BY MARK GODFREY
Unless you’re a fan of Liverpool Football Club you might not have a clue who Reuben Bennett is; and even then, those Kopites with less of a grasp on the club’s illustrious history could well struggle to identify him either in grainy, old, black-and-white photographs or by the deeds that demand his influence at Anfield should never be underestimated.
In December 1959, after the resignation of Phil Taylor as manager, Bill Shankly swapped Leeds Road and Huddersfield Town for Liverpool – a team that had languished in the Second Division for five years and had just been dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Worcester City. The stagnation on the pitch was mirrored off it; Anfield was in a state of widescale disrepair and the neglected Melwood training ground was described by Shankly himself as “a shambles”.
Within his first year on Merseyside, Shankly – scathing about the quality and motivation of the personnel he witnessed in training every day – replaced 24 first team players he inherited from Taylor and also insisted that the board spent money on the club’s facilities to bring them up to a standard that matched the Scot’s lofty ambitions. Despite all this top-to-bottom change and refurbishment, there was one thing – or rather one group of employees – that Shankly decided it would be imperative to retain; the now-famous Boot Room. This loyalty would turn out to be a masterstroke.
The five original members of that legendary coaching think-tank have been much-celebrated for their achievements over the subsequent decades. From Shankly himself, on to his managerial successors Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, the quintet that made up the brains behind Liverpool’s success were wholly or partly responsible for the incredible haul of 10 First Division titles, 2 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 4 European Cups and 2 UEFA Cups amongst other minor honours. They were the creators of a dynasty; the instigators of an era.
Obviously, the greatest amount of credit for these achievements has rightly been apportioned to the figurehead and leader Shankly, and the master tactician and talent spotter Paisley, but it was Bennett who was the man that helped to galvanise and condition the players. It would be no good having the sharpest, most-skilful team in the land if they were not able to compete with and overcome opponents in the notoriously physical domain of English football.
Bennett was born in Aberdeen in 1913. During a playing career interrupted by the Second World War, he was a goalkeeper for Hull City, Queen of the South, Dundee and Elgin City before taking up his one and only managerial position at Ayr United in 1953. Things didn’t quite work out for Bennett at Somerset Park so he took up an offer to become part of the coaching staff at Motherwell under Bobby Ancell. The Fir Park club became renowned for their youth development during the late 1950s; eight of the club’s players went on to become capped by Scotland earning that side the nickname ‘The Ancell Babes’. Future Liverpool great Ian St. John was one of those who owed their career to the time spent working with Ancell. Bennett had already moved south to Anfield before Motherwell’s ‘Babes’ vanquished the likes of Flamengo, Gothenburg and Athletic Bilbao in a series of ‘Floodlit Friendlies’ in 1960.
Shankly and Bennett had an affinity for one another; their working-class Scottish upbringing, an iron will and the belief that fitness and conditioning the body would go a long way to conquer whatever obstacle was thrown in front of them. Bennett had also worked alongside Shankly’s brother Bob during his time in Dundee and at Third Lanark.
The pair spent a lot of time together travelling to games, scouting opposition and talking tactics – they were close confidantes. Shankly trusted Bennett implicitly, as did the Liverpool board; they offered him the manager’s job ahead of Shankly only for him to turn it down.
He may be the most unheralded member of the famous Boot Room but he was integral to the success Liverpool had during the 1960s and 1970s. While Shankly, Paisley and Fagan schemed, Bennett was the man behind the scenes who drilled the players, and while he was often uncompromising and hard on them with the aim of toughening them up, he gained a tremendous amount of warmth and respect along the way; inspiring good players to become great.
Just as Liverpool began to dominate domestically, Ronnie Moran was added to the backroom staff in 1971 and Bennett’s role changed in order to assist Shankly (and eventually Paisley and Fagan) take on the rigours of European football. He began to spend more time on various foreign spying missions, gathering as much information as possible with which to prepare the Reds for continental glory. These trips paid off spectacularly as Liverpool assumed the mantle of Europe’s dominant team vacated by the great Real Madrid side of the late 50s and early 60s.
At the end of the 1985/86 campaign – when Liverpool pipped their closest rivals Everton to both the League and FA Cup – Bennett decided to call it a day at the age of 72, joining his old comrades Paisley and Fagan in well-earned retirement (Shankly passed away in 1981).
Reuben Bennett died on December 14th 1989, exactly 30 years to the day after Bill Shankly’s appointment as Liverpool manager; he was the longest serving original member of the legendary Anfield Boot Room never to manage the club he had done so much for. The turn-out for his funeral was so great, there was no room for the representatives of Everton, forcing them to sit alongside the family in the front pew. He is buried within sight of Anfield, the place he helped transform from the dilapidated, ramshackle home of a club going nowhere to the kings of British and European football.