FOUR consecutive top-four finishes, a genuine title challenge, a League Cup in the trophy cabinet and an FA Cup final. It’s a quartet of campaigns that would have fans of clubs from across the land in raptures. Add an exciting brand of football, arguably some of the best seen at Anfield in the last 20 years, and suddenly Roy Evans’s reign looks far from the failure many fans would have you believe it was.
THIRTEEN years on and the same old clichés are trotted out: Spice Boys, white suits and a man who was too close to the players to instil the discipline needed to achieve success.
After 33 years’ service to Liverpool as a player, coach, reserve team manager and ultimately boss, doesn’t being remembered for players’ fashion mistakes annoy Roy Evans?
“Spice Boys was quite an unfair tag on a lot of the lads because a lot of them were good professionals and played some great football,” said Evans.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t win more than we did in the four years but it’s strange because when you’re in a job people will say ‘you’re rubbish’ – a couple of years down the line and people will stop you in the street and say ‘I love the way your team played’.
Bootle-born Evans, a left back, signed for Liverpool after impressing for England schoolboys. Chelsea, Wolves and Everton were also on his trail but for 15-year-old Evans, a Red, there was only one choice. He was soon turning out for the reserves but first-team opportunities were limited – Evans made just 11 first-team appearances from 1969 to 1974.
He even had a spell on loan in America, making 19 appearances for Philadelphia Atoms.
But the highlight was going toe-to-toe with Manchester United’s George Best. “We played Man United at home and I think we beat them 2-1 or 2-0,” said Evans. “I played against Besty and I played really well. He even said to me ‘Great, you played well – and you didn’t try to kick me to death!’
“It was great playing against Man United in front of the Kop and winning. That was probably the highlight but I loved my games in the reserve team – we were a very successful group of lads and we played great football.”
Evans won five Central League titles as a reserve-team player between 1968 and 1974 but the time came when he began to weigh up a move away from Anfield. [For context, in 1974 Liverpool beat Newcastle 3-0 in the FA Cup Final – see pic]
“Shanks had just packed up and Bob Paisley had taken the job and people were all pretty confused,” he said.
“At the start of the season I went back in and Bob offered me the job as a coach. I said to him ‘Coaching? I’m 26. You obviously don’t think I’m going to make it as a player at this level but I want to play. A lot of people tried to persuade me but I turned it down two or three times. But Tommy Smith, my best mate at the time and best man at my wedding, said why don’t you try it? In the end, Joe Fagan said try it for a year and i f you don’t like it go back and play football and I was persuaded – I took the job and it was obviously the best part of my career.”
Evans was the last manager to emerge from the legendary boot-room production line at Anfield.
But with football now unrecognisable from Evans’s days, he knows no-one will ever emulate his route to the top job at Liverpool.
“I came through the system, I’m probably the luckiest Liverpudlian of all time to come through as a player, do every job and end up as the manager,” he said. “I don’t think there will be another player who does that.”
The boot room has long gone at Anfield, the space where so many of the club’s great minds gathered is now used to host the press on match days.
For Evans, it was the people that sat in it, rather than the room itself.
“People talk about the boot room as if it’s a place – it was: a grotty room with boots and baskets, a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey, a place where Bob Paisley used to keep our bits.
“The boot room was about the people that were in it – Shanks, Reuben Bennett, Joe Fagan, Paisley, Ronnie Moran, Tom Saunders, myself – we all added to it.
“We used to invite teams in after the game and we might have beaten them 3-0. We’d say ‘well played’ and shake hands but we were always the ones asking the questions – ‘What do you do in training, how do you do this, what you do after the game?’ You would think it would be the other way round, that they would want to know how we were successful. But we tried to learn off everybody who came in there.
“The secret to the success of the boot room was that we had a really good balance in the staff. But also to be successful as a coach you need good players and that’s what they were good at getting – Shanks brought his share in, Bob was a good judge of players as well.
“But we had the balance – Ronnie Moran was the sergeant major; I would put my arm round one or two of them if I had to; Joe Fagan was straightforward and honest; Bob wasn’t the greatest talker of all time but he would get his point across and he was a great judge of player. The boot room was about people with experience talking about football. Not 24/7, half an hour on a Sunday, when we used to go in and do the kits – there were no kitmen then!”
The kitmen were certainly in place by the time Evans succeeded Graeme Souness as manager in January 1994.
And a Sky-inspired media revolution of the game perhaps gave him an aspect of the job to deal with that had never been so apparent for the man in the hotseat at Anfield.
“The media had started to go to a different level, they used to just concentrate on football,” said Evans. When I got the manager’s job it was just starting to pick up on the social side, outside of football.”
Story-hungry journalists got just what they were looking for when Evans signed Stan Collymore for a then British record transfer fee of £8.5millon.
Initially a success, and undoubtedly talented, the striker formed an extremely effective partnership with Robbie Fowler. ‘God’ was at the peak of his powers during Evans’s reign.
An injury-time winner in the memorable 4-3 match with Newcastle is probably Collymore’s highlight in the red shirt of Liverpool.
But while he scored 35 goals in 81 appearances for the Reds, he also rocked the boat, missing training sessions, refusing to play for the reserves, and crucially, never relocating to Merseyside from his hometown of Cannock.
So does Evans regret signing ‘Stan the Man’?
“No, because for the first 18 months he did what we wanted him to do,” said Evans. “He came here and he was a player. We paid a big fee but he did the business.
“But after 18 months he started not to turn up; the press got onto the case – they would look to see if his car was there and it became ‘Stan Collymore watch’ – it became difficult for the lads.
“You’d fine him, then he wouldn’t play for the reserves. For the good of the team we had to sell him. It was all really because he didn’t move up from Cannock.”
It’s now 14 years since Collymore left Anfield for Aston Villa with a gleeful Liverpool gratefully clawing back £7million for the striker.
So has Collymore ever apologised?
“No, he has never said sorry,” said Evans. “I don’t think he’s got that in him. He’s one of those people who knows all the answers, it’s never Stan’s fault – some players are like that. Somewhere along the line he’ll realise he had a great career in front of him.
“I’ve spoken to Stan since – now he has articles in the papers and he’s got all the answers but he went through a patch in his life – he went to Villa then to Spain then he quit Spain – he self-destructed a little didn’t he?
“Stan had always been a big fish in the small pond, and when he came to us he was just a fish in a pond. But as I say, no regrets. Stan will have more regrets than I will. People will always say he was a bad signing…and I will say ‘no’.”
If his Anfield indiscretions weren’t enough, he also decided to stick the knife in on Evans in his autobiography, questioning whether the players were so close to the manager at Old Trafford.
This fuelled the Evans stereotype: that he was just too nice.
It’s an accusation that the man himself refutes. “That was always my side of the job at Anfield,” Evans explained. “But there was a streak of me that could throw teacups if you like and have a shout and bawl – the lads will tell you that.
“But I’m a great believer that you can praise people and you can pat people on the back and say ‘well done’. I’m a great believer in enjoying football – and these days I don’t always see that enjoyment factor.
“I believed that if I patted people on the back when they did well it gave me the right to have a right good go when they didn’t.
“I did things in an honest way – Joe Fagan was pretty much the same – he was a straightforward man, too.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Evans’s approach, it so very nearly brought the Anfield Holy Grail – League Championship Number 19.
In 1996-97 if Liverpool had beaten Manchester United at Anfield in April they would have gone top with three games to go. It was not to be. With hindsight, what went wrong?
“We had a couple of bad Novembers in different seasons for whatever reason – they cost us,” said Evans.
“And like all managers I’d probably say we were a couple of players short. If we could have been a little bit more solid defensively we probably could have won it.
“We just could not get that balance. I ended up playing with a back three because I always felt we were a bit vulnerable through the middle – we just couldn’t get a couple of solid lads in that position and that was a factor. We were always capable of scoring goals but we needed to be a team that didn’t give them away, too.”
Marcel Desailly and two players who eventually ended up at Anfield at a later stage – Karl Heinz Riedle and Jari Litmanen – were among the players Evans wanted during his reign.
But the one player he fancied who he believed could have made the difference was Teddy Sheringham.
“I had a chance to bring Teddy in but the club policy on transfers was no players over 28. He went to play until he was 38, or was it 48!
“But we needed that experience. We had John Barnes, a bit of Rushie but we needed a little bit more with those younger players.
“Teddy was a great player and knew when to party and when to play and he could have told those kids ‘This is the right time, this is the wrong time’ – that sort of help for Barnesy and Rushie might have gone down well.”
Despite the entertaining football – the 4-3 against Newcastle in April 1996 was voted the best match ever screened by Sky – the Anfield hierarchy started to wonder if a departure from tradition would benefit the club.
It was then that discussions began about a change to the managerial structure. Perhaps, they wondered, the club would benefit from a director-of-football-style appointment?
That thought spelt the start of the ill-fated joint manager role with Gerard Houllier – and the beginning of the end for Evans.
“The game was moving at a fast rate to a more European game and my experience was all Liverpool,” he said.
“We spoke to John Toshack who of course had experience with Real Madrid but he wanted to be a number one and the name Gerard Houllier came up.
“France had just won the World Cup and he had been technical director. We went over to meet him and things sounded OK – we had similar ideas on how we wanted to play.
“I was there with four or five directors but what I didn’t know then was they had been there the week before without me knowing. That was probably a little bit out of order but that’s the way football is.
“To my naivety, and just coming back off my holidays maybe I didn’t have my head in place, I said job titles mean nothing to me – and someone said joint managers.
“I should have said no, anything but joint manager, director of football, chief coach, call it what you want. I should have stood up for myself and the players – I didn’t and that’s probably my biggest regret in football. The rest is history – it would have been difficult if you did it with your best mate.”
The cracks in the managerial marriage soon began to appear and after just four months Evans made the heart-breaking decision to call time on the partnership, and said a tearful goodbye to the club he loved.
“I knew it was going to happen but I didn’t know it would happen so quick, he said.
“It wasn’t doing the club any good, the players were getting two sides to each story – I don’t think we lost the lads but it was becoming more difficult so I made the sacrifice, it was never going to be Gerard – it had to be me.
“It started to break down pretty quickly over little decisions – I kept more or less control of team selections, Gerard had some say, but we had different ideas.
“We always liked to meet the players and tell them they weren’t playing but Gerard wouldn’t be there so you’d do it on your own – little things like that. It was niggly things – ‘what time does the bus leave?’ – stupid things. But the lads started to say ‘who is in charge?’ and I thought it was time to go.
“We tried to sort it out internally, they asked me go on the board, but that was not my scene.”
Finally, we talk about the modern game.
Evans, like everyone who has an interest in football, is concerned about where the game is heading money-wise and fears Portsmouth may not be the last top-flight club to go into administration.
But what about the actual football? With the science, the stats, the Pro-Zone, is the modern game actually better? Not for Evans: “It’s not always exciting to watch – people say it’s faster and quicker but entertainment-wise there are some pretty poor games.”
* This interview first appeared in issue #2 of Well Red.