Dynasty: The Joe Fagan Years 1983-1985
Joe Fagan is almost certainly the hardest Liverpool manager to judge, given the briefness of his tenure, the superb side he inherited and the unique success that followed. How many managers can say that their career as a boss lasted only two years, and that they reached the European Cup Final both times? Or that, in their debut season, they won an unprecedented treble that included a European Cup secured in the city of the opposition?
Fagan didn’t have to build a team, let alone rebuild one, and yet he oversaw the most successful season in the history of the club — an historic treble every bit as notable as Alex Ferguson’s 15 years later. While both managers won the league title and the European Cup, the third trophy in Fagan’s case was the lesser-ranked League Cup to Ferguson’s FA Cup. But the League Cup was no easy stroll in the 1980s, while having to play a strong Everton side in the final made it an even tougher ask, given the sharp derby edge. The fact that every single leg went to a replay (one, against Fulham, going to a second) meant that the Reds played 13 games to win the trophy; by contrast, in 2003, it took the Reds only six. In the days before rotation, such a gruelling season must have taken its toll.
Liverpool didn’t exactly romp to the league title, but in the circumstances, with so many games in other competitions, it was understandable. Graeme Souness brilliantly summed up why they were justifiable winners: “By our standards we didn’t deserve to win the league this year. But by everyone else’s standards, we did.”
Following in the footsteps of one legend is tough enough, but having to succeed two is almost unheard of in football. In his favour, Fagan was a crucial part of the process that had been oiling the machinery for so long. The club still took a lot of managing, but it took a clever man to know that change for change’s sake — in order to put his stamp on the club — was not necessary. Like Paisley, Fagan was a man of little ego, and he let the club be about the team, and the football on the pitch, and not about enhancing his own image and asserting himself unnecessarily.
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The squad Fagan inherited was easily the strongest of all those covered in this book — an average Quality rating of 8.44, and an Inheritance rating of 7.44.
The same applies to the First XI, which scored 8.86 for Quality. However, the Inheritance rating was 7.76, a fair way behind the team Paisley took charge of in 1974. The 1983 vintage was a team at the peak of its potential, but one that would need rebuilding before too long. The two most important players — Dalglish and Souness — were reaching the end of their most effective days as Liverpool players. Also, the two full-backs were now in their 30s.
State of Club
By 1983, Liverpool were one of Europe’s elite; three European Cups in the previous six years, and a couple of UEFA Cups shortly before that. A succession of league titles helped confirm that the club was being expertly run in every single aspect. Success was breeding more success. Continuity and stability were key: the majority of the coaching staff had been in place for years, if not decades; John Smith and Peter Robinson were well established as the club’s main men away from the football; and even the club’s chief scout and youth development officer had been in place since the mid-to-late ‘60s.
“I didn’t expect to get the job,” Fagan said, “but I’m very pleased to accept it. In this game you don’t expect anything at all, you just work at your own job.” He would later give his reasons for accepting. “I took the job because I was in a rut when they offered it to me. Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans were doing the training and I was just helping Bob, putting in my two penneth-worth.” But he knew the challenge that faced him. “I suppose if I really thought about what I have to prove, I’d be climbing up the wall.”
Joe Fagan became the last of the original Boot Room boys to assume the mantle of club leader. Reuben Bennett had retired in the late ‘70s, but Ronnie Moran was still an important part of the set-up, as was Roy Evans, still only in his mid-30s. Despite his age, Fagan was the natural choice, but Moran, aged 49, would have been in the club’s considerations. “People have been asking me for years if I ever had any ambitions to be the manager,” Moran explained, “but it wasn’t like that here. Bob never thought he’d become boss until Shanks retired, Joe never thought about it until Bob went, and I certainly never thought about it. We were all happy to do whatever we were asked to do.” Moran would never be asked to perform the ultimate job, beyond on a caretaker basis, but spent another 15 years at the club in senior coaching roles.
With Fagan running the first team, Chris Lawler was brought back to the club as reserve team manager. He also helped with scouting missions and was part of the daily coaching staff on the pitches at Melwood.
Lugubrious in appearance but not character, Joe Fagan, a tall ex-centre-back born in Liverpool, was a lively, likeable character who could be stern when necessary. Having joined the club a year before Shankly’s appointment, he might have worried for his future, but the new manager kept the coaching team together. Shankly knew Fagan well — years earlier, when managing Grimsby, he’d tried to sign the player, who spent most of his career at Manchester City.
Fagan was certainly questioned during his brief tenure. If he felt he’d answered his critics by winning an unprecedented treble in 1984, the start to the following season would prove a rude awakening. Graeme Souness was gone, and Ian Rush wasn’t fit to play until October. By the time the striker returned, Liverpool were sitting 20th in the 22-team division. Had Fagan’s success been down to the team Paisley bequeathed him? Liverpool recovered, finishing 2nd in May and reaching the European Cup Final for a the second consecutive year, but it was to prove a disappointing campaign.
“When we did slip up,” Ian Rush said, “he could be vicious, and he used to get far angrier than I ever saw Bob Paisley. And Fagan wasn’t bothered by reputations, either. Dalglish and Souness would be blasted in the dressing room just as much as the youngest player.” Rush also recalled an incident in 1984 when, having overcome the brutal tactics of Dynamo Bucharest to reach the European Cup Final, Fagan entered the dressing room as if something was seriously amiss. He was crestfallen. He moved slowly to the centre of the room, and the celebrating squad fell quiet. Having got the players’ attention, Fagan then burst into a jig of delight.
Just like his predecessor, the role initially proved difficult. “The first couple of weeks were a bit rough because my mind was racing everywhere,” he said, “yet I seemed to be doing nothing. I was frightened to death I would end up like Bob after his first season in charge, without a trophy.” But he was a popular choice with the players, and had their full backing, as Mark Lawrenson attested: “The biggest tribute I could pay to him would be when he got the job I think every single man in the first team squad was desperate for him to be successful.”
Fagan’s style was simple and straightforward. “I’m not one for the bon mots like Bob or the abrasive quips like Shanks,” he once said. “What I have to offer is one word — honesty. I couldn’t be devious if I tried.” Jim Beglin, the young Irish left-back who made his debut under Fagan, said of him: “He was just a very genuine, nice man. He was a very humble, down to earth person. He had a lovely way about him and was very gentlemanly. Underneath that soft exterior, there was also a hardened professionalism. Joe had authority and when strong words were needed, Joe could produce them.”
As well as being prepared to lay down the law when required, he was not afraid to make tough decisions. He dropped Kenny Dalglish for the first time in the player’s career. “The only parts of the job which I disliked were press conferences and dropping players,” he said after his retirement. “But I dropped them just the same, even Kenny Dalglish! What a daft devil I was!”
Somewhat controversially, three weeks before the biggest game of his career, Fagan took the players to Israel for a week’s holiday. The league season had ended, and the wait for the European Cup Final was something that the manager feared would play heavy on the players’ minds. The Italian press were disbelieving at what they saw as totally unprofessional behaviour, but as with the incident on the train ahead of the previous final the Reds had contested in Rome, the tension needed to be broken; as in 1977, the result was the same: a relaxed performance that led to victory. Gary Gillespie, an unused substitute when Liverpool completed the treble on May 30th, explained the manager’s thinking behind breaking up the three-week wait with a change of scenery that allowed the players to let their hair down: “It’s a long time to dwell on things, and be at home. All you do is monotonous day-to-day training. So it was suggested that we went to Israel for the week, and it was a real blowout, a real blast, with just one game. It was all about camaraderie. We knew we had business to attend to, but that was three weeks down the line. We trained hard when we came back, and the rest is history.”
Having been a key factor in establishing the Reds’ style of play over the years, Fagan’s ideas had already been thoroughly incorporated into the club’s ethos. For decades, training sessions had been fastidiously documented, with players’ form and fitness monitored, routines outlined, as well as the weather conditions duly noted. These daily journals, kept in the Boot Room, became a crucial reference point, with Shankly, Paisley and then Fagan referring to them to discover how problems from the past had been overcome. Kenny Dalglish described the Boot Room as “a university for football. It was a bunch of intelligent guys discussing football.” As such, Joe Fagan was a key professor.
Between 1983 and 1985 there would be a team meeting on a Friday morning before training, when the side for the next day would be announced. Some mention would be made of the opposition strengths, but more in passing than anything else. In so many ways he was simply perpetuating the methods he’d originally helped develop.
Fagan once said “Our methods are so easy, sometimes players don’t understand them at first.” Jan Molby was just one example of a new player who found the simplicity surprising. Used to the Ajax way of playing, he approached Fagan 40 minutes before his debut against Norwich. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “Listen,” the manager replied, “we’ve signed you because you’re a good player, just go and show us what a good player you are, whatever you want to do.”
Another example of the simplicity could be seen in Fagan’s instructions to his players. “We tell our defenders to be pessimistic, always anticipating a mistake which might give an opponent a scoring opportunity. And we tell our forwards to be optimists, always expecting that the ball knocked in will get through to them in a scoring position.” It was pure common sense.
Like Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan had been working closely with the team long before becoming manager, so he knew that continuity was the key. While radical change is almost always necessary sooner or later, Fagan recognised that this was not yet the case at Liverpool. Above all else, Fagan had the ability to impart his considerable wisdom. He was, like Paisley, an incredibly knowledgeable football man who was able to get the best out of his players, and to inspire their loyalty. These are key strengths. It’s no good knowing a lot about the game but continually rubbing players up the wrong way, and failing to get them to play for you, either from mishandling them or through lack of respect. Equally, it’s no good being likeable if the players will take advantage; the steel has to be there too, in order to be successful. Fagan had a perfect balance of straightforward honesty, unquestionable authority and football acumen. There was nothing remarkable about him — he didn’t have the incredible motivational skills of Shankly, and perhaps lacked the really sharp tactical mind of Paisley, but he had a little bit of everything needed to prosper.
It could be argued that Joe Fagan’s record in the transfer market wasn’t quite good enough. But with such a talented squad, there wasn’t an immediate sense that change was required. Given his brief stay in the job, long-term planning didn’t affect him too deeply.
However, one major blow Fagan did receive was his captain’s decision to move to Italy at the end of the manager’s first season. “When Souness left for Sampdoria,” Michael Robinson noted, “it was as if we’d lost three players.” With Souness gone and Dalglish’s effectiveness starting to wane, neither player was adequately replaced. But then again, players of such quality are not easily discovered. If they were not such rarities, their names wouldn’t be mentioned in such awed tones decades later.
Finally, there was the issue of the manager’s own age; already 62 when he took charge, he was never going to be a long-term appointment. While he was awarded the job on merit, there was an element of a ‘stop gap’ nature to the decision.