Beneath the barren hills that surround the abandoned village of Glenbuck in southern Scotland, a bitter wind blows in memories of a time long past.
“Over there was Spireslack,” author and nearby resident Robert Gillan says, pointing to one of the old coal mines that supported life in this remote area for generations. “And down there, beyond the fence was the football pitch.”
On this patch of hallowed East Ayrshire county grass, now wild and overgrown, towering football figures such as Bill Shankly honed the skills that would take them to the pinnacle of their sporting trade.
Shankly famously graduated from the Glenbuck pits to star for the once mighty Preston North End. He later transformed Liverpool into the most successful club in England during a remarkable spell as manager between 1959 and 1974.
Yet the rich sporting history of this forgotten corner of Scotland, unpopulated for close to half a century, is about much more than the origins of its most famous son.
“When you tell the story of Glenbuck, you tell the story of mass spectator sport. You tell the story of the industrial history of this country,” says Adam Powley, who teamed up with Gillan to write the book “Shankly’s Village,” referencing the once powerful connection between heavy industry and football.
“If football is going to have a spiritual home, it might as well be here rather than somewhere like FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich,” he adds.
A kindergarten for footballers
Over the course of its existence, more than 50 men from Glenbuck – including Shankly’s four older brothers – became professional footballers despite the village population never exceeding 1,700 people. The vast majority of these men worked the mines, and in their youth played for the town’s amateur team, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers.
To put these figures into some sort of perspective, a non-professional London team would have had to produce 250,000 pro players (from the city’s eight million population) over a 40-year period to be as prolific, according to research undertaken by Powley and Gillan.
Modern club academies like those of Ajax and Barcelona boast precisely-calibrated assembly lines of talent, with players plucked from all corners of the globe. First-class education, training and accommodation is also provided as standard.
Glenbuck was so small, poor and remote that it had no electricity or indoor toilets. The nature of the work which sustained the village and shaped its footballers, meanwhile, was hard, precarious, back-breaking graft deep beneath the surface of the earth.
“It’s staggering,” Powley says when asked about the village’s prodigious sporting output. “There’s something about the relationship between the workplace and sport that fused that identity in Glenbuck and enabled it to produce so many footballers.
“There’s never been anywhere else quite like it and it’s unlikely there ever will be anywhere like it again.”
Sport of the industrial revolution
The first wave of Glenbuck football exports were among the pioneers of the game as it spread through newly-formed working-class towns and cities spawned by the onset of the industrial revolution.
Powley argues that the history of prominent English teams like Tottenham Hotspur, Burnley and Portsmouth would be vastly different if not for the influence of village’s nomadic sons.
Glenbuck natives Sandy Tait and Sandy Brown were part of the Spurs team that won the FA Cup in 1901, the only non-league club to ever achieve that feat.
Another FA Cup triumph was recorded by Glenbuck-born George Halley with Burnley in 1914, while village alumnus Robert Blyth – Shankly’s uncle – played for Portsmouth before going on to become manager, chairman and director of the south-coast club.
Yet Glenbuck’s influence has without doubt been greatest on Merseyside. Here, its most lauded export is still worshiped as the charismatic demigod who brought success where there was little before.
Shankly won three English league titles, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup during his 15-year-tenure at Anfield. He laid the foundations for Liverpool’s continental domination in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when his former assistants Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan delivered four European Cups.
“Liverpool’s rise as one of the greatest, most famous, most storied clubs in the world was directly inspired by the ideals that Shankly grew up with and took from the village,” Powley says.
Although the club is now owned by an American company, Fenway Sports Group, and coached by German manager Jurgen Klopp – who will host his former team Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League on Thursday – Powley says there remains “a direct link between Glenbuck, Shankly and the modern Liverpool.”
The secret Glenbuck ingredient
But how did such a small, remote rural outpost have such a huge impact on the world’s most popular sport? There were other mining towns nearby that produced outstanding players and managers, after all.
Jock Stein, who coached Celtic to European Cup glory in 1967, worked the mines of Burnbank in the neighboring county of Lanarkshire. Matt Busby, who led Manchester United to continental glory a year later, spent his youth in the pits of nearby Bellshill.
Further afield, Shankly’s successor Paisley worked the coalfields of Durham in the northeast of England in the early part of his life.
Yet although these places shared much in common with Glenbuck, few – if any – produced professional footballers at anywhere near as prolific a ratio.
Sam Purdie, who was born in Glenbuck in 1936, believes the village had a number of key factors in its favor.
He lovingly recalls a close-knit community of larger-than-life characters, stridently collectivist politics and, of course, avid footballers. He recounts one tale of Bill Shankly joining in games with local youngsters when he came home to visit family during the football offseason.
Having such privileged access to the knowledge and networks of those who made it as professionals was likely a reason the town continually reared great players, Purdie theorizes. Many had brothers, uncles, cousins, friends or former co-workers who made it as footballers.
On top of this, there was the incessant practice of the local men, who would take to the football field every night after work. The desire to escape the perilous danger of working underground was also strong.
“You would do anything to get out of the pit,” Purdie says. “One of my grandfathers lost both legs and the other had his spine broken. The pit wasn’t an ideal occupation for anybody.”
Enduring these hardships alongside neighbors and friends bred a mutual respect, trust, work ethic and togetherness that was transferred onto the football field, Purdie believes.
Inevitably, these were qualities the likes of Shankly would export to the biggest professional clubs in the land. “The lesson was never give up. Even if you’re three goals down, don’t stop,” Purdie emphasizes.
The next chapter
The last Glenbuck mine shut in the early 1930s and the village was finally left for dead when the few remaining residents departed in the 1970s. The area became a ghost town with few visitors – except for the occasional Liverpudlian keen to set eyes on the birthplace of their great hero.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, permission was granted to turn the land around the old village into a site for opencast coal mining.
A vast array of machinery soon tore into the old Spireslack site, creating a deep man-made valley roughly 300 feet deep. But the companies carrying out the work went bust in 2012 before the brutal impact of their digging could be cleared up.
The giant hole in the ground that remains could easily be viewed as a scar on the landscape – or a sad metaphor for an industry lost and the lingering social upheaval caused by its decline.
For those of a football persuasion, it’s not difficult to plot the correlation between the UK’s deindustrialization, the fall of towns like Glenbuck and the loosening of the once-sacred ties between clubs and their communities.
Despite its rough-hewn appearance, however, there remains a rich seam of opportunity around Glenbuck today.
Professor Russel Griggs is the head of the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust, a body that aims to put Spireslack back into productive use along with several other former pits across Scotland.
He describes how the strata, which have been revealed by digging along the sides of the valley, are so rich with detail they could form the basis of a new geo-park and research hub, with all the knock-on economic benefits such a venture would bring.
Griggs recalls one visiting geologist from Wisconsin telling him “this valley is to the geology community what the particle accelerator at CERN is to the physics community.”
A treasure trove of fossils has also been revealed by the opencast work. Other potential uses for Spireslack include a location for extreme sports, a site for a wind farm and a backdrop for films of the science fiction or post-apocalyptic variety, Griggs says.
The New Glenbuck Academy
Given the compelling footballing history of the area, Griggs hopes any restoration work will include a nod to the village’s history as a sporting hotbed.
Plans are being considered to restore the old Glenbuck football pitch as well as a row of cottages that could provide accommodation for visiting football enthusiasts. Gillan has also founded the Glenbuck Football Academy based in the nearby town of Douglas.
He eventually hopes to base the academy on the site of the old pitch and create a center of excellence for youngsters in the surrounding area. A key plank of his ambition is to tap into the working-class values and philosophy that made Glenbuck such a productive nursery for footballers.
Gillan also plans to add a contemporary twist to the old syllabus. “These days, a career in football for a young player doesn’t have to end if they don’t make it professional,” he explains.
“You can do physio, tactics, diet, scouting, analysis – all these new jobs that are becoming necessary in football. I want to teach the kids that if they don’t make it as players there are still other avenues open to them in the sport.”
Whether the work goes ahead is dependent on securing funding and investment from both the public and private sector, Griggs says.
According to Colin Smith of the Glamis Consultancy, a specialist tourism and economic development firm which has done feasibility work around Spireslack, definitive plans for the project should become clear later this year.
However, given the remote location of the site it’s unlikely that a football academy will be financially feasible without being part of a larger multi-purpose project.
Purdie has his doubts about whether the plans will ever bear fruit, sentiments shared by other local residents CNN met in Glenbuck. Another disused opencast site nearby is also being considered as a potential geo-park location.
For the likes of Gillan and Powley, however, just furthering the conversation about football in Glenbuck and its legacy is an important step in ensuring the remarkable story of the village is passed onto future generations.
“I really think that’s a good inspiration for the kids, to learn about the players that came from the village and what they achieved,” Gillan says.
“They really can’t understand it produced so many players and was so influential. It really gives them the belief they can go do the same.”