Book Reviews

Red or Dead – David Peace – Book Review

Bill Shankly celebrates with the fans at Anfield

Peace in Our Time

Bill Shankly was, and is, one of the Father Figures of the modern Football game. Ask Alex Ferguson what he thinks of the legendary Liverpool manager and you’ll get a paean  of praise for the great man. While Shankly’s immediate successor Bob Paisley was more successful in terms of trophies, it was the canny Scot that laid the foundations for the Liverpoool Football Club of Five European Cups. Author David Peace has moved from Brian Clough – ‘The Damned United’ – to Bill Shankly – ‘Red or Dead’ and writes a massive tome that sadly doesn’t do justice to his subject.

Shankly and Peace should be a good match. The former, an iconic figure in the game, famous for his wit and aphorisms, the latter one of the more interesting contemporary novelists not afraid to write about big themes and people.  Peace has said that Shankly was a good man, ‘a God’, and the affection and hero-worship is here in the book. But the style mostly neither pleases nor compels the reader (even allowing for the clever working in of a ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’ Smiths phrase at one stage).

Peace wants to show how Shankly’s method was about simple repetition at the Club – how routine led to League Titles and Cups. However the narrative becomes jarring and uninspiring. A typical paragraph might read as follows: ‘Bill looked in the mirror. Bill took the soap in his hands. Bill washed his hands. Bill used the towel to dry himself’. You can see what Peace is trying to do but it just reads, for the most part, as a listing, not as a work of art.

Howver, the reverential feelings Peace has for Shankly are always apparent and some of the book’s passages work in allowing younger generations to learn more about one of the leading figures in the 1960s and 70s game. Shankly’s love of the fans and bond with the Kop is conveyed beautifully as are his political leanings; he would have been, as Brian Clough was called, a ‘Socialist of the Heart’ and a lifelong Labour voter. There’s a couple of moving recreations of encounters that Shankly and Harold Wilson had on radio – encounters between two men who reached the zenith of their careers and who both, for differing reasons, struggled with retirement. Peace does not gloss over the awkwardness of Bill Shankly’s difficulty with ‘moving on’ from LFC  – but does so with sensitivity and undoubted affection. Some of the recreated team talks are incredibly stirring and oddly emotional – ‘Shanks’ was as much a psychologist as a technical Coach in his ability to build teams and motivate players.

If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’ll like, but not love this. Otherwise, it is not for the light-hearted unless you want to speed read your way through hundreds of pages. Peace’s ‘Red or Dead’ needed prodigious editing but like a dull match come to life with a moment of magic, there are flashes of brilliance. It was a different World then; the simple pieties of Shankly and his football ethic are much missed today.

‘Red or Dead’ Faber & Faber, 715 pp, UK £14.99

By Dan O’Neill – Dan writes on TV at and on Politics at

Categories: Book Reviews, Books

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