Alan Ball and a letter to Mr Shankly

Alan ball broke my heart, but a letter from Mr Shankly put it back together

By Jeff Goulding

Sit down, grab a cuppa. Let me tell you a story, a Sing Fong story. Some of it is real and some is not. But, if you look hard enough between the lines, and let the words transport you, you’ll see it doesn’t really matter in the end.

Sing Fong stories are fragments of lives woven through moments in time. There are loads of them. Somehow they all got lost, until now. Come with me, while I retrieve them piece-by-piece and hold them in the light for you to enjoy.

This one’s about that glorious Spring in 1967, when Alan Ball broke my heart, but Mr Shankly put it back together.

Ever wanted to bottle an instant in time? I have. If I could, there’d be two moments I would want to keep forever. Firstly, I’d bottle the few hours I spent in Stanley Park with my mate Jack, on the 11th March 1967 as we waited for time to creep by and let us go to the game. I’d also bottle the hours after the match was over. More of that later though.

That was some day. I don’t have much affection for matters on the pitch of course. Thanks to Alan Ball for that. But still, If I had a bottle full of that day, I’d be drinking in those memories until my last gasp.

It was a Saturday, derby day. But there was added spice. The Reds were going to take on the Blues at Goodison Park, in the 5th Round of the FA Cup later that night. In normal circumstances that would have been enough but this game was special for a whole other reason.

It would be watched by the largest derby-day crowd ever, thanks to what I suppose Mr Wilson, the Prime Minister, would call the ‘white heat of technology.’ That night, at kick off, there would be 65,000 people at Goodison Park and 45,000 would watch the same game at Anfield, on giant screens erected on the pitch.

That meant 110,000 people watching the same game, live as it unfolded. We’d never seen the likes before.

It would be a magnificent experiment, and the first time ever that a football match would be relayed from one ground to another, live. In an age were one man had already encircled the earth in a tin can, and plans were afoot to put two on the moon, I guess it wasn’t much to write home about.

Still, it was the stuff of science fiction as far as I was concerned. Though, as exciting to me as all of that was, It couldn’t hold a candle to the way those glorious hours in the park felt, before the game got underway.

In the few hours before kick off, in any game, there exists a magical hinterland between joy and despair. Nothing is decided and everything is still possible.

Neither Jack nor me had to face the reality of the result, just yet. So, we simply revelled in the warm grass beneath us and the sunshine and wind on our faces. The air was also warm but blowy. Its gusts chased fluffy clouds through a blue sky and in the distance, I could hear kids laughing as they chased a kite across the park.

This game was going to be a clash between the champions of England – Liverpool, of course – and the winners of the FA Cup, Everton. Eternal glory awaited, along with weeks of gloating. At least it would for one of us.

Jack was an Evertonian but I supported the best team in the world. A team that played in red and who had the greatest manager ever, Bill Shankly. I’d sent Mr Shankly a letter a few weeks before the game. He hadn’t replied yet and I was starting to worry that he wouldn’t. I knew he was busy like, but I wanted him to write to me so badly, I got this sort of funny feeling in my stomach every time I thought about it.

I’d get home from school and, not wanting to ask if it had arrived, for fear of being disappointed, I’d instead stare longingly at my mum. Without uttering a word, and seeming to read the question on my mind, she’d simply shake her head. Every time it happened, it was devastating.

The thought of him, sitting in his office reading the words I had written, even better writing the words ‘Dear Peter,’ as he penned his reply, that was almost too much. If he did eventually write back, I though I’d frame that letter. I’d read it every day for the rest of my life.

Jack had called round to our house just after I’d finished my breakfast, which consisted of a solitary boiled egg. Still, I couldn’t finish it. I’d gone to bed thinking about the match and the same nervous anxiety had been waiting for me when I woke up.

Jack was sat on his bike, one foot on the pedal and the other steadying himself on the street outside our front door. He was wearing his black school shorts and a blue shirt. His knees were still scuffed from playing footy in the street the night before, as were his shoes.

‘Playing out?’ He asked.

It was either that or sit around the house waiting for the tension to build and getting on my Dad’s nerves. Mum was in the kitchen sorting out tea and the smell of pea-wack-soup and bacon ribs bubbling away on the stove was already starting to fill the house.

‘Yeah. Alright.’ I said.

I didn’t bother telling my parents. To be honest, I doubt they’d have noticed I was gone anyway. My Dad wasn’t exactly the most communicative man in the world. He barely spoke to me, unless I was in trouble. And then he tended to speak with the back of his hand.

By day he was half man, half armchair and by night he was in the pub at the bottom of the street. On the rare occasion I was still up when he crashed through the front door, I’d just leg it upstairs before he had chance to see me.

He wasn’t an angry drunk, really. He could be a pain in the arse though. Mum would greet him with a cup of Ovaltine. Then she’d just guide him to his favourite chair next to the wireless, speaking softly and chiding him gently.

He’d just drift off to sleep listening to music. Sometimes he’d be there all night and I’d see him in it, when I got up for school the next day. The Ovaltine would usually survive the night too.

He’d always make it into work though and my mum’s housekeeping money would always be on the mantelpiece at the end of the week. So the rent got paid and there was always food on the table. It couldn’t have been much of a life for her, but somehow she made it work.

I had no real problem with him. I just stayed out of his way. Besides, I had Mr Shankly. I learned more from him than I ever did from my father or at school. He was the gear. John Lennon was too. But Mr Shankly was better.

I grabbed my own bike from the cupboard under the stairs, stuffed an Eagle comic down the back of my pants and off we went to the park. Jack had a duffel bag over his shoulder and in it he had packed some butties and a lemonade bottle he’d filled with water.

We’d fight over who got the first swig and the winner always made it a long one. The first slug from the bottle was always pristine. Each one you took after that, would be full of breadcrumbs.

‘Why do you read that stuff,’ asked Jack, nodding towards my comic and taking another bite from his jam butty.

‘Dunno.’ I replied. I did, but I didn’t think Jack wanted to know the whole story. I was wrong.

‘All that space stuff,’ he continued, ‘I used to think it was daft like, but it’s real now isn’t it. Well, most if it like. Don’t fancy the idea of little green men much.’

He laughed but it was a nervous one. He wasn’t alone. I’d thought about that too and it kept me awake sometimes, to be honest.

We’d both been the pictures to see movies like King of the Rocket Men and we loved Flash Gordon, but the idea that people would actually go into space was just, well, stuff that happened on the big screen. Real people didn’t go to outer space, we had thought. So we could enjoy the fantasy of it all, and had never let the monsters in the films bother us too much.

Now we knew that men, or one man to be accurate, had actually done it, all bets were off. I never told anyone but ever since Yuri Gagarin had taken his spin in the heavens, just five years earlier, I’d been looking out my bedroom window nightly and worrying about what was up there looking back at me.

I wasn’t as much concerned about there being Russians and atom bombs out there in the vast blackness, as I was about the possibility of there being Daleks. The adults and the newspapers were paranoid about the red menace. I was obsessed with the green and the robotic one. Clearly, so was Jack.

‘Me neither,’ I replied with a shudder. Then I laughed to chase away the thought. ‘We’ll soon be on the moon though, and then who knows what will happen, maybe Mars next.’

‘You reckon? My Dad says the Rusky’s will be there first. He says they’re already out there, watching us. I don’t believe him like.’

We both looked up into the blue sky and imagined a cosmonaut staring back down at us. As if the Kremlyn were concerned with the musings of a couple of Scousers in Stanley Park, on derby day. Jack broke the silence.

‘Hey, if there’s an FA Cup on Mars, yous might be able to win that one.’ He laughed at his own gag and I rolled my eyes.

‘Yeah, you lot would be better with Captain Nemo as your manager.’ I replied.

He looked puzzled, but there was an expectant smile forming on his lips. ‘Go ed, what?’

‘Nothing. Just there’s 20,000 leagues under the sea. Sooner or later, you’re bound to win one of them.’

This time the two of us were laughing. And with that, the football had chased away the darkness of the world, both the real and the imagined one. It could always do that, footy. It still does.

We’d been there for hours now and I realised there wouldn’t be time for tea. I’d have to make my way to the ground and join the queues. I had a ticket for Goodison and Jack, the Blue, was going to our ground to watch it on the screens.

My ticket cost 8d and his was a few pennies less. But that wasn’t the only reason I was jealous. It seems odd to me now, but I’d have gladly swapped my seat before the live action, for a chance to be part of something so new and seemingly futuristic.

The Weekly News had described the game as ‘the cup tie that is out of this world,’ and it was difficult to argue. Though there was plenty of debate in the letters section. One Red had written in, saying that Tommy Lawrence could take the day off, as Everton’s strikers wouldn’t get near Liverpool’s goal.

A Blue wrote, that the Reds strikers lacked the guile to breakdown Everton’s rearguard. With the likes of Ball and Young upfront, who was worried, he gloated.

We dropped our bikes off and I walked with Jack to Anfield, before I doubled back through the Park to Goodison. I wanted to sample the feel of the place and take in some of the excitement. It was still light and the crowds were already gathering.

The queue for the Kop turnstiles stretched along Walton Breck Road, down Kemlyn Road and eventually reached the houses at the start of Anfield Road. It was no surprise. This was the biggest derby since the Reds got back into the first division, in 62.

I saw Jack into the throng and said my goodbyes. ‘Hope you lose,’ He shouted with a wink. ‘Same goes, I shouted,’ and off I went. The temperature had dropped a little and the wind was up, in more ways than one. So, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the cap my Nan had knitted for me.

It was red, of course, and she’d stitched the word LIVERPOOL in white piping, just above the brim. I placed it on my head and strode off with pride.

We were packed into Goodison like sardines. The noise as kick off approached was incredible and I could hardly hear myself think. I felt confident, I really did. We were the champions and we had the likes of St John and Hunt upfront and Smith and Yeats at the back. I didn’t think we could lose.

I was in for a shock.

The first half was even. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. These were the two best sides in the country, after all. But, on balance I thought Liverpool had done enough. Then Everton launched an attack.

To my right were two lads who seemed to be mates. They were probably about the same age as Jack and me, and one of them, the one with a red and white scarf around his neck, screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Whatever it was, his mate, who had a blue rosette pinned to his jacket, didn’t like it one bit and he shoved his friend right into me.

A little scuffle broke out, and we all missed the fact that Alan Ball, who seemed to have drifted too far to the right of Lawrence’s goal, had flashed a right footed shot into the net.

There was an almighty roar, and at first I thought Liverpool had scored. Then, when I saw the delight on the faces of Blues all around me, my heart sank. The kid with the rosette was laughing now and his mate was fuming. So was I.

The Reds huffed and puffed throughout the second half, and as the final whistle approached the sense of dread in the pit of my gut grew. We were out of the cup, and worse still, I had weeks, maybe months of torment to come.

Jack would be merciless and he wouldn’t be the only one. The walk home was gloomy. The street lamps were on and I could just make out a few stars in the night sky. In my head I begged the Emperor Ming, the Russian Cosmonaut or whoever was watching, to just put me out of my misery. No release was forthcoming.

I walked past the pub at the bottom of our street. The lights illuminated the paving stones beneath my shoes. The atmosphere inside seemed huge and it too escaped the confines of the bar. It was raucous and good-natured.

Above the clink of glasses and laughter, a few songs could be heard. They toasted ‘St John’s body’ and promised to ‘hang the Kopites one-by-one on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.’

It stung. There would be worse to come though, as the Evertonians refused to pass up this golden opportunity to rub our noses in it. In the days that followed, fake funeral cards were handed out by the Toffees to poor unsuspecting Reds.

They read, ‘In Memory of Liverpool FC, who died in shame at Goodison Park,’ or something like that. Jack brought some into school on the Monday after the game. And he placed one on my desk, ready for me to find. I didn’t see the funny side. This one hurt. It hurt badly.

As I neared my front door, I noticed Mr Giordano, our neighbour, smoking a rolled up cigarette as he sat on his doorstep. The Giordanos lived in the terrace next to ours. He was a nice man. My Dad always referred to him as an ‘eye-tie.’ I was thirteen years old before I realised that meant he was from Italy.

His wife was English though, and I later learned that he had been a prisoner of war, in a camp in Halewood. They had allowed the POWs out at weekends if they had behaved themselves, and Mr Giordano had met the love of his life at a church dance.

On summer nights, I’d lie on my bed, with my bedroom window open and listen to the weird music coming from their yard. It always featured some fella singing in a funny language and a really deep voice or a high-pitched woman, but it was strangely soothing.

Once, I had kneeled on the ottoman in front of my bedroom window and sneaked a peak into their yard. It was filled with flowers, growing out of buckets dotted all around. Light from their kitchen window bathed the petals and in its glow I could see the two of them, dancing slowly as the music wafted into the summer evening.

I was only a kid, but somehow it affected me. I remember thinking, ‘so that’s what marriage should look like.’ Anyway, I knew it would take more than a bit of Italian opera to lull me to sleep that night, or any of the of the nights that followed.

‘Goodnight Mr Giordano,’ I called, as I passed his door.

‘Ah, ragazzo,’ he called out to me, blowing smoke into the air.

I had no idea what that meant but I waved to him anyway. he must have realised my mood, because he called out again, this time in English.

‘That Alan Ball,’ he said, ‘he’s some player, eh, ragazzo. You’re still campione though, eh?’

He was right. We were. But the FA Cup meant so much then. It didn’t help. I smiled weakly and pushed open our front door and disappeared inside.

To my surprise, my Dad was in and still up. He was sober too, and sat next to the wireless listening to the news. My mum was on the couch, knitting. She looked up as I entered the living room and her smile was full of pity.

My Dad turned off the radio and turned to me. ‘Bad night lad.’ He stated, in a matter of fact tone. But his face said he shared my pain.

I was so surprised to hear him speak to me, much less show some sympathy, that I almost didn’t answer him. Instead I just slumped on the settee next to my mother.

‘You could say that,’ I managed eventually.

‘There’s soup in the pan on the stove, and potatoes, cabbage and ribs, if you’re hungry son,’ she said. Mum always thought of our bellies in times of crisis.

I told her I wasn’t hungry and thought about going to bed. Then Dad did something that changed the whole complexion of the night. He handed me an envelope. It had already been opened, and the seal was all jagged, I could see the letter inside. My heart soared and my stomach began to flutter.

‘What’s this, Dad?’ I asked, but I knew already.

‘Sorry son.’ He started. ‘It came in the second post yesterday. I only saw it today. Your mum had put it on the mantelpiece and forgot all about it.

‘I’m afraid I opened it already though. You’ve never had a letter before, and, well, I just thought it would be for me. I didn’t read it all, I promise. But, what I did read, well I reckon it’ll cheer you up a bit like.’ He smiled.

I tried to remember the last time I’d seen him smile, properly. I couldn’t. It lit up his whole face and I felt a tear find its way to the corner of my eye. I looked down at the letter in my lap and proceeded to withdraw the paper inside.

At the top of the page, the words LIVERPOOL FOOTBALL CLUB were emblazoned above the club crest. Underneath it was fancy lettering that said Athletic Grounds Co. Ltd. I felt like I was handling some kind of precious treasure, and of course, I was.

It was from Him. Mr Shankly. My heart rate quickened and I felt short of breath, though I was just sitting down. I read his letter in silence, my lips moving as my eyes darted along the page. It said,

Dear Peter,

Received your letter regarding your loyalty to the team and myself, thanks for the same.

It gives me great pride to have so many loyal men like yourself behind us every week in the Kop. I can tell you that your support gives us the belief to win. We hope we give you similar belief. I can tell from your words, that we do. And that is worth more than all the money in the world to me.

We need to keep building ourselves up and up. It won’t be too long before we can give you even more to be proud of.

Yours sincerely

B. Shankly

Manager

I actually cried when I read that. Whenever I look at it, it still brings a tear to my eye. It lifted me out of my morass and it helped me face the Blues in school. The pain of defeat never completely went away, but I could handle it because Mr Shankly said we’d be winning again soon.

It’s 1973 now. I’m 20 years of age and I’m getting married soon. But, every time I set foot on the Kop, I still feel like a kid full of wonder. No matter the score, it’s a magical place.

It took him a while, but Mr Shankly was as good as his word. We were too, and we kept believing. The rewards came, eventually. We’ve just won the league, again and I’m on my way to the UEFA Cup Final, against Borussia Moenchengladbach, in Germany.

I’m so excited. We won the first leg at Anfield 3-0. I was there too. I’m certain we’ll be lifting another trophy before this night is out. Thank you Mr Shankly. Thank you for everything.

If you enjoyed this experiment in short form faction (a mix of fact and fiction) you may like my novel, Stanley Park Story: Life, Love and the Merseyside Derby.

3 thoughts on “Alan Ball and a letter to Mr Shankly

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