, men see what they want to see. But there are some things some men cannot see, some things some men will never see. Some things some men do not want to see. Hidden things to some men, invisible things to some men. So where you only see empty factories and people on their knees. I still see a beautiful city and a great people..."

Peace's Shankly falls short of his self-mythologising; he has weaknesses, contradictions. He nonetheless emerges as a heroic figure. Red or Dead is at once a powerful character study, a compendium of lore, and a bringing-back-to-life of an extraordinary time in folk history.

Red or Dead is published by Faber & Faber, out August 15th