What has the Northern League ever done for us? What price the greatest manager that the English game has ever seen? How about three shillings and sixpence a match?
For the mastermind behind multiple European Cup winning campaigns that might not sound like much, but that’s what Bishop Auckland, “the kings of non-league football” as he described them, paid Bob Paisley per game when they gave his precocious youthful talent a chance in 1937. Having starred for Hetton Juniors, Paisley’s diminutive stature looked like costing him a shot at the big time as a club after club decided not to follow up their scouting interest in him.
Bishop Auckland took that chance, and were rewarded with two seasons of half-back performances good enough to convince Liverpool to whisk him away in 1939 from under the noses of Sunderland. And who could blame them? He was a key part of the treble-winning side in 1938-39 that picked up their record tenth amateur championship along with an Amateur Cup victory over Willington and a Durham Challenge Cup victory over South Shields. The latter came at the end of a remarkable period of 11 games in 14 days. Speaking towards the end of his career with Liverpool, it was still his experiences in the north east that remained uppermost in his affections.
“Believe it or not the most thrilling experience of my life has nothing to do with football. It was the unforgettable sight of Vesuvius in eruption while stationed near Naples during the war. The most pleasurable experience is a football one, and came when I won an Amateur Cup Final with Bishop Auckland in 1939.”
His playing prowess is often overlooked, and when you check out his managerial CV that is perhaps understandable, but following a five year break for the Second World War Paisley still managed to force his way into the Liverpool side and make 277 appearances before hanging up his boots in 1954 and joining the club’s backroom staff as a self-taught physiotherapist.
Despite scoring the goal that took Liverpool to the 1950 FA Cup final Bob would find himself overlooked for the Wembley showpiece, and was on the verge of leaving the club such was his disappointment. Ever the pragmatist, however, he turned his disappointment into a positive, and the experience was one that he would turn to when making difficult decisions in his managerial career. When having to leave players out of big games he would always be able to relate to them, and empathise with their disappointment at missing out.
Paisley was, for my money, the finest manager that English football has ever seen. When looking back on his career it’s hard to say what is more surprising – the sheer level of his success, or the fact that he never won the FA Cup. He picked up six Championships and only finished outside the top two in the league once in his career (1980-81, finishing 5th). There was only one trophy-less season in his nine at Liverpool. He also had a thing for trebles – winning three League Cups on the spin, as well as three European trophies – the UEFA Cup of 1976 followed by the back to back European Cup triumphs in ‘77 and ‘78. Not happy with those successes, however, he went on to repeat his European Cup triumph again in 1981.
When you look at all of that, you find it hard to believe that people initially questioned his suitability to fill the great Bill Shankly’s shoes when the Scot retired unexpectedly in the summer of 1974. Paisley remains the only manager to have won 3 European Cups, which would be enough to lift him into the pantheon of the great even if you ignored the rest of his outrageously successful career.
He was quite simply a phenomenal manager, and the greatest gift the Northern League has ever given to the game in this country.