On second thoughts ... Roy Evans

Remembered as a weak man who let his Spice Boys run riot, the former Liverpool boss was closer to winning the Premiership than his successors.

Long before Stan Collymore appeared on the reality TV show The Verdict, he had served as judge and jury on the managerial career of Roy Evans.

"One morning we were all wandering out to training when Roy [Evans] made some quip to Robbie Fowler and they started joking about. Robbie got the gaffer's head in an armlock and started rubbing his other hand across his head, frizzing up his hair. I caught myself imagining what would have happened if Gary Neville ever tried that with Alex Ferguson. Somehow, I couldn't see it."

This withering appraisal in Collymore's autobiography seemed to capture the essence of the Evans years: of the nice boy who couldn't control his Spice Boys, the shandy-weak boss who wasted an abundantly talented squad that should have dominated English football but instead are remembered for peroxide-blond mops, cream Armani suits and green-eyed envy at the tangible achievement of the other Red Army across the M62.

It might be time for a bit of revisionism. It was under Evans that Liverpool had their strongest title challenge of the last 15 years, in 1996-97 (they eventually finished fourth but had they beaten Manchester United at Anfield in mid-April they would've gone top with three games to go); it was under Evans that they played their best football of the last 15 years; and it was under Evans that the likes of Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and, arguably, Steve McManaman reached the high watermark of their careers.

Evans was certainly not without flaws - he bought some poor players, he had no idea how to handle or utilise a one-off like Collymore, and he cut his players too much slack on occasion - but he is hardly alone in that. He may not have been a born winner, but nor was he the hapless loser that some have made out.

It is revealing that, under Evans, Liverpool's average Premiership position* (3.5) was higher than under Gérard Houllier (3.6) or Rafa Benítez (4.0), yet Evans is ranked well below the two. The suspicion remains that, for all Liverpool fans' moralistic carping about the Holy Grail of a 19th league title, they are as susceptible to the cheap thrill of a Cup triumph as anyone else.

Evans won only a League Cup in 1995, with his side frequently going out in the early rounds in Europe and the FA Cup, often in humiliating circumstances. By contrast, Houllier and Benítez wowed their public with a Treble and a Champions League victory which, while glorious, were entirely meaningless in terms of restoring Liverpool to the top of the pile. They are further away from that now than they were at any time under Evans: Liverpool are currently 16 points behind United, whereas the most they trailed under Evans was by 15 in 1994-95.

And at least they were good to watch back then. The quality and purity of the football played by Evans's teams was beyond reproach: he was the last of the Boot Room boys, and appropriately his side were the last to play in the pass-and-move tradition developed in the Boot Room. In 1996, their FA Cup final song was even called 'Pass & Move (The Liverpool Groove)'.

In the mid-nineties, particularly that 1995-96 season, Liverpool's Spice Boys were the best side in England to look at in every sense (Fowler the "Growler" notwithstanding). They played catwalk football. Kevin Keegan's Newcastle were thrillingly gung-ho, and United's forward play could be devastatingly decisive, but nobody was as striking, as aesthetic, as Liverpool.

They took part in the greatest game in Premiership history - the 4-3 against Newcastle in April 1996 (it rather sums up Evans's career that that match is remembered more for the losing manager, Keegan, than him). There were other memorable performances that season in particular, most notably when they blew away Blackburn and Aston Villa, defending champions and surprise packages respectively, at Anfield with devastating three-goal bursts in the first quarter of the game. And they outclassed eventual champions United home and away.

Yet when it came to the real crunch - the FA Cup final - they were locked in a full nelson by Roy Keane and deservedly beaten by Eric Cantona's fairytale late winner. It summed up Evans's Liverpool: they were consistent only in their inconsistency. That rout of Blackburn followed defeat away to 10-man Wimbledon. The 4-3 over Newcastle, which breathed new life into their title challenge, was followed by a miserable 1-0 defeat at Coventry. In the winter months they smashed Manchester City 6-0 before going seven matches without a win, and then snapping back into life to stuff United and Arsenal.

The problem for Evans was that the highs were so high that they left observers bemused as to how the lows could possibly be so low. So attention turned to off-field matters. The perception was thus fostered of a group of players who had the keys to the kingdom but decided they'd prefer a VIP suite at Chinawhites. Yet if team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory, as Steve Archibald famously said, then Evans might legitimately feel that Spice Boy excess is a delusion perceived in the aftermath of defeat. Like Cool Britannia, Britpop, TFI Friday and everything else that defined that period, those who criticise with hindsight are quick to forget just how enjoyable it was at the time.

Nor does it hold that Evans's romantic beliefs led to a damaging sacrifice of defensive principles: in three of his four seasons, Liverpool conceded fewer goals than the champions. Maybe the reality is that, as players, they just weren't that good; that Evans overachieved with the squad at his disposal. Whereas United, the dominant force, had Ryan Giggs and Keane in their prime, as well as a nascent David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville and a renascent Cantona, Liverpool had only Fowler approaching the mythical world-class status.
Most of the other main attacking forces played better under Evans than before or since. Fowler was truly magnificent. Redknapp has never passed as aggressively or purposefully. McManaman, one of nature's uncomplaining lieutenants, was turned into the side's general. Collymore, though not as he good as he was at Nottingham Forest, never reached the heights of 95-96 again. It might be coincidence (certainly the cruciate injury that Fowler suffered in 1998, towards the end of Evans' reign, had a damaging effect on his career). Or it might be that Evans' gregarious methods - for richer or poorer - empowered some free spirits to play with a verve and joie de vivre that other managers could not locate.

Either way, his reign certainly wasn't all bad. Where his reputation is concerned, it might be time for the football cognoscenti to order a retrial.

*NB: this refers only to full seasons in sole charge, and so excludes 1993-94, 1998-99 and 2006-07.

Copyright - Guardian

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