Every club has its legends – a list of true greats who influenced matters either on or off the pitch, and whose names live on in the clubs’ halls of remembrance. These are the players, managers, and other club staff whose influence has been such that their contributions are rightly remembered and lauded.
Others are remembered with less reverence. These are the ones who are regarded, rightly or wrongly, as ‘nightmare signings’. Every club has these. For Liverpool, think Sean Dundee, El Hadji Diouf, or Roy Hodgson; for Manchester United, think Ralph Milne, Massimo Taibi or Wilf McGuiness; for Arsenal, think Franny Jeffers, Bruce Rioch and… you get the idea.
There is a third group, however, of players and managers who are remembered, often quite fondly, as being ‘nearly men’ – those who gave good service and made a decent contribution without ever quite reaching the heights they at one time indicated they would do.
Starting with everyone’s favourite club (!) Liverpool, we immediately have a contender in Roy Evans. Player, coach, assistant, sponge man and all-round nice guy, Roy got his chance as manager in 1994 after the Graeme Souness managerial project went south and a breath of fresh air was what the doctor ordered for the club after the stresses and strains of the previous few years.
Miserable sixth-place finishes were the best Souness could offer on the back of twenty years’ success and so Evans’ brief was simple: restore Liverpool to the top table of English football. What could go wrong?
To be fair, for a while Evans looked to be on the right track as he built a fine attacking side that threatened to challenge Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United for the game’s top honours. Unfortunately, too often Liverpool flattered to deceive under Roy and after four years and a solitary League Cup success to his name, Evans had Gerard Houllier foisted upon him as ‘joint manager’. The arrangement was never going to work and just three months into the new season Evans left the club by ‘mutual consent’.
It was a sad end to Evans’ connection with the club, coming as it did after thirty-plus years, and even sadder was the fact that at the age of 50 Evans was to find himself practically on the footballing scrapheap as he barely worked again, save for spells helping out at Fulham, Swindon and Wales.
Liverpool enjoyed considerable success throughout the nineteen-seventies and ‘eighties of course, and yet some of the players involved in those triumphs can perhaps consider themselves a little unlucky not to have more of a lasting legacy on one hand, or that they perhaps slightly underachieved on a personal level on the other.
One such player who may well fall into this category is local-born hardman, Jimmy Case. Case made his breakthrough as a twenty-year-old in the 1975-76 title-winning campaign and it was highly anticipated that a glittering career awaited. While Case would, in fact, play professionally for almost the next twenty years, and did indeed win a host of honours at Anfield in his early career, by the age of 25 he had been shipped out of Anfield by a Bob Paisley who had grown tired of the off-field difficulties Case was presenting him.
Tipped to become an England regular, it was perhaps surprising that Case never ended up winning a solitary cap.
One Liverpool player who was capped by England but still fell somewhat short of expectations was Paul Walsh. Signed in the summer of 1984 by Joe Fagan as Kenny’s Dalglish’s ultimate successor, Walsh had already played for England a handful of times whilst still a Luton Town player and, once again, appeared to have it all before him.
Perhaps unfortunately for him, Fagan stayed just one more season as manager and was replaced by the man Walsh was bought to replace – Dalglish. Whether Dalglish had had his nose put out of place at the suggestion of being eased out of the door in favour of Walsh is perhaps a bone of contention, but, indeed, Walsh didn’t get on particularly well with Dalglish the manager. Three seasons after Walsh joined, Dalglish signed Peter Beardsley from Newcastle and Walsh’s days at the club were numbered. Walsh would go on to play for Tottenham, Portsmouth and Manchester City, but after those early caps never again earned an England call-up.
Manchester United have had a series of managers who have fallen short of the club’s exalted expectations in the last few seasons, but following on from the quarter of a century of success achieved under Sir Alex Ferguson, the barometer was always going to be set rather high. Similar fates befell immediate successors to Sir Matt Busby in the early nineteen-seventies but one manager who came slightly later and nearly made the breakthrough without quite achieving it was Dave Sexton.
Appointed in the summer of 1977 in the wake of the Tommy Docherty scandal, Sexton had achieved some success in his previous two posts at Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers and was considered to have every chance of doing the same at Old Trafford. However, for whatever reason, it didn’t quite happen for Sexton at United and despite coming very close, no trophies were delivered in his four years in charge.
The 1979 FA Cup Final was reached and lost 3-2 to Arsenal, and a year later United took on Liverpool in a two-horse race for the title before succumbing by a mere two points to Bob Paisley’s men. After a disappointing 1980-81 season, Sexton was very disappointed to be sacked by United Chairman, Martin Edwards.
Some Manchester United players who have shone briefly and enjoyed good but not great careers possibly include the following: Jim Leighton, Remi Moses and Alan Davies.
Leighton was a very good goalkeeper, as could be seen by his longevity in the game, but he was perhaps not quite absolute top-drawer. An error-prone FA Cup Final appearance in 1990 almost cost United the trophy and Alex Ferguson showed his ruthless streak by dropping him for the replay in favour of Les Sealey. Leighton’s United career was effectively over following this and never again did he feature at the top level in England.
Another Manchester United man to appear in an FA Cup Final and then see his career not pan out as expected was the late Alan Davies. Called into the line-up as a late replacement for Laurie Cunningham for Manchester United’s 1983 final against Brighton, Davies performed more than admirably on the day and in the subsequent replay but was unable to pin down a regular starting spot following this, and his life was to end tragically when he committed suicide in 1992.
At Everton, Colin Harvey is rightly revered as part of the so-called midfield ‘Holy Trinity’ that was so successful in the nineteen-sixties and early part of the ‘seventies. Alongside Alan Ball and Howard Kendall, Harvey formed a long-serving and triumphant axis in the middle of the park and gained a solitary England cap by way of recognition.
Upon retirement from playing, Harvey went into coaching and ultimately found himself back at Goodison Park working alongside Kendall as his number two. When Kendall quit the hot-seat to move overseas, Harvey stepped into the breach and it is because of this that he now finds himself placed in the pantheon of ‘Nearly Men’.
A top-four finish in his first season in charge and an FA Cup Final appearance the following season were achievements not to be sniffed at, but they represented the pinnacle of his time in charge at Goodison, and although the Toffees were perhaps not far away from challenging under him, his time in charge ended with the sack.
Certain players have also gone to Goodison Park with high hopes only to fall just short of hopes and expectations. Players such as Tony Cottee, signed for a British transfer record in 1988, and Ian Snodin, one of Howard Kendall’s last signings, could be included in this list, as could Stuart McCall.
Of course, when talking about ‘Nearly Men’, almost every club has a collection of men who could be considered for entry into this exclusive club. At Arsenal, for instance, Terry Neill as manager and Malcolm MacDonald and Alan Hudson as players could be seen as contenders. At Tottenham, there could be David Pleat or Peter Shreeves as managers and perhaps Paul Stewart, Mitchell Thomas and Nico Claesen on the playing side. West Ham fans might consider Billy Bonds in the hot seat and Paul Allen and Alan Devonshire on the field. For Chelsea, it’s possibly John Neal and maybe Dave Beasant and Graham Roberts as players.
This list could go on infinitely, but it is of course a matter of opinion. Some might well consider some of the men described here as true legends who did indeed reach the peaks, while others might consider some of these gentlemen as nothing more than out-and-out failures.