On Second Thoughts … Joe Fagan

In a week when the Champions League group stages kicked off again amid a backdrop of reprisals and recriminations regarding the state of the national game – initiated by Greg Dyke's call to arms and hardened by England's recent dour draw in Kiev – it feels appropriate to pose this teaser: Who was the last English manager to win the European Cup? Answer: Joe Fagan. Cue, one suspects, a raising of eyebrows by some and a shrugging of shoulders by others.

It is a curiosity of this country's footballing back story that Fagan, who managed Liverpool between 1983-1985, remains such an unheralded figure. Rarely, if ever, spoken of as one of the greats and practically unheard of by many supporters under the age of 30. This, after all, is a man who 15 years before Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest moment became the first British manager in English football to win three major honours in one season – the old First Division title, the Milk Cup and the European Cup. Even more remarkably, the triumph occurred in Fagan's debut season in charge at Anfield, and with "old big ears" captured against Roma in Rome. "Football, bloody hell" as somebody once said.

The 1983-84 season can justifiably be judged to be the finest in Liverpool's history, yet even at the club itself there is minimum recognition of the man who led the glory charge. No statue, no gate, not even a plaque in Fagan's name. In fairness, there are tributes to his achievements at the club's museum, as well as a Joe Fagan meeting room at Liverpool's offices in Chapel Street, and having found himself sandwiched between Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley on one side and Kenny Dalglish on the other in Liverpool's roll-call of managers, it is perhaps not a great surprise that Fagan's achievements are not more obviously celebrated at Anfield, especially given the brief nature of his reign.

At practically any other club Fagan would continue to be hailed as a king among princes but on Merseyside he is generally remembered with fondness rather than pulsating adoration. Fagan probably would have preferred it that way given his modest, humble nature, with his only major regret most likely being the nature of his departure from the Anfield hotseat – the end coming amid the tragedy and cruelty of the Heysel Stadium disaster. "He lived with it all his life," said Andrew Fagan, Joe's grandson and co-author of Joe Fagan: Reluctant Champion. "He had served in the Royal Navy during the war, he understood what was a game and what was not. From what I am told he never really talked about it at home, he simply carried it with him."

If the end was bleak then the rest of Fagan's time at Liverpool was tinged with a golden hue. The born-and-bred Scouser joined the club as a coach on 30 June 1958 and, following Bill Shankly's arrival as manager 18 months later, was put in charge of the reserves. Having caught the eye of the Scot, Fagan was made first-team coach in July 1971 and following Shankly's shock resignation three years later, became Bob Paisley's assistant.

Paisley's spell in charge was glorious – he led Liverpool to 14 major honours in nine seasons – and it only enhanced Fagan's reputation as a coach and potential successor despite his only previous managerial experience coming with non-league Nelson in the early-1950s. "To Kopites, Fagan's appointment [as manager] felt like an obvious promotion after the successful in-house succession from Shankly to Paisley," says writer and long-time Anfield season-ticket holder Mike Nevin. "In Papal terms, white smoke from the chimneys on the roofs of Back Rockfield Road filled the Anfield skies in no time once Paisley's decision to retire was known."

But as the title of the book Andrew Fagan wrote alongside author and LFC TV senior producer Mark Platt suggests, Joe Fagan did not himself deem his elevation from assistant to manager as an obvious step. "He was very reluctant to take the job," says Platt. "Joe's feeling was that he was so ingrained in the club's rise to champions of Europe that he was almost duty-bound to take the job, especially as he was next in line to the throne. He also felt that if an outsider came in there was a strong chance he'd destroy the bootroom ethos that was behind Liverpool's success. Joe pretty much told Roy Evans, Ronnie Moran and the rest of the staff that he took the manager's job so they would keep theirs.

"The club's long-term plan was to give the manager's job to one of the senior players – Phil Neal and Kenny Dalglish were both in the frame – but they still had much to offer as players so Joe was seen as a more than worthy short-term appointment. And given he was 62 when he took the job, just two years younger than Paisley, that was all it was ever going to be, short term."

It it no surprise Fagan was so protective of Liverpool's bootroom given he essentially founded the fabled inner sanctuary. It was he, after all, who took delivery of the crates of Guinness given as a thank you from the brewery's team, which Fagan sometimes coached. With no obvious place to put the gifts Fagan ended up storing them in the same room as the boots which, holding a consistent and increasing supply of alcohol, became an obvious place for the backroom staff to gather, relax and share their thoughts.

Fagan officially became Liverpool manager on 1 July 1983 and soon two contradictory charges were thrown at him – that he was too soft to be the manager of a team that had to compete for major honours having won three of the last four league championships and three of the last seven European Cups, and that he was bound to succeed given the strength of the side Paisley had left him. Put another way, Fagan could not win or lose.

The soft-touch charge in particular was a myth. The laconic Fagan was anything but, with a host of players and coaches who worked with "Uncle Joe" testifying to his steely, no-nonsense attitude. Neal, who Fagan made Liverpool captain following Graeme Souness's departure to Sampdoria in the summer of 1984, tells a story of how the then assistant manager took it upon himself to hold the players to account after they found themselves 12th in the First Division following a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester City on Boxing Day 1981 . "One morning we came into training and Joe Fagan said to Bob Paisley: 'Boss, you go down to Melwood. I'm going to have the lads,'" remembers Neal.

"Joe sat us all down and had a go at every single player, to Souness, to Dalglish, to me. He said: 'We've had more meetings in the last month at this club than I've had in 17 years. [Alan] Hansen, start heading the ball, Souness, you haven't won a tackle, Dalglish, you should have twice as many goals by now'. Joe was such a strong man that no one would doubt what he was saying. His finishing words were: 'I've said my piece. You're all playing like individuals, start playing as a team. I'm not having another meeting from now 'till the end of the season'. We went on to win the league."

Souness also remembers Fagan as a man who could get his message across "with a single look", a device he may well have used when telling Dalglish in October 1984 that he had been dropped for the upcoming league visit to Tottenham, a close-to-unthinkable decision at the time and one that stunned John Smith and Peter Robinson, the club's chairman and chief executive, when they heard the news upon landing in London for the game having been in Germany securing a new kit deal with Adidas. Liverpool lost 1-0 and Fagan admitted afterwards that he had made a mistake in dropping Dalglish, yet his reason for doing so was sound. The Scot had lost some of the spark that made him the key creative cog of a winning machine and, as Fagan saw it, when Dalglish played badly so did Liverpool.

This touches on the other charge laid against Fagan – that success as manager was inevitable given Liverpool's strength at the time. There is no doubt he was taking over an awesome side, but therein also lay a problem. "Liverpool were so far in front of everyone else, domestically at least, that complacency had begun to set in," says Platt. "They won the title in '83 at a canter and, if anything, it had been too easy. The team failed to win any of their last seven games, losing five, and it was obvious that the players had taken their foot of the pedal. The danger was this attitude carried into the following season, and so Joe's main task was to remotivate the squad and stop them thinking winning was easy."

It helped Fagan that the squad he inherited from Paisley was not only talented but also fully accepting of his rise from No2 to No1, no one more so than the captain. "Souey was a big fan of Joe's," recalls Mark Lawrenson in Reluctant Champion. "That pre-season he called a meeting just for the players. He came in and said: 'Right, we think the world of this fella and this year we are absolutely determined to be successful for him.' To a man everyone said: 'Yep, you're right.'"

The squad of 1983-84 contained seven players – Neal, Hansen, Lawrenson, Alan Kennedy, Souness, Dalglish and Ian Rush – who would walk into many Kopites' "greatest Liverpool XI" and would have been strengthened to an even greater degree had Fagan been able to secure his key summer transfer targets: Charlie Nicholas of Celtic and Brondby's Michael Laudrup. For different reasons neither were signed, leaving Fagan instead to wrap up deals for the young Scottish defender Gary Gillespie from Coventry and the Brighton forward Michael Robinson. Gillespie did not feature until February, in a 2-2 draw with Walsall in the semi-finals of the Milk Cup, but Robinson was prominent straightaway, starting in the opening-day draw with Wolves as the manager opted for a three-man attack that also contained Dalglish and Rush.

It was a tactic Fagan turned to regularly during that season and contradicted the perception of him being an orthodox British coach and of the Liverpool team of that time being less than imaginative. Nevin describes them as "seldom fluent", while in a tribute to Fagan on the club's own website the side of 83-84 is deemed to have operated with "cool, calculating efficiency".

In fairness, the stats back up those assertions. In Fagan's first season, Liverpool won 22 league games, scoring 73 goals and conceding 32, which compares to 24 games won, 87 goals scored and 37 conceded in Paisley's final campaign in charge. In other words, they appeared to have become tighter at the back and less rampant up front. But it should be noted that under Fagan, Liverpool beat Luton and West Ham 6-0 and Notts County and Coventry 5-0 en route to winning their 15th league title and won every European away game prior to Rome, including a 4-1 victory over Benfica in Lisbon. The Milk Cup, meanwhile, was secured with a 1-0 win against Everton in a final that to be replayed at Maine Road after the initial tie at Wembley had ended goalless.

The European Cup final was, as Nevin puts it, "more absorbing than thrilling". Liverpool took the lead through Neal's 14th-minute strike before Roberto Pruzzo headed in an equaliser just before half-time. There were no more goals, leaving the visitors from Merseyside with the daunting prospect of having to beat Roma in a penalty shootout in front of a largely partisan crowd at the Stadio Olimpico. Here, though, came an opportunity for the manager to shape his own crowning moment.

"With exhausted, limp players preparing for a shootout, Fagan played his trump psychological card, explaining to his team that he didn't care if they prevailed on penalties or not after such an epic season-long effort," recollects Nevin. "The pressure removed, enter stage left Bruce Grobbelaar's jelly legs to cause Roman mental implosion."

With Grobbelaar having done his bit to put off the home side, Kennedy tucked away the decisive penalty to crown Liverpool kings of Europe for the fourth time since 1977. Fagan, in turn, joined Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Paisley, Brian Clough and Tony Barton as part of the select group of British managers to have landed club football's greatest prize.

Souness collected the trophy and it was to be his final act as a Liverpool player ahead of his departure to Sampdoria. Platt describes losing the Scot as a "massive blow" for Fagan, the man who was not only his captain but also the driving force of an all conquering side. The manager reacted by signing Jan Molby from Ajax, but the 21-year-old was a different player to Souness and not yet ready to become an influential member of the Liverpool side (that would come a season later when he inspired Dalglish's team to the league and FA Cup double). Soon realising this, Fagan then deployed Lawrenson in centre-midfield before also using Kevin MacDonald after he arrived from Leicester in November '84.

None of them, however, came close to filling the void left by Souness, and with Dalglish suffering a dip in form and Rush out injured until October, the 1984-85 campaign proved a gruelling affair for Liverpool. They found themselves 17th after a 1-0 home defeat to Everton on 20 October, and while Fagan's men were able eventually to string some wins together they could not maintain their grasp on the title and finished second to Howard Kendall's side. Liverpool also lost to another rival, Manchester United, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

Another European Cup final was reached, however, but this, prior to Hillsborough, was to be the darkest moment in the club's history. Rioting by Liverpool supporters in Brussels led to the death of 39 Italian and Belgian fans and a subsequent five-year ban from European football for all English clubs. Juventus's victory was something of an afterthought, especially for Fagan who had told his players before the game that, afterwards, they could call him Joe instead of boss having taken the decision some months earlier to retire. He returned from Belgium a broken man, seen crying on the shoulder of Evans as he stepped off the plane and barely able to comprehend what he had witnessed the previous evening.

The aftermath of crowd rioting at Heysel in 1985 which left 39 Italian and Belgium fans dead The aftermath of crowd rioting at Heysel in 1985 which left 39 Italian and Belgium fans dead. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
It was an awful way for Fagan's spell as Liverpool manager to end and it is further credit to the then 64-year-old that he took it upon himself to speak for the club at a memorial service at Liverpool's Catholic cathedral. "We pray for the families and friends who have suffered through bereavement," he told the congregation. "We pray that the sporting spirit, so treasured on Merseyside, may never be lost to violence or bitterness."

The address characterised Fagan's warmth as a man, a quality Liverpool's all-time record-appearance holder Ian Callaghan saw from the time they first worked together at reserve level.

"Joe was a lovely man, someone who was always around to give you advice and help in any he could," says Callaghan. "I remember once, we were at the Daresbury hotel, where we always stayed before a home game, and I was injured and needed to get to Anfield for some treatment if I was to stand any chance of playing that afternoon. Nobody was around to take me so Joe said he would. We got in his car and, on the way, he asked if I was hungry and wanted to eat something before my treatment. I said I wouldn't mind so he drove me to his house where his wife Lil made me scrambled eggs. That was typical not just of Joe but of his entire family – they were lovely, down-to-earth people."

Joe, Lil and their six children lived in a semi-detached house in Lynholme Road, a short walk from Anfield, and it was where they remained even after Fagan, upon becoming Liverpool manager, was offered a larger place by the club in Southport, Formby and the Wirral. The property became Fagan's sanctuary after retirement, offering him a quiet, family-orientated existence which suited him perfectly. Eventually he became a source of advice and encouragement to Evans after he took the manager's job in the mid-1990s and who looked upon Fagan as a mentor, describing him in later years as the "glue that held everything together" during Liverpool's golden era.

Fagan died following a battle with cancer on 30 June 2001, aged 80. It was perhaps apt given how his managerial achievements were overshadowed by those of Shankly and Paisley that his passing should occur in the same week as the Liverpool legend Billy Liddell and his fellow bootroom disciple Tom Saunders. Once again Fagan did not have the spotlight to himself but the fact that hundreds of Everton as well as Liverpool fans lined the streets as his funeral procession made its way to Anfield Crematorium showed Fagan had left his mark on the city of his birth.

"When you look at the all-time greats of Liverpool, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, you have to have Joe up there," said Hansen shortly after Fagan's death, while Dalglish described his contribution to the club as "immense".

From Souness, who attributes much of his success as a player to Fagan, came perhaps the greatest tribute. "Joe was Mr Liverpool," he said. "His contribution should never be allowed to fade from the memory."

Copyright - The Guardian

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