July 1933 - 1949
Shankly signed for Preston North End in the summer of 1933. The previous season, his first as a pro, he had broken into the Carlisle United side mid-season and impressed with his enthusiastic play. Preston, who had tried already to sign Shankly before he joined Carlisle, were not to be outdone a second time. The fee agreed between the two clubs was £500 and Bill received £10 as a signing on fee.
As had happened at Carlisle, he started the season in the reserves, for this was now a higher standard of football, Preston being in Division 2. He eventually made his full debut for them on December 9th against Hull City and quickly established himself as a regular and a crowd favourite owing to his whole hearted attitude and commitment to the side. At the end of the season Preston had gained promotion to the Division 1 and Shankly had become a cornerstone of the side.
Shankly clearly impressed Preston North End's correspondent, Walter Pilkington, who wrote at the end of Shankly's debut season: "One of this season's discoveries, Bill Shankly, played with rare tenacity and uncommonly good ideas for a lad of twenty. He is full of good football and possessed with unlimited energy; he should go far."
In an otherwise disappointing season, in 1936-37, Preston had the satisfaction of reaching the F.A. Cup Final. At Wembley they came up against a strong Sunderland team that boasted Patsy Gallacher and Raich Carter. Sunderland ran out 3:1 winners and Preston never did themselves justice. The following year, Shankly scored his first league goal for Preston in a 2-2 draw against, of all teams, Liverpool at Anfield on 2nd February 1938. North End were again to reach the Cup Final that season and this time they ran out 1:0 winners against Huddersfield. They were now one of the strongest teams in the country.
It was the pinnacle of Shankly's playing career when Preston won the FA Cup in 1938 as the man himself remembers: "It was warm and the Preston players posed for photographers. Tommy Smith, the captain, was carried shoulder high and we all had our hands on the Cup. The sweat poured off us, even though we had short-sleeved jerseys, having learned from the year before. I've still got that silk jersey, made in Preston."
Huddersfield's centre-half, Alf Young, brought down George Mutch inside the penalty area and Mutch scored from the resulting penalty that won Preston the cup. Shankly's tongue-in-cheek humour after the match probably didn't make Young feel any better: "I was standing next to Alf Young afterwards. Tears were running down his cheeks. I said to him, 'Ay, and that's no' the first one you've given away!'''
Footage from the 1938 Cup Final
(uploaded by BULLFROGBUZZ)
Preston North End legend Tom Finney was Shankly's teammate: "Shanks first set foot in Deepdale in 1933 and within months, at just 19, he was in the first team. As you may imagine, he wasn't a guy to give up his shirt without a fight and he followed his debut by playing 85 games in a row. He stayed for 17 seasons, eventually returning to Carlisle as manager. During his time at Preston, he won an FA Cup winner's medal, in 1938, and was capped by Scotland; he was also a member of our double-winning wartime side. A much better all-round player than some might have you believe, Shanks worked tirelessly to improve. After morning training he was always asking if anyone fancied going back for an extra session or a game of head tennis in the afternoon."
Bill Shankly lost 7 years of his career to the war. When war broke out in 1939, he was 26 years old, and the time lost until 1945 spanned his peak years as a player. Bill, who was in the RAF, starred for Norwich, Luton, Arsenal and Partick Thistle in the war as well as playing a single game for Liverpool on 30th May 1942 in a 4-1 win over Everton at Anfield. When full League football resumed for the 1946-47 season, he was already being considered (wrongly) as too old. Preston still held his registration, and despite playing for a number of clubs between 1939 and 1946, it was Deepdale where he resumed his full professional career after hostilities had ceased.
Shankly was now viewed as being part of a pre-war generation. Many clubs were throwing in youngsters in an attempt to make a fresh post-war start. Shankly, still a hugely accomplished player, soon found himself on the fringe of things and would often find himself helping to bring on the kids in the reserves.
In 1949, Shankly was Preston's captain, but struggling in Division 1. Carlisle offered Shankly the chance to become their manager and he took it. When Tommy Docherty took Shankly's place in the Preston team, Bill told him, 'Congratulations. You are now the greatest right-half in the world. Just put the number 4 shirt on and let it run round, it knows where to go.'
Bill could look back on a successful playing career:
"As a player I specialized in tackling, which is an art, and I was never sent off the field or had my name in a referee's book. The art of tackling, as with many things, is in the timing - the contact, winning the ball, upsetting the opposition, maybe even hurting them. You're in, you're out, you've won it and you've hurt him and left him lying there, but it's not a foul because you have timed everything right. I played it hard, but fair. No cheating. I'd have broken somebody's leg maybe, with a hard tackle, with a bit of spirit, but that's a different story from cheating."
Bill Shankly stand at Preston North End's Deepdale
Debut: 9th December 1933 v Hull City
1933-34 Runners Up Division 2
1936-37 F.A. Cup Runners Up
1937-38 F.A. Cup Winners
BILL SHANKLY (playing for PNE)
Jimmy Cagney in baggy shorts
Packed a tackle
Harder than a "piece"
kitbag not violin case
Deadlier than a smoking gun
And the philosophers soul
Forged its future history
Whilst honing skills carved
on ice and mud and the legs
Of fearful hearts that would
Hesitate just long enough.
© Sharon Marshall (Beautiful Game) 2001
Throughout the next couple of years, whereas you state that Bill visited Bellefield, which is at the other end of Sandforth Close, he was a very, very frequent visitor to our school. He was given permission by the headmaster to use the school's facilities, which were at the time light years ahead of any other school in the city, and we became almost blase about seeing Bill as we went to the gym, the baths, the weights room or elsewhere. One day during a spring half-term holiday along with the rest of the school cross-country squad I turned up at the school at around 9.30, to find a game of football going on in the playground. Some local boys were playing there along with a couple of my teammates. Obviously I joined in and only then noticed a short haired older man, not resembling any of the teachers. When the ball went into play it was obvious that Shanks was playing too. I had died and was playing in heaven, and to make things better Bill was on my side. He spoke, you listened. He coached and you did as he said. And it worked, too. I have never played as well, and even when it was my turn to go in goal I performed out of my skin. A cross came over and I reached as high as I could and somehow managed to trap the ball against the 'bar', which was the underside of pillared shed some six foot or so off the ground. One of the other side charged into me. Not prepared to let down my side, most of all Shanks, I struggle to stop the ball from falling over the line. From nowhere Shanks arrived and saved the day. Pushing the boy away he took the ball out of my hands and congratulated me on a good save. He spotted the ball and took the free kick he had awarded himself. As the play developed up the yard he turned back to me and asked if I was OK. I stammered that I was and took a hefty pat of encouragement on my shoulders.
Bill said, "You're doing well, son", smiled and looked at me playing football in my athletics kit. He cocked his head to the side and told me "Aye, you've got footballer's legs." The ultimate hero had just paid me the ultimate compliment a 14 year old could receive. I was in ecstacy (as I am now writing this and remembering how good I felt for months afterwards).