In this guest post, Sam Riding looks back on then Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s appearance on the Bill Shankly Show in the mid-70s, a turbulent time for English football and Britain economically.
When the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson appeared on the Bill Shankly Show in 1975, was it merely two men approaching the end of their careers making small talk, or does it show the changing face of football – and Britain – in the 70s?
Shankly’s retirement a year earlier in 1974 can perhaps be considered a sign of upheaval at the top of the football pyramid. This, along with Don Revie’s leaving Leeds to become England manager (announced the previous week) and Brian Clough’s failed 44-day tenure as his replacement, points to rapid change. English football was arguably left behind during this period, with the national team unable to qualify for two World Cups in a row, coinciding with a nine-year period from 1968 to 1977 where no English side won the European Cup.
1974 can also be considered a year of turmoil in politics, with two general elections, the first resulting in a hung Parliament as well as strikes and civil unrest, and the second producing a narrow majority for the Labour Party under Wilson. Whilst he was yet to leave front bench politics, Wilson was by all accounts exhausted, finding himself in an increasingly weak position both politically and physically. The two men went into the innocuous Liverpool studio as victims of change.
From a footballing perspective, the two men share a common history, something highlighted in the interview. Indeed Wilson was born in Huddersfield, where Shankly was manager from 1956 to 1959, and grew up in Merseyside, on the Wirral.
When Shankly became Liverpool manager in 1959, Wilson was MP for the constituency of Huyton (where he would remain throughout his career). There is also a mutual connection to Tranmere Rovers, the team Wilson grew up watching, where Shankly took up an advisory role post-retirement. He was pivotal whilst Liverpool manager in the club’s signing of former Liverpool stars Tommy Lawrence and Ron Yeats, the latter serving as player/manager.
Though this is acknowledged, Wilson does not overlook Shankly’s famous quip that “there are only two teams in Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves”, failing to mention Tranmere. The two men also discuss the various talking points of football in the mid-70s, namely the recent World Cup, which England failed to qualify for. Scotland, however, did qualify, getting knocked out in the group stages on goal difference, despite beating Zaire and managing an impressive draw against defending champions Brazil.
However, whilst the national team’s future is seen as bright, Shankly’s optimism regarding Don Revie’s England side was misplaced, with Revie resigning to coach the United Arab Emirates after failing to qualify for both the 1976 European Championships and the 1978 World Cup. Revie’s resignation led to a ten-year ban from the FA for bringing the game into disrepute (though this was later overturned).
For many, the 1970s also embody the strong links between football and socialism. Shankly himself claimed his political beliefs greatly influenced his footballing philosophy. A lifelong socialist, his death in 1981 was marked by a minute’s silence at the Labour Party Conference. This respect can still be seen today, with current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn quoting Shankly in a recent speech in Liverpool. Wilson, also a self-confessed socialist (though many within the Labour Party would dispute this) saw a clear link between the political landscape and that of football, repeatedly using sporting analogies throughout the interview. Indeed, he famously once paused mid-speech to give the half time scores, as well as reportedly spurning an event to mark Britain’s 1973 entry into Europe in favour of watching a match.
As previously mentioned, Bill Shankly had retired as Liverpool manager in 1974, with Harold Wilson ultimately stepping down as Prime Minister in 1976. Shankly never got the recognition many felt he deserved from Liverpool, until after his death.
Though the club went on to achieve unprecedented success under his replacement Bob Paisley, Shankly is now hailed as a revolutionary force in English football. Wilson by contrast would not live to see another Labour election victory, passing away in 1995. Whilst both men were once seen as modernising figures, by 1975 they appear washed up. This period saw a need for change in all walks of life and football was no exception.