Ron Yeats: the colossus from Aberdeen

The strength and iron will of Liverpool’s longest-serving captain was forged in the days when he rose at 3am on matchdays to do a shift in a north-east slaughterhouse before travelling 70 miles to play in Dundee.

By Ragnhild Lund Ansnes

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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He became an important piece of the puzzle that elevated Liverpool out of the doldrums and into the First Division and then on its path to becoming the most successful club in English football history.
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‘You must be exhausted,’ Queen Elizabeth said to Yeats. ‘I’m absolutely knackered!’ ‘I’m certain that you are,’ the Queen said, and gave him the cup.

Music bounces off the walls in the darkness of the Liverpool Echo Arena, the city’s waterside concert venue. Red and blue lights take turns in shining their way through the vapour created by the fog machine on the dance floor. We are here to celebrate the winners of Liverpool’s 2015 Players’ Awards.

The blue light hits a shiny object that turns out to be nothing less than the honorary trophy of the club: its Lifetime Achievement Award. It is being held by the hands of a giant from Liverpool’s history. He has danced for so long now, on this warm May night, that the back of his white shirt is completely soaked. He greets us with a big, hearty smile, this giant of a man who was first brought to Merseyside by Bill Shankly more than half a century ago.

He became an important piece of the puzzle that elevated Liverpool out of the doldrums and into the First Division and then on its path to becoming the most successful club in English football history. Ronald Yeats would also go on to be the second longest-serving captain in the history of the club, a mile ahead of the man in third place, Emlyn Hughes.

When he was appointed Liverpool manager in 1959, Shankly came to Anfield on the condition that he, and not a committee as had traditionally been the case, got to pick the team. Shankly promised to build Liverpool up to become a bastion but only if he alone had mastery over his squad. Ron Yeats was an important part of his rebuilding plans: he had been captain of every team he had played for, and was almost immediately – five months after arriving – chosen by Shankly as his leader and nicknamed ‘The Colossus’.

“Take a walk around my centre-half, gentlemen, he’s a colossus,” said Shankly at a press conference in 1961, imploring with enthusiasm and conviction that reporters should “go into the dressing room and walk round him.” Shankly compared Yeats to a mountain.

On that day in May 2015, Yeats, centreback for 10 years and captain of Liverpool for nine, has been honoured along with Ian St John, striker, best friend and room-mate through his entire Anfield career. There is not a dry eye in the house as the pair come on stage to accept their trophies. St John is, as ever, quick with his repartee, but suddenly goes quiet just as he is about to start his acceptance speech. The master of words, who still works in radio for good reason, is now looking out over the tables and sees current Liverpool players and their wives, as well as former stars such as Robbie Fowler, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Alan Kennedy, Phil Neal, Mark Wright, David Fairclough and Phil Thompson. Then he looks upwards to the stands. There are thousands of people who have bought tickets to honour this year’s prize winners. The vocal Scot, who scored shedloads of goals through the 1960s,  draws a deep breath, then finally speaks.

“The two of us were privileged to be allowed to join the Bill Shankly revolution,” St John says. “This big guy and me have known each other for more than 60 years, ever since we played for Scotland schoolboys. The first time I saw this colossus of a man, I thought he was the coach! We’ve been best mates and room-mates for many years, and we’re still Liverpool fans.”

The wordsmith is out of words. Tears are starting to well up as he looks over the crowd. But then the giant at his elbow begins to speak and I hold my breath. I know these days it can be difficult for Yeats to find the right words. All those years of heading the heavy leather ball out of defence, or scoring from a set piece, have weakened his memory. He suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, like so many other players from those days, and over the last year some memories have disappeared. It is safe to say that Yeats, born on a cold November’s day in 1937, has sacrificed a lot for Liverpool.

A few days earlier, St John had taken me to visit the man who set the standard for leadership on the pitch at Anfield. The two friends have not seen each other in the past year. St John has been battling cancer, and one of the operations affected his knee, making him less mobile. His once supple body had been instrumental as Liverpool climbed into the top division and won their first FA Cup in 1965, led by Yeats.

“I feel very honoured to be able to say I’ve captained all the teams I’ve played for,” Yeats begins. He is freshly shaven, and side by side with St John on the sofa. We are in the living room of his house, and his wife Ann is in the kitchen, making coffee and tea.

It was not immediately obvious that Yeats would succeeded Dick White as Liverpool captain. Usually the role is bestowed on someone after long and faithful service, but Shankly had a lot of faith in his fellow Scot. Yeats had captained Dundee United at a young age and, at 6ft 2in tall, had the physical stature of a leader. After five months at Anfield, Yeats was appointed skipper.

“It was a nice gesture by Shankly,” Yeats says. “I was big and strong and set the standard for the game.”

“But you weren’t afraid to shout at us on the pitch,” interjects St John.

“Not if I needed to,” says Yeats smiling. “But there rarely was a need to shout – we were such a good team. They knew how to score and win games.’

Roy Evans says the Liverpool side of the 1960s is the best he ever saw.

St John breaks into one of those big, hearty smiles and Yeats replies, almost with surprise. “Did he really say that? That’s so nice of him.”

Even old football legends, it seems, thrive on praise and acknowledgement – even long after their playing careers have ended. Shankly had first seen St John and Yeats when they played against each other for their army sides while doing their national service. His plan was to build his new team around them.

Shankly convinced the board to buy St John first. He had already made a name for himself, setting a Scottish record for the fastest ever hat-trick. Two minutes and 30 seconds was all he needed to complete the feat for Motherwell against Hibernian in 1959. Players like St John do not come cheap. When Liverpool paid £37,500 for him in 1961, that doubled their previous record transfer fee. A price like that might well put excessive pressure on a player, but St John was unfazed by any expectations.

“Feel the pressure? Far from it,” he says. “Imagine, getting paid to play football. Even if it was minimum wages, we got paid to do something we loved, in front of supporters who appreciated us. It was wonderful. And no pressure at all. That’s something you put on yourself, if you go around saying: ‘We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’ But Shankly sent us out with a completely different message: ‘Come on lads, go out on the pitch and have fun!’.”

Yeats smiles and his eyes narrow. You suspect he is reliving some of Shankly’s messages in his mind, while nodding and smiling at St John as he continues to talk about Shankly’s instructions. “Enjoy yourselves, keep the ball moving, and when you’re not moving, hold on to the ball and just remain positive. And don’t forget to have fun during the game.”

St John got off to a brilliant start, scoring a hat-trick against Everton on his debut in the Liverpool Senior Cup final in front of more than 50,000 at Goodison. The Reds lost the tie 4–3, but it demonstrated that he was worth the record sum and also helped convince the board that Shankly was on to something when he wanted to invest heavily in his other chosen Scot.

Yeats, at the time, was still in the army, stationed in Aldershot. He played for his army side, as well for Dundee United and Scotland’s Under-23 team and would regularly travel more than a thousand miles per week. All the while his wife and two little girls were living in Aberdeen, which made life extremely tough for a man with travel sickness who would regularly throw up on planes.

Yeats had first played football as a five-year-old in Aberdeen’s bomb craters and dirt roads during the Second World War. He gives a lot of credit to a teacher, Miss Allen of Causewayend Primary School, for his becoming a footballer, although his father had played to a high standard with the armed forces too. Miss Allen was beautiful and soft-voiced, and knew a lot about he game. In the 1940s, she got Yeats into the school team and regularly came to see him in their games. She also ensured Ron got into a new school team when the family moved and he changed schools.

Many years later, when Yeats was at the height of his fame, he was strolling through Aberdeen. Suddenly he came face to face with a lady who smiled at him. “I knew you’d make it, Ronnie, and I’m so happy for you.” Yeats recognised his old teacher immediately. Her words meant as much to him as all the praise from football personalities in Scotland and England.

When Shankly arrived at Liverpool in 1959 he started a massive rebuilding process in every area of the club. He began by preparing a better training field, then moved on to improve Anfield, both for players and fans. He wanted them to have better conditions and be proud of their team. He saw to it that the pitch was improved, he had water installed and toilets added.

But the most important part of the upgrading job was to improve the squad. The first time Yeats spoke with Shankly, he was asked if he knew where Liverpool was. Yeats thought it was a geography question, but he was wrong. “We’re in the First Division of the English league,” Shankly stated.

“Oh, I thought you were in the Second Division, Mr Shankly?” replied Yeats.

“Yeah, but we’ll play in the First Division after we sign you, son.”

His memory may be fading, but Yeats still remembers the conversation vividly.

From that day in 1961, he knew this was the man he wanted to play for. “Shankly made me feel like a million dollars,” Yeats says, smiling at me with the eagerness of an impressionable young man.

Both Yeats and St John grew up in poor homes, one in Aberdeen, one in Motherwell. While Yeats’ neighbourhood was full of craters and bombed-out houses after the war, St John dryly remarks that he wishes theirs had been bombed too, given the state of disrepair it was in. They lived in miserable conditions and poverty was omnipresent.

Yeats grew up in a family of six, the third in a flock of three boys and a girl. Both parents worked to make ends meet, his father in a slaughterhouse. “I guess they both worked way too much,” he says. Then, while Yeats was playing for Aberdeen Lads’ Club as a teenager, he trained as a mason at his uncle’s firm. He had left school at 15, and the thought of making a living as a footballer did not cross his mind. At the time, he believed he simply was not good enough.

The masonry firm soon went bankrupt so Yeats followed his father to the slaughterhouse. Working as a butcher’s apprentice was not for the faint-hearted. Yeats had to rise at three in the morning and work long days, but it kept him out of trouble. There are few opportunities to go out for a drink and a dance if you have to get up in the middle of the night to go to work. That was how he kept in shape. And it paid off. When he was 17, Yeats was picked to play for Scotland Under-19s against England, Wales and Ireland. It was in one of these games that he first crossed paths with St John.

Life is full of coincidences, marginal turns and roads taken. Serendipity and fate eventually led Yeats to Liverpool, but his career could have taken a completely different turn if Bill Shankly’s brother Bob had managed to sign the central defender when he was manager of Falkirk.

Yeats was still a teenager when he married Margaret and they were expecting their first child. As a slaughterhouse apprentice, he only made £4 15s (£4.75)per week, and the outlook was modest, if not bleak, for the young family. A trial at Falkirk, then, was something of an opportunity but it coincided with a rare off-day. The reserve team lost 3-0 and the young defender struggled to keep up, felt out of his depth, and was playing with a knee injury.

It turned out he needed cartilage surgery, and as soon as he recovered he was a much better player. It did not take long before two representatives from Celtic contacted him and told him not to sign for anyone else before he heard from them. But as the weeks passed he heard nothing, and hope faded. When Dundee United offered him a contract, Yeats accepted on the spot. Aberdeen Lads’ Club received an £80 transfer fee, and Yeats got £20 – a month’s wages at the slaughterhouse. It made him feel like a millionaire.

Later, Yeats learned that the Celtic’s two scouts had been in a car accident, with one killed and the other severely injured. Had it not been for that crash, his prime years as a footballer might had been somewhere else.

Yeats continued to live in Aberdeen, 70 miles from Dundee, and still worked at the slaughterhouse. It was tough, especially on match days. He would have to get up at three in the morning, work as fast as he could to slaughter 10 or 12 animals before nine o’clock, and then get washed and changed into his suit in time to catch the 9:20 train to Dundee. He would then sit for an hour and a half worrying that he would be late for the game. And that was just for home games. Dundee United were in the Second Division and everybody involved worked part-time – players, managers and coaches.

In his second season at Tannadice, Yeats was appointed captain. He was only 21 and still a slaughterhouse apprentice on the side, something appreciated by the home fans, who would shout, ‘That centre-forward is just a hunk of meat, Ron. Parcel him up!’. Yet when he did not play as well as the fans had come to expect, the cries turned to, ‘Tak’ ’im awa’ to the slaughterhouse.’

At the end of that season, United decided to hire a full-time manager. Yeats had finished his apprenticeship and was a fully-trained butcher by then, but had been called up for national service and sent to Aldershot, where he was made a physical trainer. Fortunately, each battalion were allowed three professional footballers who could continue playing for their teams as well as the army, and that taught Yeats a lot about the uncompromising English league, which was much harder than the Scottish Second Division.

Yeats was young, ambitious and ready to take on the world. The year was 1961. Yet another season was drawing to an end at United, who were now in the First Division. It was time for wage negotiations and Yeats was frustrated. He knew very well what his army mate, Alex Young, made at Everton, whereas he was unable to afford a house of his own. He was also getting tired of travelling between Aberdeen and Dundee.

His self-confidence grew as rumours had it that Hearts, Manchester United and Liverpool were all interested in signing him. But it was the Anfield club who were quickest to move and, in spring 1961, Margaret Yeats read in the paper that her husband was moving to Liverpool.

Both St John and Yeats were born in the late 1930s, and were toddlers when the Second World War broke out. They can still remember sirens warning of air raids. Both recall running to the nearest shelter: the fear, the chaos and the lack of food. In one of the bomb raids, Yeats’ childhood home was bombed and they lost everything they owned. Both of their fathers were conscripted; St John’s never returned. He was six years old when he lost his dad. Luckily, other father figures appeared in his life. Teachers who cared that little extra, football trainers, dedicated men. In 1961, when St John and Yeats were 22 and 23 years old respectively, they met the most important father figure of them all: Shankly. “Whenever he spoke, we listened,” says St John as Yeats nods in confirmation. “He was a wonderful man.”

Shankly’s management brought results. After just one season, the manager was proven right in his prediction that Liverpool would make the top division with Yeats in the team. After eight years in the Second Division, they were promoted.

There are books filled with great Shankly quotes. He was charismatic and eloquent, and knew how to use words to attract attention and inspire his players. For all that, though, he could be brutally honest in communication with his players. Shankly strongly believed that you should be honest in all aspects of life and live up to the expression: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

“Shankly couldn’t stand people who were given a chance in the starting XI, but who didn’t give everything they had,” St John says. “He hated people who were dishonest. He even said that if he’d been a street sweeper in Liverpool, it would have been the cleanest street in the city. That was his view of life. It didn’t matter what you did, as long as you were the best at what you were doing, even if working with menial tasks. That was the message he drilled into his players.”

St John and Yeats are convinced that this perspective on humanity helped build a team of thoughtful, considerate and compassionate people – good team-mates. Shankly’s message was clear: work for each other, help each other, pull together, turn someone’s bad passes into good passes. That way, as team-mates and friends, you could change bad days into good days. Next time it could be you having an off day, in need of some extra support.

St John smiles his crooked, friendly smile as he thinks back. “Life, like football, is first and foremost about how you treat other people. Shankly was incredible at that. He’d set himself high standards and live by them. He’d worked down the mines in Scotland and learned how important it was that everybody gave all they had and worked for each other. He was a fantastic role model and man. He could have been a politician and a better prime minister than any of those we’ve had till now.”

As Shankly’s manager on the pitch, Yeats played a key role. He did not get any special instructions but was expected to make sure everyone did the best they could for the common goal. He worked tirelessly and led the team, but would never point a finger against any of his own. “Ronnie was a brilliant tackler and good in the air,” St John says. “And he was feared by our opponents. He played a kind of football that set an example for the rest of us.”

Another of Yeats’ duties was to represent the entire team in pay negotiations.

When Liverpool won the Second Division in 1962, salaries jumped from £30 to £40 a week, but with relatively modest basic wages, bonuses were important. One was the crowd bonus, with each player earning a pound extra for every 1000 people through the gate over 28,000. On the best days, Anfield held 50,000, so Yeats’ efforts proved hugely lucrative, especially once the £4 victory bonus was added from 1962.

We have been talking for a couple of hours, travelling back in time. Ann, Yeats’ second wife, comes in with mugs of coffee and tea. St John breaks into song: “You’re just too good to be true…” and Yeats laughs heartily.

The two best friends were room-mates, went on holiday and their children practically grew up together. And they were partners in crime out on the town too. “After games we would go out and have a couple of beers,’ St John says.

“Shankly always told us to be back at a certain time, but sometimes the two of us would be back much later. Shanks didn’t drink, so sometimes he’d give us a proper earful when we were late, even though we didn’t drink much. But he liked Ron and me, so he’d never leave us out of the team even if we’d been a bit naughty the night before.”

The boys would lie in their beds chatting into the night. “At that time I shared rooms with Ron more often than I did with my wife,’ St John remembers as laughter rolls over the sofa once again.

Yeats was Liverpool captain for nine years and 417 matches, a feat that only Steven Gerrard has eclipsed. But what were his strengths? “Probably my size. That I was tall, and good in the air,” he says. “And I was good at winning the ball and giving it to players who were better passers than I was. I could read the game and I made sure nobody I played against would get a kick around me.”

“Ronnie was an excellent tackler,” St John adds. “He very rarely gave away penalties and he wasn’t the type to pull shirts, tug at people’s arms or yell. He was very encouraging but there was never any doubt he was the boss.”

Fulfilling that responsibilities for team like Liverpool in a league as uncompromising as the English top division is not something every player could handle. Did Yeats think about the pressure? Did he sometimes think it would have been good not to have that extra responsibility? “No, no,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. “I never asked for the job but Shankly wanted me to have it, and I wanted to do it to the best of my ability.”

Shankly had a winner’s mentality, and it shaped the squad. Not only did this lead them into the top flight, but they won it at the second time of asking before, on May 1, 1965 they took home a trophy that Liverpool had never won before – the FA Cup. “We went to London a couple of days before the final, and Shankly took us to the Palladium to see a comedy show,” recalls St John. “He wanted the trip to Wembley to be both memorable and enjoyable, and he wanted to lift any sense of panic so he took us to the theatre to give us a great night out.”

That strategy continued on match day, with Shankly inviting singer Frankie Vaughan and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck into the dressing room before kick off. That provoked plenty of joking and laughing before the seriousness set in. Leeds boss Don Revie could not understand what the havoc around the Liverpool dressing room was about. Leeds kept the door to their dressing room locked. “They had Billy Bremner and several other great players,” Yeats recalls. Suddenly, he is back on the wet Wembley pitch. “Under Don Revie they were the next big team to make a breakthrough in Europe.”

Rain was pouring down and the pitch was waterlogged. After just three minutes, Liverpool’s Gerry Byrne broke his collarbone after a collision with Leeds captain Bobby Collins. Yet these were the days before substitutes, so Byrne played on despite the pain, completing the 90 minutes plus extra time and providing the assist for Roger Hunt’s opener, three minutes into the supplementary half hour. Bremner would equalise seven minutes later, but then Ian Callaghan surged up the right side and picked out St John, whose header made it 2-1.

In the dressing room afterwards, Byrne needed help to get dressed. The pain was agonising. “Gerry should have had two medals,” Yeats says, before St John chips in with ‘He should have had them all.”

St John then looks up at his friend and smiles cunningly. “Will you tell the story about the Queen?”

A few days before the final, Yeats had received a phone call from Buckingham Palace and been instructed – should Liverpool win – not to address the Queen until she talked to him, and that he had to say ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am’. During the final few minutes of the game, he had been wondering what to say to her and, as the shattered and sodden players walked up the steps to the Royal Box at Wembley, Yeats wiped his hands on his clothes before he reached the Queen, who was ready to present him with the trophy.

“You must be exhausted,” she said to him.

“I’m absolutely knackered,” he replied.

“I’m certain that you are,” the Queen said, before handing him the trophy.

The men on the sofa are now roaring with laughter, thinking back to the conversation 50 years earlier.

Yeats was the first Liverpool captain to lift the FA Cup. He was so tired he had almost no strength to lift the trophy, but as he raised it and looked over at the sea of supporters, the shouts of joy that met him sounded as if it came from a million people. It was the sound of life itself, the passion of the Liverpool fans. This was their reward. And Yeats felt how proud he was of them. He almost wanted to throw the trophy into the crowd, to give them their share in it. “Winning the FA Cup and having the trophy presented by the Queen was my proudest moment,” he says. “And I felt we deserved to win.”

The jubilant scenes and the crowds that gathered when Liverpool welcomed their heroes home speak volumes. It looked like there could not possibly be room for another person to squeeze into the thronging crowd that greeted the open-top double-decker bus all the way until Yeats lifted the cup on the City Hall balcony. Not even the Beatles managed to create such a frenzy in the city.

Yeats, St John and their team-mates left a legacy, but so too has the football of that era. An alarming number of former players now struggle with dementia, and it cannot be a coincidence that so many former professional footballers from the 1960s and early 1970s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease like Yeats.

“The football itself was incredibly heavy, especially when it was wet,” Yeats says. “Most of the times you headed it you’d just think Jesus Christ! It’s almost impossible to imagine. You just had to make sure you hit it with your forehead. If it hit any other part, oooh, the headaches you’d have after a game…”

St John continues: “They never understood back then. Today people realise the serious consequences of blows to the head like that. And remember, back then the ball was played a lot more in the air. To be honest, all the big names among players from the 1950s and 1960s are suffering from memory lapse or dementia in varying degrees. They need compensation to pay carers, for hospitals and treatment but it’s not happening.

“I think a lot of people out there don’t know that many of their old heroes struggle with dementia. On our team, Geoff Strong got it. He died. Ron has it, I’ve got symptoms, and Tommy Smith has been hit hard by Alzheimer’s. And this was just our team. I could have listed a lot more players from other clubs at that time who suffer from the same.”

Yeats and St John sacrificed their health for Liverpool and the club still runs through their veins. Yeats spent 20 years as chief scout before retiring in 2006, and says his proudest achievement was signing another leader and captain, Sami Hyypia.

For 30 years of his life, Yeats served Liverpool, but how has the club changed him? “It’s difficult to answer that,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed my time at Liverpool immensely. I still go to see the games at Anfield and before a game I’m always nervous on behalf of the team, and when they lose it gets to me. Then maybe I think what I would have done differently. But I keep that to myself.”

We are back in the Echo Arena in May 2015. Two friends with greyish-white hair stand side by side, one half a head taller than the other.

Steven Gerrard played his last home game at Anfield the weekend before. He gave speeches at the stadium, in news conferences and at the banquet after his last match. Tonight, he is practically out of words. But one of his precedecessors, Big Ron, still has a few more things to say.

Now, in front of thousands of people, in the limelight, he finds both his words and his sense of humour. He smiles and begins to speak. “You all talk about Steven Gerrard… I think I’m only a little behind him as a player. In everything he does, he is a wonderful captain, but not as good a captain as me. I was captain for 10 years for such a great team. I’ve appreciated every minute of my time with the club. It gives me great joy to be able to say, ‘I was one of you’.”

Liverpool Captains: A journey of Leadership From The Pitch by Ragnhild Lund Ansnes.

Published by deCoubertin Books (£18.99)

Read more on the author’s blog: mrs1nil.com

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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