Breaking with tradition

John Williams and Stephen Hopkins look at the departure of Roy Evans from Liverpool, and what it says about how football has changed in the past decade

So farewell Roy … after the inevitable media feeding frenzy comes the wailing and the wake. Most Liverpool supporters adjusted to Roy Evans’s departure from the club to which he had dedicated his entire professional life – and probably too much else besides – more in sadness than anger.

His decision to leave was felt by some to be overdue. Nonetheless more reflective Reds also recognised that the man had not only served the club for more than three decades but, in an era when cash, more than commitment, talks, he also loved it as an institution, in a manner understood only by fans.

The manner of Evans’s leaving, and the emotional bond that was so clearly evident even in the tortured press conference which announced his fate, says a lot about him personally. But perhaps it says more about the sheer inadequacy of the rhetoric of “modernisation” as a means of describing how football has chang­ed even since Evans was shadowing a haunted Dalglish at Liverpool in the early 1990s.

It is neither fanciful nor nostalgic to question the potential loss of one-club men, who personify the commitment and the collective spirit of a club – as well as, admittedly, the ingrained paternalism of some chairmen. In fact the old-fashioned values of the mythologised bootroom are precisely the ones that drew Gérard Houllier to the club during his spell as a schoolteacher in Liverpool in 1969. Hence his initial insistence on working alongside his alter ego, Evans, when he was appointed in July, and then revisiting the old boys network in his recent search for an assistant “with a Liverpool heart” – and a boot to match (step up, Phil Thompson who, it is hoped locally, will do more than simply kick a few arses, though for some that will be enough).

The truth, of course, is that Hou­llier represents a rather uncomfortable compromise between the continental technocrats who have recently flooded the British game and the older virtues of a different age. How delicious, too, the irony that when the arch football Eurocrat and media favourite, Roy Hodgson, recently lost his bearings, and his job, at Blackburn it was Evans (with John Barnes) who was first on many people’s list for the vacancy.

Any serious audit of the Evans years at Liverpool needs to acknowledge at least two important things. First, the scale of the problems he faced in rebuilding the club after the chaotic revolution led by Souness between 1991-94. Second, the real quality of the team that Evans, Doug Livermore and Ronnie Moran constructed on the basis of the 3-5-2 (or wing-back) system, particularly in 1995-96 when, but for a dark November, even the double might have been within reach.

Too many supporters, as well as journos, have tended to write off Evans’s four and a half years in charge as a simple story: he was too nice to succeed; his teams, full of “spice boys”, had no bite or real desire; the Liverpool build-up play was too slow; the team passed the ball too much (an odd complaint this) and, in key positions, the manager bought and sold unwisely.

While, eventually, there was some truth in some of these accusations, Evans had begun very impressively by steadying a highly unstable vessel. The sale of Julian Dicks and Don Hutchison, and the freezing out of Paul Stewart and, initially, Mark Wright, demonstrated his commitment to “the Liverpool way”. The dogs in Anfield streets knew of Liverpool’s centre-half crisis over the past 18 months, but Evans recognised the need to shore up the back as early as 1994, with the addition of both Scales (great talent, too often unfit) and Babb (little talent, great pace).

Having rehabilitated shell-shocked David James (talented, but brainless), in 94-95 Liverpool conceded 37 League goals, better than champions Blackburn, and worse only than Manchester United, compared with 55 the previous year. In midfield, they re-established their credentials as the best passing team in England, keeping possession better than any other side, and playing the purest football. Who needed some hacker to get the ball back if you never gave it away? For this, the League Cup triumph of 1995 represented the barest of rewards, but the start, surely, of a return to earlier glories.

The following season saw the agony and (much less frequently) the ecstasy of Stan Collymore, who was snatched gleefully from under Everton’s noses (how little we knew). Fans and scribes can point to statistical evidence which purports to show that he and Fowler were a great partnership, but the truth is that Robbie, and pretty much the rest of the staff, despised Stan for his off-field ill-discipline (criticism of the club and refusal to turn out for the reserves), and for his gross faintheartedness in important games.

Exasperating for the other players, and no doubt for the management, Stan was hopelessly indulged by Evans, when at other clubs, and with other managers, he would have been dropped or listed. Later, Patrik Berger could, without sanction, swan off to Prague, badmouth the club and still be in the manager’s increasingly uncertain plans.

Despite some great team performances and a 20-odd match unbeaten run which took Liverpool to the FA Cup final, the title remained out of reach as a realistic prospect. The less said about the 1996 Cup final the better, except that an opportunity for the players and management to state their collective seriousness of purpose was lost amid media froth about Saturday Night Fever suits. Evans, already, was as good as lost.

The next season John Barnes was sent to observe the Ajax youth system, apparently destined to continue the boot room ethos. But an overly indulgent midfield, Stan’s continuing profligacy and James’s return to nightmarish displays in goal (with no stand-in to step up) meant the Reds, famously, finished fourth in a supposed two-horse race and were disgraced in France by a very moderate Paris St Germain.

Under pressure to reject the misunderstood five-at-the-back system, in favour of a midfield four and a ball winner, Roy seemingly then chucked the whole system in for the sake of a technically limited and ageing player with a discipline problem: exit a slowing JB, enter the already failing, self-styled Guv’nor, Paul Ince.

What has followed has been a decline from the flawed excellence of the mid-Nineties to a much more anonymous and arcane team today. Owen has been an enor­mous bonus, of course, but even his emergence has raised un­comfortable ques­tions about a youth system shaped by the idiosyncratic Steve Heighway, which has also produced Mc­Manaman and Fowler but no authentic defensive players of any stature since Phil Thompson himself back in the early 1970s.

Evans, towards the end, incongruously seemed to want to deny, almost completely, the physical aspects of playing the game in England; the Reds’ League Cup side against Spurs this year was probably the smallest ever to play at the highest level in modern times. It was, simply, overpowered. There are no physically powerful players on the entire senior staff at the club today.

While haplessly trawling the globe for the complete centre back, one could also almost sense the man­ager’s nervousness at possibly finding a suitable candidate because it would also mean the heartache of telling someone else that their time in the fold was up. In Shankly’s day if you were merely injured you ceased to exist, were of no use. Maybe Evans has always hated the necessary cruelty of this. Meanwhile, McManaman, utterly dedicated whatever his detractors might say, has been allowed to drift, almost unchallenged, towards the end of his contract at Anfield and, inexorably it seems, into impossibly rich Spanish waters. By any stretch, all this reflects recent management at the club of near complete ineptitude.

The future depends on whether Houllier can actually manage as well as coach, and whether the club can properly negotiate its move into the age of the so-called G14 of European clubs. The signs are not promising. After all, why recruit the most able football administrator of his day, Rick Parry, only to emasculate him by keeping on his lauded predecessor, Peter Robinson?

Two managers; two chief executives; no centre backs. It wasn’t funny. But Roy would probably smile that gentle smile of his. And the truth is we can’t get mad at him, because we know he only ever wanted what we did. This, in the end, probably became part of the problem. But he did produce a team of rare beauty. How many supporters, hands on heart, can say that?

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month