Peter Hooton Explores the Birth of Liverpool Football Club’s Famed Boot Room
Supporters of Liverpool football club will be familiar with the fabled boot room, the den of ideas that used to be an integral part of the Anfield setup. It was a place built on a code of loyalty and hard work which were the cornerstones of innovative manager Bill Shankly’s upbringing. This small, intimidating location housed coaches, such as Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran, and Roy Evans as they plotted world footballing domination over a cup of tea (and at times some of the harder stuff).
Lead singer of The Farm and lifelong Liverpool fan Peter Hooton has delved into the mythology around the famed 12 x 12 storage room in his book The Boot Room Boys, uncovering new stories and unseen pictures as he traces its roots, and why it had such a huge impact on the club. We sat down with Peter for a fascinating trip down football memory lane about the location that helped engineer Liverpool FC’s journey to become the most successful British club in Europe in the 20th Century and set in place what later became known as the Liverpool way.
The MALESTROM: It’s a fantastic book, it must have taken a huge amount of research?
Peter Hooton: Yeah, well I went down to the archive in Watford, found the photographs, I probably picked out about 500 hundred and I used about half of them, but a hundred I’d never seen before. So I structured the narrative around the photos, the idea behind it was to find things a lot of people won’t know. A lot of the information, I wouldn’t say it’s brand new, but it’s been hidden away. What I did was read about 15 autobiographies from players and managers and just pieced it all together like a jigsaw really, or like a game of Cluedo, you know one person would say one thing and another would say “well this is what really happened”, so it was just trying to get as near to the truth as you could really.
TM: Maybe let’s start with Bill Shankly and how he revolutionised not just Liverpool but English football really…
PH: The reason I looked at some of his older clubs Grimsby, Workington, Carlisle, and Huddersfield is the fact that he hadn’t been that successful, but he was so ambitious and he felt that Liverpool matched his ambition when they approached him after a game they played up at Leeds Road in Huddersfield. He thought they were ambitious but actually they wanted him to do it on a shoestring. They had this rule where they wouldn’t buy players for over £20,000 – I didn’t realise that they’d tried to buy Jack Charlton – Shankly was a big Jack Charlton fan which he writes in his own autobiography. He said basically, the very fact that the board wouldn’t allow him to buy Jack Charlton meant that Leeds became much stronger in years to come.
The big turning point which I mention in the book is Eric Sawyer joining the board. When he joined the board from Littlewoods where he was the financial director – and as John Moores had just been elected chairman of Everton while also being a major shareholder in Liverpool as you know, he thought it was a conflict of interests to be chair of Everton and also have shares in Liverpool, people would say he’s favouring Everton – so he put Eric Sawyer in charge of his shares and he was the game changer really. He understood Shankly, what he was about and Shankly didn’t really… reading between the lines, he didn’t really trust the other directors.
He saw them as members of the Coal Board, who used to close pits and they weren’t willing to spend money. Eric changed things, he went into board meetings and made the case that they had to listen to Bill Shankly otherwise they’d lose him and that they had to buy these players. They kept saying they [potential signings] are out of our league, they’re the type of prices Everton pay. So the irony isn’t lost that Shankly reversed the roles of the two teams fundamentally.
TM: Of course he also managed to galvanise the team and tap into the mindset of those on terraces, notwithstanding the fact that back then players and staff didn’t earn much different a wage to them?
PH: Not much more, my Dad was going to the matches in those days and he said nothing ever happened at Liverpool, nothing ever happened they were just in the Second Division, the directors were happy because they were getting gates in big games of forty odd thousand, so money was rolling in through the turnstiles and they had no ambition.
When Shankly came, he totally changed the whole outlook of the club, transforming it beyond recognition. And, he also got that communion between the fans, the fervour of the fans, he always said Liverpool reminded him of Glasgow. He used to love going to Glasgow matches even though he didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body, he would go and watch Celtic and Rangers (laughs) and he wouldn’t see any dichotomy there, it was just because he loved football.
So really it was a whirlwind, I don’t think they realised what they were getting and within four years, of course, he wins them the First Division and the very first board meeting after that he was asking what’s happening with the player’s bonuses? Because he thought the club would be delighted – we’ve just won the First Division – and he was in dispute with them straight away over that because they didn’t want to pay any bonuses. It was a typical inward looking board of directors who just weren’t on his wavelength, that’s why he came out with the ‘holy trinity’ – the fans, the players, the manager – they probably resented that.
TM: He seemed to have a lot of problems trying to convince them on transfers as well?
PH: Oh yeah, that’s the reason he left Huddersfield, he had Denis Law and also Ray Wilson who ended up at Everton and he wanted St John and Yeats to sign, I mean Huddersfield could have been the Liverpool of the 60s if they’d shown any ambition. If the Huddersfield board had bought those players, that would have been Huddersfield flying and Liverpool would not be the club they are now, there’s no doubt about that. So a lot of it’s down to fate and luck and Shankly’s enthusiasm, the boot room they were his trusted lieutenants.
TM: How did the boot room work, there was a certain philosophy?
PH: Yeah, in his first meeting with the backroom staff, he said “look all I’m asking for is hard work, loyalty, and honesty”, and he knew if he got that everything will be fine. He encouraged them to have opinions, but he said, “if anyone comes to me with a story about someone, it’s the person who comes with the story that’ll be getting the sack, not the person the story’s about.” From that moment on, they were a loyal group of people, and all they wanted was success for Liverpool football club. He was obviously the spiritual leader, but the boot room was allowed to operate and continued his philosophy that you’re only as good as your last season.
The boot room started through Joe Fagan, basically Joe Fagan helping out Guinness Exports. His mate ran Guinness Exports which was a local football team, and he used to help them out with training and in the end, they’d be sending crates of bottled Guinness and the only place to put them was the boot room, so in the end they thought they’d better start drinking this stuff so that’s how it all started. It wasn’t a blueprint, it wasn’t contrived, it was purely spontaneous and natural and that was the beauty of it.
Also, they all had different personalities but as a unit, they were formidable, because players were reluctant to knock on the boot room because they’d get the acid sharp-tongued wit, “what are you doin’ here? You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight. Why aren’t you training? We’ve heard you’ve been out at nightclubs.” It was all designed to keep them on their toes and it didn’t matter what the price tag was, they’d judge you on your personality and your ability to stand up to all that, I suppose you’d call it dressing room banter.
TM: It sounded pretty rudimentary, certainly compared to today?
PH: Yeah it was, especially for some of the well-dressed managers, like a Ron Atkinson, there were no seats, it was just crates, it was all quite intimidating in a way. In fact, Elton John who at the time was the chairman of Watford said he felt more intimidated and nervous going into the boot room in the 80s than he’d ever felt performing in front of 100,000 people in America. So I think that sums it up, they never gave anything away… and they never said anything about each other in public. They had grievances, Roy Evans was at the book launch and he said they had furious arguments about tactics and players, but it all stayed in those four walls.
TM: Did other clubs try and replicate that?
PH: Yeah I think they did, but they were a product of their time and their class I think, and they all came from football, they’d all played at a decent level and they knew their stuff. As far as they were concerned it was a case of keeping everyone’s feet on the ground and trying your hardest for the club. Because of Shankly’s principles and philosophies… he always said “if I’m going to clean a step, I want it to be the cleanest step in Merseyside”, it was that working-class pride and that’s why they were able to maintain this solidarity.
TM: He was a big innovator as well, training regimes and meeting at Melwood to travel to the ground, sounds simple but it created unity?
PH: What he did, first of all, Liverpool used to jog from Anfield to Melwood and then do the training and then jog back. Roger Hunt and Tommy Laurence said that when they first started doing that, they were living in Warrington and they could hardly get on the train cause they were aching so much. Shankly immediately stopped that and said, “no, we train on grass, we don’t run on roads, we play on grass we train on grass“.
So he introduced a coach from Anfield to Melwood, but then he didn’t let them have showers at Melwood, he let them cool down on the coach and then they had showers at Anfield. They had this theory that if you relax for half an hour after you’d warmed up after you’d been sweating, you were less likely to get injured than if you’d got a hot bath after the half an hour. He used to get people to back him up like Bob Paisley, “that’s right Bill“. Now whether it was scientific or not I don’t think was ever proven, but in his mind it was.
TM: Attention to detail was a massive thing with Shankly, there are similar figures in the modern game with similar traits. How do you think he’d of fared against your Mourinho’s?
PH: He was a great innovator, he was the one that brought in going to scout other people’s teams, that was not commonplace at the time. He brought in new training methods. Ronnie Moran kept a black book on how they were doing, the first week of training, the second week of training, so it was all in a way scientific, even though they wouldn’t have called it that. He was a great innovator Shankly and he played a style of football in the 60s and then totally transformed that in the 70s.
We played Red Star Belgrade, who played a continental style of football. The boot room saw that and Shankly saw Red Star put on an exhibition of football at Anfield in ’73 and he realized then that the 60s tactics weren’t going to work anymore. He had to adopt a new style of football with ball playing centre-halves and that was in November 1973 and by May 1974 Liverpool were doing that in the FA Cup Final, so that was in just five months.
They were the first team in England to do that and obviously they were copying the continental style, the Dutch teams and of course what they saw first hand with Red Star. So he was an innovator, I think he would have adapted, he would’ve hated things like the power of the agents. He would have been pleased footballers were getting paid better than they were back in the day and I think he would have been one of those people who embraced the modern game you know. He’d still think referees don’t understand the game (laughs).
TM: (Laughs) It’s right he nearly left Liverpool though on numerous occasions?
PH: Yes numerous times, one of the first was because of Johnny Morrissey. He was a well-known player on Merseyside who had a reputation for being a bit of a hard man, even harder than Tommy Smith (laughs). There’d been a few incidents at Melwood, and the club sold Morrissey to Everton behind Shankly’s back. Now Shankly had fought to pick the team, before Shankly the directors had picked the team, and he couldn’t believe that they’d sold a prospect in Morrissey and the board said well you never played him last season, he was in the reserves and Shankly said, “well yeah, but he had the potential.” And, he proved that at Everton, he became a very good winger for them.
He was fuming over that, but the irony was, the person who convinced him not to leave was Matt Busby, so inadvertently Everton and United were instrumental in Liverpool’s global success and appeal now. It really is ironic because if Matt Busby had said “you better leave Bill”, you know, but Matt Busby his heart was still in Liverpool. He wanted to be Liverpool manager. He loved Liverpool but Liverpool wouldn’t offer him the managers job, they offered him the job of chief coach – this is after the war – and United moved in, so that was the initial bad feeling between the clubs I think because United poached him from Liverpool. But, his heart was still in Liverpool in many respects because otherwise why would he be convincing Shankly to stay on?
TM: When did things slide with the boot room, was it under Dalglish? Obviously, Souness gets a lot of stick…
PH: Souness is to blame for the dismantling of the boot room, I think it had started under Dalglish but up until then no one had ever been sacked from the boot room or ever even left the boot room. I mean people had retired… After his first full season in charge Dalglish wins the double and I think from that point on he wants his own setup. So Geoff Twentyman was asked to leave – they said he left on health grounds, but I don’t think that was the case and he sacked Chris Lawler – Dalglish does cover this in his book, when I read it I thought, I didn’t know this. His first line is something like ‘people say I dismantled the boot room but nothing could be further from the truth’.
Well, I didn’t know that people were saying that, but I think it must have been what the rumours were around Anfield you know. The one thing Dalglish did first of all when the secretary asked what he wanted, he just said I don’t want anything really, just build me a bar in the managers office, he didn’t want any new furniture, he just wanted a bar built, so he could invite the managers into his office after the games. So from that moment on the boot room was being marginalised, but Dalglish would probably see it another way, that he kept on Roy Evans and Ronnie Moran – but remember no one had ever been sacked, the boot room was based upon solid principles, where everyone sticks together. In fact, the reason Paisley and Fagan took the job was so the others wouldn’t lose their jobs, it was out of loyalty to each other.
I’m not pointing the finger at Dalglish, but basically, the club at the time was probably trying to modernise, they could see a new era coming along with television and more money. They saw the boot room as old-fashioned probably, old men talking about times gone by, nostalgia, so I think generally the club probably wanted to modernise and then when the Premier League came along it was a club decision to dismantle the boot room. Roy Evans said, “it’s not about the bricks and mortar, it’s about the characters in there, the principles”. By the time Souness comes along, everything’s unraveling and I don’t think it’s any surprise Liverpool haven’t won the league since 1990, because certainly, recruitment in the late 80s was pretty poor.
Twentyman was instrumental from ’67 to ’86 in getting us the top players, a who’s who of Liverpool greats, all of a sudden he’s not there anymore and recruitment dry’s up, you don’t need to be Columbo to work that one out. Dalglish did produce those brilliant teams of the 80s, but on the terraces, at the time a lot of us were saying these new players that are coming in just aren’t up to the standard, David Speedie, Jimmy Carter you could go through them. Obviously not every signing Twentyman got was brilliant but he got Clemence, Hughes, Keegan, Hansen, Ian Rush, all the greats. Souness said when he heard he’d [Twentyman] left Liverpool he couldn’t wait to snap him up for Rangers because he was the best scout in Europe and Roy Evans was of the same opinion. I’ve no idea why Dalglish wanted him to go, it could have been a club decision or a collective decision I don’t know.
TM: Roy Evans instigated a return to those old ways though?
PH: He did but really it was too late. Roy produced a wonderful team finishing in the top four which didn’t qualify you for the Champions League back then. A great team but they didn’t have that steel, that mental discipline. That’s what I say in the book John Barnes was horrified by some of the antics of the players, the boot room was trying to impose discipline through Ronnie Moran, but players had more power, they were laughing, they weren’t bothered. The foundations, the principles, the philosophy that Shankly had laid out had gone. Roy did his best, results improved they won a trophy but… The ‘Spice Boys’, that wasn’t his fault, there were all sorts of rumours at the time, there’s no discipline, players were parking in his spec, people doing handbrake turns in the car park, but I likened it to when the popular head of P.E. takes over as the headmaster and the players just took advantage.
TM: And to the modern day, Klopp kind of has a similar philosophy to Shankly, uniting fans and the players and the club?
PH: I think so yeah. I think he’s got that same vision and ambition and undoubted natural enthusiasm that Shankly had and what’s impressive is he won’t be swayed by the press or social media or anything like that. Shankly wanted St John and Yeats and said if these two can’t play, sack me in the morning, and he knew they’d transform Liverpool football club and Klopp knew that Van Dijk would transform Liverpool. Up to now, it looks like he’ll be proved right. The fact that he didn’t go for any second choices is exactly what Shankly would’ve done.
TM: Can we finish with your enduring memories of the club?
PH: Certainly from that period when Shankly transformed the club, that feeling of unity, of doing it for the team and for the supporters, we’re doing it for the glory of the supporters. As Shankly said, “it’s you we play for, you pay our wages”. I do mention in the book that wages are not paid by the turnstiles anymore, it’s TV revenue, but I think the philosophy and principles can still be the same. When the club and fans and everyone is united, you can achieve things. Those principles will never disappear and the fact that Shankly put them into Liverpool’s DNA, the Liverpool way… that’s the enduring memory.
The Boot Room Boys by Peter Hooton (Virgin Books, £20) is out to buy now.