The demeanour and actions of Joe Fagan was of a modest man who would give his time to anyone. No job was beneath him and to have passed him in the street as he made the short walk from his house to Anfield you might not have looked twice.
However he was no ‘ordinary Joe,’ but contributed to the success Liverpool enjoyed through the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. Not only did Fagan help Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley literally re-build Liverpool from scratch he also managed Liverpool to their most successful season by claiming a treble.
Achievements like these would normally guarantee you a place amongst the pantheon of football manager greats. Winning a league championship over a marathon season, a league cup when it was taken just as seriously as the FA cup, and beating a Roma side in the European cup final in their own backyard is the stuff of legends. Even the following season which would be his final year as manager saw Fagan guide Liverpool to a runner’s up spot in the league and European cup final. Yet his achievements in football have been strangely forgotten.
Not that Joe Fagan would have liked to have been referred to as a legend. He was a man who didn’t seek any platitudes or have an ego. Instead Joe Fagan was happy to get on with his job and above all loved his football.
There are some critics who will try to state that the team that Fagan inherited was still in its prime and just needed a steady hand to keep things ticking over. This though is not only ignorant but sloppily glosses over the talents of a man who was not only a top coach but also contributed to the success Liverpool enjoyed.
Besides as David Moyes, Wilf McGuinness, and Brian Clough found out to their cost it is hard to follow after one legend never mind two which was the case with Fagan. His predecessors were Bob Paisley and the man responsible from dragging Liverpool from the doldrums to conquering Europe the enigmatic Bill Shankly.
For the Liverpool board it seemed a relatively easy decision to make after Bob Paisley had announced that he wished to retire from football after the 1982-83 season. After all Joe Fagan was an original member of the boot room. He was just as much responsible for the evolving changes in tactics as well as being liked and respected by fellow coaches and supporters.
It was something that Fagan wasn’t too sure about as he stated ‘my first reaction at the time was that I wouldn’t take it,’ ‘but I thought about it carefully and realised someone else might come in and upset the whole rhythm. I finally decided to take it and keep the continuity going for a little longer.’
At sixty-two Fagan was one of the oldest managers of the league and was only a couple of years younger than Paisley. Even so with the experience and with his fellow boot room colleagues Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans were on hand to assist.
Fagan despite being born in Liverpool started his career as a defender for Manchester City and although there was not much success did Captain the team. After that there were early coaching stints as a player-manager at Nelson, assistant manager at Rochdale before taking up the offer of a coaching role at Liverpool by the then manager Phil Taylor.
With the departure of Phil Taylor after Liverpool failed to gain promotion there was of course much uncertainty of whether the new manager Bill Shankly would bring in his own staff. It was to be one of the best decisions that Shankly made as he made no changes to the coaching set up. Indeed his first words to Fagan were ‘You must have been a good player, Joe, because I tried to sign you.’
The foundations of Shankly’s Liverpool were helped by Paisley, Fagan, Moran, Bennett, and Saunders who helped turn a dilapidated club with poor training facilities kicking and screaming into a first-rate club that became the bastion of invincibility that Shankly wanted.
Although Fagan had been given the job as reserve team manager he was still to have an influential part to play in helping establishing Liverpool to be a major force. No job was seen to be beneath anyone with everyone expected to muck in for the common good. Whether it was helping clear the rocks from the battered Melwood training pitch and making it a surface suitable for a top club or painting the barriers and what not at the ground Fagan like Paisley and Shankly was quite willing to pitch in.
Part of the success of Liverpool was that nobody was allowed to get any airs or graces. Shankly, Paisley, and Fagan were from a generation rife with poverty and as soon as they were old enough were expected to graft and earn for the family. It was a philosophy that certainly influenced their outlook on life and if a player wasn’t giving their all then they were shown the door.
Tommy Smith recalls the time that Joe Fagan would not allow for any illusions of grandeur. After two years on the ground staff Smith had been offered a professional contract. Prior to signing the contract his ground staff mates asked if he would help sweep the home dressing room in order to finish quickly.
Smith scoffed at such a suggestion now that he was to be a professional and let them know that his days of skivvying were behind him. Unbeknown to Smith, Joe Fagan had watching all of this in the background and with the sigh of an Uncle telling off a petulant nephew said “Tommy, pick up the brush, son.” No more needed to be said as an embarrassed Smith picked up the brush and helped his mates.
One of Fagan’s strengths was his ability to listen to players and offer advice when needs be. Roger Hunt had signed amateur forms whilst doing his national service which in turn restricted him playing. As a result Hunt found himself struggling with his fitness. So much so that after being selected to play Preston for the reserves his performance deteriorated so badly that midway through the second half Fagan pushed his Captain John Nicholson up front with Hunt dropping back in defence.
It was what was said after the game that even now sticks in Hunt’s mind. Fagan quietly told him that he was not attempting to make a show of him but advised him what he needed to do if Hunt wanted to make it as a professional footballer. Hunt recalls “I decided to get even much fitter, work harder, and at least if I didn’t make it at least I had given it everything. I always remember that part of it because Joe was solely responsible.” The advice worked with Hunt not just breaking into the first team but became an Anfield goal scoring legend.
One of the most difficult tasks of being a reserve team manager is how to deal with the senior professionals who had been dropped from the first team. After the defeat against Watford in a third round away tie, Shankly had realised that the team needed rebuilding and that he had perhaps allowed players to stay way past their prime.
Ian St. John was one of the senior pro’s to be part of the cull and Fagan was aware that he had to ensure that not only would St. John do his best on the pitch, but not cause disruption like many a disgruntled former first teamer do in football.
Man management though was part of Fagan’s strengths as he ensured that he would ask St. John’s opinion in front of his teammates as well as making him Captain. Through Fagan’s tactful diplomacy he made what was a rough part of St. John’s career a bit more smoother as well as ensuring that he also performed on the pitch even if it was only for the second string.
Again with up and coming youngsters who were impatient at wanting to get in the first team like Ray Clemence or newcomers like Brian Hall, Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan, Joe Fagan would show the patience and tutoring required that would help these player’s eventually make the step up to the first team. Brian Hall said about his time under Fagan “His thinking was always football-orientated, but above that he was a real people’s person.”
As a result the reserves for example only lost fourteen of their one hundred and twenty-six Central league fixtures. This of course resulted in three consecutive Central league championships from 1969-1971.
That was not to say that Fagan wasn’t averse to laying down the law verbally. Souness recalls that Joe’s way would be “a quiet word or even a single look would say it all. He could be hard and I remember on a number of occasions that he would say something really harsh to one of the lads, but he’d do it ever so quietly and that was his way of emphasising the point.”
Fagan knew when it was appropriate to put an arm around a player, to offer practical advice, and when to give a bollocking. Mark Lawrenson recalls that a telling off from Joe Fagan felt like the end of the world.
The most famous example of this was Liverpool’s poor start to the 1981-82 season. After a poor defeat against Manchester City at home and with the reds slumping to twelfth nine points adrift of the leaders Swansea City it was the final straw for Paisley and his coaching staff. On the following Monday with the players getting ready for training Fagan let rip at every single player as he made it very clear that their performances were not only unacceptable but that it was time for them to start pulling their weight.
Lawrenson states that it had the required affect. “It had a far bigger effect than anyone else at the club doing it – even Bob Paisley or Kenny Dalglish afterwards.”
The next game was a third round cup tie against Swansea with Liverpool winning emphatically 4-0. In the league Liverpool went on a run that included eleven consecutive league wins to claim the league title with the League Cup retained after beating Spurs 3-1 after extra time.
In many ways Shankly, Paisley, and Fagan were a holy trinity with their own individual skills and talents coming together that helped make Liverpool so successful. The fabled boot room is now talked about in mythical terms. It was as the name suggests where the boots were kept but became a base for the backroom staff and manager to have a chat and discussion over the football or issues affecting the club.
Joe Fagan indirectly was responsible for creating the boot room. As a favour to his friend Paul Orr who was then manager of the local amateur side Guinness Exports, Fagan would do a spot of coaching and arranged for injured Export players to be treated at Anfield. As a thank you Orr would regularly send supplies of Guinness and other ales for Joe.
The only problem was where to store the ale with Joe finding that the boot room was a handy place. With a ready supply of ale it became the go to place for the coaching staff to meet. Paisley commented “It’s just like popping down the local. We have a full and frank exchange of views in there in a leisurely atmosphere every Sunday morning.”
Shankly might have been quoted that “football was a simple game, based on the giving and receiving of passes,” a view that Paisley and Joe Fagan also shared but that underplayed the hard work and thought that went into their preparations.
For starters when Shankly took over at Liverpool he instantly changed the training philosophy that was geared towards physical endurance with the actual work with the football regarded as a second thought. In some quarters the lack of work with the ball made them believe that it made the players hungrier come Saturday.
The new regime wanted training to replicate a match which meant working with the football. ‘Pass it to the nearest red shirt,’ or ‘pass and move,’ became the mantra. Everything was all based towards improving the technique, control, and reacting quickly to what would happen during a match. Three, four, and five aside matches became established with players becoming more involved with the ball and in tighter situations.
There was of course the infamous sweat box with four boards, placed on each side of a twenty yard rectangle against which a player would play the ball, play it, and play it. A minute in there was more than enough for most players as it improved technique and concentration.
Fitness was a key issue but not only did the player’s enjoy it but the level of fitness was improved to such an extent that the opposition would wilt in the final third of matches but Liverpool being generally fitter would take advantage.
Whereas Shankly as manager would have to take step back Fagan was involved where he enjoyed it the most which was working with the players. Like Paisley and Bennett, Fagan would report back to Shankly if there was anything of note from training.
Joe Fagan like the other coaches was also responsible in meticulously logging each day’s schedule. It was done so that in times of trouble it could be something that the coaching staff could refer to which may resolve any problems that may arise. These books were also referred to as the ‘anfield bibles,’ that were meant to contain the secret of Liverpool’s success. In truth it was a reference book that the coaching staff would refer to.
It was also in the boot room that Liverpool would discuss players and tactics. Lessons would be learnt from key games such as the mist game against Ajax in 65 and Crvena Zvezda in 1973 that saw Liverpool change their style to a patient passing style. The likes of Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson who were good on the ball were drafted in to play this new style which would take them to new levels. Joe Fagan of course would have been involved and would have voiced his opinion that would influence Liverpool’s way of playing.
The hard work was to be worth it as Liverpool changed from club muddling along in the second division into a team that dominated England in Europe as the trophies continually kept being filled in the cabinet.
In 1979 Joe Fagan became the assistant manager it was a job that he had been doing anyway but was now made official. He had of course helped Paisley to steady the ship and take Liverpool to even greater heights after the shock resignation of Shankly in 1974.
So when Paisley announced that he would retire after the 1982-83 season it wasn’t really a surprise that Fagan would take charge as it seemed a natural transition. Something that Liverpool back then prided themselves on doing it well that it would hardly be noticed.
Joe Fagan certainly had the respect of the players and it was certainly a case of business as usual. For Fagan though there was a slight difference that he now had to take a step back. However any worries that he wasn’t up to the task of making the hard decisions were quickly put to bed. They might be decisions that Joe Fagan didn’t want to make but he knew that the success of the club relied on not allowing sentiment to cloud your judgement.
A pre-season tour to Belfast and Rotterdam meant Fagan had to select a fourteen man squad. With Hansen and Lawrenson now the established centre-backs and Gary Gillespie being Fagan’s first signing it meant no place for the respected veteran Phil Thompson. Joe Fagan admitted that it was his first unpleasant decision but did it because it was in the best interest of the team.
For the start of the 1983-84 season there were understandably nerves Joe Fagan worried that the season might be similar to Bob Paisley’s first year when Liverpool finished the season trophyless. There were injury worries with Ronnie Whelan being sidelined for the beginning of the season and the failure to capture Michael Laudrup and Charlie Nicholas as signings.
It was to become a memorable season as Liverpool won a historic treble. With Liverpool chasing a third successive title the stakes was high especially as the media mused that the reds dominance might be on the wane.
These were worries that Joe Fagan kept to himself although he did highlight the concerns in his diaries. After one defeat Fagan questioned whether the players still had the hunger to win although these fears were to be disproved during the course of the season.
There were doubts about some of his signings such as Michael Robinson whilst Craig Johnston was causing much consternation with one of Fagan’s entries declaring about Johnston “he sounds as if he plays for Roy of the Rovers and has to grow up.”
Despite all this Fagan kept a positive air with no indication of any worries or concerns about the up and coming season. It was to be justified after Liverpool thrashed Luton Town 6-0 at home in October with Rush scoring five to send the reds top of the league. It was a position that Liverpool rarely slipped away from with the only real challenge coming from Manchester United. A 4-0 reverse after going unbeaten for fifteen games away to Coventry City saw Fagan give his team a rollicking but Liverpool consistently got the wins as United failed to take the initiative when the reds dropped points.
Highlights of the 1983-84 season was a Rush hat-trick for the TV cameras as Liverpool came back from 1-0 down away to Villa to win 3-1, a 3-0 win against Everton and the 5-0 thrashing of Coventry City that virtually guaranteed Liverpool the title. A 0-0 draw away to Notts County secured Liverpool their fifteenth title and become the first team since Arsenal to win three consecutive league championships.
The League cup or Milk Cup as it was known had been won earlier as Fagan felt the relief of claiming his first trophy. Everton had been beaten 1-0 at Maine road following a drab 0-0 draw at Wembley. A superb strike by Souness winning Liverpool the Milk Cup.
Europe though was where Liverpool looked especially impressive. Athletic Bilbao were beaten in a solid display after winning 1-0 away in the second leg with the Basque side having only lost once in thirty-one European ties at home prior to being beaten by Liverpool.
Benfica were up next after winning 1-0 at home the Portuguese side were thrashed 4-1. Then came a volatile match against Dinamo Bucharest with a Sammy Lee goal winning the first leg. However it was Souness breaking the jaw of Moliva after the Romanian’s side cynical fouling that saw the Scotsman retaliate but luckily was not caught by the referee or officials.
It turned the return leg into a volatile and hostile match with even airport officials giving threatening gestures as the team went through customs. The reds though soared above the hostility to win 2-1 and win a place in the final to play the Italian Champions AS Roma which was to be played at their ground the Stadio Olimpico.
It was a stadium that brought good memories for Liverpool as it was Rome where the reds won their first European cup in 1977. Although they were literally in the Wolves back yard and with Roma boasting the likes of Falcao and Conti it was the Italians that were favourites. This though was where Joe Fagan showed his mettle in terms of his man management skills by putting his players at ease.
Whilst Roma were placed in a training camp and kept to themselves Liverpool went to Israel not only because the temperature would be similar to Rome but with the intention for the player’s to relax after a hard season.
Despite Fagan’s casual appearance everything was meticulously planned. From toning down the training as he felt the player’s were pushing themselves at the wrong time and peaking too soon. Fagan also ensured that they arrived in Rome not too early so as to ensure the players didn’t dwell or get bored.
For Fagan it was about ensuring that the player’s were relaxed and feeling confident and that the pressure was on Roma who had to get the better of Liverpool. Even delivering the UEFA instruction about player’s not running to the crowd if a goal was scored was changed by Fagan to “when we score a goal.” In turn it gave Liverpool the confidence that they would score in a very intimidating arena.
It certainly had the required effect with the player’s so much relaxed that after casually lapping up the atmosphere they returned back to the tunnel and started to sing Chris Rea’s song ‘I don’t know what it is (But I love it)’ which became the unofficial song for the squad.
Nils Liedholm the Roma manager saw the colour on his player’s face drain as they heard the Liverpool players in full voice that he knew that they were in trouble.
Although the Liverpool way was to let the opposition worry about them Fagan still gave brief instructions that close tabs had to be kept on Falcao and Conti. However the main instruction was for Liverpool to play their natural game.
Phil Neal had given Liverpool the lead and despite dominating the first half Pruzzo had equalised for Roma just before the end of the half. No goals came in the second half or the extra time that was played which meant that the European Cup final would be decided on penalties for the first time.
During the period whilst deciding who would take penalties Fagan told his players that he was proud of them. The onus was on Roma to win the game on their own patch and Liverpool had prevented them from doing so. Grobbelaar remembers Fagan easing some of the pressure off him by telling him that he had done his job and that nobody would blame him if he couldn’t stop a ball from twelve yards.
Steve Nicol blasted Liverpool’s first penalty over the bar with Roma taking the lead. Neal pulled one back but with the words of Fagan advising Grobbelaar to “put them off,’ and decided to in his own words do ‘the crossover legs routine,’ with Conti missing. Souness scored from the spot with Righetti levelling. Then came Ian Rush who put Liverpool back in the lead. Then came the spaghetti legs from Bruce Grobbelaar with the nerves getting to Graziani who hit the crossbar. The mathematics was now clear. If Liverpool scored they would be the European Champions for the fourth time. Up stepped Alan Kennedy who shot to the goalkeeper’s right, with the ball hitting the back of the net as a jubilant Alan Kennedy sprinted away in triumph.
For Fagan it capped an unbelievable first season as Liverpool manager as they won a historic treble that no other English club had managed to do. Although Joe Fagan had a beaming smile his interviews were quietly understated as he also commiserated Roma in their defeat.
The celebrations continued well into the night and there is the iconic picture of a relaxed Joe Fagan lounging casually in a deck chair by the pool with the European cup as two Carabinieri stand guard. In many ways the image summed up Joe Fagan. He might have given the casual laid back air but underneath there was a steel of determination who was as hard as nails when it came down to it.
Parties broke out across Liverpool as the reds were welcomed home in an open bus tour. It was a welcome that the team and Joe Fagan thoroughly deserved especially as many had questioned whether Fagan had the mettle to succeed Bob Paisley.
Anything after that magnificent year the followin season was always going to be an anti-climax and with Souness going to Sampdoria it was equally going to be harder after losing their influential skipper.
Jan Molby and Paul Walsh had been signed but Liverpool got off to a terrible start to the season and at one point in the season went seven games without a win. Joe Fagan equally showed that there was no sentiment or player’s being picked purely on reputation as Kenny Dalglish was dropped for the first time away to Spurs. Although Liverpool lost 1-0 it showed that Fagan had the ruthlessness if he felt it necessary to drop a player.
Liverpool had crashed out of the league cup early against Spurs whilst being knocked out in the semi-final stage against Manchester United in the FA cup. Although Liverpool had managed to put on enough of a run to claim second place to the Champions Everton, it was the European cup that looked like Liverpool’s best chance of success. Comprehensive wins against Benfica and the demolishing of Panathinaikos 5-0 aggregate win in the semi-final saw Liverpool face the Italian champions Juventus in the final.
Contrary to what some people believe Joe Fagan after two seasons in charge had decided to step down at the end of the season prior to the European cup final. The plan had been that Joe would manage for two or three seasons with either Phil Neal or Kenny Dalglish to take charge. It was of course the latter who was to succeed Fagan who hoped to bow out in style with a fifth European cup win.
Sadly that was not to be with the horrific events of Heysel after Liverpool fans charged at Juventus fans in the alleged “neutral area,” there was a crush prior to the collapsing of the wall which led to thirty-nine deaths. A riot broke out between the two sets of fans with numerous appeals from both sides including Joe Fagan appealing to the fans to stop.
Much has been written about the causes and those responsible for what happened at Heysel. The final should never have been played at a dilapidated stadium with some of the Police and authorities also held culpable and subsequently charged.
Despite the violence the match was still played with Liverpool beaten after Platini scored a penalty. However the result had no real meaning after the loss of lives at what was meant to be a football match.
The image of a broken Joe Fagan being supported by Roy Evans after Liverpool had touched down at Speke airport spoke volumes on how it had affected him. It was something that he couldn’t comprehend and was to be a sad end to an illustrious career.
After all the years of loyal service to Liverpool it should not be the lasting image of Joe Fagan nor should his achievements be forgotten. It isn’t just about winning an incredible treble in his first season in charge of Liverpool but his overall contribution to the reds.
Joe Fagan with Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley did the most difficult thing in football by not just constantly adapting to the changes in the game but consistently staying one step ahead. Their philosophy that football never really changes with the fundamentals being consistent are true but their actions of recording every minute detail of training, injuries, and ensuring the players warmed down properly for example showed that they were ahead of their time.
Equally true is the fact that training was more ball based with it mirroring the actions of a football match showed the thought process that went into making Liverpool one of the greats.
Paisley in his cardigan and Fagan in his flat cap may have looked and even acted like your favourite Uncle but were as hard as nails if you was silly enough to cross them. They knew the ins and outs of the various personalities of footballers and as a result knew how to deal with players.
Playing under either of the three you were expected to take personal responsibility and to give your all no matter what job you were given. Failure to do so would see you being shown the door. Reputations or egos didn’t come into it. If you didn’t do the job then you were no good to them. Sentimentality didn’t come into either with the decision made for what was best for the team.
That was not to say it was easy at times. In many ways it may have been one of the reasons why Fagan had decided to step down as manager after two seasons. From reading the diary extracts of the authorised biography by his son Andrew Fagan and Mark Platt there does appear to be a sense of frustration at not being at the ground floor which he loved best by working with the players in training. An extract from his second day as manager reads ‘I have been here since 9.15am. The time now is 10.15am and there is no sign of anyone or anything happening! I am also dressed up in collar and tie. It is not my normal gear – but it becomes me!’
Despite the success in the short space of time that Joe Fagan was in charge of Liverpool he seems largely forgotten outside of the club. Not that it would have bothered Joe Fagan. He had no airs or graces and viewed it as only doing a job. Indeed he couldn’t understand why people would still stop him in the street to chat football long after his retirement. Fagan even kept an eye on supporter’s cars after being surprised to see the ex Liverpool manager opening the door when they had knocked to seek permission to park outside his house.
There is no doubt that Joe Fagan was a down to earth man with many of those speaking of what a nice guy he was. There is the story of him brushing the away changing rooms at Notts County just after Liverpool had won the title in 1984 or of helping supporters get tickets for big games.
What should never be forgotten though is not just winning the treble in the 1983-84 season, but Joe Fagan’s contribution to Liverpool. He was just as much an integral part as Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were in making Liverpool the best. It is only right that equally Joe Fagan should be remembered as being one of the top coaches in the game.