Alex Raisbeck: The original Liverpool icon

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 13, 2019

Twerton Park is a strange place for a legend to flicker for the final time, but that’s where Alex Raisbeck’s career in football ended in 1939. As many others would discover over the next 80 years, great players didn’t necessarily make great coaches and by the time he was appointed by Bath City in 1938, Raisbeck had already suffered a relegation with Bristol City and unsuccessful spells with Halifax and Chester.

The outbreak of war and competitive football’s suspension brought an end to his time in the west country and, for the final ten years of his life, he returned to Liverpool to work as a scout.

Liverpool, a club of legends and where Raisbeck is such a key stitch in the tapestry. He made 312 appearances between 1898 and 1909, captaining Tom Watson’s side to both of their first two Football League championships. Other, more recent immortals are more tangible and their achievements exist far more vividly. Anyone can find clips of Bill Shankly’s oratory or watch footage of Kenny Dalgish’s goals; Raisbeck is more elusive though and has to be extracted from the layered hyperbole of the time.

Like this, from the Liverpool Echo‘s Victor Hall, writing in 1924.

“Let us recall his characteristics. Tall, lithe, sinuous, and yet gifted with muscular and physical development beyond the ordinary. Active to a degree, speed either on the turn or in flight, and with niche, at the addition of resourcefulness and judgement that would have been all sufficient in a other player, without those added gifts, methodical in training, painstaking in preparation, genial with his players and considerate with his committee. With a perfect blending of the qualities that to make a really great player!”

As charming as antiquated language often is, it can skimp on the detail. Even as recently as the 1950s, players were being described with passages which belonged in The Iliad. They would have superhuman characteristics, be drawn in generous physical proportions and, instead of listing their skills and effects, the commentators of the day would focus on their ‘vigour’ and ‘fortitude’. Flattering, no doubt, but not particularly useful.

Raisbeck was born in 1878 in Wallacestone, a Scottish village south of Falkirk. When Watson was constructing his first great Liverpool side (having already architected Sunderland’s Team Of All The Talents), he had followed conventional thinking: for craft and culture, head to Scotland. The DNA of English players was perceived to still be spoiled by the rough and tumble game played in public schools, and it’s not a coincidence that, ahead of the 1898 season, the club recruited so heavily from beyond Hadrian’s Wall. George Allan, Hugh Morgan, Tom Robertson and John Walker would all move south to Anfield that summer and Raisbeck, then 20, would also join from Hibernian for £350, having spent part of the previous season on a short-term contract at Stoke City.

He was a centre-half. From match-reports, not a particularly static one either and while there are plenty of descriptions of his rugged defending, often he’s portrayed as a roaming type, exerting influence up and down the pitch. Physically, he was also a spectacle. The average height of a man in 1900 was just under 5ft6 and Raisbeck stood at a towering 5ft9 and a hefty 13 stone; not quite a giant of his day, but certainly one of the more physically imposing players of the time.

“A man of Raisbeck’s proportions, style and carriage would rivet attention anywhere.”

It’s a habit of the time. For most of the next half-century, football writing seemed to retain its fascination with size and strength. Long before the intellectualisation of the sport and the dawn of dead-behind-the-eyes analysis, players were treated with a strange sort of wonder – reliably, the very best were observed as a kind of super species, capable of all sorts of unlikely feats.

But, in accordance with the geographical stereotype, Raisbeck was also a cultured footballer. Many celebrations of his career talk as much his grace as much as they do his grit, and his balance as well as his bulk. It’s still hard to imagine what he would have looked like carrying the ball forward or just how powerful his tackling was, but it provides enough of an outline: he was Liverpool’s granite centre.

But perhaps how he played isn’t so important. Or, at least, maybe it’s his role in Liverpool’s first ascent which really fossilised his legend.

In 1892, then-Everton president John Houlding found himself on the losing side of a bitter internal squabble. Houlding was also the Anfield landlord and had created friction by trying to capitalise on the club’s early success (Everton won the First Division in 1891) through a series rent increases. The effect, eventually, was a split: he would keep Anfield, but the other board members, the team, its identity and history, would flee across Stanley Park to Walton.

He needed a team to play in his empty ground and, in June 1892, Liverpool Football Club was born. It’s an important detail to remember, because it stresses just how young they were. They entered the First Division for the first time in just their third year of existence and, despite a quick, brutal relegation, they had rebounded successfully enough to win the title by their ninth year.

Raisbeck was not the only decisive factor in that first success. Watson’s arrival from Sunderland in 1896 was hugely significant and the excellent recruitment he oversaw was obviously pivotal. The signing of centre-forward Sam Raybould in January 1900 – and the 128 goals in 228 appearances he would return – was also of vast importance.

But Raisbeck captained that side, which certainly helps to frame his role within the era, and he was also still in place when Liverpool rebounded from relegation in 1904 to win their second league championship in 1906. In the final ten games of 1900-01, they conceded just twice on the way to overhauling Sunderland and capturing that maiden title; clearly, to have played centre-half for that team is to be deserving of immortality.

But Raisbeck seems to have been both fulcrum and figurehead. In The Anatomy Of Liverpool: A History In Ten Games, Jonathan Wilson describes that initial chasing down as being emblematic of the “restless spirit’ which would come to form part of the club’s long term identity.

“It had been the kind of late season charge which would define Liverpool during their golden era of the 1970s and early 1980s: a template had been forged.”

It’s a romantic angle, but it’s hard to dispute. Liverpool, probably more than any other club, remain intertwined with the idea of dragging the iron from the fire and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The run to the 1986 First Division title and the pipping of Everton, for instance, Steven Gerrard’s FA Cup final goal against West Ham, or – most famously – Istanbul. The symmetry is too seductive to ignore and it’s easy to trace those roots back to Raisbeck and that first improbable triumph.

Liverpool is also unquestionably a club of icons. Its eras have always been defined by personalities, either on the pitch or to its side. Shankly and Souness, Dalgish and Gerrard. Perhaps that too is templated and can be traced back to Raisbeck: the kind of towering, magnetic presence which the club and its supporters have always flocked towards. He was both talisman and icon, the first in the long line that would follow.

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