base for success
This Is Melwood
Not long after Bill Shankly was appointed as manager of Liverpool Football Club in December 1959, he went to view the Club's Melwood training ground in the Liverpool suburb of West Derby. He was taken aback by what he saw.
“Tom Bush, the old Liverpool centre-half, took my wife Ness and me round to look at houses for the players and we called to see the training ground at Melwood,” he wrote in his autobiography 'My Story'. “It was a sorry wilderness. One pitch looked as if a couple of bombs had been dropped on it. It was just a wilderness, but I said to Ness: 'Well, it's big and it can be developed. At least there is space here'.”
The land Melwood is situated upon previously belonged to St Francis Xavier's College. The college had bought the site in 1920 to use as school playing fields, building a wooden cricket pavilion on it. But, in 1950, the board of governors opted to sell the land to Liverpool Football Club, which wanted to create a new training facility.
Liverpool FC's players were training at Anfield at the time. There was a small gym inside the Main Stand and the players would, of course, use the Anfield pitch, but to preserve the grass they would also train in the old Main Stand car park.
Footballers practising their skills on concrete was a far from ideal situation, hence the purchase of Melwood. The facility was named after two priests who had taught at St Francis Xavier's College (known as SFX) and overseen pupils playing football on the playing fields.
The priests' names were Father Melling and Father Woodlock. Take the first syllable from both surnames, add them together and you've got Melwood. But Liverpool FC also had a problem – financing the necessary redevelopment work to bring their newly-acquired facility up to standard.
Most football clubs struggled financially in the post-World War II period. The Reds had become the first post-war champions in 1947, but their fortunes on the pitch faded in the 1950s, culminating in the Club's relegation to Division Two in 1954.
Plans had been drawn up for Melwood's redevelopment in 1952. A new road – Melwood Drive – would cut through part of the site, the wooden pavilion would be upgraded and an air raid shelter next to it would be converted into toilets. There would also be four pitches on the 13.259 acre site.
While the road was built, the upgrade didn't go to plan and when Shankly arrived Melwood still didn't have heating with paint peeling off the pavilion walls. The pitches were also in poor condition with Shanks describing them as having: “trees, hills, hollows and grass long enough for Jimmy Melia to hide in standing up.”
As a result, Liverpool FC's players were still training at Anfield and Melwood had fallen into disrepair, but Shankly saw the potential of the site. He returned to Anfield that very same day and instructed the ground staff to go to Melwood and bring the pitches up to an acceptable standard.
He had the cricket pitch converted to a 5-aside pitch and it was here where his 'pass and move' philosophy was drummed into the players. Shankly and his backroom staff would even play in 5-a-side matches themselves.
“Bob Paisley would be in goal,” recalled 1970s midfielder Jimmy Case. “He would put the gloves on and he used to love diving about double-handedly punching every ball that came his way. Shanks played at the back, directing things and you would have Reuben Bennett, Ronnie Moran and Joe (Fagan) in there as well.”
The pavilion was also given a makeover, including being painted inside and out, with new changing rooms and a sauna installed. When Shankly was happy that Melwood was up to his high standards of both quality and cleanliness, he switched training sessions there full time. He also introduced new player development facilities such as wooden shooting boards and what was known as 'the sweat box'.
A shooting board was a wooden fence containing six numbered round holes. Coaches such as Reuben Bennett would call out a number, the players had to fire shots through the corresponding hole. As for the sweat box...
“It had walls about 30 yards apart,” recalled Ian Callaghan, LFC's all-time record appearance holder. “You had to play the ball off one wall, control it, turn and then play it off the other board. Your legs would be like jelly. It was great because you were working on your control and stamina at the same time.”
There were still some more unusual things inside Melwood, however. “There used to be a pigsty in the corner,” said Callaghan. “We would be training and the smell of it would drift across. It’s unbelievable to think back now.”
Incredibly, Shankly even used the pigsty as a form of motivation to ensure his players worked hard in training.
“Shankly signed a boy called Jack Whitham,” legendary 1960s forward forward Ian St John recalled. “Training for Jack was like jogging in-between injuries. He was driving Shanks mad. Finally, he said one day to Jack in training, 'You, go up to the corner' – where the pigsty was – 'and train up there'. Poor Jack was jogging up there in the pigsty with the smell of the pigs.”
The players would travel back to Anfield by bus after training sessions to change and shower until the wooden pavilion was replaced by a new concrete building. During the mid-1960s, Shankly also had the front pitch at Melwood – said to be his 'pride and joy' – re-turfed as he wanted the pitch to be as good as the one at Wembley Stadium.
For over three decades Melwood remained relatively unchanged after that. Different managers introduced new ways of training, notably Graeme Souness in 1991, but the facilities remained as they were until the Club announced in 2000 that a new building called the Millennium Pavilion would be constructed on the site.
“There will be new changing areas, a gymnasium, swimming pools, saunas, a hydrotherapy pool and rehabilitation rooms,” announced manager Gerard Houllier. “It will be more in tune with what a club of this standard wants to achieve.”
Houllier played a significant role in the redesign with his new office featuring ceiling-to-floor glass windows and being situated on the first floor overlooking the training pitches.
A synthetic pitch, canteen, offices for analysts, changing rooms – including one for referees – and media facilities were also accommodated into the design with the new Melwood building accessed by a newly created entrance off Deysbrook Lane. Previously, the entrance was on Crown Road.
The modernisation ensured Liverpool FC again had training facilities comparable to those of their rivals and, following the success of Rafa Benitez' side in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final, Melwood also became home to the European Cup, which sits in a glass case in the main entrance.
Melwood's most recent makeover came during Brendan Rodgers' time in charge through a number of cosmetic updates from upgrading the changing rooms to revamping the main entrance. This including installing a bust of Shankly's head next to his famous 'We Are Liverpool' quote and introducing The Champions Wall. A wall Jürgen Klopp's Reds added to three times in 2019.
While none of Melwood's original 1950s facilities now remain, The Champions Wall links the past and present. From Liverpool FC's first league championship success in 1901 to our first FIFA Club World Cup victory in 2019, all 47 major trophies the Reds have won are accounted for on that wall. All but five of them have been won since Melwood has hosted LFC's training sessions.
Melwood may have vastly changed over the years, but the potential Bill Shankly saw in the 'sorry wilderness' in 1959 is reflected in that trophy count. Liverpool FC's future lies elsewhere – the Club plans to move its training operation to Kirkby in the not too distant future – but there can be no doubt that Melwood has been a base for success.