Bricklayer Who Built the Bastion – Bob Paisley’s Liverpool Legacy Through Anecdotes

A legacy can only be built brick by brick and no one knew it better than Liverpool’s Bob Paisley. Here’s his through anecdotes.

Bob Paisley

“You’re having one on me, aren’t you?”

The city of Liverpool did not care much when Bill Shankly took over the management of the club in 1959, but fifteen years and several trophies later, when the man stepped down from his job out of the blue, they cared aplenty. Shock spread across the city, and a spirit-sapping sadness followed as the man who had made an entire city fall in love with football called it a day.

The fans were not the only ones winded. The news that the messiah of Liverpool Football Club was leaving Anfield for good was a surprise even to those who were closest to him – Bob Paisley felt as if his world was collapsing. The board asking him to replace the man who was by then considered a literal demigod by the fanatic Liverpool crowd did nothing to help his heartburn.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – MAY 9:  Liverpool manager Bill Shankly stands defiant in defeat at St George’s Plateau as he greets the massive crowd of supporters following defeat in the FA Cup Final between Liverpool and Arsenal on May 9, 1971 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It is ironic, but fitting that a piece on arguably the greatest European manager of all time begins with a discussion about his predecessor. This was the harsh truth. Try to imagine walking in the shoes of a man you walked behind for fifteen years, a man as electrifying as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Che Guevara put together. While Shankly was one of the greatest orators of his age and had a connection with the fans that few people in any sport have managed to achieve, Paisley was a much less magnetic figure. Standing at 5’7, Paisley seemed like an ever-jovial Santa Claus to Shankly’s bastion-like facade. Shankly’s second in charge was in fact, not even his first choice to replace him. Not that Paisley wanted the job – for Shankly, life began and ended at football; for Paisley, horse-racing and an evening with his wife was equally important.

“Is Dad going to be manager now?” Christine Paisley asked her mother when she heard about Shankly stepping down.

“Don’t be daft”, her mom replied.

The closest Paisley had come to the limelight till then was when he went on to the pitch to treat his players. He had never thought of the possibility of leading Liverpool, as he was quite content with being the man behind the curtains. While Shankly craved for the spotlight, Paisley shied away from it. It was not that Paisley was a soft man (he had once driven a tank into Rome you know, something he often reminded his players of later on), it was just that he did not want the biggest responsibility in Merseyside.  Ultimately (and reluctantly) however, he accepted.

It was thus, made official. “Wee Uncle Bob”, the World War veteran who had once thought of leaving football for a career of brick-laying, was to succeed the most iconic man in the club’s history.

As David Moyes will likely tell you, fans are impatient, especially when they’re used to success. Liverpool had won the league a season before Shankly retired, and his last game in charge saw him lift the FA Cup. Not that people were against the idea of Paisley – it was just that they had never seen the man do anything outwardly. History now tells us of Paisley’s importance in the sacred Boot Room meetings (the famous room at Anfield where the likes of Shankly, Paisley, Joe Fagan, Tom Saunders, Ronnie Moran etc discussed opponents, players and the club in general), but the fans at the time were not to know that. Shankly’s aura hid the importance of the men behind him, but it was to become abundantly clear in the time to come as to how good Bob Paisley actually was.

I don’t want to be in charge

The first team, who were used to the motivating speeches of his predecessor, saw Paisley in his tracksuit one fine July morning in 1974, where he declared that he would be their new leader. It was more of a formality that Paisley would have avoided if he could – Steve Heighway recalls the man saying that he did not want to be here at least eight times. That meeting lasted three minutes, which was two minutes longer than Paisley would possibly have hoped for.

There were notable differences seen by the players straight away. While Shankly had no time nor patience for the smaller details, Paisley paid attention to everything. He noticed the little things that his predecessor did not. Bill Shankly made you want to play with all you had – Bob Paisley showed you how to.

One of the prime examples of Paisley having an incredible eye for detail was his involvement in the development of Reds legend Ray Clemence. He could see that the then young keeper had a problem with dead ball situations, so much so that once the opponents deliberately kicked the ball out for a goal kick in order to regain possession. Paisley identified Clemence’s fear of playing against the wind, and had the flags removed from the top of Anfield to make him forget about it. He also worked with the player in the gym to make him faster. When Clemence left Liverpool, he left with five league, and three European cups to his name.

‘Shanks’s hatchet man,’ is how Kevin Keegan, another Anfield legend, described him. ‘Shanks would load the gun and Bob would fire the bullets.’ Although Paisley was a man of few words, he was widely respected by the players for his remarkable eye for detail. Heighway even said that some players were scared of him; when someone like Bob was angry with you, you knew you were in the doghouse

Paisley knew he had to walk past Shankly’s shadow if his reign was to surmount to anything at Anfield. It didn’t help matters that Shankly often attended Melwood when the players were training, which really undermined Paisley’s authority. The latter waved it off though, (naturally). A verbal confrontation with his mentor would always have only one result and it was not something Paisley ever excelled in. However, he dealt with the situation behind the scenes by telling the board to politely inform Shankly that although he would always be welcome at Melwood, it would be better if he did not come there during the training sessions. His former boss took offence at this, but Paisley proved that he was not going to let someone walk over him – not even Bill Shankly. It was his yard now, and although he did not want the job initially, he marked his territory.

In his very first game in charge against Luton Town, there was an uncharacteristic lack of detail in Paisley’s tactics for the players. Defender Tommy Smith remembers Paisley told him to “not go wandering around like a miner without a lamp” but to keep an eye for his man. Paisley neglected to tell him who the man exactly was. Whether it was to highlight the need for details or it was out of sheer nervousness is up for debate. Also in his first week in charge, the new manager sold Larry Lloyd, and the club earned £240,000 for his sale – three times what they had bought him for. This policy of selling players for a lot was one that became routine under Paisley. Selling Lloyd was a massive statement in itself, as he was an established player under Shankly. This showed that Paisley’s initial reluctance for the job might have been slightly exaggerated, as it took him little time to establish authority with his players.

The changes in style were quite evident too. While Shankly was always a fan of the massive stopper centre back, Paisley wanted a new kind of defender – one who could pass the ball comfortably. Liverpool started slowly building from the back patiently while keeping possession for most of the game. This became the normal playing style under Paisley.  Interestingly, Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen met Paisley’s Liverpool years later when the latter was already three times European champions. The Reds won the meeting with the soon-to-be legendary manager, 5-0.

“After that Anfield episode I knew I didn’t have to say another bloody word to my players about keeping the ball, particularly in European games,’ Ferguson later reflected. ‘That was a part of my education and it’s always been part of my strategy. Hold onto the ball. Keep passing it. Let the other teams do the chasing.”

Rise of a genius

While Paisley was growing into his own man, he did not forget the lessons that had made his mentor great. At Liverpool, it was all about team spirit – passing, running, supporting. Liverpool was known as hard men who played a good game, and although the tactics changed, the innate philosophy did not. The results were not bad at all for a man in his first season in charge, but a third defeat of the season saw papers lambast Paisley, and the inevitable comparisons to Shankly were rife again. The Boot Room came to his rescue, with Tom Saunders taking over the press-duty which Paisley so dreaded. The man would rather face a room full of angry players than one full of eager reporters.

The Bootroom.

Meanwhile, the players were still settling into the new side of Paisley, a man who at times they felt was incapable of forming a sentence, while on other times he dispensed wisdom like Aristotle –

“Always remember, the football press is like a swimming pool: all the noise is in the shallow end.”

Although the manager did not show it, he understood the psychology of the dressing room very well, and soon enough, the players started to understand how their boss worked, as even a few words meant a lot going into a big game.

One day he asked reserve-team player Jeff Ainsworth why he was was not out training, and the reply came that he had pain in his back. ‘Do you drink vodka?’ Paisley asked Ainsworth, to the player’s astonishment. He nodded. ‘That’s why, then. That’s in your kidneys, lad.’ The diagnosis proved correct. He once accurately predicted for how long Thompson would be out with just a glance at his knee. The physiotherapist in him never faded.

A man of many virtues.

In latter years, with Ian Rush finding his feet at the club and the Merseyside Derby approaching, Paisley slyly mentioned-in-passing that no player had scored a hat-trick in this fixture for over 50 years. Rush scored four in that game.

Another instance of Paisley’s way towards running the club was an incident that took place with star player John Toshack, who Paisley informed would be dropped for the final games of the season if he left for international duty. Toshack chose to leave regardless, and Paisley dropped him in the next game. Yet, with all on the line in the final match against Middlesbrough, the manager selected the player and he went on to score twice as Liverpool finished his first season in charge at second place.

“I do wonder if Shanks, with his pride, would have found a place for me,’ Toshack said later on. “But that was Bob. He could take the emotion out.” While Shankly’s pride was his strength, humility also went a long way as Paisley chose a team victory over a moral victory. In hindsight, his entire tenure would have been different had he not picked Toshack for that game, as the finish ensured Liverpool a place in Europe next season, where Paisley won his first European trophy.

With his first season behind him, Paisley was still not in the clear with everyone. Each player wanted a place in his starting line-up, but not everyone could possibly get it. Paisley (who had been himself left out of the Liverpool FA Cup winning team in 1950), sympathised with them, but his stance was firm. It was impressive to see that in one season, Paisley had gone from not being the best of talkers to being a man who the entire dressing room looked up to.

Shanks used to dominate these [team meetings] but Bob encouraged the players to participate fully,’ Keegan said years later. ‘Even the lads who had kept quiet began to add to the discussion. Bob was willing to let the lads stamp a little of themselves on the club’s ideas. Bob was big enough to accept the fact that maybe a player could give a reason why a certain thing should be done in a certain way.

Best in the world – but doesn’t act like it

In his second season in charge that would start to shape his legacy, Paisley converted new signing Ray Kennedy to a midfielder on the advice of his old P.E. teacher – a man who no self-involved manager would have time for. It worked wonders as Kennedy became an integral part of the first team due to his awareness and vision in the middle of the park.  Alongside that, he incorporated Jimmy Case into the team, while taking a liking towards David Fairclough, both of whom would become indispensable in the years to come. While Case dominated the midfield, Fairclough proved immense in handling Paisley his first league title as his goal against Everton in that season is still the stuff of Anfield legend.

It was in this season too that Paisley’s ideas and tactics started to be realised. Liverpool was going to play 60 odd games in his first season in Europe, and the manager thought that to be too much. It was here that Paisley introduced the idea of a conservative approach in away games, a method that has now become a norm for European competitions. The idea was to keep the ball and not tire yourselves out, building up play slowly (something that might not have been possible had Paisley kept Larry Lloyd as his starting centre back). The results would come, he said. Liverpool packed the defence and squeezed the serenity out of the opposition, who could not break them down. After much criticism had been laid on him for the same, Paisley finally fired his fusillade –

“It may not be good for football and perhaps it’s not entertaining, but to win the championship you have to find the happy medium between adventure and the need to get results. We are committed to playing in a certain way at Anfield because of what our fans expect. If we have to play like this away from home and inch our way to the title, that’s how it will have to be.”

This proved that although he was still not as comfortable with the press as Shanks, he was not afraid to speak out when need be.

Liverpool won the league on the final day of the season, and as the players celebrated, Paisley drew a small figure in the pitch, looking more like a thoughtful grandpa out on a stroll in the park than a man who had just conquered England in his second full season in charge. The manager had evolved, but the man had not changed. Paisley’s European escapade also saw him lift the UEFA Cup that season, and he would soon be moving on to bigger trophies.

“I doubt that a team of players have ever worked more closely with their manager than Liverpool did with Bob,” Kevin Keegan said. “We willed him to win the league. We wanted to win it for him.”

Liverpool’s evolution under Paisley was humbling to witness.

Liverpool manager Bob Paisley lifts the League Championship trophy to the fans

However, there was the trouble of ambition brewing in the camp. Keegan decided that he wanted to leave England to achieve international stardom in Europe, but the manager convinced him to stay for one more season. Paisley knew that he would eventually have to replace his battering ram, but he also realised that with his team set to go toe-to-toe with the elites of Europe, Keegan’s presence would make the difference more often than not – the striker would go on to be one of the Reds’ most important players the following season, putting in a man of the match performance in the European Cup final.

Paisley’s tactical nuances kept getting better, as is evident in this instance with Joey Jones, when the manager told him to advance for corners when generally, the player was always told to stay back. It turns out that the manager of Aston Villa was in the stadium, and Liverpool would be facing them three days later. This tactic was a decoy to throw them off the scent, as Jones did not venture anywhere near the six-yard box in the next game. A classic double bluff from a non-betting man.

With major contributions from the players Paisley had either signed or nurtured, Liverpool were able to retain the league title in his third season – five sides had scored more, none had conceded less. Not the most dazzling display, but the team had developed a habit of winning, and they showed it.

A chance for a then unprecedented treble was spoiled, however, in what Paisley described as his worst ever tactical decision – he opted to field an attacking team against rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and his team lost 2-1. Unfortunately for Paisley, that was the closest he would come to winning the FA Cup in his managerial career.

The European campaign that season was revolutionary. Knocking out a Barcelona that had Johan Cruyff, Paisley had announced his arrival on the grand stage. Although Liverpool played Keegan in a midfield role in away games, Paisley’s analysis of Barca revealed that they posed a bigger threat than any previous opponent and an early shock was needed. Keegan started as a striker and the team were told to deal with this game as if it were a First Division tie, and it worked. It was his tactics of choking the midfield that had lead to an English team conquering Camp Nou for the first time in history. Rare signs of emotions  shown on his face, as the world recognised that they had seen something truly remarkable.

“You’ve always got to hope in football, but let’s face it. Liverpool must get through now. I don’t want to talk about Liverpool individuals but they have great individuals to make up the great team they are.”

– Cruyff, about the tie

For the final against Gladbach, Paisley learned from his mistakes in the FA Cup final and chose a more conservative approach by playing a workhorse-winger in the veteran Ian Callaghan. Callaghan’s movement saw Heighway exploit space in the middle, and he laced a beautiful pass to Paisley’s own midfield-dynamo, the moustachioed Terry McDermott, who finished the chance off to give Liverpool the lead. The Reds later scored from a set piece as hard-as-nails Tommy Smith headed in a Heighway ball and Keegan earned a penalty in the last few minutes, which Phil Neal converted to give Liverpool an unassailable lead.

When the whistle sounded, it was done. Bob Paisley had done something that even Bill Shankly could not. An unprecedented European and league title double had been achieved, and Paisley hugging Callaghan post-match would become the defining picture of the night. The manager still looked out of place as his players celebrated the night of their lives, but there was no doubt that the man who stood behind Shankly three years ago had truly stepped forward.

Later on, Paisley was seen in a banqueting hall while his players celebrated, not even taking a sip of alcohol. ‘I didn’t want anything to affect the moment. I wanted to take it all in,’ he said later. He probably deserved it.

When Liverpool returned for the victory parade, it was Shankly’s name being sung by the masses, and not Paisley’s. The latter did not mind. He said a few words and gave the mic to his mentor, and went home the happiest man in the world.

The rest is history

In his remaining six seasons with the club, Bob Paisley won four more league titles, three back to back League Cups, and two more European Cups, which made him the first manager to win three European Cups, and to date, the only man to do it with one club.

While Paisley had fallouts with the old players, the collective good of Liverpool was always on his mind. He changed the transfer policy by getting good money for players who were at their prime but surplus to requirements, and he made place for the youngsters who would lead the team even after he stepped down.

The fall of Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough, the man who had lead them to glory in the first place, came due to over ambition and an obsession with young players –  Paisley took note, as to him the goal was always clear and there was a steady mixture of experience and youth. It would have been easy for Paisley to adopt a similar policy to Clough, but it would have seen the club wounded once Keegan had left. He deftly replaced Liverpool’s best-ever player with an even better player, as Kenny Dalglish arrived from north of the border.

Paisley’s eye for good talent also saw him sign Phil Neal, a man who still holds the record for being the British player to win the most European Cups (four, more than any other English club). He signed Joey Jones even though he thought he lacked in footballing ability, but he was a real comedian and sometimes it is good to have that in the side.

“Our most difficult job is to decide when to introduce new players. Any clown can bring in youngsters, but if you do it at the wrong time you can crucify them. When we were struggling early on, people were shouting for us to get rid of this player and bring in that one. But you can’t do it like that. You don’t throw out a man who has served you loyally. There has to be some sentiment.”

In his twilight, Paisley signed Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Bruce Grobbelaar amongst a few, made Liverpool record breaking profits, developed a selling system that kept the club on top till the revamp of the First Division and left Liverpool better than what it was when he had accepted an impossible job. Paisley assured that Liverpool’s future was set even after his departure, and sure enough, the club won another European Cup and a few more First Division titles a decade after he had stepped down.


It was Paisley who saw Dalglish’s potential and helped develop him into the best player in his position, and it was Paisley who told Ian Rush straight to his disproportionate nose that he needed to be more selfish and take shots quicker if he was to have a career at this club. Dalglish is still regarded as the best player Liverpool ever had, whereas Rush holds the record for being the club’s all-time highest goalscorer. Graeme Souness became the best midfielder the club had till Steven Gerrard announced his arrival; while Hansen is still considered the best defender in Liverpool history. All of this under one man, the man with the knowing smile.  

‘If you’re going to get kicked get kicked in the box. It’s worth it to get in there.’ Words of wisdom from the manager to Dalglish, who said that Paisley’s ability to read the tactical side of the game was second to none. Dalglish himself became a player-manager later on and won three league titles, and establishing his own dynasty.

‘If you see somebody in slippers and a cardigan with a jovial face like Paisley, you think, “Oh, he must be a lovely fella,” don’t you?’ said David Johnson, who had played with Paisley for over five seasons. ‘None of it. I just didn’t find him that kind of manager. But who am I to criticise Bob Paisley? What a genius. So he didn’t give you a cuddle. But if he did, we might not have won what we won. So fair play to Bob Paisley. He did it his way and he was successful.’

Everything Paisley seemed to do had a meaning, even when it appeared to not. Players often complained about the lack of clarity in his instructions. Then there were instances like in the European quarter final against St. Etienne, where a 20-year-old Fairclough was sent on with 14 minutes left to play and no clear instructions from his manager but “to get a piece of something.” Fairclough scored, and Liverpool advanced, and the magical ‘European nights at Anfield‘ were born.

Credit where it’s due

Paisley was a man of many abilities and even after his death in 1996, his genius was yet to be recognised by everyone. Although the club did construct the Paisley Gates as an entrance to Anfield, his predecessor has a 7-foot statue of his likeness erected outside the famous stadium. Not that Paisley would mind of course, if anything, he would probably say Shankly deserved it more – even if on the inside, he thought otherwise. It is telling that Dalglish is now getting a stand named after him, but the humble Paisley name sees no addition to the legacy in a physical form.

Even if one does not know about Paisley, a brisk look at his statistics will tell you a story: An average of 2.2 honours a season for nine seasons is eclipsed by only Pep Guardiola, who might yet fall down the ladder. It is then, criminal, that his name is not mentioned in the same breath as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arrigo Sacchi or Bill Shankly himself. Perhaps it is the conservative way Liverpool approached in Europe, or the fact that the man himself cared less about the limelight and more about the trophy case, which he filled ever so well.

It must not have been easy taking over from Shankly, but Paisley did it in a way that will probably never be matched. He was an old school veteran who had driven a tank in Italy during World War II, and yet he adapted to the changing times. Shankly failed to replace an ageing squad which led to a title drought, whereas Paisley went only his inaugural season trophyless as he adjusted to a job he did not want, but later he came to love. Although stubbornness and pride are necessary qualities at times, Paisley knew when he needed to take charge and when he needed to let others talk. It was his trait of putting the club above himself that was perhaps the most important of all.

Paisley joined Liverpool as a player in 1939 and had a role at the club till 1992. With over 50 years of service, perhaps no single person has served Liverpool better – it might not be a stretch to say that perhaps no single person has ever served a footballing team better. Paisley won the First Division title in 1947 as a player, saw the decline of the club, the rise under Shankly, and then he made the club the best in the world for a while.

In his last game as a manager, Paisley’s team beat arch rivals Manchester United in the League Cup final as he won his twentieth honour. Souness urged his manager to go collect the cup, knowing how he had never done it (or wanted to do it) before. Paisley obliged, and the man who 33 years earlier had seen his teammates climb the much-trodden Wembley staircase to lift a trophy after a final that he was excluded from, lifted high his last honour as there was no doubt anymore that Liverpool Football Club was the most dominant force in English football, if not the world. For a man who loved Wordsworth, his finishing lines was poetic.

Bill Shankly may have laid the foundations, but it was Bob Paisley who built the house. A man of the like the world may never see again. British football’s original reluctant genius, the bricklayer.

This article has been inspired by Ian Herbert‘s Quiet Genius – Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager.
Taha Memon

20 year old who likes everything black and white - especially football. Liverpool fan, aspiring journalist, comic enthusiast, and a TV show buff.