Football: Evans knows the clock is ticking

Stan Hey says the pressure to recapture glory days is reaching a critical level
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Liverpool have been here before. Back in the 1960s Bill Shankly's first great team won the League Championship twice, bagged the FA Cup and reached a European Cup semi-final and a European Cup Winners' Cup final all in the space of three seasons. They were expected to go on to even greater honours but after 1966 they did not win another trophy until 1973, and that was with a new team.

Roy Evans, whose nine first-team games spanned this fallow period in the club's history, knows only too well that for his modern Liverpool team to go another season without what Shankly called "our bread and butter", the championship, will be unbearable not just for the fans but almost certainly for the board as well.

Last year Evans said: "I don't think any manager of a club this size is going to get five years and not win major trophies." Evans became Liverpool's manager three years and eight months ago.

Thirty years back the period of famine did not matter because the sudden surge to success had given everyone enough to feed on for a few years. Now that three or four generations of players and supporters have gorged themselves on triumph, their appetite for even more has destroyed rational acceptance of the fluctuations of football, to create a surly urge for instant gratification. The fact that ticket prices and players' wages continue to soar, serves only to emphasise the gap between the supporters' expectations and the present team's lack of achievement.

Tommy Smith, an indefatigable player for two of Liverpool's most successful teams, monitors the mood of the disgruntled fans through his letters column in the Football Echo. Not surprisingly he also has opinions of his own.

"The problem with their game at the moment is the lack of commitment. I don't think the team lacks pride, but I think they lack the edge to put the foot in. We got an awful lot of bonuses when I played, but it wasn't down to the bonus that we played that well, we actually won a lot of things.

"But how can you give anybody a bonus now when they're already on ten grand a week? I think it's taken the edge off their game; I think it's ruined us really. Something really drastic's got to happen to bring us back."

Smith, like most Liverpool fans, will be hoping that Paul Ince, provided he stays clear of the Merseyside equivalent of the Dentist's Chair, will offer the necessary physical challenges in midfield to the likes of Roy Keane of Manchester United, David Batty of Newcastle and Patrick Vieira of Arsenal, players who do so much to demoralise the opposition in a key area of the pitch.

The signing of the Norwegian international Oyvind Leonhardsen from Wimbledon should also add a touch of pace and directness to a midfield which tended to move forward like a crab crossing a beach last season. And Liverpool's latest purchase, the German international striker Karlheinz Riedle, from the European champions, Borussia Dortmund, will add not only vast experience but also a considerable aerial power to an attack which has had to rely more or less single-handedly on Robbie Fowler for the past two seasons while Stan Collymore fretted his way to a transfer.

But quite who Evans sees as his first-choice team will probably remain open to the form of the individual players rather than an absolute assessment of who is best in each position. With Jamie Redknapp out until the new year, the midfield will still need a precise passer, the best of whom remains the much-derided John Barnes, whom most critics indicted as the source of last year's pretty but ineffectual football. Danny Murphy, signed from Crewe and Patrik Berger, who looked razor-sharp in a friendly at Bristol City 10 days ago, will also be vying for places, but it is the manager who must get the balance right.

All of which begs the question of where Steve McManaman will fit in. His form tailed off dramatically last season, possibly as a consequence of the knee injury which kept him out of the England squad for Le Tournoi in France.

A source close to the England set-up, who were disappointed by his absence, told me recently: "McManaman needs to get himself sorted out this season, both in terms of how he plays and how he thinks." Roy Evans would probably endorse that view.

Liverpool's other area of concern will be their defence. The goalkeeper David James will be under immediate scrutiny from opposing fans eager to bait a player making errors, while on the evidence of pre-season friendlies, Evans looks set to persist with the back-five formation, despite a vociferous campaign for the team to revert to its traditional flat back four.

The vibrant 2-0 home win over Paris St-Germain in the Cup- Winners' semi-final was achieved with such a formation as Evans bowed to the pressure to get a result, but it may take equal pressure for him to abandon it.

"I don't like this back five at all," Tommy Smith says. "I think defenders are there to defend; they are not wingers. I think it confuses the players because once they go up the park they think they don't have to get back. If you're a full-back you know exactly what your priority is."

But the principal question remains whether or not the players will do it for Evans. He was passed over when Kenny Dalglish resigned and was brought in as a stabilising influence when Graeme Souness was forced out. He was a successful and sensitive coach of the reserve team but doubts remain about the levels of respect and discipline he can command from some of the younger brigade.

Last week Evans tetchily demanded that the "Spice Boys" tag be lifted from his under-achieving team. But in a season of great change at Anfield - a new stand, a new chief executive in Rick Parry, once of high office in the Premiership, and the building of an Ajax-style football academy - he must know that only the club's first championship since 1990 will do the trick.

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