Football is a passionate game, tales are passed from man to boy, generation to generation, whole communities and even countries are united for its purpose. It is huge, the participation is on an almost unimaginable magnitude but is the game larger than life and death itself? Surely it couldn’t be….
Ex-Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly (1913-1981) once said: “Someone said to me, ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen’, it’s more important than that’.” Years down the line Shankly’s precious club were to embark on six years away from European football after being banned for causing the deaths of 39 Juventus fans in Brussels.
One hour before kick-off at the 1985 European Cup final, Heysel, a mass of wild, ill guided Liverpool fans managed to enter an enclosure where the Juventus fans sat awaiting the game. Their intent was clear – to attack and antagonise. The reaction by the Italian fans was to retreat.
The irrepressible swarm of Red thugs carried forth and the pile up that ensued physically crushed those nearest the containing back wall – many died or were injured. Even when the wall finally gave way releasing a struggling mass of bodies, many were caught beneath the heavy stone.
Many called for the game to be cancelled but it went ahead amongst hysteria around the stadium. The incident is labelled European football’s darkest hour. Just four years later more lives were lost in the name of the beautiful game. Liverpool fans were again involved.
The Reds were due to play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday. With the game kicking off thousands of Liverpool fans waited to enter the ground, meanwhile the stewards and police were trying to release fans from the already overcrowded enclosure at the Lepping End. There were more fans than the stand could accommodate.
The suspense was too much for the entourage of fans waiting for the game and a forwards drive by some eager fans through a temporary exit opened by stewards and police, led to the bewilderment of others, as the masses spilt forwards uncontrollably. With nowhere to go the fans crushed in to the barriers and there was no way out.
96 people died. Liverpool fans once left feeling the humiliation of blame for the lives of Juventus fans were to be left mourning the loss of their own followers – again for what cause? Could it be that Shankly would be regretting his most famous words from beyond the grave?
The quote must have echoed like an atomic bomb amongst the faithful followers of Merseyside’s most beloved club – the timeless words drift over the hallowed turf of Anfield and throughout the Kop stand to this very day. “‘Listen’, it’s more important than that.”
The Scotsman, from Ayre had lived a hardened upbringing – football was escapism from mining. He had five brothers and his village, Glenbuck was famous for producing an abnormally high number of footballers. It was his discipline, pride and work ethic that spread infectiously throughout the dilapidated club, Liverpool FC then flummoxing in division two. It was to become the best team in the country and eventually ‘Kings of Europe’.
When Shankly retired aged 60, Liverpool were the top team in the country and had won the UEFA Cup. The hardworking manager, from humble beginnings had created an excellent ethos. He had known football all his life as both player and manager. Soon he was clutching at straws and watched on as Bob Paisley and the rest of the club continued to go from strength to strength, conquering Europe.
Shankly, had looked quickly for a way back but was banned from Liverpool’s training ground, Melwood, where he had been appearing to watch the team train. The board felt Paisley needed space to work – the players still referred to ‘Shanks’ as boss. It left a bitter taste in his mouth and he even though he then looked elsewhere, he struggled to find a place in the game he loved.
LFC.com reports, many felt it was a poor move and that the Scot deserved his place on the board of directors. “It was,” said Kevin Keegan, “the saddest, saddest thing that ever happened at Liverpool.” Shankly was a fit man; but he died, in the words of the former Leeds player Johnny Giles, of a broken heart.
On the evening after Shankly’s death in September 1981, Liverpool beat Palloseura 7-0 away in The European Champions Cup. Prior to the kick-off a banner was unfurled on the Kop which read, “Shankly Lives Forever”.
Whilst his words about football’s importance over life and death could never be taken literally by some and others see it as a sensationalist remark full of bravado spoke to impress even the die-hardest of fans, perhaps the banner explained exactly what he had meant.
Shankly had once rebuked a police officer at Anfield for flinging a scarf, “Don’t do that! This might be someone’s life!” he growled. He saw football and life as one and the same and the scarf to him represented much more than a piece of litter – football was life and not death. In a way Shankly was saying, “Take care of that – don’t just throw it away.”
The opinion that football is more important than life or death can be deemed insensitive and ignorant. In an online debate on uk.answers.yahoo.com, user, Anglo comments, “If Shankly had been managing Liverpool after the Hillsborough, Heysel disasters he would never have said it.”
Perhaps this is true but he said it without restriction, with no such sensitive issues to consider. Another user – the Drunken Fool comments, “All LFC fans take his words as an attitude to the game, rather than a literal interpretation.”
Liverpool fans would be both cautious to rubbish a famous quote by the builder of the foundations of success of the very club they adore or to insensitively fully agree bearing in mind the 130 lives lost in the disasters.
User, Mr Boombastic Mungbean sheds some more light, “Those of us that have normally functioning minds realise, it’s not a matter of life or death, and it’s so much more than that……. metaphorically speaking.”
There were no reports of Shankly opposing players who wished to go to funerals or their children’s christenings; if there had been they would be well known. His love was so dearly embedded in the game he could comfortably pose such a comment live on air without fear or reprise, he knew what he meant.
Football accommodates life and death. Over half the world’s population participates and although the game stops rightly for minute’s silences and honours are worn in black armbands to represent bereavements, the world keeps turning – the game rolls on much like life itself.
“Shankly lives forever” read the Liverpool banner on the Kop as his side beat Finnish opposition 7-0 at Anfield the evening after his death and the crowd sang emotionally his favourite hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. Gates were erected in his honour at Anfield in 1982, named the Shankly Gates, above them reads the club moto, ‘you will never walk alone’.
When the Scotsman arrived on Merseyside in 1959 he had a plan, it was to conquer the world, to make Liverpool Football Club invincible. He carried with him his own ideals,
“The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.”
In Christianity there is the expression, ‘to die is to gain’ – death can be difficult to come to terms with but when one can come to terms with the bigger picture and accept – believing in Jesus’s voice and the truth then we may see that there is eternal life. Admittedly however, running out as Shankley’s new number 9 in some far away field may not be everyone’s ideal of heaven.