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Bill Shankly: Socialism & The Relationship With Liverpool’s Fans

One of the best ways to understand Bill Shankly’s relationship with the fans is through Davie’s study of analogy and Liverpool FC. Davie states that, when analysing ‘football as if it were a religion’, in Liverpool’s case, the environment enables fans to hold ‘valuable and accurate perceptions about charismatic individuals … notably Bill Shankly’.[1] Put more simply, football is viewed as a religious experience by many on Merseyside, Shankly is viewed as a God to hardcore Liverpool supporters.

Many fans see football as ‘a religion, a way of life’, Shankly understood and tapped into this.[2] Waller supports this by labelling this affection as, ‘Deification by Liverpool fans’, this became troubling for Shankly as he felt a pressure to live up to their estimations.[3] This lead to him saying “I’m no God. People seem to think I’m a miracle-maker”, the fact that Shankly had to say this illustrates the intense relationship he had with the fans.[4] Most Liverpool fans at the time believe that deifying Shankly is ‘extreme’, yet could ‘understand why people would view him like that’.[5]

Shankly had such a special relationship with the fans and the love was certainly returned to him. Shankly himself believed this, he said “It is more than fanaticism, it’s a religion. To the many thousands who come here to worship, Anfield isn’t a football ground, it’s a sort of shrine’.[6] This pseudo religious image is best depicted on Shankly’s last competitive game, the FA Cup Final in 1974, where two fans ran on the pitch in celebration and kissed Shankly’s feet.


The relationship was so intense that it became a ‘cult’ around Bill Shankly. It is hard to fathom how a Scotsman could arrive in Liverpool and carve such an amazing relationship with the Liverpool FC fans. Shankly was a successful manager, however, compared to Bob Paisley his successor at Anfield, he did not win as many trophies. Paisley was more consistently successful. Yet, Shankly is loved more than any other Liverpool manager, it will be interesting to try and decipher what Shankly possessed that made him so loved.

One reason could be that Shankly started the greater success that followed in the two decades after his retirement. It can always feel easier to understand a story if you can mark a beginning, Shankly was the beginning of this future success. Before Shankly, Liverpool were a solid team but by no means the best in England.

They went on to dominate England and Europe by winning many leagues and European Cups. It was Shankly that orchestrated this transformation. His charisma in momentous occasions and personal relationship with the fans, created an affinity with Liverpool. As Toshack said about the bond, ‘He was unique in his relationship with the fans and his love affair with the Kop’.[8]

Shankly was a staunch socialist and he always believed in the power of everyone working together. One of his most famous quotes is:

The socialism I believe in isn’t really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.[9]

Shankly is so inextricably linked with socialism that writer, Stephen Kelly said; ‘The football of Shankly was the football of socialism, it was the post-war government of Attlee, it was the miners, it was about the dignity of the working man’.[10] Shankly was entwined with politics and was friends with former Prime minister, Harold Wilson. Wilson was interviewed by Shankly on the Bill Shankly Show on Radio City 96.7. The two men discussed politics and football and Shankly said, ‘Our football was a form of socialism’.[11] He needed the fans as much as they needed him and he would do anything to please them.

There are countless examples of Shankly’s relentless attempts to please the Liverpool fans. He would spend a lot of time replying to letters from fans and giving them tickets to the games. One example of this comes from Eastley, he notes that one young fan who wrote ‘the word ‘please’ 1,010 times in a begging letter to Bill Shankly and is rewarded with a £1 ground ticket’.[12]

Another example is when ‘Bill Shankly wrote an article in the Liverpool Echo, saying that he would help any genuine fans who were having difficulty in obtaining tickets’. According to Paul, one lucky fan received a letter from Shankly with a Cup Final ticket inside, there was ‘a note on headed notepaper saying, ‘Best Wishes B Shankly’.[13] There are countless examples of Shankly sending Cup Final tickets and Birthday Cards to Liverpool supporters throughout his life.


It was not only match tickets that Shankly obtained for Liverpool fans. Ray Clemence recalled of times when Liverpool fans would be on the same train home from away matches as the Liverpool team. Several of the fans had not purchased tickets but when the ticket inspector went around the train, Shankly would pay for the tickets of the fans as he knew how important they were to the club.[15] He was even seen ‘in West Derby Village carrying shopping for the elderly people’.[16] These were all genuine acts of kindness that Shankly did, he was a true believer in socialism and he wanted to help his people as much as he could.

Aside from individual memories, there are several moments of contrasting emotions that illustrate Shankly’s relationship with the Liverpool FC fans. One of the significant moments came shortly after the defeat to Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup Final, a game billed as ‘the best Wembley final for years’.[17] Shankly’s team returned to Liverpool as the defeated side, yet nothing about Shankly presented failure and he managed to turn the moment into power and pride between fans and players. The team returned to Liverpool with ‘At least 100,000 supporters’ to greet them and congratulate their efforts, despite defeat.[18] Shankly stood on the steps of St. George’s Hall in the centre of Liverpool and spoke to his people.

He said;

“Since I came here to Liverpool, and to Anfield, I have drummed it into our players time and again that they are privileged to play for you. And if they didn’t believe me, they believe me now”.[19]

The crowd was in total silence listening to their enigmatic leader and when he finished speaking they erupted and began chanting his name. Shankly possessed such power over the fans, they and his team were disappointed with defeat, the players looked almost awkward and embarrassed as he was speaking. Yet, he completely turned the occasion on its head and inspired everyone present. Bill Shankly stood in front of the fans with his arms wide and this image is still famous today, in the picture he does not look like a loser. He was showing that despite losing, the fans were right to be proud of their team.


When looking at the image, it does not look as though it presents a defeated manager who has just marked his fifth season without a trophy. The huge crowds demonstrate the love that the Liverpool fans had for their team and manager. His arms are outstretched and he looks like a man who is proud of his club and certainly is not portraying a loser. Even the crowd behind him look bemused, amongst the many adoring faces there are several fans and police officers who seem to be questioning Shankly’s actions somewhat. Shankly is rarely pictured with a beaming smile but his stern face shows that this is a moment he is trying to evoke power and passion.

This may have been hard to initially understand for the many who may have thought he was celebrating defeat. He and the thousands of fans who had gathered were proud of their team, Shankly knew this reception was special and he had to utilise the crowd. Through his speech and actions, he made Liverpool look like the winners and he strengthened his bond with the Liverpool supporters. This is perhaps summed up by what else he said in his speech; “Yesterday at Wembley, we lost the Cup. But you the people have won everything”.[21]

Another moment where Shankly delivered a great speech was after winning the FA Cup in, what proved to be his last season with Liverpool, 1974. This was much like the 1971 experience, except on this occasion Shankly had silverware with him whilst he spoke. Liverpool had just beaten Newcastle at Wembley and came home to Liverpool to celebrate their second FA Cup triumph under Shankly. The ‘traditional reception’ that awaited the team saw a ‘quarter of a million people’ lining the streets of Liverpool.[22] According to Shankly the reception was ‘better than 1965’, when the first FA Cup was won.[23]

On the open top bus, whilst the players were displaying the trophy to the fans, Shankly asked Brian Hall, one of his players, “Hey son, who’s that Chinaman, you know, the one with all the sayings? What’s his name?’, to which Hall replied, “Is it Chairman Mao you mean?”. When the bus arrived at St. George’s Hall again and Shankly delivered another great speech, he exclaimed “Chairman Mao could never have seen such a show of red strength”.[24]

This again displayed Shankly’s ability to summarise these moments of mass jubilation and to entertain a crowd with his words. He recalled how three years previous he had spoken to the fans and promised them a return to Wembley, he was proud he lived up to that promise and now he could celebrate a trophy with them.[25] He went on to say “Today I feel prouder than I’ve ever felt before. We played for you, because it’s you we play for. And it’s you who pay our wages”.[26] Again, he was pinning all his success on the Liverpool fans, he was thanking them for the role that they played and he wanted them to know how much they meant to him.

It is easy for a manager to tell their fans how much they mean to him and the club. However, with Shankly it felt genuine, his actions on and off the pitch displayed a real love for the people of Liverpool. This continued after his career when he joined the Liverpool fans in the Kop for a match in 1975. When he ‘took his place for the first time on the Kop’, he was greeted with ‘the familiar chant of “Shankly is our king”’.[27] Shankly was the king of the Liverpool fans, not just for winning trophies but for how he handled himself on and off the pitch. He was following his socialist beliefs and this endeared him to the Liverpool fans. Shankly said “I’m a people’s man. Only the people matter”, this shows what the fans were to him[28]. This was a golden age for Liverpool because there has never been a football manager so adored by Liverpool fans, or perhaps any fans across the world.





[1] G. Davie, ‘Believing without Belonging: A Liverpool Case Study’, Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 81 (1993), p.85.

[2] Interview with T. Jones, 06. Sep. 2017.

[3] P. Waller, ‘Shankly, William [Bill] (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004),, accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[4] S. F. Kelly, Bill Shankly: It’s Much More Important Than That: The Biography (London, 2011), p.290.

[5] Interview with T. Madden, 12. Sep. 2017.

[6] E. Weber, You’ll Never Talk Alone (Liverpool, 2006), p.4.

[7]Shankly Hotel, ‘Two fans kiss Bill Shankly’s feet after the match on 4th May 1974’, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[8] C. Hughes, John Toshack: FourFourTwo great footballers (London, 2002), p.33.

[9] E. Weber, You’ll Never Talk Alone (Liverpool, 2006), p.21.

[10] E. Weber, You’ll Never Talk Alone (Liverpool, 2006), p.47.

[11] British Universities Film & Video Council, Bill Shankly Show, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[12] M. Eastley, From Bovril to Champagne: When the FA Cup Really Mattered Part 1 (Milton Keynes, 2010), p.66.

[13] D. Paul, Anfield Voices (Gloucestershire, 2013), p.109.

[14] Tickets and accompanying Letter from Bill Shankly to Tom Jones, May 1974.

Birthday Card from Bill Shankly to Tom Jones, January 1978.

[15] YouTube, ‘Bill Shankly retirement and death’, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[16] K. Gill, The Real Bill Shankly (Liverpool, 2006), p.125.

[17] ‘Cup Final Special’, TV Times (London, 8. May. 1971), p.21.

[18] J. Corbett, ‘Bill Shankly: Life, death and football’, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[19] TheSpionKop, Shanks speaks to the people, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[20] Daily Mail, ‘’Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude, I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’… As Liverpool (and Preston) toast Bill Shankly’s 100th birthday, Golden Years remembers the great Scot’, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[21] K. Gill, The Real Bill Shankly (Liverpool, 2006), p.48.

[22] S. F. Kelly, The Official Illustrated History 1892-1995: Liverpool (London, 1995), p.109.

[23] K. Gill, The Real Bill Shankly (Liverpool, 2006), p.84.

[24] P. Thompson, Shankly (Liverpool, 1993), p.64.

[25] D. Peace, Red or Dead (London, 2013), p.131.

[26] Liverpool ECHO TV, Bill Shankly – the Legend, at accessed 19 Nov. 17.

[27] ‘It’s Shankly the Kopite!’, Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, 22. Nov. 1975).

[28] E. Weber, You’ll Never Talk Alone (Liverpool, 2006), p.7.

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