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Football News: Former Liverpool Managers Part 6 George Kay Laying The Foundations

Former Liverpool Managers Part 6 George Kay Laying The Foundations
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Former Liverpool Managers - Part 6 - Laying The Foundations

George Kay 6th August 1936 - January 1951

George Kay has been very harshly almost forgotten in Liverpool FC folklore, when he did so much for the club and put a large part of the foundation in place to create the success that later arrived. His life does seem to be one big long set of unfortunate circumstances, which held him back from achieving the success he clearly deserved, as all agreed that he was a genuinely nice man who suffered extreme stress just trying to tell players that they had been left out of the team.

"The manager, George Kay, wasn't a bad fella either. You'd never hear him cursing and swearing. He was the type of manager you could talk and I got along fine with him." - Stan Palk

Kay was born in Manchester on 21st September 1891 and began his playing career with Bolton Wanderers in 1911, though he was not there long before failing to agree re-signing terms and moving to Belfast to join Distillery. The First World War soon put a stop to his playing career as he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, his experiences there forever altered his life, as they did to so many who spent time in the trenches. Kay was wounded, gassed and invalided home in 1917 with shell shock, all of which left him with severe anxiety throughout the rest of his life.

After the war he returned to England and signed for West Ham United, where he rose to captain them by the time they reached the first ever FA Cup final to be held at Wembley in 1923, the so-called White Horse final. Sadly he lost but it was still an immensely proud moment for him and the peak of his playing career, which saw him become the first player to ever make 200 appearances for the Hammers. However the health issues the war caused him plagued him and, on a 1926 tour of Spain saw him took so ill he was left behind until he was healthy enough to travel, though it took him three weeks to recover sufficiently. When he got home he retired from playing and embarked on the next step of his career, coaching.

Kay's first coaching role was with Luton Town, when he joined their coaching staff the following year, before stepping up to become manager in 1929. He led them to 13th and 7th place in the old 3rd Division South. He then moved on to take charge at Southampton, where he showed his desire to always look for something new to improve the team by creating their first nursery squad to bring through youngsters into the first team. Players such as Ted Drake were brought through but the club continously sold the best players he had making it impossible for him to build anything.

Though it was thanks to Southampton's financial problems that he first came to the attention of Liverpool, when he tried to sell them Ted Drake. Liverpool were not interested in Drake so Kay offered them his services instead, though they said no at the time, it seemed he made an impression. When Soton's financial situation worsened, the entire board of directors resigned en masse and the new board immediately asked him to resign to save the club money. Liverpool stepped in and offered him a job, appointing him on the 6th of August, but he stayed working at Southampton until the 21st of August to finish up his work for the club.


"George was meticulous about drinking before a game. On the Friday night before a home game we'd stay at a hotel in Southport. I remember one occasion, we'd just signed an inside-left from Oldham called Ken Brierley. We sat down for lunch and Ken was there with a glass of beer. That was unheard of and we couldn't believe it. Anyway, as we took our seat, Ken asked Jack Balmer, who was our captain, if it was okay. Jack replied, 'oh yes, we always have a pint before a game.' When George Kay came in, he walked straight over to Ken and pulled the glass away. Ken was astonished and George told him straight, 'when you are a Liverpool player, you do not drink before a game!'" - Albert Stubbins

The start was, to say the least, slow. Kay's first game on the 29th August was just over a week after he took charge, clearly not long enough to turn round a club which had been in decline before his arrival. After 12 games Kay had managed just 3 wins and the season ended with LFC in 18th place. Liverpool captain Matt Busby said that Kay, "worked like a Trojan to put things right". As ever Kay was always on the lookout for new ideas to move the club forward. Kay became the first manager to have his own office, though he still did not get the power to pick the team. In his early days he ended the chaotic open trials and instead scouts were used to check out players of interest.

Despite the changes the opening day of the following season witnessed a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Chelsea, however they did improve and finished the season in 11th. That summer was a big one for the club's future in more than one way. First there was the signing for £200 from Lochgelly Violet of future legend Billy Liddell. He had been recommended by club captain Matt Busby after Liddell had rejected a move to Busby's former club Manchester City. Kay once again showed his forward thinking by allowing Liddell to continue with his accountacy studies. While most in English football of the time had a disdain for education, Kay believed Liddell was better to be prepared in case his career was cut short. Also Kay showed his softer side that managers of the day seldom displayed when he allowed Liddell to go back home to Scotland to recuperate from his first injury, feeling that having Liddell sat around at home alone miles away from family and friends would not help his mental recovery.s

Something of more relevance was that Kay and his staff attended a coaching course in Leeds, another thing that was frowned upon by the vast majority of English football. Even then English football was slow to move forward, with new ideas dismissed as outlandish, but Kay was always willing to embrace anything that would help his team improve. After the course Kay did not just tell his players about the tactics he wanted to use, he actively discussed it with them, involving them. Kay said that he had the "willing co-operation of all players in pre-match practical work-outs and theoretical discussion". It probably went a long way towards explaining why Matt Busby often cited his influence over his own extremely successful management career. Busby had been at an old school harsh English regime with Man City, he found Kay's more benevolent leadership brought out the best in him and took that style with him when he created his 'Busby Babes'.

All of this never moved the club forward quickly, in large part because Kay was once more hamstrung by a board that was lacking ambition and the club finished 11th once more, but, despite the looming threat of war, Kay continued to prepare for the future. Another future legend was signed by him, this time the great Bob Paisley, then a young defender, was signed on a free from Bishop Auckland in May 1939, however he was unable to make his debut before the league programme was cancelled and World War 2 reared its ugly head.

"George Kay was a first-class manager and a very big influence on me. He was a lovely man, quiet and a deep thinker. He'd read books about psychology and he knew how to get the best out of his players." - Albert Stubbins

The War made things really difficult just to get a team together, Billy Liddell said, "with players in the forces stationed all over the country, Mr Kay wrote thousands of letters and must have spent many hours on the phone to commanding officers. Such was his personality that his own players and guest players would willingly make long journeys to play for the Reds." Kay was held in extremely high esteem by his players, such high esteem that he had been able to make unpopular decisions, such as banning the players from playing cricket during the summer, without even a murmur of complaint. His teams were assembled from guest players such as his own son, George Kay junior.

One guest in particular stands out. Kay added to his legends signing tally with someone who would become synonomous with Liverpool FC by bringing in the one and only Bill Shankly for a match against Everton. Bill Shankly says of Kay: "I played for Liverpool against Everton during the war in the Liverpool Senior Cup, as a guest from Preston. All the players were in the passageway including Billy Liddell and myself. But George Kay, the Liverpool manager, didn't speak. He just went round touching people on the shoulder. If he touched you then you were playing." Liverpool won the game 4-1. So Kay was the man who first brought three of the greatest legends the club had ever seen, Billy Liddell, Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly to LFC as players.

There was one other big signing George Kay made for Liverpool, in worldwide fame terms, possibly the biggest of all, as Joe Louis visited Anfield a couple of times while serving in the wartime US Army as a sergeant and was convinced by Kay to put his autograph to amateur forms. Though the forms were never sent in to be ratified, he did still convince the Brown Bomber, one of the greatest world heavyweight champions ever, to sign for the Reds. He did make more of a contribution than that to the long term success of the club as well.

In 1942 he started a weekly training school for the youth sides to, according to the Liverpool Echo at the time, provide 'intensive instruction in tactics, positional play and so on'. He also told Matt Busby that a coaching role was his if he wanted it on his retirement in May of 1944, though Busby never took up the offer. Bob Paisley said, "he took Liverpool throught the War to come out a bit like West Ham did after the First War. He was one of the people who laid the ground for the way Liverpool teams would play in the future....keeping the ball on the ground and passing it well, but being strong on the ball as well." However the key piece added to set the club up to be a genuine title challenger was the appointment of a new chairman, William 'Billy' McConnell, a fan and local business owner, who had ambition to make the club the best in the country.

"He had no other thought but for the good of Liverpool during his waking hours, and also during many of his nights." - Billy Liddell

It was McConnell who came up with the idea to take the team away on a tour of the US and Canada. McConnell owned a catering business and had been to the USA on a trip on behalf of the British Ministry of Food, where he had noticed that the rationing that had hit the UK was absent there. There was not just a greater amount of food available but a greater variety which would benefit the players' health in preparation for the first league season after the war in 1946-47. Kay was also of the same mind and so a squad of 22 boarded the RMS Queen Mary at the beginning of May 1946 and set sail for the old colonies, a week long voyage.

On arrival, Kay was the centre of attention as photographers thronged around trying to get pictures of him with his runners-up medal from the 1923 FA Cup, while American Soccer League (ASL) delegates swarmed around him. There were a number of newspapers who chronicled the tour extensively, as well as Kay himself taking the time out to write letters which he sent by air mail to the Liverpool Echo to keep the fans informed. The team had a punishing schedule ahead of them of 10 games in less than 30 days, starting with a game against an ASL team at Triborough Stadium on Randall's Island, NY. They were playing on the same day as the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team but attracted a crowd of 20,000 spectators, about 5,000 more than the Dodgers could attract. That made Dodgers owner Branch Rickey sit up and take notice of what was happening.

Liverpool went on to win the first game 3-1 and followed it up with two more wins in a row, after which Kay wrote in a letter to the Echo: "The terrific hospitality we are receiving is the only thing likely to beat us. You can get all the dishes everybody could possibly desire....naturally we're taking advantage." He later wrote that "the players are 25% above par in football, due in my opinion to the quality, quantity and variety of food." The team finished the tour with 10 wins and a goal difference of +60 and an invite to return again for another tour in May 1948. The players had gained an average of seven pounds in weight each while away, while England struggled under post-war restrictions, where even bread was now rationed.

The tour had consequences that are still felt to this day, as the surprising financial success led to the ongoing trend of European teams touring the USA during their off-season. Branch Rickey himself played a leading role in hosting Liverpool in the first game between two international clubs played on US soil, as he remembered the way they drew crowds even America's national sport could not compete with.

However the key element was that the tour left the players fitter than most on their return to the UK, something that was to stand them in good stead during a season which was longer and more gruelling than most due to a harsh winter extending the duration until June. McConnell showed his willingness to spend by splashing £13,000 on Newcastle United's Albert Stubbins in September 1946, a player who became key, despite an inauspicious start. "I'll always remember my first game at Anfield when I missed a penalty," recalled Stubbins. "Jack Balmer was the regular penalty-taker at Liverpool, but I was used to taking the penalties at Newcastle that, when I was first tripped in area, I automatically jumped up and placed the ball on the spot. I'd never missed one for Newcastle and the supporters were all expecting me to score my first home goal, but the keeper pulled off a tremendous save. He actually broke his arm in the process. Fortunately we won, but George Kay was so upset with me afterwards that he took me out for tea after the game."

That gentle way, of building players up, rather than bawling them out for their mistakes, was something of a pattern for Kay. "George Kay was a first-class manager and a very big influence on me," said Stubbins. "He was a lovely man, quiet and a deep thinker. He'd read books about psychology and he knew how to get the best out of his players. George's first thought was always for his players. He'd never tear a strip off us or criticise a Liverpool player in the press. That's where the psychology came into play. If we were trailing at half-time he'd come into the dressing room and although he's point out our errors he'd always say, 'well played lads'. He knew and we knew that we weren't playing well, but, because he was so understanding, we felt we had to play extra well to repay his faith in us."

Kay once again took on board new ideas as he added pre-game warms ups to the routine, an idea he freely admitted he took from the Moscow Dynamos, who had toured England a year earlier. Kay said he was open to anything that might help his team. With the added fitness from their tour, Liverpool got off to a good start and were unbeaten in their first 7 matches, winning 4 of them. During this period Kay once again showed his ability to get the best from his players when Jack Balmer's confidence had been damaged by barracking from the Anfield crowd, who were suspicious of his middle-class background. Kay handed him the captaincy and Balmer repaid him with hat-tricks in three consecutive games, a feat still unmatched.

Another new idea Kay made use of was taking his players away on short breaks to Birkdale or Buxton prior to big games, something Claudio Ranieri used recently during Leicester City's Premier League title win. That season Kay led Liverpool to the FA Cup semi-final, only to lose to Burnley after a replay, though he did take the team to some minor trophies in the shape of the Lancashire Senior Cup, Lancashire County Combination Championship Cup and Liverpool Senior Cup during the course of the season. A poor run over Christmas in the league of 5 defeats in 8 games held them back, but 7 wins in a row over February and March put them in contention for the league title.

It all came down to the final day, with Liverpool, Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City all in contention with just one game each left to play. Despite this, Kay had been absent during large parts of the run-in scouting players, trusting in his players to work to his tactical plan. Liverpool had to face league leaders Wolves at Molineux needing to win to have any chance of winning the league. They would then need results to go their way to pick up the trophy. Luck was with them and a 2-1 win over Wolves was enough, due to the other results also going their way, to give Kay his first ever league title and Liverpool's 5th. Just at the moment of their success things went wrong for LFC as McConnell took ill and died just two months later in August. Now Kay was facing a return to a battle with the board, rather than being able to work with an ally.

The next couple of seasons ended in top half finishes but it was not until the 1949/50 season that Liverpool once against challenged for the title. The season opened with a record, for the time, 19 games unbeaten in the league, as well as a run to the FA Cup final, only Liverpool's second ever FA Cup final, to face Arsenal. In the league LFC were top of the table on Good Friday but they lost 4 of the last 5 and ended up 8th, despite still being in with a shot at winning the league with just 2 games to go! The FA Cup final was marred by Kay's ill health and having to tell Bob Paisley that the board had not picked him genuinely distressed him. Kay was sick enough to almost miss the game, his big moment, and the result did not help his health as Arsenal won 2-0.

His health saw him spend a few months in hospital before retiring in January 1951, with the stress, his anxiety problems and the chain smoking it had caused him to do all contributed to his decision. Kay was never a well man but the stress which manifested itself during games as he paced nervously up and down on the sidelines, wringing his hands, holding his head like he was in pain and attempting to head and kick every ball for his players, really affected a man who had suffered so much during WW1. Sadly even leaving the high stress role and entering a quiet retirement was not enough to to prolong his life for long and he died just three years later on 18th April 1954. Sadly, his legacy has not received the respect it deserved and he has almost vanished into an undeserved obscurity.

"He told me often of the times he had lain in bed, unable to sleep, pondering over the manifold problems that beset every manager....if any man gave his life for a club, George Kay did so for Liverpool." - Billy Liddell

To read Part 5 - The Uneventful Years please click HERE

Written by Ed001 September 09 2018 21:56:54


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