The stoker is responsible for continually feeding the fire, ensuring the smooth running of the engine. Sure, the driver may take the credit for having the glamour job, but you need someone at the coal face. Even when he is working hard firing the engine, there may be no visible signs of his success as the train needs time to build up steam. But he is a vital part of the whole process.
For the great Liverpool machine of the 1970s, through to 1990, one man worked tirelessly behind the scenes to continually feed the first team with a constant stream of hungry, competitive players.
Recently, I had the immense pleasure of speaking to the legend that is Roy Evans.
A quiet, honourable man, Roy rarely looks to take credit for the work he did in the iconic Boot Room at Anfield, but from 1973 he was an integral part.
“I was encouraged to offer an opinion, give my ideas and was listened to”, he said as he recalled those heady days.
Born on 4th October 1948 in Bootle, Liverpool, Roy was a keen sportsman growing up. Both football and cricket occupied his time as a youngster to a point where he had to choose between the two as he could’ve been successful at either.
He chose football and at the age of 15 signed for Liverpool. Chelsea had also shown interest, but Roy was a committed Reds fan and there really was only one club for him. He soon became a regular in the reserves, coached by Joe Fagan.
In the authorised biography Ghost on the Wall, written by Derek Dohren, he explained:
“I learned so much from him. He was a fantastic man, very much down to earth and very straight and honest. He didn’t try to fill my head with any tactical nonsense. He used to tell me to just go out and play. He was a father figure to me.”
By the mid-60s, Liverpool were a force within English football again. Bill Shankly arrived at the club in late December 1959. Once a giant of the game, the club had fallen into disrepair and were languishing in the wrong half of the Second Division. Shankly soon assembled a formidable coaching team around him of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett. They soon converted an old storage room at Anfield into what became known as the Boot Room. They would sit on upturned crates, cleaning and repairing boots, discussing players, tactics and opponents. This room remained an integral part of the ground, the club and its success right through to Roy’s term as manager during the ’90s.
Although the Boot Room has long gone (Gerard Houllier saw to that), evidence of similar principles can be seen in the work Jürgen Klopp’s coaching staff carry out. Klopp often talks in terms of his staff rather than himself when discussing the management of players. You get the impression the staff all work as one, which was an important principle in the Boot Room days.
We began our interview talking about Jürgen and the job he’s done at Liverpool.
“We’ve had various foreign managers, but it’s Jurgen who really gets it. Not only just the whole football club but the humour. Tactically, he’s been fantastic. He gets how Liverpool want to play.”
The club is more than the players? “Oh, without a doubt.
“You never know whether he’ll be any good until he starts. Some games fans will criticise and they’ve got something to say. Fans are always great with opinions after the event.
“He has a good rapport with the fans. He gets that it’s about the whole football club. Peter Moore, his backroom staff. You’ve got lots of players who aren’t playing regularly yet still happy to be at the club.”
Always back the manager
Roy’s playing career at Anfield was one of success mainly in the reserves. Back then Liverpool competed in the Central League. During seven seasons, Roy was a Central League title winner on five occasions. He almost had the chance to play in the 1971 FA Cup final against Arsenal, having played in some of the league matches leading up to the final, but Alec Lindsay recovered from injury in sufficient time to resume his place in the starting lineup. He made his debut at Nottingham Forest in January 1970.
When he lined up at Burnley on Boxing Day 1973, he was making just his 11th appearance in the first team. During the summer of 1973, he spent a successful period with the Philadelphia Atoms in the fledgeling North American Soccer League (NASL). He was one of a group of British players helping to make the league what it became when the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff turned up a few years later.
Roy had been tempted to go back to America the following year but as it turned out, it was fortunate he didn’t.
Roy made the squad for the 1974 FA Cup final win over Newcastle United at Wembley, but again missed out. Shortly after, Bill Shankly shocked the football world by announcing his resignation. In the wake of this bombshell, Roy was now approached with the idea of moving into coaching. At first, he was reluctant:
“I needed to be pushed because no one likes to be told at 26 his playing days are over.
“I was 26 not getting many games in first team. Bob took over and said he’d like me to be a coach. I wondered if there was a message there. Sometimes we’d have a good season and only use 15 players. Bob, Joe and Ronnie were a great help to me running the reserves.
“I’d be invited to the first-team games and I was told if I had something to say, I should say it, because, ‘You might just see one little thing we don’t see. We’ll tell you when you’re wrong.’ They were fantastic in my career as a coach.
“And, of course, you’d discuss various options, but once a decision was made you always back the manager. That was how it was.”
It was initially Bob Paisley’s idea as Roy had shown qualities as a captain and a team player. As early as age 16 there is evidence of his ability to nurture players. Brian Hall had just signed for the club and was rooming with Roy on an away trip with the reserves.
In Roy’s book, Brian talks warmly of the young Evans:
“[He] took me under his wing and looked after me. He was a bit of a golden boy at the time, an England schoolboy international, but there were no airs and graces from him, and he was brilliant with me.”
Later, as manager of the club, Evans would be spoken about in similarly glowing terms from the players he looked after.
Immediately, Roy was given the task of running the reserves and soon his love affair with the Central League continued. In the 16 seasons from August 1967 to May 1983, Roy won 12 Central League titles, five as a player and seven as a manager.
In Roy’s book, Jimmy Case describes the incredible job Roy did with the players at his disposal.
“Roy had three types of players to deal with. There were the first-teamers who had dropped down to the reserves for whatever reason. Then you had the bread-and-butter reserves players who were there every week and then you had the kids trying to make the grade.
“People say managing a reserve team isn’t about results, it’s about developing the young players, and that’s true to some extent,” Case went on.
“Roy also had to get results. Mind you, sometimes when you had too many first-team players in there, the commitment wasn’t the same and that’s when you could lose a few games.”
Roy became an important member of the Boot Room, where he’d absorb all the wealth of experience and gems of advice being handed about.
As Roy told me:
“I hadn’t been a coach, you do a lot of things off the cuff, but you have a lot of people around you, you can ask advice. When some players drop down to the reserves for whatever reason, coming back from injury or they’ve been left out of the first team, my first thing I’d say to them is, ‘It’s not all about you. You’ve come here to get your fitness, but don’t let these lads down. It’s their league (Central League), and they want to win it’.
“And to be fair, we had a number of top players play one or two games and they were fantastic. It was great for the reserve-team players, to play with these first-team players.
“We had a thing at Liverpool that if we were playing five or six-a-side matches in training, we’d always have two first-team players, two reserves, two youth-team players. We’d always try and mix them up. So the reserves and youth-team players were always learning. The players were great in assisting that.
“None of us in the Boot Room had coaching badges. So, everybody had a say. In that little room, we were all encouraged to talk. Even me at age 26, I was asked what did I think, what was my opinion. That was the nice thing about it, and it kept you involved in both teams.
“We always had a similar style of play between both teams. So, the transition between each team was the same and made it easier for players. You’re always looking to bring young players through. You never had the same team each game. Some players would play every game, but that would be about six or seven players. The rest either came up from the youth team or dropped down from the first team.”
During his stint as reserve boss, Roy had to deal with players such as Steve Ogrizovic, Kevin Sheedy, Howard Gayle, all who moved onto successful careers at other clubs through lack first-team opportunities. In the early ’80s, he dealt with the likes of Ian Rush, Bruce Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan. All of whom were awaiting their turn having been bought with a view of replacing more ageing established names, which they eventually did with distinction.
The Boot Room became an important time for Roy to pass on the progress of players. If Paisley and Fagan had knocked a first-team player back to try and develop their play or their attitude, then it was crucial Roy understood the plan. His feedback on how the player was progressing and had taken it all would be a vital cog in the wheel. Hence the stoker.
Bob Paisley had created one great team, which broke a host of league records in 1978-79. It still contained one or two Shankly players, namely Clemence, Neal and Thompson. But many of them had been moved on and replaced with impressive talents such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Alan Kennedy and Alan Hansen.
Then he dismantled that team and created another, a side which won the league title three successive seasons (1981-1982, 1982-83, 1983-84). That third title was won with Joe Fagan at the helm. This had maintained a unique trio of managers who had been part of the Boot Room, Shankly, Paisley and Fagan. All of whom created a seamless transition at the wheel so as not to produce a noticeable difference in success on the pitch. Paisley won three European Cups, Fagan gave the club their fourth in a unique season seeing them lift three trophies during his first in charge.
The Heysel disaster in 1985 almost finished Fagan off. He’d already decided to step down before the European Cup final but, a proud Liverpudlian, he took the incident badly and some say he was never the same man again.
Roy considered Joe to be the glue which held the club together. Shankly and Paisley were known as The Invincibles, complementing each other perfectly with Shankly’s motivation skills and Paisley’s tactical nous. But Fagan kept the whole thing together.
When Fagan stepped down in 1985 the board decided on a change of tack and promoted Kenny Dalglish to player-manager. Evans was never considered for the role, a decision he isn’t bitter about.
“I was never approached for the job, but to be fair, I wasn’t looking for it either.”
Dalglish won three titles to give the club an unprecedented 18 by 1990. In 18 seasons from 1973 to 1990, Liverpool had won 11 league titles, finishing outside the top two just once (1980-81).
In a move synonymous with Bill Shankly back in 1974, Kenny Dalglish shocked the football world when he announced his resignation in 1991. But just when Evans may have considered himself for the top job, the club made another change of tack opting for former captain, Graeme Souness. Souness had just completed five successful seasons as manager of Rangers in Scotland. Souness’ time at the Anfield helm wasn’t a happy one. Many thought he changed too much too soon, although the man himself has gone on record as saying he believed he didn’t go far enough with the changes.
Two things alienated Souness from the club’s supporters. Firstly, he ditched some big names too soon and brought in inferior replacements. Secondly, he gave an interview to The Sun on the eve of the FA Cup semi-final replay in 1992. It was about his heart condition for which he was about to undergo an operation. Almost any other newspaper would’ve been acceptable to those on Merseyside, and for Souey, he’s still not been forgiven all these years later.
“Graeme, for me, was great to work for. His passion for Liverpool and his want to be successful was brilliant. But there were difficult times when he arrived.”
Some may say his tenure was a failure, but he gave debuts to players such as Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp, all of whom became important members of the club throughout the decade.
At the end of January 1994, Souey stepped down as boss and the board turned to Roy to try and restore the ‘Liverpool way’ of playing. Well respected by the fans, Roy was seen as a link back to the heady days where winning trophies was routine every season. A mid-table side when he took over, Roy’s side finished fourth in his first full season and lifted the League Cup at Wembley, for a record fifth time in the club’s history.
It would be the only trophy Liverpool won under Evans. In his four full seasons in charge, Evans’ Liverpool never finished outside the top four, finishing third twice. But at that time, there were only two Champions League places up for grabs. The club was falling behind its great rivals, Manchester United, on and off the pitch. With more and more money coming into the game, United took full advantage of any commercial opportunities, and their regular involvement in the Champions League earned them great riches.
What did that feel like?
“Everything changes and you have to move with things. We always finished top four. Man Utd had a good team and we could always compete with them on a match-by-match basis but over a season they were just too strong for us. But it’s easy to be wise after the event.
“Fans can also be the same, they can say, ‘I wouldn’t have picked that team,’ but that’s football. You make your decisions. We were always taught once the manager picks the team you always back him to the hill. You can’t have someone sniping behind your back.”
Evans splashed the cash for Stan Collymore in summer 1995, parting with £8.5m, then a British transfer record. Outrageously talented, Collymore lit up Anfield with a stunning goal on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. He formed a successful partnership with Robbie Fowler as they reached the FA Cup Final 1996, only to lose to a late Eric Cantona goal as United won the double. They lead the league at the end of January 1997 and looked well set to win their first title for seven years. But performances fell away and they ended fourth.
Collymore was sold to Aston Villa as Evans paved the way for the beginning of Michael Owen’s career. I asked Roy what it was like having players like that at his disposal:
“Robbie was a johnny-on-the-spot man, Michael always had that pace about him. I knew players who were going to come through, and you had a pretty good idea whether they were going to make it. There’s nothing nicer than a youth player coming through and then making it in the first team. You can bring players in, but there’s nothing nicer than a young lad coming through.
“Great players like Robbie, Michael, Rushie and McManaman when they got the ball you just let them do what they want to do with it. You might talk to them about what to do when they’ve lost the ball, but you leave their natural ability as it is. So you’ve got to give the players the credit for that.“
The summer of 1998 saw Ronnie Moran retire, and the club brought in Frenchman Gerard Houllier. A former teacher, Houllier had fallen in love with the club during a visit to Anfield years before. In a surprise move, the club decided Houllier would work alongside Evans as joint managers.
“Yes, well when Gerard came in the joint-manager thing just didn’t work. No disrespect to Gerard, but someone, in the end, has the make the final decision. When you’ve got joint-managers it just doesn’t work. You can work against each other if you’re not careful. With me being a really big Liverpool fan, I began to think this was dragging the club in the wrong direction. I walked away. Regretfully in many ways, I didn’t want to go, but at the time I thought it was the right thing to do.
“To be fair to Gerard, he won some decent trophies. He probably got more money to spend as he probably demanded that when he came in. The biggest thing you wanted was for the club to keep going and be successful.”
By November 1998, Roy Evans left Liverpool for the last time. He’d spent 33 years with the Reds. During that time the club won 12 League titles, five League Cups, four European Cups, four FA Cups, two UEFA Cups, and a European Super Cup, along with several Charity Shields. Add in the ten Central League titles won involving Evans, you have a vast array of silverware.
What is Roy’s most memorable achievement?
“I only won one trophy. That was great, and I’d rather we’d gone on and won more but sometimes those things just don’t happen in life. If I look back, you’re never really satisfied with anything in life, but if I look back and think, well hang on a minute, I joined the club at 15 and in the time I was there we ended up winning over 30 trophies, plus the 10 Central League things. Okay, I’d like to have won more as a manager. But you play your part in many different ways and you’ve got to be a little bit proud of the whole thing. But you always want more. But you’ve got to accept there’s an opposition on the pitch that wants to win trophies as well.”
That Boot Room has gone down in folklore. Unique in its character and charm, and full of men who loved the game, loved the club and just wanted, and demanded, success. Roy is the last remaining member of an institution, and one he can be immensely proud of.