Jonathan Wilson’s new book (assisted by Scott Murray), “The Anatomy of Liverpool,” starts like so many pieces of literature about the Merseyside club: Istanbul. In the opening, Wilson recalls how he had essentially written his Financial Times report for the 2005 Champions League final by halftime -- an ode to Paolo Maldini, above all else -- before the implausible happened.
But those who expect the next 376 pages to follow the foolproof formula -- mentions of fate, divine intervention and magic -- may be disappointed. This is not a book that gets carried away with the romanticism of that night, and of the club as a whole. Instead, Wilson remembers (not reminisces, or recollects, you will note) how Liverpool were 3-0 down in the first half, despite playing some good football; Wilson acknowledges that sometimes, story and narrative can overtake the reality of what actually happened.
“What is also lost in the search for an overall explicatory narrative is the nuance, the ebbs and flows a game takes on its way to an eventual result on which almost all interpretation ends up being based,” he writes. He has a point. The FA Cup final of 2006 is synonymous with Steven Gerrard and his moments of brilliance, but largely forgotten is the performance of Mohamed Sissoko in midfield, who ran from first minute until the 120th, allowing Gerrard to move forward. Likewise, in the shadow of Luis Garcia’s moment against Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League semifinal stands Igor Biscan with the midfield display of a lifetime.
This led Wilson to administer a “close reading” of 10 crucial games throughout the history of Liverpool, with the FA Cup semifinal of 1989 at Hillsborough omitted as it is “too big for a book of this nature,” and rightly so. The selections are interesting, particularly the first two: a title-decider, the Football League’s first, with Aston Villa in April 1899, and the post-war triumph over Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 1947. Neither had video footage available, and therefore Wilson uses just newspaper clippings and historical reports to formulate.
This is one of Wilson’s strengths in general. Anybody familiar with his writing elsewhere knows his meticulous nature in approaching a subject. No incident is left without being pondered; no goal, or action, is without some sort of consequence. The book is not simply about these 10 games; they are not detailed match reports which, as well-written as they may have been, would have offered little as a book. The 10 matches are the crux of "Anatomy" but they are contextualised with how the game came to be of such importance, and how it shaped the future.
And so, Liverpool’s 1899 defeat to Aston Villa is not just of how they were beaten 5-0 by the Midlands club, but of their formation just seven years previously, of their first real superstar in Alex Raisbeck, and of their eventual maiden championship two years later. Similarly, the 1947 triumph is put into context by how the Second World War changed the landscape of English football, and how Liverpool profited from it despite nobody -- not even the Liverpool Echo -- expecting anything more than mediocrity in the coming season.
The first two chapters are engrossing, with Wilson somehow framing more than 50 years of history within it, despite only having papers like the Liverpool Mercury, Manchester Guardian and Sporting Life to (quite ingeniously) paint a picture. It is informative to both Liverpool and non-Liverpool supporters, and also offers a platform for Wilson to use going forward; by now, the reader knows what to expect from the remaining eight matches and nearly 70 years of history.
Tactical interpretation and sociological understanding are Wilson’s strengths in his writing; he does not just write about the football, but how the football shapes the people who watch it. Liverpool is very much a club, and city, that caters to that, allowing Wilson to really show his knowledge and analysis deeply.
The chosen games are both tactically and socially important. Their first FA Cup win, against Leeds in May 1965, allows him to explore the values of Bill Shankly; the European Cup defeat to Crvena Zvezda encompasses the change of tactics in Europe, and how the chastening defeat was the catalyst for Liverpool (and subsequently, England) to change theirs, after losing to a team whose “control of possession had enabled them to control the game.”
The two European Cup wins in Rome, in 1977 and 1984, are written with the shifting political climate in mind. There is also Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest in April 1988 -- “the high point of dominance that may never be repeated” -- as well as Kenny Dalglish’s final game as manager (first time around) against Everton in February 1991. Liverpool’s European triumphs, in Rome (2001) and Istanbul (2005), complete "Anatomy."
This book is a dissection of the anatomy, bereft of any real hysteria or fantasy. Although plenty of reasons have been attributed to some of these great wins, when analysis is merely limited to a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head, Wilson looks to decipher exactly how everything had a cause, and subsequently caused a reaction. In both times good and bad, and with results both pleasing and devastating, Wilson never looks at anything but the facts before, during and after the event.
It can sometimes feel a little too removed from emotion. He asks at the start of the Wolves chapter: “At what point did Liverpool secure their status as one of English football’s bona fide giants?” while also alluding, in the opening chapter, to how Liverpool’s never-say-die attitude was founded in the early throngs of the 20th century, coming back from a demoralising season to be crowned champions for the first time. Sometimes, these questions and observations do not necessarily have answers and reasoning, as hard as he tries to find them. There is also a problem, in the later chapters, of writing of a history well-known by many. There is an early reference to Shankly telling Ray Kennedy “they shot the wrong Kennedy” -- one of the most well-known Shankly quotes. It is, of course, inevitable to cover it (and to suggest Wilson shouldn’t is silly), but the background of the early chapters loses its full interest as the modern Liverpool appears, making way for the close reading of the games themselves.
That raises the question about who this book is for. Those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Liverpool, or those who go to work with red scarves tied around their wrists and You’ll Never Walk Alone as their ringtone, look away now. This book is for fans, both Liverpool and non-Liverpool, with an interest of how a history of a club can be shaped. It does not have the reminiscence of Simon Hughes’ excellent "Red Machine," nor does it contain the sheer volume of history that "The Liverpool Encyclopaedia" (by Arnie Baldursson and Gudmundur Magnusson) possesses.
But this is a book most definitely worth time and effort; it is different to most others, if only because it looks at the history of the club through an analytical, almost surgical, eye. The analyses of the matches are excellent, while the surrounding content is interesting, especially in the earlier chapters. “It was Liverpool’s last hurrah,” writes Wilson, as he concludes his chapter on Istanbul. “Even if better days aren’t coming back any time soon, Liverpool fans can take succour in an unparalleled history, as glorious and gilded as that of any club in the world.”
And for Wilson, he can take succour in that he has produced a book that makes a good effort of charting that unparalleled history.