Roy Evans took the reins from Graeme Souness as a 45-year-old on January 28, 1994. Four and a half regularly enthralling – if not trophy-laden – years followed, before Gérard Houllier arrived in a joint-managerial capacity during the summer of 1998.
The ‘Spice Boys’ nickname that Evans’ Reds would go on to earn in some quarters feels somewhat harsh, considering some of the brilliant moments and matches they produced. Although it does, arguably, accurately hint at something.
Following Liverpool’s 1995 League Cup win – which proved to be the only silverware won under Evans – there often wasn’t much between the Reds and their rivals in the mid-to-late ‘90s. In the 1-0 FA Cup Final defeat to Manchester United in 1996, for instance, or the ultimately unsuccessful title challenges of 1996 and 1997 – which were also both claimed by the Red Devils.
Yet, there was enough. Something that suggested the culture, the mindset, the attitude – however you’d like to phrase it – was that bit more advanced at the likes of United and Arsenal, especially after Arsène Wenger’s October 1996 arrival at Highbury. This was something that proved particularly notable late in campaigns, at which stage others often became stronger as the Merseysiders dropped off.
Was this a result, primarily, of a little less off-field discipline? It is, of course, nearly impossible to say for certain – but it’s a possibility. To purely focus on the nickname and the ‘nearly’ element does a notable disservice to the work that got them to that level, though. So many, judging by the stories, had so much fun watching Liverpool under Evans.
Born in Bootle on October 4, 1948, he came through the ranks at the club he supported as a boy, before he signed professional forms at the age of 17 in October 1965. First team appearances proved hard to come by but, having made 11, he was put in charge of the reserve team by Bob Paisley in August 1974 at the age of just 25.
As then chairman John Smith said at the time: “We have not made an appointment for the present but for the future. One day, Roy Evans will be our manager.” And so it proved when the Reds returned to their approach of appointing from within in early 1994.Embed from Getty Images
Given his extensive knowledge of the club and those coming through the ranks, it was little surprise that one of the key markers of his time in charge was the continued growth of Academy graduates Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman into crucial first-team contributors.
The 1994 season ended with the Reds in eighth place in the league – the club’s lowest finish since its first term back in the top-flight in 1962/63 – but Evans built impressively from there. Liverpool would finish fourth in 1994/95, alongside their League Cup victory. This arrived on April 2 at Wembley with a 2-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers which, symbolically, came courtesy of a McManaman brace.
By now operating in Evans’ favoured 5-3-2 shape, it was McManaman who was given licence to roam behind a front-two of Ian Rush and Fowler. The latter – still only 20 by the end of the campaign – would notch a brilliant 31 goals across 57 games in all competitions, which only got better.
1995/96 brought 36 goals in 53 for the Scouser – who now had a new regular strike partner in the form of Stan Collymore, signed from Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1995 for a then British record fee of £8.5 million. This partnership led the Reds to a third-place finish which could – and perhaps should – have been more.
The game that most associate to that season is Liverpool’s enthralling 4-3 Anfield league win over fellow title-chasers Newcastle on April 3 – decided by Collymore’s stoppage-time strike. One of the great late winners in front of The Kop was followed by two wins, three draws and one defeat in the final six league outings. Those nine dropped points wouldn’t have been enough to catch eventual champions Manchester United, but they would have earned second ahead of the Magpies.Embed from Getty Images
Then there was the FA Cup Final – and those white suits, of course. In truth, victory might have somewhat improved the light they have been remembered in since. Nonetheless, the winners were – again – United. A largely underwhelming game was decided by Eric Cantona’s superbly struck late volley and a highly promising season ended trophyless.
1996/97 could be filed under a similar category. There were 31 more goals for Fowler, 16 for Collymore and Liverpool were top of the Premiership at Christmas. Once again, the Reds faded as United found momentum in the home straight to walk away with another title.
Two home defeats – 2-1 against Coventry City on April 6 and 3-2 against the Red Devils on April 19 – proved decisive. They helped ensure Evans’ men finished in fourth place – seven off the top and level, on 68 points, with second-placed Newcastle and third-placed Arsenal – rather than as champions.
The final season in sole charge for the boyhood Kopite brought another third-placed finish. Finishing with 65 points, his side fell 13 points short of champions Arsenal and 12 off runners-up United.
Each of Evans’ full campaigns in the hot seat certainly brought consistently respectable league positions, but never quite enough signs that this version of Liverpool were taking the step from contenders to winners. Key foundations for the years to come continued to be built, in any case.
1997/98 saw two more youngsters – Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher – establish themselves. There were 23 goals in 44 games across all competitions for the former and 23 appearances for the latter. Houllier would take them from strength to strength.
The Frenchman joined as joint-manager that summer. The Liverpool board, seemingly, were seeking some of the developments in culture and discipline that his fellow countryman, Wenger, had brought to Arsenal. The concept of joint-managers did represent a relatively unique one, but Houllier and Evans were willing to press ahead with it.Embed from Getty Images
It felt like a potentially well-balanced partnership yet, unsurprisingly, the lack of a single decision-maker proved challenging. There were some promising signs in the early weeks of 1998/99, but form soon regressed and Evans opted to leave the club on November 12, 1998.
Doubtless, the lifelong Liverpool fan didn’t achieve all that he’d have hoped to as manager. The margins were often very fine, though. He helped return a feel-good factor to Anfield that had been in relatively short supply towards the end of Souness’ reign and, in turn, laid the key foundations for the greater levels of success that would arrive in the early 2000s. Whilst giving Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen their first-team debuts isn’t a bad note to have on the CV, either.
A long-standing Boot Room member before he became manager, Roy Evans’ contribution to Liverpool FC is likely only topped by his love for it. He remains a much-loved servant of the club and his contributions will not be forgotten.
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