Books about Liverpool are a tricky business for outsiders. Unless you’re a fan and buy wholeheartedly into Anfield’s array of intangibles, accounts of the club’s history can be rather off-putting. Fortunately, Simon Hughes’ oral history of the 1980 period evades that danger zone: Red Machine is well-structured and well-written, its intimate portraits providing thoroughly engaging insight into some of the characters who contributed to the era.
Fundamental to it is that cast list; this is not just a rehash of old, worn stories from players who remain on heavy rotation in the media, but a look at some of those who perhaps weren’t fundamental to the success. Some of the key members do feature. Bruce Grobbelaar’s account of his own upbringing is suitably vivid and Ronnie Moran, even in retirement and at the twilight of his days, retains the authority which straightened so many backs at Melwood.
Unlikely as it sounds, though, the book is made by Hughes’ interviews with players who fell short of immortality. Howard Gayle’s memories of his childhood are harrowing and his perspective on being the first black player in Liverpool’s history is, particularly now, extremely valuable. Craig Johnston and Michael Robinson also feature and they too, albeit for different reasons, are worth their place: this isn’t a gratuitous, fixture-by-fixture rehash of victorious seasons, but rather a collection of human stories, in several cases pivoted around the challenges of playing for the club and of actually being a professional footballer in the first place.
In several instances, Red Machine also offers a glance at the social texture of Liverpool itself and, more broadly, at the personal circumstances from which many of these players emerged. Gayle’s account is particularly notable, given its bystander testimony into the roots of the Toxteth Riots, and Robinson, although not a Merseyside native, is compelling in his views of Thatcherism and modern day politics. Clearly, these were not players who existed in vacuums or who, unlike their modern equivalents, allowed the outside world just to pass them by.
Football isn’t an aside, though. The virtues of the Boot Room and the men it comprised are repeating themes, so too is the spirit grown within the club and the sense of togetherness fostered among men who, often, arrived at Anfield with little in common but yet left with a lifelong affinity to the place.
So this is not just for Liverpool supporters; it’s not one of ‘those’. Instead, it’s a worthy addition to the neutral’s library and a book which will further anyone’s understanding of one of the great epochs in English football history.