Football: Steel edge of Evans: An impressive start to the season has given Liverpool's manager reason to believe again. Simon O'Hagan reports

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IF Roy Evans had tuned into Tommy Docherty on In the Psychiatrist's Chair last week he would have heard him talking about the dangers of managers being too friendly with their players. 'You can't go drinking with the lads and also be their boss,' was the thrust of his argument - and as one of the most convivial of football men, the Doc should know what he is talking about.

There are those who worry that, as Evans embarks on his first full season as manager of Liverpool, he may have difficulty standing back from the men he must get to perform if the team are to regain their position of pre-eminence that once seemed theirs by right.

Anyone in charge of a football team is going to be close to it; but Evans is closer than most. As he says, 'I'm a supporter, but I'm a supporter in a different way now. It's like all this Fantasy Football. I've got the ultimate fantasy job.' And suddenly the distance between Evans, sitting in his office overlooking the Liverpool training ground on a sunny morning last week, and the knot of supporters who are waiting to get the players' autographs by the entrance a hundred yards away, does not seem so great.

Of all the Premiership managers, none can match Evans for the length of association he has with his club. It has lasted most of his 45 years, since he stood on the Kop as a young lad. He then played for Liverpool, managed the reserves, became assistant manager to Graeme Souness before taking over from him in January. So although Evans's footballing education has been narrow, it has been deep. Anybody who has worked under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish and Souness knows something about the game.

If there are doubts about whether Evans is tough enough for the job, these probably stem from the reputation he acquired, while in charge of the reserves, as the man the players could turn to, who would lend them a sympathetic ear, offer a bit of understanding in a hugely demanding environment. But he rejects the idea that he must now show a harder face.

'I don't think you have to distance yourself entirely from players,' he says. 'You should still be able to have a few beers with them. But in the days when you were working off your manager, there was always a place for the man who went round picking up the pieces, and OK I was quite good at doing that kind of thing, encouraging players. But there was also a time when you had to give people a kick up the backside. I've had no problem with that.

'When you get to the top there is obviously a point where you've got to be critical. You try to treat everybody fairly, but different players need different handling. You've got to look at everyone as individuals. You'd be very silly to treat them all the same, because they're not. They're not robots.'

Evidence of Evans's steel is supplied by John McGregor, now reserve team coach at Rangers, but a regular in Liverpool's reserves when Evans was in charge. McGregor remembers playing at centre-half against Manchester United when a young Mark Hughes took them apart. 'I think I let my head drop, and Roy told me in no uncertain terms afterwards that you never do that when you play for Liverpool. I haven't forgotten that. This guy's not just there for the fun.'

Maybe not, but a bigger contrast between the down to earth, good-humoured Evans and the driven nature of his two immediate predecessors is hard to imagine. Evans does not blame Souness for what went wrong. 'I think, like everyone else, he may have played his part. But he didn't fail for the want of trying. He tried too hard, maybe. He was too intense about the whole thing, but all he wanted was success. It hurt him badly not to get that.'

Evans admits that having been linked with the manager's job every time it had come up since Paisley took over in 1974, he would have been disappointed not to get it now. The Liverpool board felt his time had come too. The club had lived through an era of extremes, of which Heysel and Hillsborough were only the most obvious examples. There was the glory of Dalglish, and the the shock of his departure; the hope invested in Souness, and then the agonising decline that this seemingly most powerful of men was powerless to stop.

From the outside, at least, it was beginning to look unhealthy, and it was perhaps no surprise when the club looked inwards, to its own Boot Room tradition, in its search for stability. They knew they were not getting a headline-grabber, but as Evans says, 'The way I see it it's the club that's high-profile not the manager, and that's how it should be.'

Evans agrees that it was perhaps to his advantage that he took over when he did. Liverpool had dropped below the level of the Premiership's elite, but that gave him scope to make his mark. 'The fans see the state of play here, and they'll have some patience. But they won't have patience for ever. Every manager's judged on results at the end of the day, and if we don't improve then there'll be some flak flying.'

Morale is certainly high going into today's match at home to Arsenal, in which Liverpool will want to pick up where they left off with their 6-1 win at Crystal Palace last week. In his seven months in charge, Evans has not shaken things up too much beyond off-loading Bruce Grobbelaar and Ronnie Whelan. The pounds 10m he has been given to spend on players remains largely untouched, but will have a big hole knocked in it if, as Evans hopes, he can persuade Coventry City to part with Phil Babb.

You sense a fund of goodwill behind Evans, but a big signing, in the present climate, could be useful for him. Evans will not be rushed, though. 'He's very strong,' says Mark Lawrenson, the former Liverpool defender. 'He knows what's involved.' Lawrenson also points out that Evans 'realises there's a life outside football', and it is certainly rare to come across a manager who, like Evans, still enjoys having a drink in his local. 'I think that's important,' he says. 'There are reds and blues in there. You get a fair balance of conversation.'

Is Roy Evans big enough for the job? He might just be the right size.

(Photograph omitted)