There’s a longstanding footballing truism that suggests good teams are built and great teams are built from the back. Bill Shankly was responsible for Liverpool’s rise to prominence from the backwaters of the Second Division in the 1960s and he would have firmly attested to the latter of those sentiments. He might not have taken the Anfield club nearly so far so quickly in the early days of his reign without Ron Yeats as the foundation upon which everything else was built around.
Standing well over six foot tall and weighing in at a hefty 14 stones, Yeats was an imposing and intimidating centre-half whose ‘Colossus’ nickname (one of several) of referenced much more than his imposing physique. This was a forceful, determined and utterly professional player who inspired those around him by sheer force of will and personality.
The Aberdonian-born player made his reputation with Dundee United and did much to stir the club into life after decades of stasis in the old Scottish Division 2. Bill Shankly was always an enthusiastic purchaser of players from his homeland and he made the move to take Yeats to Anfield in 1961 for a fee of £25,000. Around the same time Shankly bought another Scotsman in Ian St.John from Motherwell and the two new acquisitions would bring youth, steel and vibrancy to what had become a moribund Liverpool side long-mired in the second tier of the English game. Shankly himself later described the two signings as a “turning point”.
Yeats made a winning debut in the opening Division 2 fixture of the 1961-62 season against Bristol Rovers and his galvanising impact on the club was swift and it was profound, to the extent that within a matter of months he was captaining the side. By the end of that first season he had won his first medal as Liverpool strolled to the Division 2 title and promotion back to the top flight for the first time in nearly a decade.
The powerful momentum generated by this fine group of players and their manager’s inspirational witchcraft carried Liverpool onwards and upwards. In just their second season back in Division One Liverpool won the championship for the first time since 1947. The following season the FA Cup was secured for the very first time and in 1966 another championship success followed. These were exciting times and at the heart of it all was Yeats, the ever-dependable cornerstone upon which this dizzying three-year period of success was constructed.
A curiosity of Yeats’ career during his peak years was the glaring lack of recognition at international level. Certainly Scotland boasted a glut of talented players during the 1960s and yet even taking this into account it seems odd in hindsight that for all his ability and influence Yeats was only called on twice to represent his country.
That golden 1964-66 Anfield era started to fade towards the end of the decade as the team grew old together. In 1970 Shankly initiated a clear out and while Yeats would stay for one final season, his place in central defence was now occupied by Larry Lloyd. After 350 games in a single position, at the age of 33 Yeats had to adapt to playing at left-back before losing his place there too to Alec Lindsay.
“I could write a book about the interesting occasions I remember since first moving to Merseyside, rather nervous and apprehensive about it all”. Ron Yeats.
So began a peripatetic winding down of the career of the man who also went by the nickname of ‘rowdy’ (after a television cowboy played by Clint Eastwood). Shankly recommended him to Tranmere Rovers and he made the short hop across the Wirrall and down a couple of divisions to become player-manager at Prenton Park. Brief stints followed as a player with Stalybridge Celtic, Formby and Rhyl and player-manager at Barrow interspersed with a short spell in the American Leagues.
In truth his managerial aspirations never came to fruition and he was at his happiest when in 1986 he finally returned to his beloved Liverpool in a scouting role. There he would stay for the next two decades before finally retiring in 2006. It was a fitting end to an illustrious career that was, as ever, expressed best by the manager who brought him to Anfield in the first place.
“He’s done more for Liverpool than any other single player and I can never pay too great a tribute to a man who arrived at the start of everything – promotion, the Championship, the Cup and Europe”. Bill Shankly.