Saturday 26 May 2018

The story of how Joe Fagan - football's most unassuming manager - found eternal glory with Liverpool in Rome

Joe Fagan (right) during his time as assistant to Bob Paisley. Photo: PA
Joe Fagan (right) during his time as assistant to Bob Paisley. Photo: PA

Chris Bascombe

At first glance, 42 Lynholme Road seems like any other three-bedroom semi-detached in Anfield. Take a closer look and there is a prominent omission outside this tidy but modest property 10 minutes' walk from Liverpool's stadium.

As a venue of cultural significance it ought to be decorated with a blue plaque courtesy of English Heritage.

'Joe Fagan lived here between 1958-2001,' should read the inscription. 'Liverpool manager and founder member of the Boot Room.'

For 41 years as reserve coach to Bill Shankly, right-hand man to Bob Paisley and then manager, Fagan made the same short journey along the streets flanking Stanley Park directly to Anfield. "He could have been anyone: a regular guy out to pick up the papers or pint of milk. This was a treble-winning manager and Liverpool legend," his co-biographer, and grandson, Andrew, puts it.

Liverpool's pairing with Roma in the Champions League semi-final offers a timely opportunity to indulge in what Fagan himself would have found undesirable - a celebration of his exceptional but often neglected contribution to the Merseyside club and English football.

Even by Liverpool's invigorating standards, his first of only two seasons as manager was unprecedented as he added the 1984 European Cup to the league championship and League Cup.

Fagan's side inflicted such a deep sporting and psychological wound with their penalty shoot-out win at Stadio Olimpico, I Giallorossi took decades to recover. Some in the Eternal City think they are still in therapy. Yet it is in keeping with a man whose official biography is entitled 'Reluctant Champion' there is as little retrospective acclaim for Fagan's work as during his period in charge. He never sought nor acquired it.

The hierarchy of Liverpool legends remains intact - Fagan nestled in the background as trusted lieutenant, generally omitted from the list of greatest coaches - even though the feat of three major trophies in a single season evaded Shankly and Paisley. You can admire the Shankly statue, walk through the Shankly and Paisley Gates or sit in the Kenny Dalglish Stand, but the lack of similar shrine to Fagan remains a curious oversight.

"He is very much overlooked, probably because he was in charge only two years," says Ronnie Whelan, a member of Fagan's European Cup-winning side. "But this is how he wanted it. He was the archetypal father figure, living in his little house down the road, walking into work every morning. That was Joe.

"He wanted to have his club close, go into training and then back to the family. You would never have guessed he was the manager of Liverpool and so instrumental in everything that happened through the Shankly and Paisley era. He was a down-to-earth fella who loved his football, loved his family and loved Liverpool."

History can be blurred amid the Anfield romance, but with access to his diaries, Andrew and co-biographer Mark Platt were able to correct myths.

The lauded Boot Room, for example, was not Shankly's creation. It was his coaches - Fagan, Paisley and Reuben Bennett, whose appointment preceded the Scot's arrival - who chose the now-famed venue for dissecting performances and welcoming visiting dignitaries, initially because the cubby-hole-sized space was a prime location to store the post-match 'refreshments'. Fagan's relationship with a friend connected to Guinness Exports ensured guests were suitably entertained (they sat on upturned beer crates). "It's just like popping down to the local," was Paisley's recollection.

Legend has it upon entering Elton John, then Watford chairman, requested a pink gin. "We've brown ale, Guinness or whisky lad," Fagan replied. This was the ultimate coaching school, an era when Liverpool was run with a streetwise combination of perception, sharp wit and - when required - bluntness.

"There was a meeting in 1981 when he was first-team coach, which was hugely important to the club," says Whelan. "I had just got into the team with Ian Rush and we lost to Manchester City to drop to 12th. Joe called the meeting on his own with the senior players and tore into everyone. It was the right time. He intuitively knew when it needed shaking up. Joe was quiet, but you knew he was there. It was not often he lost it, but when he did it mattered. We won the league that year [winning 20 of the next 22 games]."

Fagan, a distinguished player at Manchester City until the early 1950s, assumed the Liverpool manager's job out of duty more than ambition in the summer of 1983. The Anfield board and players craved continuity. He felt obligated to provide it. "We do not like change for change's sake," was how chairman John Smith explained Fagan replacing Paisley, despite at 62 being a year younger than his predecessor.

Once elevated, Fagan's success has been viewed in the context of a lavish inheritance, as if the new appointment needed only to pick the team Paisley left behind. "It is not as simple as being a seamless transition," says 34-year-old Andrew. "There are enough examples of successors struggling to replace great managers to prove that. There was huge pressure. He did not want to be the one in charge when this era of success came to an end. He was happy to be the coach. That suited him. The reason he took the manager's job is because he did not want it to end for the people he knew and worked with, so he came to realise he was the best man to do it. He had no ambitions to be the top dog, but he did it for the right reasons."

This self-effacing manner meant credit was always diverted. His response on securing the league title was characteristic. "Not bad is it?" he said. "I don't know how we did it. Well, I do really. It's the players."

The title was secured on May 12, 1984, more than two weeks before Fagan's greatest triumph in Rome's European Cup final, the supreme exhibition of courage and character. Roma boasted Brazilian midfielder Falcao, and World Cup winners Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani.

They were defeated by the psychological mastery of Anfield's coaching staff and players as much as footballing superiority. It began the day before, Fagan disarming fretful Italian journalists with his outward joviality. "Our team talk will be longer than usual for this one - about five minutes," he said.

Captain Graeme Souness tells the story of Fagan - a man generally resistant to team summits - assembling his players on the day of the match. As they sat wondering if he had prepared a Churchillian address, revealing the secrets of the scout reports prepared over the previous month, Fagan merely informed them of the time of their coach departure, his views on Roma virtually an afterthought. "They must be a good team to get to the European Cup final, but they're not as good as us."

Fagan had earlier advised his players of a new UEFA edict, banning players jumping over advertising boards to celebrate with fans. "Be careful with the first two goals to keep UEFA happy, but do what you like when you score the third," was his solution.

Earlier last week, Liverpool's current chief executive Peter Moore published a treasure trove of scouting reports on Roma written by another key boot room ally, Tom Saunders.

"The battle will have to be won in midfield," wrote Saunders.

Suffice to say the Liverpool players never saw or heard any of it. "We were shown no dossiers," says Whelan. "I would have been surprised if we had. Joe didn't do anything special before the game. They had done it before and felt we could do it again."

In his diaries, Fagan explained his reluctance for players to be preoccupied with opposition strength.

"Too much can bog your own team down and make you forget to let them worry about you," he wrote.

Many of the Liverpool players claim they felt calm and confident heading into the cauldron - Whelan was less sure. "Some of them had played in a European Cup final before. I hadn't. Believe me, I was s***ting myself. This was a different level," he said. "I remember the lads singing in the tunnel, and Souey says he never had any doubt. People ask me if I had any doubt. Bloody right I did. We were playing Roma in Rome."

Fagan's thoughts on Liverpool's fourth European Cup are also recorded in the diary. "Well what can I say? We won 'The Big One', and rightly so," he wrote. "Alan Kennedy made us the champion with the best penalty he has ever taken. Well done the lads."

Fagan regarded his second season a failure, Souness' departure to Sampdoria weakening what had been Europe's greatest midfield.

"We were second in the league, semi-finalists in the FA Cup and we reached the European Cup final. We were close to something even greater, but that was not enough for Joe at that time," says Whelan.

It ended tragically at Heysel and the death of 39 Juventus fans before the 1985 European Cup final, overshadowed Fagan's farewell game - confirmed on the eve of the fixture. A TV interview with the BBC's Barry Davies a day after the violence leading to the banning of English clubs from UEFA competition is a moving reminder of a sorrowful exit. "I wanted to leave with my head held high. I can't," he said. This partially contributed to Fagan wilfully slipping back into being a face in the Anfield crowd. "I think he was heartbroken after the 1985 final," says Andrew. "But it was not a completely clean break. I don't think he was disillusioned with football and I know how much he enjoyed watching Roy Evans's team with Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler."

Fagan's wisdom penetrated Anfield well beyond his departure, remaining staff like Evans and Ronnie Moran leaning on his experience and methods as much as Paisley and Shankly.

Fagan's deference to the talent on the pitch, and low-key appraisal of his own contribution, meant he refused offers to move to more plush areas of Merseyside until his death in 2001.

"I walked past his old house earlier this season," says Andrew. "After he retired he would take me to matches. Everyone knew him. To me it was walking to Anfield with a normal granddad but I hesitate to use the word 'normal'. Clearly he was not, given his success. But he was a genuine guy without airs and graces."

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