Part Three: The Spice of Strife.
By TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley.
‘Listen, you can call them Spice Boys or whatever you want, but when they played football matches, they wanted to win. The attitude was always good when it came to the game. Did we fulfil our promise? Probably not. On our day we were as good as anybody but our day didn’t come quite often enough. The outside stuff – when players went home – it was irrelevant.’
– Roy Evans, speaking to Simon Hughes for Men in White Suits in 2014.
Except of course, the outside stuff was not irrelevant. It may have been if the team were winning but increasingly the host of extracurricular activities became the overriding narrative of Evans’ side; the sideshow became the story, to the gleeful mirth of tabloids up and down the country.
The reality is painted not in black and white but, like all aspects of life, in shades of grey. Evans was not blameless but was also not the weak, spineless manager many portrayed him to be. The players – and predictably many deny the accusations – must take some of the blame, but theirs was a unique generation, straddling the drinking culture of the 70s and 80s with what was becoming an ultra-professional game consisting of finely tuned athletes. The billions pumped into football in the 90s, the new-found universal adulation, meant footballers suddenly found themselves cast as the new rock stars; the zeitgeist of the time was cool Britannia, Brit Pop and its ilk. The representatives of the big clubs were – for the first time in history – placed on a pedestal with the likes of Damon Albarn, Robbie Williams and Liam Gallagher. Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs were guilty of off the field excesses, for example, but they had an authoritarian manager whose success had enabled the use of an iron fist. As Paul Tomkins notes in Dynasty, Roy Evans was not ‘especially weak – it was just that he wasn’t strong enough consistently enough.’
Cracks and fissures had appeared in the Liverpool dressing room during Souness’ turbulent regime; team spirit was so low that apparently only six first team players turned up for a celebratory jaunt to Tenerife following the FA Cup victory of 1992. Evans sought to heal the rifts by permitting more sociable behaviour and treating the players like adults, relying on the old guard like Barnes and Rush to pull in the more boisterous behaviour. It had, after all, worked for the club in all the decades that Roy had been at Liverpool; the more senior figures in the dressing room could always be counted on to curb any excess. But, like so much that happened in the nineties, the timing was all wrong. Football was changing rapidly and Liverpool Football Club needed to embrace the modernity. But, from the very top, the club was again guilty of anachronism and wallowing in the past. The facts are that this laxness was bound to trickle down; that’s not an excuse for the players and their misdemeanours but it has to be taken into consideration when analysing the time.
John Scales, signed by Evans from Wimbledon, made some interesting points in a recent interview in The Telegraph and made the claim that Liverpool were caught in a time warp. Having moved from the self-styled Crazy Gang, Scales was anticipating the epitome of professionalism, sophistication and good practice from his new club; the reality came as a grim surprise:
‘Ronnie Moran’s training had not changed since that time. The wooden target boards were still used and they were rotting away. There was no tactical or technical analysis. Diets did not come into any discussion. For away games, we’d turn up in jeans – just as all the players had done in the ’70s. There were so many bad habits.
Mentally, the team was underprepared at a time football clubs were figuring out, like the rest of the world, that mental health improves physical performance.’
Scales went on to highlight the fact that not only was Melwood underdeveloped but the only official merchandising was ‘a small shop in the corner of the carpark.’
Compare this with Manchester United’s rapidly growing corporate behemoth and it becomes rapidly apparent that David Moores must share some of the blame. As Scales argues:
‘In any walk of life, if you give people an inch they’ll walk a mile, especially young lads.Roy wasn’t necessarily too nice. But maybe he was too lenient. Above Roy, the chairman David Moores could have been more forceful on a lot of issues. If a club does not have structure, then it’s not going to function on the pitch in the long term. The whole approach at United was more professional from top to bottom.’
In short, there was a troubling, anachronistic miasma enveloping the club that was suffocating any chance of real success. Football was becoming a game of percentages; at the highest level, every resource that could improve a team’s chances had to be taken without hesitation. Every potential advantage had to be embraced. The Reds, despite possessing footballers of aesthetic brilliance during the decade, simply failed to adhere to this adage.
It was from this pool of relative stagnation that the media monster – the Spice Boys – arose, dripping with negative tales of excess.
Cultural changes were sweeping through the game in England and the players possessed all the cards.
The rest of this article, which takes us to the end of Roy Evans’ tenure, is for Subscribers only.