Home is where art is for Evans

Anfield manager who appreciates his team must learn to go for the kill as well as the skill
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The Independent Online
You enquire if Roy Evans has enjoyed the close season. "I always enjoy the summer," he says. "You can't lose any matches." In keeping with tradition, Liverpool's manager is an "it's-more-serious-than-that" football man with a droll sense of the city's humour. Now it is time for him and his team to re-establish another Merseyside tradition.

Last season, when at the peak of their game, Liverpool played the best attacking football in the country, passing the ball slickly, moving fluently and finishing resoundingly. They outplayed Newcastle at St James' Park and Manchester United at Old Trafford on Eric Cantona's comeback day. The problem was they took only one point from the two games and sometimes carelessly lost to the lower clubs.

What probably summed up their season best of all was the match after their 4-3 Anfield breathtaker with Newcastle - defeat at Coventry. It contributed to sending them ultimately well adrift of the top two towards their downbeat, defeated, FA Cup final appearance against United. "We look back with a tinge of under-achievement," Evans admits, "though I think we were fantastic value for money. Everybody wanted to watch us."

It is one of several ironies about this new Liverpool. No longer are they the mean red machine whose professionalism was widely admired within the game through the sweet silver sound of the Seventies and Eighties. Instead there has been a cavalier side to their nature that has seen hard- won gains frittered away.

Evans has restored the dignity to Anfield with his calm and understated bearing as an antidote to the clamour and excess of the Graeme Souness era, which was a gloomy staging post in the club's redevelopment after Kenny Dalglish. In mitigation, Souness was frequently without the injured John Barnes, whose dribbling skills Dalglish had acquired to bring a new dimension of flair and which made their class of 1987/88, with Manchester United's of 93/94, the best domestic team of the last decade. Still the order was sadly for steel in place of style.

Perhaps, also as reaction, the balance has tilted too far the other way. When the players turned up at Wembley in May looking more like professional models than model professionals in preposterous white suits, it seemed an apt statement on a current attitude uncountenanced in the days when passion rather than fashion was more the Liverpool concern. Clothes show, but match no-show. One critic's description of the team as narcissistic is impossible to improve.

"Yes, that's fair," says Evans when you put it to him that the team needs more toughness. "It's just a matter of being more professional, a bit more consistent. Maybe sometimes we serve up too much pure football. It's the days when things don't go right for you that you need that bit of steel to say: 'Right, we are not going to get beaten, let's keep a clean sheet and we might squeeze a goal from somewhere'." That sounds more like the Liverpool concern.

Another irony comes in Liverpool's adherence to a predominantly English ethos at a time when the Premiership has gone continental. They themselves used to accumulate European Cups with a British Isles Representative XI before restrictions were made on non-native players (now lifted after Uefa were reluctantly forced to bow to European Community rulings).

Evans does not yet see any need to change the policy, conceived a few years ago with Europe in mind, despite the signing of the Czech Patrik Berger and his interest in the 19-year-old Johann Vogel who impressed for Switzerland against England during Euro 96.

With his FA Youth Cup winning team of last season in mind, "three or four" of them at the back of it, Evans has resisted a flood of faxes and videos from foreign agents this summer, preferring to go and see for himself and has strong views on the number of overseas signings coming into, and the amount of money going out of, the English game.

"It does worry me that we are bringing in all sorts of second-raters at the expense of youth policies," he says. "We are getting some of the top players in now finally and it will maybe give us some food for thought, but the football industry needs to be careful, not only about the money.

"If you end up with five or six different nationalities in your team, you could have major problems in balance, harmony and team spirit with so many guys who can't speak each other's language. Then there is the wage structure with some ridiculous differentials now arising, like we hear about with Ravanelli at Middlesbrough.

"Where we are still behind the Italians and the Germans is in picking out the young ones in Europe," he adds. "We are second rate at that. They get the top stars at an early age." It explains his pursuit of Vogel, still developing and potentially impressionable in the Liverpool ethic, and renders it canny, along with the continuing development of in-house English youth ready for thinner financial times that must surely come when world markets change.

That apart, Liverpool can no longer be regarded as developing. Evans accepts that Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler should not be viewed as young players any more but as established Premiership professionals, if still tyro England internationals. "We have matured as individuals, now we have to mature as a team," he says.

Save for a hardening of approach, he hopes, little will change. "I might tinker," he says. "I'm not too upset with three at the back," which is coach-speak for "content with", and he is still talking with Neil Ruddock about how the central defender might figure in plans that saw John Scales, Mark Wright and Phil Babb start ahead of him at the end of last season.

"It depends on how Patrik fits in," adds Evans. "He should bring us something extra. He can pass the ball well, play either wide or inside and attack from there. He can even play up front so will give us cover for Robbie and Stan Collymore."

It is a blend that should see Liverpool again challenging Manchester United and Newcastle. It is difficult to look for the eventual champions beyond these three teams. "Some teams will improve in different ways and there may be one or two others flitting about but I can't see much further than ourselves, United and Newcastle," Evans says.

A fear amongst many in the game is that Manchester United are almost setting themselves apart. "Great credit to them, they won the title last year with what I don't think is the greatest team they have ever had but I don't think they are uncatchable. Of course money plays a major part and they have a massive set-up. But we are not far behind in that department."

The irony of Evans's most celebrated predecessor Bill Shankly's oft-misinterpreted life-or-death comment may have been lost down the years but if Liverpool are to close the gap on the two Uniteds, on the field at least, they themselves will have to lose something: part of that cavalier approach - though not in attack, one hopes. Replacing the irony with some Anfield Iron looks to be all they need.

The Loyalty XI

(Players who have remained at the same club for their professional career)

Alan Knight

(Portsmouth)

Ian Woan

(Nottingham Forest)

Tony Adams

(Arsenal)

Steve Howey

(Newcastle)

Gary Kelly

(Leeds)

John Ebbrell

(Everton) David Howells

(Tottenham)

Steve McManaman

(Liverpool)

Paul Merson

(Arsenal)

Matthew Le Tissier

(Southampton) Robbie Fowler

(Liverpool)

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