Roy Evans interview: I’m still frustrated I didn’t win the title with Liverpool

Nostalgia

As only the second permanent Liverpool manager after Kenny Dalglish – and the last ever graduate of The Boot Room – Roy Evans’ record seemed underwhelming to some at the time.

Evans himself refers back to his side’s failure to win the title several times throughout our conversation, but only two of his six successors – Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez – boast a better win ratio than he managed at Anfield.

That Evans describes his time in charge as “okay” is indicative of the winning culture he was a part of through the most incredible period of sustained success any English side has ever had.

Manchester United’s experience over the past few years has shown us how difficult it can be to live up to such impossibly high standards, but Evans managed it better than most.

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Evans’ reign is certainly remembered more fondly than that of his predecessor and Dalglish’s first successor, Graeme Souness.

In the 26 years from 1965-66 onwards, Liverpool picked up 13 league titles, were runners-up on a further eight occasions and twice third. They never finishing outside the top five. Yet they finished sixth in both of Souness’ full seasons in charge, and would go on to finish eighth at the end of the 1993-94 season following Souness’ January departure.

Liverpool’s Boot Room tradition was still alive as the club sought to keep a thread back to Bill Shankly, so Evans, who had moved into coaching at the age of 25 after his playing career failed to take off, got the nod to step up and become manager of the club he had served since 1965.

In his first season, the introduction of youngsters Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp to the first XI helped the Reds to fourth and the 1995 League Cup.

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READ: Robbie Fowler: The man who made Liverpool fans believe in God

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With Ian Rush on the wane, Stan Collymore joined for a British record transfer fee in that summer to form a successful partnership with Fowler, and the signing of left winger Patrik Berger following his starring role in taking the Czech Republic to a shock appearance in the Euro 96 final seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle.

Liverpool looked to be finally heading back to the top after going without a league title since 1990. That they didn’t was a source of consternation to the Anfield faithful at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Evans was up against a side that would develop into one the greatest English football has ever seen: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

Kevin Keegan and Ron Atkinson remain the only English managers to have achieved a higher Premier League finsh, and Evans’ average league position across his four full seasons at Liverpool is better than even Rafael Benitez. There are very few clubs now that wouldn’t take a top-four finish every season, which is what Evans’ Liverpool achieved.

“At this moment in time I think I still have the best record of any English manager in the Premier League, which is ridiculous, because no English manager’s ever won it,” Evans says. “It doesn’t do any good for me, like, because I’d rather have won the trophy, that’s the most important thing!”

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He adds: “We did okay. During my time I was in the top four for the four seasons: third, fourth, fourth, third. But at that time you couldn’t get in the Champions League that way as only the top two played in the Champions League in those days.

“We just had to take it forward and we were just short of winning the Premiership, which was disappointing, over those three or four years, and we did okay in a few of the cup competitions.

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“It was a decent time hopefully and the football was good to watch for the people. I just wish we’d have had some better results at the end of it.”

Even if the results weren’t quite there, there was no doubting some of Liverpool’s performances. Their incredibly open 3-5-2 system produced captivating stuff at times, though there were obvious defensive frailties.

The first and most famous 4-3 against Newcastle in 1995-96 is one of the most remarkable games in Premier League history, and there is no greater demonstration of the thrills and spills of following both sides at the time.

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“It depends on the players that you have available to you and it suited the style of play that we had because we had Jason McAteer and Rob Jones, who liked to get forward, and sometimes at the back we felt like we were better defensively with a back three,” Evans says of the system.

“It was good to watch and they were very competitive – but always with the same answer, unfortunately, that if you don’t win the Premier League then that’s where the bar is raised to.”​

The 1996-97 season represented Evans’ best chance to do that. Having lost an unusually dour encounter with Manchester United in the 1996 FA Cup Final to a heartbreaking late Eric Cantona goal, Liverpool started the season with a renewed purpose, claiming 20 points from their first eight games.

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But it was an especially tight race for the title that year. Though Liverpool were top on Boxing Day, they had played at least one more game than everyone else and were just six points ahead of fifth-placed Aston Villa. Wimbledon, would you believe, were in fourth.

There was barely any more breathing room as the season entered its final few games. Manchester United were top with 66 points from 33 games, Arsenal had 63 from 34, and Liverpool 60 from 32.

Liverpool’s next two games were crucial: Everton away, then Manchester United at home. Take all six points, and Evans’ side would be top with three tricky but winnable games to go.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Duncan Ferguson cancelled out Jamie Redknapp’s strike in a bad-tempered Merseyside derby that ended with David Unsworth and Robbie Fowler both dismissed for fighting.

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That gave United the delicious opportunity to effectively seal the title with a win at Anfield – they took it, with Andy Cole adding to Gary Pallister’s first-half brace in a 3-1 win.

With that, Evans’ best chance at winning the Premier League was gone. They would finish the season in third, behind Arsenal and their new manager, Arsene Wenger.

Shankly once said: “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.”

There are echoes of Evans’ mentor in his own frustration, which remains palpable even now, 20 years later.

“Manchester United were the dominant side of the time and we were trying to overcome that, but you talk about whether you’d have done anything different and everything’s easy in hindsight – you’d have won a few more games!

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READ: Liverpool, Gazza and the bizarre mid-season six-a-side tournament of 97

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“Maybe I take a fair amount of the blame because maybe sometimes we were too attacking minded. That was the way I wanted to play football and maybe sometimes we should have been more a little bit more conservative and made it more difficult for the opposition, but that’s the style of football my side played.

“To be fair sometimes defending starts at the front and scoring goals starts at the back, so it’s not just about attack and defence – it’s about the whole team. If you start laying blame on defenders, you end up in trouble. We just fell, over those years, just a little bit short.

“So I have no regrets, but at the same time I’d have liked to have seen a few more trophies at the end of it.

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QUIZ: How many of these 1990s Premier League players can you name?

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“You’re never satisfied if you don’t win. Winning, in professional football, is the big thing. Of course we had a great team and we played some great football, but I do feel that between us we probably should have won the Premier League one of the years.

“We had a really good chance and we didn’t take it, unfortunately.”

Liverpool receded back to fourth the following season, resulting in Gerard Houllier’s appointment alongside Evans in a doomed joint-managerial position, and despite having challenged for the title in his first season as manager, Evans found opportunities hard to come by after leaving Anfield.

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READ: The curious case of joint managers – and why Bolton are to be admired

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He had spells as caretaker manager at Fulham, Director of Football at Swindon, and assistant manager for Wales and Wrexham, but that was it.

Evans says: “I was at Fulham to help them through the last weeks of the season in 2000 and we almost got them promoted, but that was just a 10-week thing

“Stupidly, I suppose, being the way I am, I started helping people out at Swindon and Wrexham, but sometimes you have to think about yourself and I probably didn’t do that.

“I was at Wales with John (Toshack) and that was something different and I quite enjoyed that, but I think in the football business today, people talk about agents and there’s some good and some bad, and I think I could have done better had I had an agent to kind of push me forward and state my case.

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READ: A reminder why Liverpool fans should keep the faith with Jurgen Klopp

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“After the spell at Liverpool I think you’d expect to get another job somewhere, wouldn’t you, at a decent club, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

“Maybe I’m not the kind of person who pushes himself to the front of the queue but that’s the way football is and the way life is sometimes.

“There’s lots of things you’d like to change, but obviously I had a great time for 35 years at Liverpool, which was fantastic from my point of view.”

By Steven Chicken