In April 1996, on a knuckle-whitening night at Anfield, Liverpool hauled themselves into the title race with a 4-3 win over league leaders Newcastle in perhaps the greatest game of the modern era. When Stan Collymore struck his late winner, Liverpool were closing in: five points off the top with six games to go – an outside bet but a bet nonetheless, having lost just once since the end of November. Three days later they went to Coventry, lost 1-0, and that was that: their wait for a league title, already a six-year eternity, would go on.
That Liverpool side has come to be known sneeringly as the Spice Boys and that week-in-the-life snapshot is often cited as emblematic of everything that was right and wrong with them: the ability to wow a crowd under the lights with an exhibition of balls-to-the-wall football, but saddled with a defensive ineptitude and an unearned complacency which saw them come unstuck against lame-duck opponents. History can be cruel, and it has come to regard that Liverpool team as hubristic failures: a gang of happy-go-lucky lads who, had they only knuckled down a bit, could have been contenders.
The man largely held responsible for this is the manager whom Collymore wrote of being marched out onto the training pitch one morning, clamped in a playful headlock by his star striker. Roy Evans, it’s fair to say, was no disciplinarian. And yet the idea that he was the problem – that strictness and order were the missing ingredients that could have transformed that team into hardened winners – is surely a tad simplistic.
There are a few tales that tend to be told when it comes to the Spice Boys but perhaps the most prevalent is the one about the player who was threatened with a fine were he to miss training to take on some modelling work he’d been offered. The player, so the tale goes, wrote out the cheque on the spot, slapped it on Evans’ desk and zoomed off to the studio. Apocryphal or not, the fact that there’s even any debate about its authenticity is illustrative enough.
Yet amid all the huffing about spoilt superstars, one likelihood tends to be left unrecognised: that the unrestrained spontaneity which marked out the team’s best football was a direct product of its environment. Or to put it another way, Evans’ lack of discipline helped the team as much as it hindered it. What we were seeing wasn’t just talent being indulged but talent being unshackled.
It’s worth remembering that the fabled disciplinarian in question did eventually arrive – and the fabled league title did not. When Gerard Houllier took control of the team in 1998, his relationship with Fowler, unruly emblem of the Spice Boys era, became immediately fractious: Houllier didn’t instil a new mentality in the striker but instead booted him out altogether.
Rather than meeting in the middle, it turn out the two approaches were incompatible, and the lasting impression is that a tougher manager wouldn’t so much have improved the Spice Boys side as ripped it apart completely. Plus, when it came down to it, Houllier’s achievements in the “bread and butter” of the league were little better than his predecessor – Evans, if anything, came closer to ending the famine.
Nor too is Evans’ reputation for defensive clownishness entirely warranted. Admittedly any side with David James guarding the nets can never fully rebut that accusation, and the number of crosses tapped gratefully into a gaping goal by opposition strikers was enough to reveal Evans as a far more forgiving man than he should have been. Yet despite all that, his reckless buccaneers conceded fewer goals than the eventual title winners in 1996 – just as they had the year before, and just as they would do the year after.
The idea that the Liverpool sides of the mid-90s were an airy insult to their trophy-hoarding forebears is clearly nonsense: at their peak, with Evans’ futuristic 3-5-2 formation exploiting the wit of Fowler, the flair of Steve McManaman and the finesse of Jamie Redknapp, the club played a brand of football that likely outstripped anything produced during the glory decades. As for professionalism, the booze-sodden exploits of Alan Hansen, Ian Rush and co. have become legendary.
That a number of key figures – Fowler, McManaman, Redknapp, Jason McAteer and (albeit very briefly) Collymore – played the best football of their careers under Evans is also worthy of note when it comes to assessing the legacy of a coach all too readily charged with underachievement. Or, as Fowler puts it in his autobiography: “Don’t give me that Spice Boys bollocks. I scored 30 goals every year for Roy Evans, and only Roger Hunt and Ian Rush have ever done that for Liverpool.”
It didn’t help, of course, that the team displacing Liverpool from their perch happened to be their bitterest rivals. And it’s become customary to hold up this period of history as a kind of moral parable, with Manchester United and the Class of 92 embodying everything Evans’ side didn’t: dedication, ambition, longevity, sacrifice and success.
There is a degree of truth in that. Certainly the Liverpool players became embroiled in the Loaded-era culture of laddish ostentation in a way their adversaries didn’t, and the respective managers certainly played their parts.
“Football was changing and I chose to embrace it freely rather than take a tight rein,” Evans tells Simon Hughes in Men in White Suits. “They were young lads; Christ, they were young lads with a life to live. I wanted them to self-govern.”
The popular reading is that the difference between the two sets of players was nothing more than steely discipline. An alternative reading is that these were simply two terrific young teams, with one slightly better than the other – not least because they could call on the formative-years mentorship of geniuses off-field and on, in Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona.
Liverpool’s lads had to make do with Evans, who may not have been a genius but was certainly no chump.