The case for and against Sir Bob Paisley

Paisley and his own unique treble of three European Cup wins.

Bob Paisley (or should that be Sir Bob Paisley?) is a name that often seems to be drowned out and lost in the up-to-11 volume of the rolling news era, where each and every victory, player, team, squad and competition must be bigger, and therefor better, than the last.

Even if we are to judge the game and its legends by these ever-inflated standards however, few come close to the achievements of Liverpool FC’s Bob Paisley. Over nine years as Anfield boss, Paisley won everything bar the FA Cup, including a UEFA Cup and three European Cups, two of which were picked up in consecutive seasons. He is still the only manager ever to win the competition three times.

Paisley was officially recognised with an OBE after he clinched his first European Cup in 1977, but for many Liverpool fans, seeing the names of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson up in lights sticks in the throat considering how their own hero managers go without such honours.

Sir Alex Ferguson was knighted after his 1999 treble win. Without going into the argument of what a treble consists of, the combination of trophies won that season was a feat not achieved before or since in England. It was a magnificent accomplishment at the midpoint of a truly incomparable career. Sir Alex is undoubtably a manager for the ages, with a CV that, on its own merits, cannot be bettered by anyone.

Bob Paisley on the other hand can hold a similar claim to greatness, again based on the unique terms of his own achievements.

Fergie has so far won 34 trophies – 22 of which were secured as United boss over his 25-year reign. Bob Paisley collected 14 competition wins in just nine years. While Sir Alex sets the bar for longevity, squad-building and the sheer haul of trophies, the utter intensity of Paisley’s domination with Liverpool at their peak elevates him above all others in terms of short-term, year-on-year success. Though Sir Alex completed a unique treble, Paisley, as mentioned above, conquered Europe three times, once as a defending champions, and added the UEFA Cup to his list of honours too.

It’s argued that the European Cup was easier to win in its former format, but it was undoubtably harder to qualify for. After all, you had to be the true champions of your league and country. A second-, third- or fourth-place finish would not do. United won their treble in 1999 having failed to win the Premiership the season before.

It is perhaps something of a misnomer to compare Paisley to Ferguson, and a common mistake when discussing the merits and careers of these two great footballing men.

Sir Alex transformed United from a stumbling club of alcohol-loving underachievers into a success-hungry powerhouse of Premier League supremacy. In comparison, it could be said that Paisley, having worked under Bill Shankly as an assistant, was but the jockey of a horse whose pedigree had been bred by Shanks.

However, Paisley didn’t just realise the potential of Shankly’s blueprint for Liverpool, he went on and bettered it. With his meticulous eye for detail and innate footballing genius he sent the club’s momentum into overdrive, setting the course for unparalleled success.

A more accurate modern parallel would perhaps be Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola. Just as Paisley rose up from within Liverpool—first as a player, then a self-trained physio and coach, and right up to the position of manager—Pep is Barcelona. Paisley understood Liverpool football club, its fans, their values and the expectations that surrounded it.

In a similar vein, Guardiola was the Barca ball boy who became Cruyff’s talismanic “Dream Team” midfield general before taking hold of the club’s reins himself to become its most successful manager ever. Both men are products, pupils and proponents of their clubs, its traditions and values.

Under Pep’s predecessor, Frank Rijkaard, Barcelona were hardly lukewarm also-rans, winning the Champions League and two La Liga titles. Similarly, Paisley inherited a near-complete setup from Bill Shankly with all the infrastructure and playing talent to achieve near-instant success. Paisley was far more than some unwitting autopilot.

Over his nine years at Liverpool, Paisley continually strengthened and reformed his squad, all the while maintaining their competitiveness at home and on the continent. Even the departure of star players couldn’t blunt Liverpool’s trajectory. As Kevin Keegan left for Germany, Paisley brought in a Scotsman by the name of Kenny Dalglish.

Is Paisley the greatest-ever manager then? It would be churlish to make such a call. Whilst it is easy to list those who deserve a seat at the very top of game’s managerial history books, setting down an order of greatness would be inappropriate. Each of the all-time greats, from Jock Stein to Helenio Herrera and Brian Clough et al., all achieved unique and unrepeatable successes to some degree. The “greatest ever” is entirely dependent on a subjective perspective and the personal bias of the judge, often overlooking the distinct context and circumstances of each candidate’s achievements.

Indeed, many view Shankly as the greatest Liverpool manager ever due to the transformative work he did in turning Liverpool from a second-division team into what would become an unstoppable force across every competition. Similarly, Sir Matt Busby is often regarded the greater knight of the realm at Old Trafford again due to the foundations he laid down for the future, the philosophies he instilled upon Manchester United and, of course, his rebuilding of the club after brutal tragedy.

Are trophies even truly relevant to argument of “greatest-ever manager”? If it weren’t for Barcelona, Sir Alex Ferguson would arguably have won at least one other Champions League trophy over the last three years. Conversely, there are many coaches who, whilst not amassing a haul as impressive as Fergie or Paisely’s, have left indelible marks upon the game of football itself be it tactically, in terms of training regimes, nutrition and professionalism and even the philosophy of how we play the game.

Returning to the initial argument, and besides the technicality that the deceased cannot be knighted, there exists one major argument against honouring Liverpool’s legendary boss as Sir Bob Paisley: Would he have even wanted such an honour?

Sir Alex Ferguson’s knighthood is seen by some as a political move by the Labour government that was in power at the time. It would have made sense as a move to look relevant and on-trend by extending their “cool Britannia” PR tactics onto arguably the most popularly supported club in the country. It was perhaps an institutionalisation of the game that even United fans should be suspicious of to some degree.

As Sartre said as he rejected the Nobel prize: “A man must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form.”

Mixing politics and football is rarely a wise move.

The institution Bob Paisley cared about most was Liverpool Football Club—its people, traditions, identity, myths, legends and the nigh-religious secular faith of its supporters. To rival fans and neutrals alike Liverpool fans are often a highly enjoyable source of entertainment due to their past glory-fuelled delusions (its their year, every year) and embellished outbursts, but their sense of community is admirable.

Shankly, Liverpool’s grand architect, was also an outspoken socialist and his principles still echo through much of the club’s fanbase today. Do they really want one of their great heroes of the people intrinsically linked to an aristocratic order of class-based merit?

Paisley was, by all accounts, an incredibly modest and quiet man. Even if, in the modern day, it is just another PR image outside of Anfield, Liverpool Football Club, the local community club, is still alive in the heads of many Kopites. This too is where Liverpool’s legend should be honoured above all else.

Would the opinions of any other people, orders or institutions really matter to the great Bob Paisley?


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