The quartet of English clubs playing Champions' League matches this week have won six European Cups between them, four of them by one team. Younger readers may need reminding that the side in question are not Manchester United (two), let alone Arsenal or Chelsea (only one semi-final between them). It is Liverpool supporters who proudly display a banner bearing four images of the cup-with-big-ears, all won, remarkably, in a golden period of eight seasons. The chastening factors, of course, are that the last of those triumphs was 20 years ago and that at 33-1 they are now the longest odds by far of the English challengers to become champions of Europe again next May.
Roy Evans feels it all as acutely as anyone on the Kop. Having once stood among them, he went on to serve the club as player, coach and manager for 35 years before reverting to his original status: "I've become a supporter again." In that role he agrees with his fellow fans that progress is being made in Rafael Benitez's first season, while a vastly experienced professional eye observes that there is still much to be done: "It's still the honeymoon period for Rafa. There's been a change of style, which the fans like, and we're creating lots of chances, certainly against the lower clubs. Not quite sure whether we're ready yet to take on the best, but the man deserves a chance. At least everybody feels that they're enjoying watching their football. There's been an improvement in the style, and I'd like to think Liverpool fans feel that's a big part of their heritage."
Like several of his predecessors as Liverpool manager, Evans often used to give the impression that dealing with the media was the least enjoyable part of his work. But sitting in the Holiday Inn hotel opposite Lime Street station drinking black coffee, he ducks no questions and hedges no answers, even on the difficult subject of Gérard Houllier, who succeeded him in 1998 after a confusing few months together as joint managers, before being sacked last summer.
"Gérard won three trophies in one season, which is an outstanding achievement. The biggest problem was that they didn't go on from there. They seemed to stop and go backwards. It took the individual talent out of the game and they became such a method team. I felt we would never know whether people like Michael Owen or Steven Gerrard or people he'd brought in himself were great players or not, because you felt they were told to play a special way. He unfortunately got to the stage of taking every little bit of criticism to heart. These days, you've got to accept that. And he became close to being a control freak, having everyone so organised in the way he wanted to do things that no one had a say or a chance to show their own ability."
Evans is equally pithy in his account of how the joint-managership arrangement came about, following four seasons in sole charge during which his much-maligned Spice Boys finished third twice and fourth twice. "I went to France with three or four members of the board to see Gérard, though I found out later they'd been to see him the week before. We were looking for a coach to replace Ronnie Moran. We got on OK and somebody mentioned titles and I said, 'Call him what you like, director of football, or chief coach'. And somebody came up with joint managers. I said it had never worked and it would put pressure on everybody, but I think Gérard fancied it and we walked away that day with joint managers. It wasn't the right decision, it didn't work, for either of us. I still respect Gérard and speak to him and I think it was hard for him too, but it was a lot harder for me because I was already in the job."
The two men being what they were, there were no spectacular bust-ups, just the minor irritations that go unchecked and eventually undermine a relationship: "Little things would annoy me. Like we'd always try to tell players together why they were not in the team, but Gérard wouldn't be around and would say he forgot. He didn't like confrontation."
Even after the season began with only four wins from 12 games, the directors were reluctant to act, so Evans did the decent thing and resigned. He was offered a place on the board but decided a clean break was fairest on everyone, not wishing to stay around as a "Ghost On The Wall", the title given to a sympathetic, though not-uncritical, biography* published last week.
Disappointment - apart from having to wait a most unLiverpool-like seven months to have his contract paid up - lay in knowing that leaving the club effectively marked the end of the Anfield Boot Room tradition. The philosophy of play and preparation begun by Bill Shankly on his appointment in 1959 had been passed on through his lieutenants Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran to a younger generation of coaches and managers such as Kenny Dalglish and Evans, surviving the demolition of the crowded little room itself in the run-up to Euro '96.
Evans, who continued writing up the daily log-books of matches, injuries, training sessions and travel arrangements until his last day in employment, also regrets the current lack of Scouse influence at the club, recently bemoaned in these pages by Danny Murphy following his move to Charlton Athletic. But, helped by a brief period away from Merseyside, at Fulham and then Swindon Town, he claims to have forgotten any bitterness and would happily consider a return to football if he could circumvent the new regulations banning those without formal coaching qualifications.
"It seems an awful waste that the likes of myself and Howard Kendall, who've got so much experience and something to give, are now barred. Shanks was always anti coaching courses, and Liverpool never quite fancied the idea, which I regret now. But there's life after football. You're bitter for a while, you think, 'Why me?' But the biggest crime would have been to say, 'That's the end of my life'."
So on Tuesday he will be a supporter in front of the telly at home in Ormskirk, willing on the team against Deportivo La Coruña. In the end - Boris Johnson, please note - pride and defiant optimism remain when you walk through a storm: "We're not near Arsenal yet, or United or maybe Chelsea, but we're not a million miles away. And in terms of what we've won, Liverpool are still the greatest English team."
¿ 'Ghost On The Wall', by Derek Dohren (Mainstream Publishing, £15.99)Reuse content