Homage to the Hero from Hetton-le-Hole

“I can let the team do the talking for me.” It is a quotation obvious never learnt by Paolo Di Canio or seemingly able to understand. It comes from one of the most unlikely football legends, whose name stands at the summit of managerial achievements in British football - a stunning array of 20 trophies in nine seasons, which will never be equalled. Despite this, he brought humility, not seen or ever likely to be seen any more, to the game.

by John_C Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:41 PM Comments

“I can let the team do the talking for me.”

It is a quotation obvious never learnt by Paolo Di Canio or seemingly able to understand. It comes from one of the most unlikely football legends, whose name stands at the summit of managerial achievements in British football - a stunning array of 20 trophies in nine seasons, which will never be equalled. Despite this, he brought humility, not seen or ever likely to be seen any more, to the game.

Although not associated directly with Sunderland, Bob Paisley was from the former mining community village of Hetton-le-Hole, seven miles away, where the development squad play most of their games. 100 yards away from Eppleton Colliery Welfare Ground is a memorial in recognition of and to pay homage to the phenomenal success of the reluctant hero at Liverpool.

“The genius in a flat cap, the sporting icon in a pair of carpet slippers, the world renowned physiotherapist in a woolly cardigan.”

These are just a few common descriptions of the man who was thrust into the limelight in a job he never wanted – to follow in the footstep of the legendary Bill Shankly as Anfield manager. He certainly did not tick any of the boxes expected in the current media age.

For all that, Paisley won three European (Champions) Cups, something even Sir Alex Ferguson was unable to achieve during his 27 years at Manchester United, as well as the UEFA Cup and one UEFA Super Cup.  Between 1975 and 1983, he also won six league titles, three League Cups and six Charity Shields. After his 11th visit to Wembley, one of his many famous quips was that he was surprised they never charged him rent and rates.

Born in 1919, as son of a miner, he never forgot his humble upbringings and frequently returned to Hetton to display his trophies. His football career started playing for Bishop Auckland, who he helped win in the Amateur Cup Final in 1939, saying in 1950 it was his most pleasurable experience. He was almost immediately snapped up by Liverpool, but like many of his contemporaries, his playing days were interrupted by World War Two and did not have his first full season until 1946/47, when the club won the First Division title.

Paisley stayed on at Anfield after eventually hanging up his boots, working in various roles including reserve team trainer as well as becoming a renowned, self-taught, physiotherapist. From the day Shankly arrived to take the reins, he flanked the legend's shoulder as his assistant. He proved to be the perfect foil to the great man with his unquenchable flair for public speaking.

In 1974, Shankly rocked the football world by announcing his retirement. But for the Liverpool board, there was only one name on their short-list as his replacement at what were the beginnings of the club's famous bootroom dynasty. Yet the inarticulate man who shed the limelight was by all accounts disinclined to step to the task that many believed was akin to a mission impossible.

Once there, Paisley proved to be a reluctant genius and became a legend himself, outstripping Shankly's deeds and indeed, every other manager in the history of the British national game in such a relatively short period. He proved to be a pioneer taking on top European teams and beating them playing their style of possession and patience football. After proudly riding aboard a tank as the Allies liberated Rome in 1944, his first European Cup victory came in the same city 33years later, defeating  Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Liverpool's legacy continued with Joe Fagan but the exploits in Europe were prematurely cut short by the tragic Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels in 1985. The famous Anfield bootroom of continuity and free and open discussions is a lesson to all. Paisley himself, who stayed on as a director, served 52 years at the club. His likes and long-levity is highly unlikely to be seen again. Yet for all of his achievements he was never honoured with a knighthood. 

Paisley may not have been made for the media age and seemed he could barely string together a coherent sentence in a television interview. Instead, he let his teams do the talking. In the world of sport, it is a rare person who achieves such immortality without the bluster of hype and self-promotion and without courting fame or publicity. Move over Mr Di Canio.