It’s remarkable to think it’s nearly 32 years since the death of one of Scottish football’s greatest managers – Bill Shankly. I recently watched a documentary on television about the man from the Ayrshire mining village of Glenbuck who became a Liverpool legend and will forever be revered in the red half of Merseyside.
It was fascinating to hear how the man who transformed Liverpool from Second Division also-rans to English League champions in the mid-1960s used psychology to inspire his players. Former England international Kevin Keegan spoke about when he joined Liverpool from Scunthorpe United in 1971 and was up against West Ham United and their England World Cup winning stars such as Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. Shankly didn’t want the young Keegan to feel overawed and had a quiet word with his starlet as the teams prepared in the dressing room shortly before kick off. The wily Scot told Keegan that Moore was now past his best, and suspected the England captain had been out clubbing the night before as he was sure he was limping. Liverpool won 4-1 that afternoon with Keegan getting on the scoresheet. After the game, Shanks applauded Keegan for his performance, adding he had just played against the best defender in the country who was at the top of his game. Not quite how he had described the England star two hours earlier but his pre-match diatribe had the desired effect!
It brought to mind the story former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby was often fond of regaling. Decades ago there was no internet and no instant communication the way there is today. Busby, another great Scot, told how Shankly telephoned him after a midweek game between Liverpool and Sheffield United. Despite their rivalry, Shankly and Busby were good friends and Shanks, mindful of the fact United were due to play the Yorkshire team in a forthcoming fixture, thought it best he telephoned Busby with some advice.
‘You know, Matt, I was really impressed by Sheffield United tonight’ said Shankly. ‘They are very skilful, they have great strength, pace and spirit. In my view, they are one of the best teams in the country’. Somewhat perplexed by this, Busby assumed Liverpool had lost and his compatriot was getting his excuses in early. ‘So, Bill’ Busby said in that famous drawl, ‘I take it your boys lost tonight then?’ ‘Oh, no’ replied Shanks, ‘we won 5-1…’ And the marker had been laid!
Perhaps the most famous exponent of what is now termed ‘mind games’ is another famous Scot who also brought greatness to Manchester United - Sir Alex Ferguson. He famously ‘got inside the head’ of the aforementioned Kevin Keegan when the perm-haired Englishman was manager of Newcastle United in the mid-1990s and the Geordies were top of the English Premiership table. Ferguson intimated that some teams didn’t try as hard against Newcastle as they did against the Red Devils and this had helped the Magpies establish a decent lead at the top of the table. This infuriated Keegan – as Ferguson had intended – and the effect it had on the mindset of the players helped derail Newcastle’s journey to a first English League championship since Moses was a boy. Once doubt sets in it’s difficult to get rid of it.
This week Celtic head for the San Siro and the might of Milan in the Champions League. Few will give Neil Lennon’s side a chance but the Hoops defied the odds not so long ago by beating Barcelona. Lennon will surely use psychology to try and gain an advantage over his more illustrious opponents. If only Bill Shankly were still around to pop into the Celtic dressing room prior to kick-off…!