Wednesday, March 09, 2011 by Paul Grech
There have been few, if any, managers in the history of the British game who could match Bob Paisley’s genius in spotting players. The man who built three Champions’ Cup winning teams did so not by outspending others but by identifying before anyone else players with the talent to play in his sides.
Few instances illustrate this better then what happened when Ray Clemence decided to move to Tottenham in 1981. The act of replacing arguably Europe’s finest goalkeeper with Bruce Grobbelaar, someone who had only fleetingly played league football, seemed utter folly to most yet Paisley felt that it was the right move.
Grobbelaar’s success in a Liverpool shirt over the next decade proved the wisdom of Paisley’s judgement. As did Ian Rush, Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen and Ronnie Whelan; all of whom came to Liverpool when they were complete unknowns.
Yet there was more to their success than just talent. Each of those players spent months playing for the reserves, a period that is often described as being fundamental in their development. Those months helped determine not only whether they were good enough to play for Liverpool but also whether they had the character to do so.
Rush’s case was typical. He had become English football’s most expensive teenager when he joined Liverpool so probably expected to be involved in the first team from the off. Instead he found himself in the reserves and famously went to ask for a transfer after a number of months so disillusioned was he with his lack of progress.
It was at this point that Paisley suggested that Rush be a more selfish finisher. More than anything, this was a subtle test, a way to see how the striker would react. Petulance on his part would have certainly seen his wish for a transfer being granted. Instead, however, it got the reaction that was required and soon Rush started getting the opportunities he wanted.
To Paisley, Rush had proven that not only did he handle criticism but could react positively to it. And it was at that point that there really was the conviction that he could do it, that not only did he have skill to play for Liverpool but also the temperament.
Further proof of the important role a player’s character had in the determining a player’s ability to play for Liverpool comes from Alan Kennedy. “Paisley knew my family as he was from the same village as my mother,” Kennedy says of what led t his transfer to the club. “He knew what he was getting; he knew that I was a hard worker.”
As he would go on to show, there was more to Kennedy than that yet that insight into his character provided added comfort to Paisley.
In time, the importance of such attributes seemed to diminish. At least, they did in the minds of those charged with making the decisions. Graeme Souness felt that a player with as questionable a disciplinary record as Julian Dicks was Liverpool material whilst Roy Evans allowed players to dictate when they were willing to attend training.
Not that it should have been difficult to predict. His reputation in France was as an egotistical player more interested in his own personal position rather than of his team. Liverpool were concerned about this – Houllier apparently enquired with former assistant Patrice Bergues who by then had become sporting director at Lens – but still pressed ahead.
It was a huge mistake, the biggest in a disastrous summer (Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou were also signed that year) that ultimately killed off Gerard Houllier. Jamie Carragher would, much to Diouf’s apparent irritation, later comment that he’d never come across a player as disinterested in winning as the Senegal striker.
Sadly, Diouf is far too typical in modern day Liverpool. The club has struggled because there have been too many average players in the side. Yet that doesn’t completely explain it: there have also been far too many who didn’t have the right attitude. How can any player justify playing pass the pound during games? Or the ‘win or lose first to the booze’ mentality of the nineties?
Character isn’t something that a scout can easily pick up on. Then again, far too often warning signs have been ignored. Players have been bought despite the blemishes in the personal history with the vain hope that they will change. Others have been brought in and been overwhelmed by what was expected of them. And Liverpool continue to struggle as they will until this negative circle of not looking beyond a player’s technical abilities is broken.
This article initially appeared in Well Red magazine. Any views can be shared with A Liverpool Thing on Twitter.
Category Character; Well Red