By Rob Doolan
“To give Gérard and his team a real chance, I have to walk away.” With those words ended a dynasty. Roy Evans, last bastion of Liverpool’s iconic Boot Room, had been at Anfield for 35 years. He’d served as a player under Shankly, as a coach under every subsequent manager from Paisley to Souness, and finally, sat in the manager’s chair himself. Now, as the Shankly Gates swung shut on his reign, sadness pervaded. Rather than taking on a new role upstairs or as an ambassador, Evans was determined to leave with some dignity. “It would have been easy for me to stay around and become a ghost on the wall,” he said during an emotional final press conference. In truth, it had been over for a long time.
Evans’ departure was inevitable from the moment Gérard Houllier was appointed as his co-manager, five months prior. Everyone knew it. The front cover of When Saturday Comes heralded the appointment by invoking the Two Ronnies on their front cover. “It’s goodnight from me,” read the speech bubble emanating from Evans, “and it’s goodnight from him,” read Houllier’s. Evans knew it too, the writing on the wall visible in his sad eyes as he tried to smile alongside his new partner. The two men were radically different, too, in terms of personality, methods and philosophy. “You can sit down with your best mate and talk about football and you don’t have the same opinion. There’s always going to be a clash,” Evans told Simon Hughes, when interviewed for the excellent LFC 1990s chronicle Men in White Suits.
Evans and Houllier were not best mates…
The decline of the ‘Spice Boys’
How did it come to this? Evans had re-established the club as title contenders after the misery of the Souness era. He’d helped bring through a crop of exciting young English players – Redknapp, McManaman, Fowler and Owen. He’d boldly ditched 4-4-2, the system the club had used for 30 years, in favour of an attacking 3-5-2 that transformed the Reds into arguably the most stylish team in the country.
Ultimately though, he simply didn’t win enough. For all the plaudits their football garnered, the exciting matches, like the two 4-3 victories over fellow nearly-men Newcastle, for all that they were English football’s answer to Britpop, one solitary League Cup was not a sufficient haul. Not when your arch-rivals have claimed the ‘perch’ you’ve vacated.
The perception developed that Liverpool’s young guns cared more about partying than about winning trophies. They were regularly photographed in Chinawhites and other London hotspots. Some had modelling contracts. Some had celebrity girlfriends. The ‘Spice Boys’ tag wouldn’t have been an issue – nobody would have said a word even about those cream suits at Wembley – had their undeniable talent delivered the shiny trinkets it warranted. Yet they could never quite get over the line, frequently bottling the big games when it mattered. In April 1997, a win over Manchester United at Anfield would have put them top with three games to go. They lost 3-1 and ended up finishing fourth, somehow, in what had essentially been a two-horse race. The following season brought a third-place finish but a 13-point gap between them and champions Arsenal, the widest margin since Evans’ first season.
The loyalists in Evans’ camp insist he’d have got it right in the end. That he just needed to be backed, that he wanted Teddy Sheringham, Marcel Desailly, Juninho. In their autobiographies, Robbie Fowler and Jason McAteer refute suggestions that he was too soft. Yet when Evans was backed, too often it proved money poorly spent. He broke the British transfer record for a defender on the spectacularly ordinary Phil Babb. He smashed the British transfer record outright on Stan Collymore, only to see him destabilise things on and off the pitch. Other members of the squad, meanwhile, talk of declining standards of professionalism on his watch. Danny Murphy tells Hughes in Ring of Fire of seeing senior players wandering around the training pitch eating bacon sandwiches. Jamie Carragher’s book recalls an occasion when a number of reserve players simply sacked off a Pontins League game altogether to go to Aintree. John Barnes’ autobiography blames the team’s inconsistency on poor application in training, claiming that Melwood “had become a playground“.
It was all part of a wider malaise. For years, Liverpool had stuck with the methods that had made them the most successful club in the history of English football. The dressing room was largely run by the senior players. They’d drink and socialise together, as the great Reds sides of the past had done. Training was dominated by five-a-side games, with little thought given to team shape or organisational drills. Ronnie Moran’s wooden boards, used for shooting practice, were still in use, even though they’d begun, almost symbolically, to rot away.
Yet the game was changing. Other clubs were benefiting from nutritionists, conditioning coaches, sports psychologists. As late as 1997, Liverpool didn’t even have a kit man.
It became clear that it would take an external intervention to drag the club in the vague direction of the 21st Century, but even after the Liverpool hierarchy had finally recognised this, they couldn’t bring themselves to consign the values of the Boot Room to history. They hadn’t sacked a manager for 35 years, and they certainly didn’t want to start with as loyal a servant, as good a man as Roy Evans. So they decided to fudge it. Evans would stay, and the discipline and new ideas would come from a new man installed alongside him.
A rocky marriage
Houllier was a friend of chief executive Peter Robinson, and had been a surprise contender for the manager’s job after Kenny Dalglish’s resignation in 1991. Some sort of role for him had been mooted during the summer of 1997, when serious consideration was being given to installing a director of football above Evans – he turned down that particular gig, as reportedly did Dalglish and John Toshack. By the following year, Houllier’s reputation had skyrocketed, his work at Clairefontaine as France’s technical director seen as critical to Les Bleus’ World Cup triumph. Celtic and Sheffield Wednesday had both been in touch about their managerial vacancies when Robinson picked up the telephone and called his old friend.
An Anglophile who’d fallen in love with Liverpool when working as a teaching assistant at Alsop Comprehensive during the sixties, Houllier was seen as the perfect candidate to reintroduce some discipline into the ranks and develop the impressive array of young talent at the club – but what exactly would his role be? Robinson was keen that he should have access to the players, so that again ruled out the DoF job; Evans, who flew out with the directors to meet Houllier in Paris, had assumed he’d be replacing Moran, who’d been abruptly retired that summer (news Moran himself had learned from the groundsman). What Evans didn’t know, however, was that those same directors had met Houllier without him the previous week. Awkwardly, the incumbent manager was one of the last to know that he’d soon be job sharing…
Tensions between the co-managers surfaced within days. Evans was laissez-faire and committed to attractive football; Houllier was a details man who valued control and prized results over everything else. They disagreed about virtually everything. Norwegian international Vegard Heggem was signed from Rosenborg but each manager wanted to play him in a different position. During a pre-season tour, Evans gave the players permission to go for a drink; Houllier forbade it. Evans would announce what time the coach was leaving; Houllier would change it by 15 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest flashpoint came following a stormy Champions League encounter with Valencia, recounted in both Fowler’s book and McAteer’s interview with Hughes for Men in White Suits. Following a late brawl which had led to the dismissal of three players, including McManaman and Paul Ince, a furious dressing room was surprised to see Houllier rifling through the kit bag for Liverpool shirts. When quizzed, the story goes, he claimed they were for the officials, which met with an incandescent reaction from Evans and the players. He then changed his story to say they were for the French players in the Valencia team… Which only provoked more anger. Fowler claims that the incident ended with Houllier throwing the shirts down and storming off.
Evans was gone eight days later.
The Houllier era
As ugly as the brief union had been, and as sad as Evans’ inevitable departure was, it was unquestionably the right decision for Liverpool. Once in sole control, Houllier proved precisely the modernising force the club needed. Graeme Souness, during his unhappy time as manager, had tried to make introduce new training and dietary regimens but had been met with resistance by an entrenched old guard who’d known him as a teammate not long ago. Now, with those players gone and after more than five years without a trophy, there was considerably less opposition.
Houllier was smart enough to make the changes gradually, too. While there were parallels between his modernising and that wrought by his friend Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Houllier was careful to balance continental ideas on diet and conditioning with the existing core values of the English game. He demanded greater intensity and aggression from his players, noting, in Carragher’s words, that too many of them “didn’t fancy a tackle“. The ghosts of those cream suits were exorcised, with Houllier threatening to substitute any player he saw waving to friends and family during a cup final, telling them “you’re going to war”. It was a mindset that had been lost during the Evans era.
Houllier sought to exert his influence on as many areas as he could. He preached the importance of diet and nutrition. He stopped the drinking culture at the club, decrying players consuming alcohol as “as silly as putting diesel in a racing car”. Training was taken seriously, with mobile phones banned. Club legend Phil Thompson, previously sacked by Souness for being too aggressive in his treatment of his charges, was brought back as Houllier’s assistant for precisely those same reasons, and “to kick a few arses”. Those who didn’t buy in were ruthlessly jettisoned – James, Ruddock, Babb, Ince. There was a change in transfer strategy too. Evans had been reticent to sign foreign players, but The Reds were improved by Houllier’ European signings – Henchoz, Hyypia and Hamann were significant upgrades on those they replaced.
While that fraught, transitional campaign of 1998-99 yielded a disappointing seventh-placed finish, they bounced back to fourth in Houllier’s first full season, and silverware soon followed, notably, the famous treble of 2001, with the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup all brought back to Anfield. Liverpool were re-established as a European force for the first time since English clubs’ re-entry to UEFA competitions, and Houllier was, before Jurgen Klopp’s reign, the most successful Liverpool manager of the past 25 years in terms of trophies won.
For all his cup success, however, Houllier’s Reds came no closer to winning the title than Evans’ team had. Their best challenge came in 2001/02, finishing second but some seven points off the top – the same margin the ‘Spice Boys’ of 96-97 had missed out by. Houllier was, sadly, never quite the same after his near-fatal heart attack in 2001, and Liverpool’s aspirations dimmed considerably – at the end of his final season, 2003-04, The Reds finished 30 points behind champions Arsenal, a wider margin than any during Evans’ time at the helm.
What Houllier did do though, was lay the foundations for the next decade or so. He revamped the training facilities. He brought more young players through – Steven Gerrard made his Liverpool debut mere weeks after Houllier assumed full control of the managerial reigns – and set the table for one of the greatest nights in the club’s history. It was largely his team that won the European Cup in such dramatic fashion a year after his sacking, and he was in the dressing room in Istanbul that night to celebrate with his former charges.
Evans, understandably, was left embittered. “I wouldn’t say he’s my favourite person,” he said of Houllier in the BBC’s The 30-Year Wait documentary broadcast last year. He lamented not being stronger, putting his foot down and rejecting the co-manager idea out of hand. “Even if they’d said they were sacking me that would’ve been better than what they did,” he told Sky Sports’ Adam Bate in 2018.
The way his tenure ended even soured him on Liverpool as a club for a while, as he admitted to Hughes in Men in White Suits: “For a period of six-nine months I just didn’t want to know.” In time though, his love for the club too strong not to resurface, and he adapted to becoming a supporter again. He could be proud of his 35 years at Anfield while celebrating the even better days that lay ahead. Houllier, meanwhile, was mourned on Merseyside and across the football world after his passing last December at the age of 74. Carragher, who adored playing for him, led the tributes: “I loved that man to bits; he changed me as a person and as a player and got LFC back winning trophies.”
Despite the success each achieved, both Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier ultimately had to walk away from Liverpool. But neither would ever have to walk alone.