As Bad As Things Got: Liverpool, 1959
There wasn’t supposed to be much on in Worcester, that afternoon. The 15th of January 1959 was a Thursday, the city’s early closing day, and under normal circumstances the city centre would have been very quiet. The FA Cup, however, had something to say about that. The Third Round match between Worcester City of the Southern League and Liverpool of the Second Division had been due to be played the previous Saturday, only to be called off on account of a waterlogged pitch described as “ankle-deep” on the day it was originally scheduled.
Liverpool had good reason to go into it with a degree of confidence, though. They’d had a shaky start to the season, winning just four of their opening eleven matches, but they travelled to Worcester off the back of six straight wins. A return to the First Division remained possible, if they could keep winning. It had been a dismal few years for the club. Perhaps a new decade might bring better fortunes. They’d been waiting a while for things to improve, after all. It had been almost five years since the club was relegated from the First Division.
St George’s Lane didn’t have floodlights at the time, so the kick-off was scheduled for 2.15 in the afternoon. The match was all-ticket, and 15,000 people crowded into the ground to watch, 5,000 more than Worcester’s previous record attendance, hanging from every vantage point. Eight of the Worcester team had been at work on the morning of the match, but this didn’t seem to make much difference to their performance. Liverpool, meanwhile, dropped Billy Liddell, arguably their best player at the time, and didn’t seem able to get to grips with a terrible pitch covered in sand and salt, with actual grass only visible along the touchlines.
It only took nine minutes for the non-league team to take the lead, when Tommy Skuse, who’d only just turned eighteen, bundled the ball in from close range. The goal was a comedy of errors from the Liverpool defence. A low ball from the right into the Liverpool penalty area should have been straightforward to clear, but defender John Molyneux and goalkeeper Tommy Younger got their wires crossed, Younger lost his footing, and Skuse nipped in between them to score.
Liverpool, of course, came roaring back, but couldn’t find a way past the the Worcester goalkeeper John Kirkwood, who was putting in an accomplished performance, and with nine minutes to play, another defensive disaster wrapped the game up for the home side. A mistake from Liverpool’s Dick White allowed Harry Knowles a run down the wing, and when Knowles crossed, White, seeking to atone for his earlier mistake, succeeded only in lunging at the ball and deflecting it over his own goalkeeper and in to give Worcester a 2-0 lead.
Despite Worcester’s two goal lead, there was still time for considerable drama in the closing minutes. Within two minutes of the restart, Liverpool had pulled a goal back from the penalty spot, when Freddie Morris was fouled and Geoff Twentyman converted the resulting kick. Suddenly, Worcester were hanging on again, and the atmosphere inside the ground was more febrile than ever. With a couple of minutes, the referee blew for a free-kick, and the crowd invaded the pitch, thinking the final whistle had been blown. It took a while to clear the pitch and resume the match, but Worcester hung on to win. At the final whistle came another pitch invasion, this time ending with Worcester’s supporters chairing their players from the pitch.
The postponement of the match had pushed it into the public eye, and the press went crazy the next morning. Liverpool may have been in the Second Division, but just nine years earlier they’d been in the FA Cup final. They’d won the first Football League Championship after the end of the war, less than twelve years earlier. Their average attendance at the time was almost 37,000, and they were capable of much higher. 52,000 people saw their match against Barnsley at the end of March.
Liverpool finished the 1958/59 season in fourth place in the Second Division, seven points off the promotion places. It was the culmination of a dismal decade for the club. Liverpool had started the 1950 the season near the top of the First Division, but tailed off to finish in eighth place, with the consolation of appearing in an FA Cup final being somewhat spoilt when they lost 2-0 to Arsenal.
The club’s decline accelerated from here on. Manager George Kay had been in charge of the club for fifteen years and had take the club to the 1947 League Championship, and when he retired through ill-health in March 1951 the choice to replace him was Don Welsh, formerly of Brighton & Hove Albion, but who had played for Liverpool during the war years. An up and coming manager by the name of Bill Shankly applied for the job, but turned it down when he found out that team selection would still have to go by the board of directors.
The appointment of Welsh summed up two of the biggest problems that the club faced. Firstly, the directors of the club were ossified, and had over seen a decline into stagnation without making that much of an effort to pull the club out of its decline, whilst running it at a boardroom level like a closed shop. Secondly, they were parsimonious. Investment in the club had been minimal in the years following the war. Anfield wasn;t quite in a state of disrepair, but hadn’t had much work done to it for years. Welsh, it was said, was hired by the club primarily because he was cheap.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, matters didn’t improve under the new manager. Welsh oversaw two further mid-table finishes before the club found itself fighting against relegation. At the end of the 1952/53 season, only a 2-0 win at Chelsea on the last day of the season kept them in the First Division. The following year, though, their luck run out. In 1954, they were relegated in bottom place in the table, having conceded 97 goals. To make matters worse, Everton were returning in the opposite direction after three years away. Remarkably, there were no Merseyside derbies in the league between 1951 and 1962. The two club did meet in the FA Cup once during this period, in the Fourth Round in January 1955, which Liverpool won by four goals to nil at Goodison Park. This, however, was a rare ray of sunshine for a club with a cloud still hanging over it.
Their first season in the Second Division ended in a mid-table finish. Welsh’s job was already hanging by a thread, and when they finished in third place at the end of the following season – there were only two promotion and relegation places at the time – the board’s patience ran out and Welsh was dismissed. He was replaced by Phil Taylor, who’d been the captain of the 1950 FA Cup final team and who and had retired as a player a couple of years earlier, having made more than 300 appearances for the club.
Things didn’t improve under Wilson, either. His first season ended in third place again, pipped to promotion by a single point by Nottingham Forest. The following season they finished in fourth place, and were two points off an automatic promotion place. After the Worcester City defeat in January 1959, they went on to finish in fourth place in the table again, albeit this time seven points from the promotion places.
Boardroom patience with Phil Taylor was already starting to wear thin, and with the team suffering yet another poor start to the season in 1959, it was becoming abundantly clear that Taylor was not going to be able to get the club into the First Division. The Monday after a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City in the middle of November 1959, he resigned his position. His legacy to Liverpool was to leave behind a coaching team of Reuben Bennett, Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley, which would form the spine of the Anfield Boot Room. Taylor was an Anfield legend, but he was, by all accounts, too nice to be a manager.
After failing to get the Liverpool job in 1951, Bill Shankly had accepted his first managerial position with Grimsby Town the following summer. The club had just gone through two successive relegations from the First Division to the Third Division North and, although Shankly was at least able to steady the ship and get the club challenging for promotion. Homesick for Scotland, frustrated at a lack of backing from the board and with the team stagnating on the pitch, though, Shankly left in 1954 for Workington.
Up on the north-west coast in Cumbria, Shankly wasn’t going to get much better financial support at Workington than he did at Grimsby, but in his year and a half there he pulled the club out of the re-election places and up towards the upper mid-table, whilst crowds increased by a third. At the end of 1955, though, he accepted the job of assistant manager at Huddersfield Town. Upon the resignation of manager Andy Beattie in November 1956, Shankly was offered the manager’s position at Leeds Road.
Huddersfield Town were by this time a mid-table Second Division club, and Shankly was unable to alter that very much. Another job, another club with a board with no apparent ambition. On the 28th of November 1959, Liverpool visited Leeds Road for a league match. Huddersfield won by a goal to nil. Three days later, Bill Shankly was confirmed as the new Liverpool manager. When he arrived at his new club a couple of weeks later, he was less than impressed by what he saw. Anfield itself was in disrepair with no means of watering the pitch and Shankly insisted the club spend £3,000 to rectify that. Shankly described the training ground at Melwood as “a shambles.”
Initially, the Liverpool directors behaved very much as they had done before. Shankly later wrote that the board seemed unable to grasp the potential of the club, and that signing new players remained an uphill battle. For the first couple of years, Liverpool’s league performances didn’t improve that much, finishing third in both 1960 and 1961. Shankly was at war with the board by this point, even challenging him to sack him, but he did so with an important ally in place.
Eric Sawyer was the managing director of the Littlewoods pools company and had joined the board at Anfield early in 1961, and he shared Shankly’s vision for the future of the club. When the directors of the club sought to block the transfer of two Scottish player early in 1961 on the basis that the club couldn’t afford them, Sawyer interjected by saying that, “We can’t afford not to buy them.” Those two players were Ian St John and Ron Yeats, who went on to make almost 700 appearances for Liverpool between them.
Whilst bringing in new players was important to the revolution that Shankly had planned, though, the most important thing to change with his arrival at Liverpool was training. All training was to be carried out on grass using a ball. Everything was done systematically with players rotating through exercise routines in groups with the purpose of achieving set targets. Five-a-side games were at the heart of the system and he again insisted on these being as competitive as league matches. His attention to detail was key to improving the team, and Liverpool were promoted to the First Division in 1962 as champions. After one season’s consolidation in the top flight, finishing in eighth place in the table, they became the champions of England in 1964.
On the 15th of January 1959, as Liverpool pratfalled their way to defeat against a non-league side in the FA Cup, the idea of being the champions of England a little more than five years later would have seemed quite fanciful, even to the most optimistic of Liverpool supporters. They would have been fully aware at that time that the club had been in a state of paralysis for the best part of a decade, compounding a lack of ambition with bad managerial appointment decisions, high-mindedness and a singular failure to move with the times in a period during which the English game was finally starting to pay some degree of attention to coaching and physical fitness.
And yes, both the directors and supporters of Liverpool Football Club got lucky with Bill Shankly. He had no previous connection with the club and was not a local. Had a bigger club come in from during, say, the summer of 1959, he may well never have gone to Liverpool and the history of football in this country might well have ended up looking very different indeed. That Shankly was given the backing that he needed and that this backing resulted in the building of one of European football’s great coaching dynasties couldn’t have been known to anybody at the point of his eventual appointment as manager. It wouldn’t take long before the embarrassments of St George’s Lane – indeed, almost all of the 1950s – would all start to feel like very ancient history indeed, for Liverpool.