It is with some trepidation that you pick up the autobiography of a 1970s Liverpool player these days. It’s not that they’re bad books or that they lack moments of great excitement. It’s that there have been so many of them already, all discussing the same games, the same characters and using the same anecdotes, that reading them can be like listening to an after-dinner speaker you’ve already seen three times in the last month. Shankly was inspirational, Paisley was shrewd, we never though anyone could replace Keegan, but Kenny did etc etc.
With that in mind, it’s something of a jolt when David Fairclough calls Bob Paisley a coward on page four, and not an entirely unpleasant one. You don’t really expect that sort of thing from Fairclough, an affable chap brought up so close to Anfield that he could hear the crowd cheer from his front door and a man who still works for the club now on their in-house TV station. But there it is: Fairclough believed that Paisley’s habit of leaking team news to a local journalist was, “a cowardly method of delivering bad news to the players who wouldn’t be involved.”
Fairclough, of course, received more bad news than most of his contemporaries. He was the original ‘supersub’, immortalised by one heroic cameo performance in the European Cup against St Etienne, but damned by his effectiveness from the bench. Swift and confident, direct and dynamic, he was so good at changing games that the mere sight of him warming up on the touchline was enough to galvanise the crowd.
Unfortunately, these were the very early days of substitutions. Introduced in 1965, it wasn’t until 1967 that you were allowed to make a change for tactical reasons. Even then, managers tended not to tinker. According to Fairclough, this was partly because there was, “a real stigma about being substituted.” Withdrawn players would be furious at being singled out by their managers and would often hide their injuries to ensure that they didn’t lose their place in the team.
“Not to use your substitute was common practice,” writes Fairclough. “I think it showed a lack of foresight. It was a waste.”
Unsurprisingly, Fairclough is no fan of his famous nickname, not least because it overshadows his achievements with the club. He actually made more appearances from the start (92) than he did as a substitute (62) and his introduction to the team in 1976 brought a flurry of goals that helped whip the title away from Queens Park Rangers on the last day of the season. Then came that night against St Etienne in 1977, a display that secured his place in legend, but not in the first team. He would be subsequently left out of the team for both the final against Borussia Monchengladbach and the FA Cup Final against Manchester United.
Eloquently ghosted by Mark Platt, Fairclough’s memoirs are thoughtful and intelligent. His exclusion from the starting eleven clearly still rankles, but he retains immense respect for Paisley while providing an interesting perspective on his team-mates. When a young Ian Rush struggles to make an impact in the reserves in 1980, Fairclough feels satisfied that he’s seen off another rival to the first team. By 1982, with Rush scoring freely, chief scout Geoff Twentyman tries to cheer Fairclough up by reminding him of his own qualities. “He’s good,” says Twentyman encouragingly, “but can he go both ways?” But even with his ability to ‘go both ways,’ Fairclough knows the score. Before long, he’s out on loan in the NASL and he’s released by Liverpool in 1983.
No-one has ever really been able to explain why Liverpool were so successful for so long and Fairclough is no different. Those who want football to be catalogued and quantified at every turn will be aghast at what they find here.
“With continental teams, you never knew what to expect,” he writes. “They would approach each game differently and alter their tactics accordingly, depending on who they were up against. In contrast, Liverpool’s philosophy was to treat every game the same.”
Their dominance certainly wasn’t due to their fitness either. “The US and Canada were way ahead of their time…in comparison Anfield and Melwood were archaic.”
The nearest you can come to a satisfactory answer, and this is certainly not a fault of the book, is that the dressing room set standards that were followed or else, and that no-one was allowed to get ideas above their station. That Shankly laid down the foundations and his successors maintained a conveyor belt of senior figures to safeguard his principles. From Ron Yeats and Tommy Smith to Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson to Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness.
“There were never any visions of grandeur around Anfield or Melwood,” writes Fairclough. “No egos. No showbiz. It was an extremely modest football club. Even after winning back-to-back European Cups, nothing changed.”
Including, rather sadly, Fairclough’s place on the fringes of the first team.