There is, in David Peace’s new book Red or Dead, a passage called “Lonely room and dinner for one". In it Peace describes how his subject, the great Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly, deals with retirement.

Not well, as it happens; still possessing the energy, the drive and the passion but without the outlet his job provided, Shankly can’t reconcile to the fact that Liverpool have moved on. The ultimate football obsessive, he is unwilling—or unable—to let go of the game or the club. He uses the lunchtime crockery to turn the dining table into a mock football tactics board; he keeps returning to the club to watch their practice sessions—in some cases even oversee them—till he is told there’s a new boss around.

In his trademark repetitive style, Peace brings out the loneliness of retirement: “Bill waited and Bill waited. Bill still went to the games, Bill still watched the matches. But Bill waited and Bill waited. Bill had stood on the Kop, Bill had sat in the stands. Waiting and waiting. Not with the directors, the directors and their friends. Not in their box. Bill waited and Bill waited. For the letter on the mat. The invitation and the ticket. Bill waited and Bill waited. For the knock on the door or the voice on the phone. Asking Bill, inviting Bill. To an away game, an away match."

Shankly does get that call, that ticket—it is to a cup final Liverpool are playing in Bruges, Belgium, but he realizes, through the course of his journey, that he won’t travel with the team nor stay with them. He could be just another fan—or, worse, a corporate sponsor—who gets a freebie. This was the fate that befell Shankly, one of football’s most charismatic managers, who coined the most famous footballing quote: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that".

Shankly was not only respected, he was revered—to the extent of having his feet kissed by Liverpool fans; he gave the club success but, perhaps more importantly, he gave the club its soul. The general reckoning is that he deserved better than to be shunned by Liverpool following his retirement in 1974 (though he was honoured with a statue after his death). It does raise the intriguing question of how another famously obsessive Scottish manager will cope with his retirement. But at least Alex Ferguson has a statue, a stand named after him and a seat on the board.

Peace’s book—published earlier this month—and the more directly titled The Manager, by Mike Carson (due out end-August), turn the spotlight on the lives and philosophies of football’s most influential community. For all the individual brilliance of footballers, for all of Lionel Messi’s magic and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hunger, it is managers who make great players by making great teams. Messi (and Xavi and Andres Iniesta) were fashioned into a system by Pep Guardiola; Ferguson shaped Ronaldo into a star and then built a team around him. If Arsenal are the go-to club for football’s aesthetes, it is largely, if not solely, because of the philosophy of Arsène Wenger, their manager of 17 years.

The spotlight on managers is even more apposite in this of all seasons, when Europe’s top teams—in Manchester, Chelsea, Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Paris —all have new men in the hot seat, an unprecedented coincidence that, at the least, will add another dimension to the usual intrigues of the football calendar. The manager’s role in football is perhaps the best illustration of how much the sport—not merely the game—has changed, how far it has progressed. Today’s boss, whether José Mourinho, David Moyes or Martino, has a suite of duties to look after: man-management, match tactics, evolving a defined playing style, handling transfers and scouting, balancing the books, meeting sponsors, dealing with the media—all the while dealing with public expectations.

As Wenger observes in The Manager: “We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the Internet straight away. Basically, the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned."

Managers are football’s fall guys, the ones at the frontline—and faultline—of football’s increasingly zero-sum game; yet they are the repositories of its philosophies, the strategies, the traditions, they provide the direction to a club or to an entire country. Often they are the sum of an entire community’s aspirations and hopes—as it was with Shankly in war-ravaged, hard-up Liverpool.

The growth and spread of football over the last 50 years is essentially down to a tribe of coaches who carried their philosophy from one national team to another, setting up SOPs and sowing the seeds of a tradition and culture. It happened in Africa’s newly liberated countries in the 1950s, it happened in First World Japan and South Korea a decade ago.

It’s happening today too. When Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich needed the club to return to its winning ways, he didn’t bring in any old coach, he brought in the fans’ favourite Mourinho. When Manchester United sought to replace their own messiah Ferguson, they didn’t bring in the super-successful Mourinho, they brought in Moyes—no trophies in 11 years at Everton—because he best embodies the club’s culture and tradition. The job description goes way beyond managing the 50-odd matches every season.

Which brings me back to Shankly and his quote. The sentiment came in for much criticism at the time and in the years since—and especially at any time of footballing tragedy. It echoed, in its impact, another notorious “Liverpool" quote, John Lennon’s “We’re bigger than Jesus" offering from 1966. In fact they were similar in substance too, both making the point that for the fans, whether of the Beatles or of football, the object of their affections had a more exalted status than religion or life itself. Shankly’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph called him a “football folk hero to the core".

That would be fitting—folk heroes never have to retire.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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