The Boot Room: Liverpool’s Engine Room For European Royalty (Part Two)

Liverpool Boot Room

This is the second part of our reflection on Liverpool’s European success and the role that the Boot Room had to play in the years from 1945 to 1984. Last time out, we had reached 1964 – the year that Bill Shankly first led Liverpool to the First Division title.

In this part, we take a look at the summit of Shankly’s first great team and the subsequent decline. We begin by looking into the 1964-65 season.

The summit of Shankly’s first great squad (1965-1966)

When Shankly first stepped foot on Merseyside, he spoke highly of the FA Cup, insisting that it was the one trophy he wanted to win. When Ian St John and Ron Yeats joined the club, the Scotsman told the club directors that such achievements were only a matter of time. Back in the 60s, the magic of the cup was at its finest, and the FA Cup was the single most sought-after prize in the country.

After winning the First Division the year before, Shankly’s focus shifted towards procuring the day he would later call the greatest in his career. Having bypassed West Bromwich Albion, Stockport County, Bolton Wanderers, and Leicester City in their path to the semi-finals, Liverpool were just one win away from Wembley Stadium.

A game against Chelsea at Villa Park was all that stood between Shankly and the FA Cup final on March 27, 1965. Using a brochure that Chelsea had designed if they were to book themselves in the final as motivation, Shankly pinned it on the dressing room wall and told his players to “stuff those wee cocky south buggers.”

They turned out to be words that did little to ignite the imagination in a first half that would end goalless. But Liverpool opened up the scoring in the 63rd minute through Peter Thompson. The Reds would push for a second and earn it through a Willie Stevenson penalty in the 79th-minute, booking themselves into the FA Cup final.

Ahead of the final, The Beatles sent Shankly a telegram wishing him good luck, and he appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs where he picked the club’s anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as his eighth and final selection. The pop culture that surrounded their forthcoming fixture hallmarked the 1965 FA Cup final as a momentous day in Merseyside.

An attendance of 100,000 people witnessed Liverpool seal a 2-1 extra-time victory over Leeds United, with goals from Roger Hunt and Ian St John bringing the beloved FA Cup trophy back to Anfield for the first time.

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Back to back trophies for Shankly showed the progress he and his team had made since the post-war frailties the club had previously brandished. The Liverpool lens was only looking forward after promotion in 1962, and the primary job Shankly and his boot room boys had on their minds was the constant hunt for the next trophy.

In the 1965-66 campaign, the trophy trend continued, with Liverpool regaining the League Championship title. Despite losing in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Borussia Dortmund, Shankly and Paisley also learnt a great deal about Europe in that season.

In a strategy that would foreseeably reap its rewards, the duo drew up the plan of containment in away games and attack in home games during two-legged fixtures.

Shankly had first experimented with the principle in a preliminary round tie against Juventus where Liverpool played away in the first leg. Although the Italian heavyweights took the lead after 81 minutes, the Scotsman insisted that keeping the game to a one-goal deficit would bring its success in the return fixture.

An all-out attack at Anfield ensued, and the Reds won 2-1 on aggregate, proving that the Boot Room’s newfound philosophy was the way forward in continental competitions. It was this strategy that became another small jigsaw piece to Liverpool’s latter European fortunes.

But in the years that followed, Shankly and his team suffered from a happiness hangover, and the Reds would endure a hiatus from their trophy-winning fixation.

The reevaluation years (1966-1970)

Upon the first kick of Liverpool’s 1966-67 campaign, it was evident that Shankly’s squad needed a revamp. Just like any great team of the past, there are only so many trophies that the same set of players can achieve.

For Shankly’s class of 63, they had reached their summit with two League Championships and an FA Cup triumph. In the years that followed their title-winning habits, a squad overhaul was desperately needed.

Certainly, Liverpool conventionally started the season with a victory over Everton earning themselves the FA Charity Shield. But it was clear that the Reds would struggle to challenge for any major trophy that season.

In Europe, their endeavours were hardly short of catastrophic. The Reds struggled to overcome FC Petrolul Ploiesti, a little-known Romanian club, in the first round. And in the Round of 16, a demolition from Ajax was inevitable.

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Inspired by a 19-year-old Johan Cruyff, Ajax won the fixture 7-1 on aggregate, after a 5-1 victory in Amsterdam in the first leg proved enough to sail past a crestfallen Shankly.

Liverpool improved in the next two seasons as they finished third and second in the league in 1967-68 and 1968-69 respectively. But for the most part, it was a period at the club that Shankly would go on to summarise as “a mediocre time in the late 1960s as we prepared for the 1970s.”

During this preparation, however, Shankly didn’t find players that would suit his style as well as he once did in the 1961 squad rebuild. In 1967, Liverpool relied on a move for Chelsea’s Tony Hateley to spark some life into their performances. A club-record fee of £96,000 was splashed on the centre forward, but after poor performances turned into a habit, Shankly felt obliged to sell the striker to Coventry City just a year later.

Shankly had also failed in the signings of Alf Arrowsmith and Gordon Wallace – who were both encumbered by bad luck and injuries. In the following year, the Scotsman made Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Alun Evans the first-ever £100,000 teenager.

Evans started his career on Merseyside well, producing important goals to show for it. But after an incident involving a glass bottle in a nightclub, Shankly recalled the striker having suffered from a detrimental decline in his performances afterwards, with Evans being sold to Aston Villa after four years at the club.

To a great degree, Liverpool’s Boot Room was unsuccessful in its transfer business during the late 1960s. The only long-term success was the acquisition of Blackpool teenager Emlyn Hughes – a future captain for club and country, who was signed for £68,000 in February 1967.

The approaching Liverpool restoration didn’t happen until the end of the 1969-1970 campaign, where The Reds’ Merseyside neighbours won the league title by an impressive margin. Shankly was always distinctively obstinate whenever Everton got the better of his team, which carries weight in his famous quote:

“In my time at Anfield, we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside”

This was then emphasised by another joke that Shankly directed towards the Evertonians:

“If Everton were playing at the bottom of my garden, I’d pull the curtains.”

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A 1-0 defeat to Second Division straddlers Watford at Vicarage Road in the FA Cup quarter-finals would cap another disappointing season for Shankly. It marked the end of an era for St John, Yeats, Hunt, Byrne and Lawrence, shining a new light on Shankly’s second great team that would go on to dominate English and European football in the 1970s.

Among the incomers before the start of the 1970 season were Ray Clemence, John Toshack, and Stevie Heighway. Adding lower league footballers with heart and soul to a roster that already boasted the riches of Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith, and Ian Callaghan worked wonders in lifting the club’s spirit again.

It was later documented that Liverpool’s second successful renovation was owed much to the great work of Geoff Twentyman – who was later christened by Stephen Kelly as “Shankly’s finest signing ever.”

The new scouting system that Shankly had implemented at the club in 1967 proved to be a big draw for new arrivals. The responsibility was given to new chief scout Twentyman, who played a cardinal role, working with the Boot Room Boys to bring generations of superstars to the club.

As always, Shankly liked to keep things simple in the scouting department. All the manager wanted were players that were able to pass the ball and move into an area to receive it back. He was also keen to highlight the importance of personality.

According to Twentyman, “he wanted to know if the lad had the heart to play for Liverpool.”

And so a second great team under Shankly was bred from matters that took place outside of the football being played on the pitch. In the reevaluation years, Shankly struggled to rebuild his squad, but by 1970, Liverpool was back to their glory days.

The Boot Room had already engineered domestic success before, so it was time to do it again. Shankly stayed onboard with the process, keeping faith in his team that still consisted of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan. It was a backroom team that provided a winning formula time and time again.

The period from 1966 to 1970 turned out to be a short-lived blip in a reign that brought about greatness on all fronts., starting with a revival in the 1970-71 season.