The latest football novel to hit the best-seller list is built around the career of legendary Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankly. A fascinating story of a visionary leader battling to stay true to a game increasingly driven by uncompromising commerce.
Red or Dead is the follow up to David Peace's novel The Damned Utd (2006), which was also made into a film. The book was based on the true story of charismatic football manager Brian Clough's and his disastrous 44-day tenure at Leeds Utd. This time out, Peace fictionalises another football legend, Bill Shankly, who spent 15 years managing Liverpool FC.
In 1959, Liverpool were languishing in England's Second Division and the team had never won the FA Cup. Fifteen seasons later, the club had three League titles, two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup trophy to its name. This book tells the story of that rise to prominence and Bill Shankly's unswerving comitment to his team's success.
Although very much a book about football, with a good number of detailed match descriptions spread through its pages, Red or Dead is also a social and historical commentary on the 1970s, when political transformation caused major upheaval in many western countries, particularly Great Britain. Margaret Thatcher comes to power at the end of the novel and the title of the book not only describes the loyalty of Liverpool's supporters towards their red-shirted players, but also refers to the socialist principles that were being challenged by free market capitalism at that time.
Bill Shankly was a known supporter of Britain's Labour Party (as was Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson at the time), but the directors of the biggest football clubs saw the opportunity to create huge money making corporations, which not only caused internal conflicts, but also raised questions that shook the very foundations of what was, until then, a grass roots sport. The political parallels are further emphasised in the novel through chance meetings between Bill Shankly and the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who's popularity was ebbing as the collective consciousness turned away from the common good in favour of individual wealth and success.
It was Bill Shankly that famously said: "Football isn't a matter of life and death, but more important than that."
His strict training regimes, combined with the fierce loyalty he demanded of his players, made Liverpool Football Club one of the most successful teams in football history. Yet at the height of his career, Shanky mysteriously resigned, later saying that after forty years in the game he needed a rest, and wanted to spend more time with his family.
This is not a novel for everyone. David Peace's hagiographical style can be quite difficult to read at times, especially the detailed reports of the games that Liverpool played during this transformational period in the club's history. However, the total, single-minded passion that Bill Shankly possessed is a rare characteristic, and like him, those who have possessed it have had a lasting impact on the world. For anyone with an interest in that passion, or football, or Liverpool FC or the historical turbulence of the 1970s, reading Red or Dead is definitely a fascinating way to pass a few lazy hours by the pool.
by MAX VEE