by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
21 April 1962: Liverpool win promotion to the top flight after an eight-year absence
On 21 April 1962 Liverpool, after an absence of eight seasons, retained their position in the top flight of English football. Promotion was confirmed with five games remaining thanks to a 2-0 win over Southampton.
They had been relegated from the top division in 1954 and since they had suffered their record defeat when Birmingham beat them 9-1 at St. Andrews on 11 December 1954; and suffered the ignominy of losing to non-league Worcester City in the FA Cup in January 1959. Almost a year later Liverpool, languishing tenth in the second division, signed Bill Shankly as manager on 1 December 1959 and, in retrospect, he was the catalyst for the resurgence of a side who had looked like they had been going nowhere for the last few years.
In his first two games in charge Liverpool conceded seven goals with no reply as they lost 4-0 at home to Cardiff and 3-0 away to Charlton, and it quickly became apparent to Shankly what was wrong with the team, it was simply they weren’t good enough. He began rebuilding, clearing the squad of players he did not feel were up to the job, and introducing new ideas into training. Goalkeeper, Tommy Lawrence has remarked, “As soon as Shanks came he just changed it” as he replaced long runs on the pavements and up and down the terraces with activities on the pitch. “You play on grass and you will train on grass,” Shankly told his players. Lawrence also noted that, “we actually saw a bag of balls. We had never seen a bag of balls.” Ronnie Moran, who at the time was in his eighth season with Liverpool, was very impressed by the new manager saying, “I learned more in the first three months than I’d done in the seven years that I’d been a pro. I wish I’d been five years younger.”
Finally, 18 months after he had taken the reigns, Shankly added the final pieces of the jigsaw when he signed Ron Yeats and Ian St. John from Dundee United and Motherwell respectively, two players he had admired when he was managing at his previous club Huddersfield but had had no money to buy. Shankly had been in a battle with the Liverpool board for money and the players came at a combined cost of £59,500, with the £37,500 paid for St. John being over twice Liverpool’s previous record for a transfer. Shankly now felt Liverpool were ready for promotion with key players in place in defence and attack. “The coaching and training staff, with the players, had spent a lot of time on tactical plans to suit the type of players we had, and this, together with the great physical fitness of the lads, added up to a feeling of optimism tinged with caution,” Shankly told the Liverpool Echo, but warning that the fixture list gave him the impression that the early matches were difficult ones.
As it happened, he need not have worried. His new signings both made their debut in a 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers as Liverpool began an 11-game unbeaten run to the start of the season, and going seven points clear by the end of October. Among the scalps were Leeds who were on the wrong end of a 5-0 defeat in the third game of the season that included a Roger Hunt hat-trick. Liverpool went to the top of the table after that game and would remain there for the rest of the season. They won promotion eight points clear from their nearest challengers Orient, scoring 99 goals in the process, and netting five goals or more on six occasions. Roger Hunt would score an impressive 41 league goals during that season forming a deadly partnership with St. John who bagged himself 18 goals. Other heroes of that season were Ian Callaghan who scored his first goal for Liverpool that season away at Preston and would go on to set the club’s record for most appearances; and Alan A’Court, Gerry Byrne, Jimmy Melia and Gordon Milne, all of whom were ever-presents.
Back in the big time a season of consolidation followed in which Liverpool finished in a respectable eighth place. The next season though they went on a run of seven straight wins in March and April, culminating in a 5-0 win over Arsenal at Anfield which secured them their first championship since 1947 and sixth overall. The next season they beat Leeds 2-1 to win the FA Cup for the first time, having lost both their previous FA Cup finals to date in 1914 and 1950. In the 1965-66 season Liverpool won the title again, but this was to be the last trophy that Liverpool won for the rest of the decade as the bright young team of the promotion season slowly aged. Some have argued that Shankly was a little slow in recognising the need for rebuilding but the message was driven home in February 1970 when Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup at second division Watford.
Shankly has said that, “After Watford I knew I had to do my job and change the team.” The old guard was phased out, to be replaced by a new generation of Liverpool legends such as Ray Clemence, Larry Lloyd, John Toshack, Steve Heighway, Brian Hall, and of course Kevin Keegan. Combined with the younger players from the 1960s like Tommy Smith, Chris Lawler, and Ian Callaghan the team went on to win the UEFA Cup and the League in 1973 and the FA Cup in 1974. After that FA Cup win though Shankly shocked Liverpool by handing in his resignation stating that at 60 years of age he wanted to spend more time with his family. Shankly’s assistant Bob Paisley took over and led Liverpool to even greater triumphs that included six titles and three European Cups in his nine years in charge.
Ron Yeats has said that promotion in 1962 was the proudest moment in his career and stated, “Without that nothing else would have happened…The success that followed over the next 30 years as the Reds conquered Europe would not have been possible without the heroics of the historic 1961-62 season.” Undoubtedly that promotion was the spark for Liverpool’s later successes and that Shankly was the architect behind it. After his retirement others would carry on the job that he started, but it was Shankly who started the process that would see Liverpool become one of the biggest clubs of English and European football.