Wembley on a bright May day prior to the FA cup final can be a glorious sight. Much was expected in the Cup final of 1996 as Liverpool took on Manchester United in what many hoped would be a classic final.
That though was marginally fractured when the Liverpool squad strolled out onto the lush green Wembley pitch in flash Armani white suits. It had to be said that the suits looked ridiculous with the team looking a bunch of ice cream sellers. However the image and the nickname of ‘Spice boys,’ stuck and was seen to epitomise what was wrong with Roy Evans Liverpool. It was a team that was perceived as all image and no substance. More interested in partying with football coming a poor second.
Time is always a chance to put things in perspective and the criticism aimed at Roy Evans can be seen to be harsh. Liverpool were consistently in the top four and played some of the best football around of that particular era.
Unfortunately for Roy Evans, Liverpool’s dominance was still recent when he took charge in 1994. After all their last title was in 1990 and prior to that had plundered so many trophies from the 1960’s to 1990 that it would put a Viking haul to shame. With detested rivals Manchester United the dominant force, the pressure was instantly on Roy Evans to put Liverpool back on its perch.
After the sacking of Graeme Souness whose two and a half years in charge were turbulent. Due to poor signings, unrest in the dressing room, and trying to change things too quickly, time was called on Souness’s reign as manager.
The problem Liverpool had, was of who to appoint to make Liverpool the dominant force once more. Looking at the possible candidates at that time there are none that particularly stick out.
Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing to say that Liverpool should have looked further afield to foreign shores. It is easy to say that Liverpool could have beaten Arsenal to the punch by appointing Arsene Wenger two years before he agreed to join the Gunners. At that time English football was insular with the possibility that someone like Wenger would have had problems getting his ideas across. Like the Czech Jozef Venglos whose stint at Aston Villa in 1990 was short-lived there could have been a good chance that the players didn’t take to him. Furthermore Wenger inherited a strong defence at Arsenal which would not have been the case at Liverpool. Either way it would have been a brave move for Liverpool to have taken a chance looking at that particular period in time.
Closer to home the only names that could be considered was John Toshack. Success at Real Madrid and Sociedad as well as having played for Liverpool would make him a serious contender. As it was Toshack had allegedly missed his chance after turning down the job down in 1991.
Although hypothetical there could have been a chance of trying to bring Kenny Dalglish back to Anfield. This might have been hard considering that he was building a Blackburn Rovers team that would eventually win the title for the 94/95 season.
That left the bootroom and as Roy Evans was literally the last man standing, was seen as the man to steady the ship and ensure that the traditions of Liverpool were kept. Ronnie Moran another Anfield stalwart would ensure that his experience and knowledge would also be used.
Football at that particular time was at the crossroads between the old world and the new world of the Premier league. Not just in terms of the money that was being splashed around but in terms of professionalism. The acceptable wisdom that a few beers was okay was eventually eradicated to a regime more similar to a high-profile athlete. Evans had to deal with that as well as re-building a football team that had high expectations from its supporters.
Added to which Evans was used to a world of where players like Souness, Dalglish, Hansen, and Case would take personal responsibility. Being professional and having the desire to win even if that meant ruffling feathers in the changing room if teammates were not pulling their weight.
This new Liverpool did not have those characters who didn’t care whether it was the European cup final or a Sunday league match. Winning was what it was all about and the likes of Souness, Dalglish, Case, St. John, and Smith epitomises this during their time at playing at Anfield.
Bill Shankly was certainly a tough character who stood no messing and made sure that his players knew of the high standards that he expected. Despite looking like your favourite Uncle’s in their comfortable cardigan and flat cap, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan were as hard as nails who ruled like a Mafia Don when required. Roy Evans though didn’t have that steel and ability of when to knock a player into line and when to shown him the door.
Ultimately it is about having respect and sadly Evans could not command that from his team. Part of the job is knowing when to rid the club of bad influences and players who lacked professionalism. For example Neil Ruddock should have been one of the first to be shown the door. Aside from the pass the pound game that he was alleged to have instigated (a pound coin would be passed throughout the match and the last person with the coin after the final whistle had to buy the first round) and loud mouthed slogan ‘win, lose, or draw, first to the bar,’ Ruddock hardly looked after himself.
There were also instances of players competing to steal his car park space, not showing up for training, and general ill discipline that led to supporters that the players were not at all that serious about winning.
Some ex-players dispute the lack of discipline and state that Evans could be strict. After all Don Hutchinson had been bombed out over a drunken indiscretion and Stan Collymore after proving too much of a disruptive influence. The truth as they say is somewhere in the middle but it has to be said that discipline was not Evans strong point.
Despite having being tasked with re-building a team going backwards there was a nucleus of good youngsters coming through. McManaman and Fowler through the ranks with Redknapp, Jones, and James the other youth players cited to have the potential to be top players.
Evans was shown to be a coach who wasn’t afraid to change things. He did introduce three at the back in an attempt to not just stabilise the defence but with the two wing backs added to support the attack. There was also the nous in the sense of pushing John Barnes into a central role after his losing his pace. Barnes experience and passing helped keep the midfield ticking over.
Yet there was the sense that Liverpool were falling behind their rivals not just tactically but on how they trained and approached games. The Liverpool way was always about not showing any sentiment and ensuring that they always stayed one step ahead of the opposition.
Matches and high-profile defeats such as the mist game against Ajax, Red Star Belgrade, and Watford were all instrumental in how Liverpool changed their approach and tactics. For example the Belgrade game taught the importance of retaining the ball and led to the centre-halves being expected to be comfortable in bringing the ball out.
Liverpool in the mid nineties were still using the old and trusted methods of the past. John Scales the former centre half talks in Simon Hughes Men in white suits ‘The wooden target boards were still used and they were rotting away. There was no tactical or technical analysis. There were so many bad habits.’
Ironically Liverpool who had previously always prided themselves in being ahead of the game had allowed themselves to stagnate by continually sticking to old and trusted habits. Previously the bootroom had been more than aware that the game continually evolved.
There was also complaints that Evans was too simplistic in his views. That he didn’t have the ability to be able to change things when it wasn’t working or instructing his players what he wanted out of them. Again times had changed and the mantra of instructing players to ‘play your own game,’ may have worked previously when the team was a well-functioning machine with players signed to play that position but not a team that was being built.
Despite all this the football was highly entertaining with some eye-catching attacking football. With Robbie Fowler banging in the goals it seemed that if Liverpool could iron out the problems at the back and a view at the time adding a bit more steel in the midfield then Liverpool would end their wait for a nineteenth league title.
As it was Roy Evans signings fell way short of backing up the potential that was already at the club. Players such as Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Kennedy, Scales, Leonhardsen, Friedel, and Kvarme to name but a few failed to deliver. Paul Ince may have been seen as being the steel Liverpool needed but he was not the player that previously excelled in the Manchester United field.
Stan Collymore was Evans high-profile signing from Nottingham Forest for £8.5 million. Despite his talents he was still a risk after being a disruptive influence at Forest and his previous clubs Southend.
In Collymore’s first season he was productive with him and Fowler terrorising defenders and scoring goals in abundance. Yet the problems that had dogged his career re-surfaced at Liverpool. Collymore failed to turn up to training regularly and lacked the professionalism required. It is only now that we know of Collymore’s battle with mental illness. Evans unfortunately didn’t have the capacity to recognise this or the ability to deal with the issues as a result.
Success and certainly at a club like Liverpool is what a manager is judged on and Evans fell short. There was of course optimism when Liverpool beat Bolton to win the league cup in 1995 but that was to be the only bit of silverware that Evans won in his tenure as manager.
Roy Evans despite finishing no lower than fourth in the league failed in delivering the league title. The nearest that he came to it was in the 1996/97 season when Liverpool finished fourth in a two horse race. During the run in when the pressure is high it is about delivering results and keeping that nerve. Liverpool could not take advantage and despite getting themselves in a good position after beating Arsenal at Highbury they messed up by losing at home against Coventry. As it was a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday saw Liverpool finish fourth rather than nabbing even a champions league spot.
The harsh reality as cited by Fowler and other ex-reds of that period is that the team simply were not good enough. None of Evans signings made a lasting impression and it would be fair to say that Patrik Berger and Danny Murphy were probably his only real success.
Fowler in his autobiography believes that Liverpool were not that far behind and not in as bad a state as Gerard Houllier made out. That is a fair point but at that stage the pressure was taking its toll on Roy Evans. In his interviews during Evans final full season in charge looked tired and unwell as he seemed to be buckling under the pressure. The summer of 1998 the Liverpool board should have either continued to back Evans or cut ties. As it was David Moores fudged the issue and went with a joint manager venture of Evans and Houllier which didn’t work. After defeat to Tottenham in the league cup in November 1998, Evans called time with Houllier now solely in charge.
The legacy of Roy Evans Liverpool is one of a team that played swashbuckling, cavalier football. Nobody will forget the two 4-3’s against Newcastle that seemed to sum up both teams attitude at the time.
There is also the negative image of the partying, up for a laugh, not really caring, and lack of professionalism that hogged the headlines of some of the Liverpool players. Indeed it could be argued that whilst Manchester United had Roy Keane, Liverpool had Neil Ruddock and that crucially is the difference in terms of attitudes installed in the team.
Even now some of Evans ex-players do cite a lack of discipline and leniency. Jason McAteer says of his former manager ‘I think he found it hard to drop or discipline players. We were all his boys. We had some big characters there, and he found it difficult to deal with the Collymores and Ruddocks.’ Maybe Evans expected his players to be more adult and take responsibility but a manager has to quickly stamp out any indiscipline and make an instant mark. Evans failed to do so.
Of course if some of the signings had been real quality and if they had got players like Thuram or Desailly then things might have been different. As it was Liverpool were great in attack but brittle at the back.
Thrown into the mix was that Liverpool’s methods were still stuck too much in the past. What had worked previously didn’t mean it still did. In terms of tactics, training, and diet it all needed a fresh approach. Something that ironically Liverpool had never been afraid to do in the past.
It could be argued that Evans was unlucky with injuries with Rob Jones finishing his career early and a serious injury to Redknapp whilst playing for England meant he never got the best out of some that young potential.
Evans Liverpool despite its frustrations still provides some fond memories. The football was fun and at the beginning with the likes of Fowler and McManaman the future did seem bright. Yet the team fell short and unfortunately it was to be the white suits and not trophies for what Evans Liverpool will be remembered for.