Bill Shankly’s Most Famous Football Quotes

if you are second you are nothing bill shankly graffiti on a wall

Elsewhere on this site you’ll be able to read all about Bill Shankly and his time at Liverpool. Generally considered to be the founder of the modern day version of the football club, a statue of Shankly proudly stands outside the Kop and is where many supporters congregate both before and after matches. Part of the reason why the Scot is so fondly remembered isn’t just because of his footballing prowess, which was excellent, nor simply down to him being the first in the line of ‘Boot Room Boys’ that revolutionised the way that success occurred at Anfield during his time there.

Another part of the reason why Bill Shankly has gone down in footballing legend is that he had such a way with words. Whilst Bob Paisley was content to let his players do the talking for him on the pitch and Joe Fagan was a man of few words, Shankly gave off the impression of someone who never shut up. He was not only able to motivate his players in order to perform to the best of their ability on the pitch, he was also able to make people laugh off it. It isn’t just that he was a comic, though, with more than a few of his phrases being profound. Here’s a look at the best of them.

Football As A Matter Of Life And Death

bill shankley statue at anfield kop
Stuart Frisby, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arguably Bill Shankly’s most famous quote is, ironically, actually something of a misquote. The words that are well-known to most football fans are as follows:

“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.”

They, however, are not exactly what the Scot said. Many would also imagine that he said them during his time in the Liverpool dugout, but that isn’t true either.

Shankly resigned as Liverpool manager in 1974, having been in the post for 15 years. In the wake of his retirement, he pondered what it was that had driven him so much during his time at Anfield, which was the subject of discussion when the Scot appeared on Live at Two on Granada TV on the 20th of May 1981. Shelley Rohde, the presenter, asked him about his devotion to football and he said the following:

“Well everything I’ve got I owe to football, and the dedication I put into the game. You only get out of the game what you put into it, Shelley. And I put everything into it I could, and still do. For the people I was playing for and the people that I was manager for. I didn’t cheat them out of anything. So I put all my heart and soul into it, to the extent that my family suffered.”

Rohde pushed him on the issue, asking him if regretted it at all. It was at this point that he uttered the words that have been twisted and turned into the quote we all know today. He said:

“Yeah I regret it very much. Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you, I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that’.”

On Players

Shankly was regularly saying things that were aimed at getting the most out of his players. The Scot knew exactly what it was to motivate people, with one of the first things he did being to set a precedent of what was expected of them. Here he is on the attitude that he expected from his players:

“For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side.”

It was a similar attitude that he had to how players should behave on the football pitch. The offside law has constantly been adapted and changed, with one of the wordings over the years being around players ‘interfering with play.’ On that, Shankly said:

“If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.”

He was someone who believed in the importance of striving for greatness and not finding excuses. When Tommy Smith told him that he’d injured his knee, Shankly replied:

“Take that bandage off. And what do you mean about your knee? It’s Liverpool’s knee!”

It was a mindset that he tried to instil across the football club. One of his most famous quotes is seen by a lot of people as being a dig at Everton, but actually it was more about the quality that he had available to him in the Liverpool squad. He said:

“A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are. In my time at Liverpool we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.”

Another of football’s famous quotes also came from Shankly. He expected his Liverpool players to win the league every time they played in it, which they did for a time during the 80s well after he’d retired. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:

“If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.”

He was also someone that knew how to get players geed up to perform at their very best. Speaking to a reporter in the 60s he said:

“Yes, Roger Hunt misses a few; but he gets in the right place to miss them.”

Imagine how Ron Yeats will have felt during the press conference unveiling him as a Liverpool player when Shankly asked the members of the press to take a closer look at him. Here’s what he told them:

“Go on, walk around him. He’s a colossus.”

He also said of Yeats:

“With him in defence, we could play Arthur Askey in goal.”

It was an attitude that earned him the respect of his players, telling Kevin Keegan after he arrived at the club:

“Just go out and drop a few-hand-grenades all over the place, son.”

Tommy Smith, meanwhile, was informed:

“You son, you could start a riot in a graveyard.”

Shankly liked to have a laugh, sometimes at the expense of the players. When Alec Lindsay arrived at the club Shankly said to him:

“When you get the ball, I want you to beat a couple of men and smash the ball into the net; just the same way you used to at Bury.”

Lindsay, who Shankly was trying to disarm because he was nervous about starting his first game, informed the Scot that that wasn’t him but was Bobby Kerr. Shankly turned to Paisley and said:

“Christ Bob, we’ve signed the wrong player.”

Shanks On Everton

Some of Shankly’s most famous lines were reserved for Everton. The Scot didn’t mess around when it came to his scathing remarks about the club that played its games across Stanley Park. On them he said:

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

When Liverpool were drawn out of the hat to play Everton in the semi-final of the 1971 FA Cup, Shankly said:

“Sickness would not have kept me away from this one. If I’d been dead, I would have had them bring the casket to the ground, prop it up in the stands and cut a hole in the lid.”

There was an occasion when a reporter suggested that he’d never played in the derby so couldn’t really understand it. His reply was typically scathing:

“Nonsense! I’ve kicked every ball, headed out every cross. I once scored a hat-trick; one was lucky, but the others were great goals.”

When Alan Ball signed for Everton Shankly took the opportunity to have a dig, telling him:

“Don’t worry, Alan. At least you’ll be able to play close to a great team.”

He also knew how to fill his time and once declared:

“When I’ve nothing better to do, I look down the league table to see how Everton are getting along.”

Even at times of sorrow Shanks was quick with a joke. He was asked to speak at Dixie Dean’s funeral and said:

“I know this is a sad occasion but I think that Dixie would be amazed to know that even in death he could draw a bigger crowd than Everton can on a Saturday Afternoon.”

On Football

Shankly often spoke of the wider nature of football and was not one of the biggest fans of referees. One of his quotes would later be immortalised in the commentary of a computerised football game when he said:

“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules but they do not know the game.”

When Liverpool drew 1-1 with a side, Shankly said:

“The best side drew.”

When the Reds ended up with a 0-0 draw at Anfield, Shankly declared:

“What can you do, playing against 11 goalposts?”

He once said:

“Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.”

Throughout his career, Shankly often ended up having disagreements with the board of the various clubs that he found himself at. Perhaps that is what led him to say:

“At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”

He was a famously fiery character, never afraid to take the fight to someone else if he felt as though they deserved to be brought down a peg or two. Brian Clough is something of a divisive figure for many people in the game, not least of all because of the offensive things he said in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster. Shankly had sized him up early on and declared:

“He’s worse than the rain in Manchester. At least the rain in Manchester stops occasionally.”

Shankly was someone who thought the balance of a football team was key to its success. This was best summed up when he said:

“A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”

He was also someone who had no time for people making football more than it really was. Although he’d never suggest that football was ‘only a game,’ he also knew what was really important. He said:

“Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all. Pressure is trying to escape relegation on 50 shillings a week. Pressure is not the European Cup or the Championship or the Cup Final. That’s the reward.”

What Shankly Thought Of Liverpool

bill shankley and bob paisley banner at anfield

It is fair to say that Shankly loved Liverpool. Although he was immensely proud of where he was from, part of his love for the city came from the fact that there was an obvious correlation between the attitudes of Scottish people and the approach to life that Scousers always showed. Speaking about it, Shankly said:

“Although I’m a Scot, I’d be proud to be called a Scouser.”

When Liverpool went on a European trip, Shankly filled in the hotel registration form and put ‘football’ as his occupation and ‘Anfield’ as his address. When the receptionist questioned him on it, Shankly replied:

“Lady”, in Liverpool there is only one address that matters and that is where I live.”

A journalist once suggested that the Reds were in a bit of bother and Shanks said:

“Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league.”

When he installed the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign, Shankly declared:

“It is there to remind our lads who they’re playing for and to remind the opposition who they’re playing against.”

Shankly eventually decided that he was a bit burned out and stepping down as manager was the right decision for him as well as for the club as a whole. It wasn’t an easy thing to tell the club though, with Shankly saying:

“It was the most difficult thing in the world, when I went to tell the chairman. It was like walking to the electric chair. That’s the way it felt.”

One of the standout quotes from someone who had a wealth of quotable moments was when Shankly said:

“Liverpool was made for me and I was made for Liverpool.”

There was something about the Kop that Shanks thought was admirable. He described it as follows:

“If you’re a member of the Kop, you feel as though you’re a member of a big society, where you’ve got thousands of friends all about you. They’re united and loyal.”

If Shankly’s love for the people of Liverpool hadn’t already been clear, it was made abundantly so when hundreds of thousands turned out to welcome the team back from the 1971 FA Cup final, which they had lost to Arsenal. Addressing the crowd, Shankly 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.”

He also had a long-term plan for Liverpool from the moment that he arrived at Anfield. He declared his desire to make the Reds a team of players that other sides would hate to play against, saying:

“My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Had Napoleon had that idea he would have conquered the bloody world. I wanted Liverpool to be untouchable. My idea was to build Liverpool up and up until eventually everyone would have to submit and give in.”

Shankly’s eloquence as well as his love for Liverpool was perhaps best summarised by what he wrote in his autobiography when he said:

“Above all, I would like to be remembered as a man who was selfless, who strove and worried so that others could share the glory and who built up a family of people who could hold their heads up high and say ‘We’re Liverpool’.”

Shankly’s Politics

Nowadays, there are people who will vote for a right-wing party and think that they support Liverpool. Whilst no one can say that they don’t, given the fact that they might well want Liverpool to win football matches and trophies, the reality is that they don’t understand Liverpool. Shankly as the father of modern day Liverpool made that clear when he said the following:

“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.”

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