Reading Tony Evans’s book on Liverpool FC’s unforgettable 1983-84 season is a stark reminder of how different football used to be. What’s also refreshing about this engrossing, sharply-observed and occasionally very funny read is that it evokes the spirit of the times vividly without invoking the kind of smug, knowing, benefit-of-hindsight judgementalism that so often accompanies the retro football angle. It’s a tale told well, with passion and affection.
By the start of the 1983-84 season Liverpool FC had been the dominant force in English football for eight years, and a major force in Europe too. Bill Shankly had created something that seemed to be bigger than just another football club, tapping into the city’s sense of solidarity and otherness, and Bob Paisley had carried on. But Paisley announced at the start of the 1982-83 season that he would be stepping down at the end of that campaign. Paisley had been one of the club’s training staff brains trust dubbed The Bootroom, and when Shankly went, Paisley stepped up as the senior member. Now, then, all eyes turned to Joe Fagan as next in line. But Fagan, at 62, was only two years younger than his predecessor. And he didn’t want the job.
Evans’s book tells the story of how and why Fagan eventually took on the job, what a gamble this represented, and how his team eventually won three trophies that season. Fagan is certainly what would be called an old school manager, and the approach detailed in the book contrasts wildly with the technocratic approach of the modern manager. The gaffer’s explanation of Liverpool’s system of play to new striker Michael Robinson has not a performance analytic or tactics board in sight. “’When Liverpool had the ball in midfield, they passed to another man wearing the same-coloured shirt. When he was close to the opposition goal, he had to kick the ball in the net.”
The approach across the board was similarly blunt. Liverpool used just 15 players throughout the campaign, and devotees of modern-day dietary regimes will be shocked to find that the essential fuel used was beer. But simply, this Liverpool side were massive pissheads. A macho, straight-talking, hard-drinking and tightly-knit bunch, it was the team spirit as much as the skills of Kenny Dalglish, the goals of Ian Rush or the midfield presence of Graeme Souness that drove them on.
Souness emerges as the central figure, the captain, the leader, the hardest, most uncompromising character of them all – but one still capable of stirring in the silkiest of passes alongside the crunching tackles. Evans, who saw most of the 67 games that season, mixes his own memories with the access to the players he’s gained during his years as a football reporter to provide some real insight into the scrapes and controversies, the crises and the triumphs that made up what many Reds fans still call the team’s greatest ever season.
So there’s plenty from Souness and Dalglish, but also from Craig Johnston and Phil Thompson who spent much of the season fighting their own personal battles with the club’s management. The outcome for each of those men would be very different. There’s the story too of Robinson’s difficult introduction into the team, Bruce Grobbelaar and his spaghetti legs, why Alan Kennedy was known as Barney Rubble and who inspired the team to adopt the Chris Rea song from which the book takes its title.
What makes this more than just another collection of anecdotes and player insights about a team’s great season is Evans’s understanding of the relationship between the club and the fans. Evans was one of the fans who followed the team across Europe and he weaves in their stories and perspective throughout the book, telling the tales of nights in the infamous ‘Yankee’ bar, the tricks and dodges used by travelling fans, and the terrifying ordeal that faced the 10,000 travelling Scousers in Rome on the night of the European Cup final against Roma. In doing so, as he did in his earlier book Far Foreign Land, Evans demonstrates an understanding of what following a team means that appears to be beyond the grasp of many football writers.
The book is peppered with Scouse wit – it’s a contractual obligation to use that phrase when writing anything to do with Liverpool – and a fair bit of abrasive Scouse pride. Evans’s assertion, for example, that the English media never really acknowledged the scale of that team’s achievement strikes an odd note with those of who remember becoming heartily sick of the media’s fawning over The Mighty Reds at the time, but passion and opinion are a key part of Evans’s approach, and help to make this book as honest and vivid as it is.
Liverpool fans will love it, of course, but anyone with an interest not only in football but in what it can mean to people will also find this a hugely entertaining read.
Martin Cloake is a journalist and author who writes about football, the football business and football culture when he’s not doing the day job writing about other stuff. That other stuff has included finance, politics, music, celebrity and real life stories – and fruit and veg. His most challenging commission was delivering a 5,000-word epic on potatoes. Sadly, this is no longer available. But his books, in ebook and paperback form, plus some rather handsome hardbacks, are available direct from his website.