Roy Evans

Roy Evans is one of the Premier League’s most successful English managers. So why do we hear so little about him?

By Alex Moshakis
Photography Andrew Vowles

This is the first in a week of articles dedicated to Liverpool FC between 1985 and 2005, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Heysel stadium disaster and the tenth anniversary of Liverpool’s last Champions League victory in Istanbul. For more Liverpool-related reading, head to the Decider all this week.

On 12th November, 1998, Roy Evans quit Liverpool, 34 years after joining the club as a schoolboy. “If it’s not working,” he told a room full of journalists at an Anfield press conference, “it would be a bigger mistake to stay.” As statements go, it was unsurprising, and was greeted not with shock and surprise but with collective expectation, as if a secret were being revealed to its originators. The announcement had been coming. Liverpool had just been dumped out of the League Cup by a mediocre Tottenham side riddled with inconsistency, and the club hadn’t won since mid-October. More pertinently, private rumbles escaping Liverpool’s training ground, Melwood, suggested the managerial set-up, which paired Evans with former French national coach Gérard Houllier in positions of joint power, was untenable. Recent public announcements had confirmed them. “I dispute the theory that my time here has been a failure,” Evans stated defiantly, and off he went, close to tears.

Evans had been offered another job at the club. He’d been there for close to three-and-a-half decades, after all, and then-chairman David Moores, who heaped praise on his former manager at the press conference while simultaneously ushering him towards the exit door, felt indebted to provide him with the opportunity to stay. But Evans refused. It would have been easy for him to say yes, he explained, but he felt it his duty – to the people at the club, to the club itself – to give Houllier the chance to impress his singular views on the team. In 34 years, rarely did Evans choose himself over his life-long employer, a mindset he described, shifting uncomfortably in an upholstered chair in a central Liverpool hotel bar in January, as being more than a little naive.

Evans is a modest man with sizeable regrets. On the phone he is opinionated but hesitant, more fluent in conversation about the current status of the Liverpool team – “Brendan Rogers talks too much”; “Luis Suarez just loves to play football” – than his own associations with the club. In person he is warm and amiable, but quiet, too, armed with an extensive knowledge of the game but lacking the overt charisma you might expect from someone who once stood at the helm one of the biggest club sides in European football. He comes over as surprisingly nice, but nice doesn’t win titles.

Roy Evans was born in Bootle, then an industrial docks town just outside Liverpool, in 1948. His father was a professional football player, first in England (he was on Liverpool’s books) and then in the Welsh leagues, in which he played until he was over 50 years old. Evans wanted to be a footballer too. In Bootle he excelled as a schoolboy, partly because he grew quickly. “I was lucky as a boy,” he told me. “I was a similar size to what I am now as a man.” He had trials at county level, with Lancashire, where his ability continued to shine, and as a 15-year-old he got a call asking him to be part of the England Schoolboys set-up, whose matches, it seemed, were played for the almost exclusive benefit of keen-eyed club scouts. “There were people there every Sunday morning,” Evans said. “People from Liverpool, from Chelsea, from Wolves. They’d come down and talk to my dad, offering a bit of money, but he always said it was up to me to make the decision.” While playing for Bootle, Evans and his teammates had dreamt of lining up for the side they’d supported their whole lives. In 1964 he signed schoolboy contracts with Liverpool.

As an apprentice in the 1960s, a young professional didn’t play too much football. He’d scrub boots, clean kits, sweep floors, do everything his superiors told him to do. Coaches taught youth team players as much about discipline – the importance of adhering to rules, both on and off the pitch – as they did about the game they were there to play. They were strict, but the structure often paid off. No youth team player donned a diamond earring, dated a WAG, drove a Mercedes. Even some of the pros got the bus to work.

“When you join professionally you soon get brought down to Earth,” Evans told me. “You were a big fish playing for the England Schoolboys. Suddenly you’re a small fish in a very big pond.” When he first arrived, a long-serving club official shouted out the professions he thought trainees would pursue when they didn’t make it as footballers. Evans, it was prophesied, would become a jockey – an indication of his slender build.

Some players faltered, failed, returned to the towns they’d arrived from to mete out a non-sporting existence. But Evans didn’t mind the derision, the hard graft. He accepted discipline as fundamentally important. And besides, although he toiled and scrubbed and cleaned, every Monday morning he’d get the opportunity to train with first team players, some of whom – legendary winger Ian Callaghan; World Cup winner Roger Hunt – would be picked to play in the same five-a-side team as him. “The nice thing about Liverpool in those days was we’d just started to be successful,” he told me. “Bill Shankly had been there since 1959, and the ‘64 team was very settled. What a great bonus that was for a youngster in the game… At the age of 16 you’re playing with men!”

Evans took over as Liverpool manager in January 1994, aged 45. He’d played just 16 times for the club’s first team as a left-back, hardly the appearance record of a Liverpool legend, but perhaps inevitable given the colossus of international players starting ahead of him. As a footballer he lacked assets those above him offered in spades. He’d been a good schoolboy player because he’d grown quickly, but he hadn’t grown since, and he was never very quick. “Joe Fagan always used to say you need two or three qualities to become an exceptional footballer,” Evans told me. “You need a combination of pace, vision, technical ability. Two to be a good player, all three to be one of the best.” He laughed. “I didn’t really have any of them.” In 1973 he went on loan to the Philadelphia Atoms, a now-defunct American club which that year won the North American Soccer League. Evans returned a title winner – “I came back and showed everyone the signet ring they’d given me” – but resumed life at Liverpool in the reserves. At 26, approaching what should have been his physical and professional peak, Evans’ career was languishing.

“To become an exceptional footballer, you need a combination of pace, vision, technical ability. Two to be a good player, all three to be one of the best.”

Then came an opportunity. Bob Paisley, who’d taken over from Bill Shankly after the Liverpool great had resigned for the last time in 1974, offered Evans the chance to join his backroom staff. Whereas he’d struggled as a player, what the Bootle lad did have was coaching prowess – an ability to guide, if not lead, those around him, especially younger players. Evans refused the role three times.

He hoped, like any other footballer facing the untimely end of his playing career, to get his professional life back on track, perhaps at a different club. It was only when Joe Fagan, who later took over from Paisley as manager and whom Evans greatly admired, told him to take the chance, that he considered it. “You’re 26,” Fagan said. “If you don’t like it, you can go back to playing the game.” Evans never did.

People associate Roy Evans’ managerial career with a number of different things, but discipline – or, more accurately, whether or not his side had any – is the thing people talk about most. Evans won the League Cup in 1995, reached the FA Cup final in 1996 and the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997. In the four seasons he was in full charge, he finished fourth, third, fourth and third in the Premier League, achievements that place him third on the list of the most successful top flight English managers and which, now, would result in regular Champions League football. His side was exciting, full of homegrown talent and, when fluent, wonderful in attack. Pundits widely tipped the club to win a title but, although repeatedly competitive, Evans’ side was hopelessly inconsistent. Errors considered by many to be avoidable cost the side potential league glory.

Rooting out the cause, people have pointed to Melwood, including former players. “Training became a real problem,” John Barnes wrote in his autobiography in 1999. “We were inconsistent because we trained inconsistently. I would come away from training, jump in the car and think that Roy had to become tougher.” Stan Collymore, whom Evans signed from Nottingham Forest in June 1995 for £8.5m, then an eye-catching British record fee, agrees. “One morning we were all wandering out to training when Roy made some quip to Robbie Fowler and they started joking about,” Collymore wrote in 2004. “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.”

As a coach, Evans had been a friend to players, had coerced them emotionally into better performances, while fellow coach Ronnie Moran (who signed professionally for Liverpool in 1952 and who, like Evans, enjoyed a long career as part of the club’s coaching staff) barked orders, instilled discipline. But Evans was hardly a soft touch. As reserve team coach he’d berate first team players for showing a lack of effort, sometimes publicly, and he was happy to do the same as manager. He rarely got angry – “you can probably only lose your head once a season,” he told me, “and only then for a lack of effort” – but made sure his opinions were heard in other ways, and he didn’t make decisions on sentiment, especially when it came to under-performing players.

When Evans took over as manager in 1994 the club was languishing mid-table. Former club captain Graeme Souness, awarded the job in 1991, had made the mistake of getting rid of too many experienced players too quickly, unsettling a then young, naive side without the wherewithal to challenge for the league title. Souness had excavated the club’s foundations, and Anfield had begun to quake.

Seeking stability, Evans brought players in – notably, although not completely successfully, John Scales and Phil Babb – but he also let players go. Mark Walters, Ronnie Rosenthal, Nigel Clough and Julian Dicks were all shown the door. Later, perhaps brutally but not unfairly, so too were Liverpool legends Ian Rush, Jan Molby, Bruce Grobbelaar and John Barnes. And then there was Don Hutchison.

Hutchison joined Liverpool in 1991, a young, Scottish, Hartlepool player with renowned technical ability. He was a future club legend, people rumoured, likely to vastly improve Evans’ side once he firmly broke into it. But his temperament was lacking and his discipline wavered. He’d regularly go out, drink too much, get himself into situations a young footballer shouldn’t. It was disruptive, and Evans knew he had to move him on. In 1994 Hutchison was sold to Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United for £1.5m, and he never really recovered. Evans didn’t so much as end the player’s career as prevent it ever truly starting. “The biggest myth of all was that Roy was soft,” wrote Robbie Fowler, who played under Evans from 1994 until 1998, in 2005. “If anything, Roy could be fucking ruthless.”

Evans’ approach to those he truly admired, those he needed to play well week-in and week-out, was different. He knew players reacted well to praise, liked to encourage them to make their own decisions on the pitch, gave them license to fully utilise their varied talents. For Evans, giving the player the freedom to apply his individual personality in a game was paramount. “These days it seems managers want to kick every ball for every player,” he told me, “which makes the manager responsible for everything that goes on at the club. The managers I worked with – Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, people like that – we set the teams up how we wanted them to play, but we let the players make the decisions on the pitch. They’re on there, they’re getting paid to do it, they’re the footballers. We carried that through to people like McManaman, Fowler, who played the game with their own personalities. If they were good enough – and they certainly were, some of them lads – that’s what makes great players.”

McManaman and Fowler did thrive, but others didn’t. Searching for reasons why, the press focused on the training ground leniency Evans believed was necessary for the development of personality, widely reporting it as ill-discipline. Referencing the then-popular English girl band, but more importantly referring to the increasingly outrageous and very public player antics of the time – heavy drinking, media-documented nightclub visits, audacious modelling (at one point goalkeeper David James was a face of Armani) – the side was negatively dubbed the Spice Boys, a tag only a title win might have deposed. “I didn’t think that was fair,” Evans said. “You have to have some fun in your life – you can’t be robotic all the time. These lads sometimes had a little fun off the pitch, but on it they always gave a good account of themselves, and they were always incredibly entertaining to watch.”

Evans knows a thing or two about good football, about success. In his time as a coach, both for the reserves and, later, for the first team, Liverpool won ten league titles, three FA Cup finals and four European Cups. Had it not been for the Heysel Stadium disaster, they might have won even more. Evans sat at the end of a management lineage that included some of the greatest leaders the club’s ever seen: the brilliant orator Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish – managers schooled in the Boot Room, a hallowed Anfield space in which the club’s managerial staff would wash down conversations about players, games and tactics with bottles of beer. “The great thing for me was that I got to have a say,” Evans told me. In the Boot Room, opinions were both welcomed and truly considered. If the manager thought you were wrong – on which of two players was the more in form, for example – he’d tell you. But if he thought you were right, he’d accept it. “For a young coach learning the game, what a great thing that was,” Evans continued. “But you’ve got to be careful. The Boot Room was only a room in which we all met. It’s about the people that were in it, and the players. The biggest ingredient you’ve got to have at a football club is good players. In that period we had them in abundance.”

“These lads sometimes had a little fun off the pitch, but on it they always gave a good account of themselves, and they were always incredibly entertaining to watch.”

But the 1990s were different. Forays into a tricky, increasingly international player market could be incredibly successful, or downright ineffectual, and not all of Evans’ transfers succeeded. “I thought Roy was a brilliant manager,” Steve McManaman recently told me, “but he was a bit unlucky. He was probably a couple of players away from a title-winning team.” Evans agrees. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Well, we weren’t quite good enough’. Going forward we were fine; defensively, we let ourselves down. We were always close, we always felt we had a chance over those four years, and we were disappointed we never did it. Not just myself, but the players – they were disappointed they didn’t take it the full way and get what they deserved because they put a lot of hard work into it.”

Roy Evans won 123 of the 244 Liverpool games for which he was in charge, a 50.4% win rate. Graeme Souness had previously slumped to a win rate of 41.4%. When Gérard Houllier left in 2004, the Frenchman had won 165 of his 325 games. Houllier had been given £140m to invest in his Liverpool side. His win rate was 50.8%.

That Houllier became Liverpool manager was, in part, Evans’ fault. When Ronnie Moran retired in 1998, Liverpool’s board, in an acknowledgment of changes in the game, felt it necessary to replace the long-serving coach with a man of international experience. Houllier, who as technical director of the French national team had just won the World Cup, was brought in as joint manager, an appointment Evans initially welcomed but soon rued.

“Sometimes you can be naive,” he told me. “I should have stood up for myself. I should have said: ‘No, he can be Director of Football, anything he wants to be, but at the end of the day joint managers won’t work.’ I did say that, I said it to some of the board members, but I also said that if they thought that was what was best for the club I’d go with it.”

As managers Evans and Houllier got on, but small logistical differences proved disruptive. “We agreed on a lot of the football matters,” he told me. “But I’d say the team bus should leave at 2pm and he’d say it should leave at half past. The players began to think ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ And it started to affect them. In the end I probably did a foolish thing walking away. Do I regret it? Yeah, but I thought I’d walked away for the good of the club. Sometimes in life you have to do things for yourself. On that day, I didn’t.”

Roy Evans left Liverpool aged 50, hardly an old man – Roy Hodgson is 65, Alex Ferguson, 71 – and he left with more than one regret: that his side weren’t more consistent; that they didn’t win the league title they perhaps should have done; that he couldn’t bring the glory days of the 1980s back to an ever-expectant Anfield. One further regret has since developed: that on leaving Liverpool he didn’t go straight back into management, but instead toiled in semi-retirement, returning to the game intermittently as a right-hand man to former players Karl-Heinze Riedle at Fulham and Neil Ruddock at Swindon, and then as a pundit on Liverpool’s club television station.

“I should have gone straight back in,” he told me, not without inflection, “but I feel a great pride about my time at Liverpool. I joined in 1964 and I left in 1998 and in all those years, not just as a manager but throughout all of those formative years as a coach, I was involved in all of those league championship wins and European Cup wins.”

He sighed, then smiled. “I was involved in it all.”

This article first appeared in Issue 5 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2013.

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