Roy Evans: We should have won title, maybe we were too attack-minded
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 – can boast a better win ratio than he managed at Anfield.
His reign is certainly remembered more fondly than that of his predecessor and Dalglish’s first successor, Graeme Souness, under whom Liverpool finished sixth twice and then eighth in 1993-94 following Souness’ January departure.
It was Evans, who had moved into coaching at the age of 25 after his playing career failed to take off, who got the nod to step up and become manager of the club he had served since 1965, and he quickly stopped the rot.
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.
They went one better in his second, finishing third following the signing of Stan Collymore for a British record transfer fee, and when Patrik Berger joined a year later, it seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle.
That Evans didn’t manage to deliver the title in 1997 was a source of consternation to the Anfield faithful at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see he was up against a side that would develop into one the greatest English football has ever seen: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
In fact, Evans’ average league position across his four full seasons at Liverpool is better than even Rafael Benitez’s. Kevin Keegan and Ron Atkinson are the only English managers to have achieved a higher Premier League finish.
“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!
“We did okay. I was in the top four for the four seasons: third, fourth, fourth, third. But 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.”
Though the results weren’t quite good enough, there was no doubting the quality of some of Liverpool’s performances. Their 3-5-2 system produced captivating stuff at times.
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.
Unfortunately, while Liverpool could be a joy to watch going forward, they conceded too many goals at the other end to seriously challenge for the title.
Looking back, Evans still seems torn as to whether his tactics at the time were right.
“Maybe I take a fair amount of the blame because maybe sometimes we were too attacking minded,” he says.
“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.
“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.
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“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!”
“To be fair, 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.
“You’re never satisfied if you don’t win. Winning, in professional football, is the big thing. 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 unfortunately we didn’t take it.”
Life after Liverpool
Liverpool’s best chance came in 1996-97, when they went into the final straight with their fate in their own hands only to draw at Everton and then lose at home to Manchester United, effectively handing the title to their rivals.
Liverpool went on to finish third, behind Arsenal and their new manager, Arsene Wenger, and when they receded back to fourth the following season, Gerard Houllier was appointed as joint-manager alongside Evans.
By November, Evans had quit to leave Houllier in sole charge, and despite his success at Anfield, the Englishman found further opportunities hard to come by.
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.
“People talk about agents, and there are some good and some bad, but I think I could have done better had I had an agent to kind of push me forward and state my case.
“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 I had a great time for 35 years at Liverpool, which was fantastic from my point of view.”