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01st Mar 2017

Ronnie Moran: One Liverpool legend and his battle with dementia

"Without the Ronnie Morans of this world, you don't have a football club - certainly not a successful one like Liverpool."

Tony Barrett

Of all the anecdotes in Ronnie Moran’s new biography, the most poignant occurs at the start.

Told by his son, Paul, it details the day that one of Liverpool’s most revered figures went back to his old workplace but what begins as a heart-warming story about a sense of belonging and mutual affection quickly turns into something else, a tale of loss that is unavoidably moving.

“Early in 2016 my dad and I got to visit Melwood just before the League Cup final at Wembley, which was to be on the same day as my dad’s birthday,” Paul writes. “Jurgen Klopp walked by, nodded hello and a few seconds later he came in and asked my dad how he was and we talked about the upcoming final against Man City. Jurgen said the team would try and win the cup as a present and I got a picture of him with my dad.

“A couple of months later, at a legends dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Liverpool city centre, my dad was able to attend with Anfield’s stars of the past. One fan at the event asked my dad about his recent trip to Melwood but he could not remember it.”

Like Ron Yeats and Tommy Smith, his former Liverpool team mates, former adversaries Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson, Moran is in the grip of dementia and even those occasions that should provide the most vivid memories are tragically producing none.

The extent of the illness is such that Moran, who turned 83 yesterday, now resides in a care home following a family decision that Paul describes as “heart-breaking.”

Not that his loved ones had any option. Having been diagnosed with dementia in 2012, Moran’s condition worsened gradually and to such an extent that it became impossible for him to receive the care he requires at home. Those who know him best recognise that the decision, when it came three months ago, was unavoidable but, as with every family who goes through a similar experience, that doesn’t make it any easier for the Morans.

In September 2013, I interviewed Moran at the Crosby retirement home that he shared with his devoted wife, Joyce, to get his recollections of Bill Shankly ahead of what would have been the legendary manager’s 100th birthday.

In a room surrounded by memorabilia from his time at Liverpool, Moran struggled to recall the details of how he had helped Shankly create “a bastion of invincibility” that would go on to conquer Europe under Bob Paisley. Moran had been on that journey from the very start but the part that he and others had played in making Liverpool one of world football’s greatest clubs had become shrouded in fog.

As he tried and failed to drag some of the memories out, Moran would choose instead to discuss the day that not even dementia could cloud – March 9, 1957 when he married Joyce at St Helen’s Church in Crosby.

Later that same day, the groom played for Liverpool in a 2-1 win over Barnsley at Anfield, performing with “defensive heroism” according to the match report in the Liverpool Echo, before putting his wedding suit back on and returning to Crosby to join in with the celebrations.

It is a story that belongs to another time and it is also one that’s totally revealing in what it tells us about Moran and his unstinting devotion to the two great loves of his life.

Somehow, though, the extent of Moran’s contribution to Liverpool in particular and football in general has come to be overlooked by all but those who witnessed his work at close hand during the 49 years he spent at the club.

Perhaps his own humility and refusal to seek plaudits works against him in this respect, while the attention that Liverpool’s most iconic managers attracted also probably results in the team behind the team not always getting the focus that they deserve.

Alongside the likes of Roy Evans, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders and Geoff Twentyman, Moran was a leading light in the brains trust that helped turn Liverpool into one of European football’s most successful clubs and the extent of Moran’s contribution should be celebrated much more than it is. For the players who came under his wing, the appreciation is total. “I don’t think anyone who worked with him will have anything other than total admiration and respect for him,” Kenny Dalglish once stressed. “It should never ever be underestimated his contribution to this football club.”

Another legendary number seven, Kevin Keegan was similarly effusive.

“Without the Ronnie Morans of this world you don’t have a football club, certainly not a successful one like Liverpool. He becomes the foundation. He was there as a player, he was alongside all the successful managers, he is the one link to it all.”

It is that idea that Moran was a key link in a chain which connected Bill Shankly to Jamie Carragher that is most crucial when assessing the impact that he had on Liverpool. For almost half a century, he was their eyes and ears, their memory and their soul; he was also, as countless players will testify, their loudest mouth. Nothing says more about the esteem in which Moran is held than the players he routinely admonished lining up to pay him tribute.

Adversaries who knew a winner when they saw one have also readily saluted Moran. “I wish that I’d had 1 pound for every argument I’ve had with Ronnie, but after the game he was always the first to offer you a drink,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said. “There is no question Ronnie Moran is one of Liverpool’s all-time greats. As long as I have known him he has always been 110 per cent Liverpool. Anything asked of him in forwarding the club’s cause would be done without further enquiry.”

Ferguson, a grudging admirer of Liverpool regardless of his career defining ambition to usurp them, knows better than most that great clubs do not carry passengers. To last so long at Anfield during the most successful period in the club’s history, to have your services retained through periods of managerial change, marks you out as something special.

While Moran was at Liverpool in the roles of player, reserve team coach, physiotherapist, first team coach, caretaker manager and many unofficial ones besides, they won thirteen league titles, four European Cups, two UEFA Cups, five FA Cups, five League Cups and one European Super Cup. Whoever was in charge, whether it was Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness or Roy Evans, he was alongside them.

His involvement in gathering such a staggering haul of major honours was significant, whether it was acting as a sergeant major who would keep the players in line and maintain the highest of standards or creating the training ground environment that helped both individuals and team to fulfil their potential. The problem is, the methods he deployed did not come with fancy names and they were not celebrated publicly, so like his role in general, they remain undervalued in a way that shouldn’t be possible considering the achievements that they laid the platform for.

Everything Moran did was designed to empower players, to make them take responsibility for their own actions, to create a team ethic in which each individual would work for one another whether they were looking to win the ball back or trying to make the most of the possession that they had. There was a brutal beauty about his approach, one that Phil Thompson, who to this day regards Moran as his mentor, recognises as one of the key factors in Liverpool’s success story.

Asked if Moran and Evans are under-rated as coaches, Thompson was unequivocal.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The people who moved on and never really played regularly would be critical: we were never really coached. They didn’t do anything. We just played seven-a-sides. I’m sorry but that was totally, totally false. Roy was doing it with the reserves in ’74 and it would be get the ball, pass it and if you had two touches. No one was allowed to have too many touches on a Saturday or in training. Depending on how that went for 15 minutes we would switch to one touch. Remember the players we had and the pitches weren’t good, we were like Barcelona with attitude. The ball was getting fizzed about – one touch – and you had to expect the ball at any given time.

“One of the things we used to do was ‘hound’ which if you want is gegenpressing. We were taught to hound people. Ronnie would shout, ‘hound’ so if one went you would go in support of him. As a centre-back we always had to squeeze right the way up. Alan Hansen was quick, but it didn’t matter if you were quick or not. You had to play the role then Ray Clemence would be about five yards out of his area. We talk about coaching, but nobody taught Ray Clemence how to be a sweeper keeper because we didn’t have a goalkeeping coach. It was a natural thing we all did, but the closing down and pressing was part of it. As a player you didn’t have time, you didn’t have time to have two touches of the ball because you were being screamed at to pass the ball quickly, move the ball on to the next person. You were taught the next player needs the time and space, especially when we went forward with the ball.

“We were trying to teach the players how to play,” Evans explains.

“At that level if you can’t play then you have got a problem. We were just encouraging them to make their own decisions on the pitch and I think in the modern day game players look to the bench and almost say: ‘what do I do now?’ You can set your team up as perfect as you like, a team does something different like Leicester did last season, and it is up to the players on the pitch to make the changes in their head. You can shout off the bench occasionally, but the players we had sorted it out themselves. They would hear a shout from the bench and sometimes go ‘okay’ but think ‘I’m not doing that’. They were good enough players to do that.”

Image result for liverpool boot room

“He was never afraid to bark when he needed to but his simplicity in coaching sessions, which many would find difficult to put across, came to him with ease,” Dalglish said. The bark, as it is affectionately known, was Moran’s way of keeping players on their toes, something that was an absolute necessity at a club where success was, at the time, coming easily.

Robbie Fowler tells the story of how he was basking in the glow of scoring five goals against Fulham only to see an unimpressed Moran approach him to tell him that he shouldn’t be looking so smug because he should have scored seven. Title winners’ medals were given to those eligible in a “presentation ceremony” that involved Moran taking them out of a cardboard box and throwing them in the direction of the recipients.

Everything was done to gain an edge, to create a competitive spirit that prevented complacency from seeping in.

“The next game was always the most important and we had that drummed into us whether we were playing Man United or Bristol City,” Thompson said. “We could beat someone 4-0 and you’d walk in on Monday morning and it’d be like it hadn’t happened. He’d never let you rest on the pitch, whether that was in training at Melwood or during games.

“When he was shouting at me, it wasn’t about me, it was about the back four, it was about the team, it was about getting the win that we wanted. He was the same in games between the staff and the apprentices at Melwood. God, he moaned in those games. It could be 18-all, you’ve heard the stories about Shanks, but he was just as bad. Those kids would get a rollocking and he’d moan at them. If they were winning by two or three, he’d be on at them saying ‘You’re not like that on Saturday’ and stuff like that. You could literally feel the intensity and if you couldn’t hack it that’s tough.

“He was so clever though. The one time I can remember him giving me praise was during an FA Cup semi-final against Leicester at Villa Park. I had a dead leg which swelled up at half-time and he came over to me and said ‘You’re playing brilliant. This is one of your best games. You’ve got Frank Worthington in your pocket, he’s not getting a kick.’ He was getting into my mind, taking it away from this swelling in my skinny thigh and he was building my ego. After the game he came and sat next to me to tell me how well I’d done. He didn’t often give praise out though.”

Last night at an event to launch his new book – the aptly titled “Mr Liverpool” – the praise that Moran earns flowed freely with Evans capturing the mood perfectly.

“Liverpool would not have been as successful as they were without this man, it is that simple,” he said with the authority of someone who is better placed than anyone else to assess the contributions of those who were there during the glory years. Sadly, the man himself could not be there to hear just how valued he is. Instead, he was at the nursing home in Southport at which he now resides but his family do not automatically believe that football is the cause of the illness that has deprived him of the faculties that helped make him one of English football’s greatest and most successful coaches.

“I look around the nursing home and there are 16 or 17 women in there with him who have dementia. None of them spent their lives playing football,” Paul said. “I don’t know whether this is because of football. It might be. If you work it out, he was at Liverpool for more than 50 years. If he headed the ball just five times a day, that would mean he had headed the ball 100,000 times in his career. We will only find that out when he dies. But I do know that I don’t want it to be anything to do with football. I don’t want that at all.”

Ronnie Moran: Mr Liverpool, RRP £20, Trinity Mirror Sport Media:

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