Why Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of football’s greatest managers

Why Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of football’s greatest managers

THE DEMEANOUR AND ACTIONS OF JOE FAGAN were of a modest man who would give his time to anyone. No job was beneath him, and to have passed him in the street as he made the short walk from his house to Anfield you might not have looked twice.

However, he was no Ordinary Joe; he contributed to the success that Liverpool enjoyed throughout the 1970s and ‘80s like few others. Not only did Fagan help Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley re-build Liverpool from scratch, he also managed Liverpool to their most successful season ever by claiming a treble.

Achievements like these would normally guarantee you a place amongst the pantheon of football greats. Winning a league championship over a marathon season, a League Cup when it was taken just as seriously as the FA Cup, and beating a Roma side in the European Cup final in their own backyard is the stuff of legend. Even the following season, which would be his final year as manager, saw Fagan guide Liverpool to a runners-up spot in the league and a European Cup final.

Joe Fagan, however, would never have liked to have been referred to as a legend. He was a man who didn’t seek any platitudes or boast an ego. Instead, Fagan was happy to get on with his job and live his life through his love for football.

There are some critics who will try to state that the team that Fagan inherited was still in its prime and just needed a steady hand to keep things ticking over. This, though, is not only ignorant but sloppily glosses over the talents of a man who was more than just a top coach. As David Moyes, Wilf McGuinness and Brian Clough found out to their cost, it is hard to follow after one legend, never mind two, which was the case with Fagan.

For the Liverpool board, appointing Fagan seemed a relatively easy decision to make after Bob Paisley had announced his wished to retire from football after the 1982-83 season. After all, Joe Fagan was an original member of the famed Boot Room. He was just as responsible for the evolving changes in tactics as well as being liked and respected by fellow coaches, players and supporters.

The job was something that Fagan wasn’t too sure about at the time: “My first reaction at the time was that I wouldn’t take it, but I thought about it carefully and realised someone else might come in and upset the whole rhythm. I finally decided to take it and keep the continuity going for a little longer.”

At 62, Fagan was one of the oldest managers in the league and was only a couple of years younger than Paisley.

Despite being born in Liverpool, he started his career as a defender for Manchester City, and although there was little success, he did captain the team. After that there were early coaching stints as player-manager at Nelson and assistant manager at Rochdale, before taking up the offer of a coaching role at Liverpool by the then-manager Phil Taylor.

With the departure of Taylor after Liverpool failed to gain promotion, there was, of course, much uncertainty whether new manager Bill Shankly would bring in his own staff. It was to be one of the best decisions that Shankly made as he enforced no changes to the coaching set up. Indeed, his first words to Fagan were: “You must have been a good player, Joe, because I tried to sign you.”

The foundations of Shankly’s Liverpool were helped by Paisley, Fagan, Moran, Bennett and Saunders, who helped turn a dilapidated club with poor training facilities kicking and screaming into a first-rate club that became the “bastion of invincibility” that Shankly wanted.


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Although Fagan had been given the job as reserve team manager, he was still to have an influential part to play in helping establishing Liverpool as a major force. No job was seen to be beneath anyone, with all expected to muck in for the common good. Whether it was helping clear rocks from the battered Melwood training pitch and making it a surface suitable for a top club, or painting the barriers at Anfield, Fagan, like Paisley and Shankly, was always willing to pitch in.

Part of the success of Liverpool was that nobody was allowed to get any airs or graces. Shankly, Paisley and Fagan were from a generation rife with poverty and, as soon as they were old enough, were expected to graft and earn for the family. It was a philosophy that influenced their outlook on life, and if a player wasn’t giving their all then they were shown the door.

Tommy Smith recalls the time that Fagan would not allow for any illusions of grandeur. After two years on the ground staff, Smith had been offered a professional contract. Prior to signing the contract, his ground staff colleagues asked if he would help sweep the home dressing room in order to finish quickly. Smith scoffed at such a suggestion now that he was to be a professional and let them know that his days of skivvying were behind him.

Unbeknown to Smith, Fagan had been watching all of this in the background and, with the sigh of an uncle telling off a petulant nephew, said: “Tommy, pick up the brush, son.” No more needed to be said as an embarrassed Smith picked up the brush and helped his friends.

One of Fagan’s strengths was his ability to listen to players and offer advice when needed. Roger Hunt had signed amateur terms whilst doing his national service, which in turn restricted him playing. As a result, Hunt found himself struggling with his fitness – so much so that after being selected to play against Preston for the reserves, his performance deteriorated so badly that midway through the second half Fagan pushed his captain John Nicholson up front with Hunt dropping back in defence.

It’s what was said after the game that even now sticks in Hunt’s mind. Fagan quietly told him that he was not attempting to make a show of him but advised him what he needed to do if Hunt wanted to make it as a professional footballer. Hunt recalls: “I decided to get even fitter, work harder, and at least if I didn’t make it at least I had given it everything. I always remember that part of it because Joe was solely responsible.” The advice worked: Hunt became a Liverpool legend.

One of the most difficult tasks of being a reserve team manager is how to deal with the senior professionals who have been dropped from the first team. After the defeat against Watford in a third round FA Cup tie, Shankly had realised that the team needed rebuilding and that he had perhaps allowed players to stay past their prime.

Ian St. John was one of the senior pros to be part of the cull and Fagan was aware that he had to ensure that not only would St. John do his best on the pitch, but not cause disruption like many a disgruntled former first teamer does in football.

Man management was one of Fagan’s strengths as he ensured that he would ask St. John’s opinion in front of his team-mates, as well as making him captain. Through Fagan’s tactful diplomacy he made what was a rough part of St. John’s career smoother, as well as ensuring that he also performed on the pitch, even if it was only for the second string.

With up and coming youngsters who were impatient at wanting to get in the first team like Ray Clemence, Brian Hall, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan, Fagan would show the patience and tutoring required that would help these players make the step up. Brian Hall said about his time under Fagan: “His thinking was always football-orientated, but above that he was a real people’s person.”

The reserves only lost 14 of their 126 Central League fixtures under Fagan, and it resulted in three consecutive championships between 1969 and 1971.

Fagan, like all good managers, wasn’t averse to laying down the law verbally. Graeme Souness recalled some years later: “His way would be a quiet word or even a single look. He could be hard and I remember on a number of occasions that he would say something really harsh to one of the lads, but he’d do it ever so quietly and that was his way of emphasising the point.”


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Fagan knew when it was appropriate to put an arm around a player, to offer practical advice, and when to lay into them. Mark Lawrenson recalls that a telling off from Joe Fagan felt like the end of the world: “It [Fagan’s shouting] had a far bigger effect than anyone else at the club doing it – even Bob Paisley or Kenny Dalglish afterwards.”

In many ways Shankly, Paisley and Fagan were a holy trinity with their own individual skills and talents coming together to help make Liverpool so successful. The fabled Boot Room is now talked about in mythical terms. It was, as the name suggests, where the boots were kept but became a base for the backroom staff and manager to have a chat about the football or issues affecting the club.

Fagan indirectly was responsible for creating it all. As a favour to his friend Paul Orr, who was then manager of local amateur side Guinness Exports, Fagan would do a spot of coaching and arranged for injured Export players to be treated at Anfield. As a thank you, Orr would regularly send supplies of Guinness and other ales for Fagan.

The only problem was where to store it, with Fagan finding that the Boot Room was a handy place. With a ready supply of ale, it became the go-to place for the coaching staff to meet. Bob Paisley once commented: “It’s just like popping down the local. We have a full and frank exchange of views in there in a leisurely atmosphere every Sunday morning.”

Shankly might have been quoted as saying that “football is a simple game based on the giving and receiving of passes” – a view that Paisley and Joe Fagan also shared – but that underplayed the hard work and thought that went into their preparations.

When Shankly took over at Liverpool he instantly changed the training philosophy, which was originally geared towards physical endurance. In some quarters the lack of work with the ball made coaches believe that it made the players hungrier come Saturday.

The new regime wanted training to replicate a match, which meant working with the football. “Pass and move” became the mantra. Everything was geared towards improving technique and control, and reacting quickly to what would happen during a match. Three, four, and five-a-side matches became common, with players becoming more involved with the ball in tighter situations.

Whereas Shankly as manager would have to take a step back, Fagan was involved where he enjoyed it the most, which was working with the players. Like Paisley and Bennett, Fagan would report back to Shankly if there was anything of note from training.

Fagan, like the other coaches, was also responsible in meticulously logging each day’s schedule. It was done so that in times of trouble it would be something that the coaching staff could refer to for solutions. These books were also referred to as the ‘Anfield Bibles’, so-called as they were meant to contain the secrets to Liverpool’s success.

It was also in the Boot Room that Liverpool would discuss players and tactics. Lessons would be learnt from key games such as the the ‘Mist Game’ against Ajax in 1965 ,and Red Star Belgrade in 1973, which saw Liverpool change their philosophy to a more refined, passing style. The likes of Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson, who were good on the ball, were drafted in to play this new style, which would take them to unprecedented heights.

In 1979 Joe Fagan officially became the assistant manager. He had helped Paisley to steady the ship and take Liverpool to even greater heights after the shock resignation of Shankly in 1974.

So when Paisley announced that he would retire after the 1982-83 season, it wasn’t really a surprise that Fagan would take charge; it seemed a natural transition. Fagan had the respect of the players and it was a case of business as usual. For the man himself, there was a slight difference that he now had to take a step back. However, any worries that he wasn’t up to the task of making the tough decisions were quickly put to bed.

A pre-season tour to Belfast and Rotterdam meant Fagan had to select a 14-man squad. With Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson now the established centre-backs and Gary Gillispie becoming Fagan’s first signing, it meant no place for the respected veteran Phil Thompson. Fagan admitted that it was his first unpleasant decision but did it because it was in the best interests of the team.

For the start of the 1983-84 season there were understandably nerves as Fagan worried that the season might be similar to Bob Paisley’s first year when Liverpool finished trophyless. There were injury worries too, with Ronnie Whelan’s sidelining for the beginning of the season compounded by the failure to capture Michael Laudrup and Charlie Nicholas.

It was to become a memorable season as Liverpool won a historic treble. With the Reds chasing a third successive title, the stakes were especially high as the media mused that the Reds’ dominance might be on the wane.

Fagan kept a positive air with no indication of any worries or concerns about the up and coming season. It was to be justified after Liverpool thrashed Luton Town 6-0 at home in October, with Ian Rush scoring five to send the Reds top of the league. It was a position which Liverpool rarely slipped away from, with the only real challenge coming from Manchester United. A 4-0 loss at Coventry after going unbeaten for 15 games saw Fagan give his team a rollicking, but Liverpool consistently got the wins as United failed to take the initiative when the Reds dropped points.

A 0-0 draw away to Notts County secured Liverpool their 15th title as they became the first team since Arsenal to win three consecutive league championships. The Milk Cup had been won earlier as Fagan felt the relief of claiming his first trophy. Everton had been beaten 1-0 at Maine Road following a drab 0-0 draw at Wembley.

Europe, however, was where Liverpool looked especially impressive. Athletic Bilbao were beaten in a solid display after winning 1-0 away in the second leg, with the Basque side having only lost once in 31 European ties at home prior to being beaten by Liverpool. Benfica and Dinamo Bucharest were then dispatched to send Liverpool into a final against AS Roma in their intimidating Stadio Olimpico.

It was a stadium that brought back good memories for Liverpool as it was in Rome that the Reds won their first European Cup in 1977. They were in the Wolves’ back yard and the Italians were favourites, boasting the likes of Bruno Conti and Falcão. It was in this cauldron of nostalgia, noise and nerves that Fagan found another level as he calmed and controlled his players before kick-off.

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While Roma were placed in a training camp and kept to themselves, Liverpool went to Israel so the players could relax after a gruelling season. Despite Fagan’s casual appearance, everything was meticulously planned. From toning down the training to building it up again, he was on top of everything. Fagan also ensured that Liverpool didn’t arrive in Rome too early, so as to avoid boredom and over-thinking ahead of the final.

For Fagan it was about ensuring that the players were relaxed and feeling confident and ramping up the already intense pressure on Roma. He even delivered the UEFA instruction about players not running into the crowd if a goal was scored by saying “when we score a goal”. It gave the players the belief that they could upset the Italians.

It had the required effect, with the players so relaxed that, after casually lapping up the atmosphere, they returned back to the tunnel and started to sing Chris Rea’s song ‘I Don’t Know What It Is (But I Love It)’, which became the unofficial song for the squad.

Nils Liedholm, the Roma manager, saw the colour on his players’ face drain as they heard the Liverpool players in full voice. Although the Liverpool way was to let the opposition worry about them, Fagan still gave brief instructions that close tabs had to be kept on Falcão and Conti. However the main instruction was for Liverpool to play their natural game and enjoy the moment.

Phil Neal had given Liverpool the lead and, despite dominating the first half, Roberto Pruzzo had equalised for Roma just before the end of the half. No goals came in the second half or extra time, which meant that the European Cup final would be decided on penalties.

Whilst deciding who would take penalties, Fagan confidently told his players that he was proud of them and that all the pressure was now on Roma.

As Alan Kennedy scored the winning penalty for Liverpool, for Fagan it capped an unbelievable first season as Liverpool manager as they won a historic treble that no other English club had managed to do. Although Fagan had a beaming smile, his interviews were quietly understated as he also commiserated Roma on their defeat. His class always shone through.

The celebrations continued well into the night and there is an iconic picture of a relaxed Joe Fagan lounging casually in a deck chair by the pool with the European Cup as two Carabinieri stand guard. In many ways the image summed up Fagan. He might have given the air of a casual character but underneath there was solid determination to focus when he needed to.

Parties broke out across Liverpool as the Reds were welcomed home in an open bus tour. It was a welcome that the team and Joe Fagan thoroughly deserved, especially after many had questioned whether he had the skill to succeed Bob Paisley.

Anything after that magnificent season was always going to be an anti-climax and, with Souness going to Sampdoria, the task became trickier.

Jan Mølby and Paul Walsh had been signed but Liverpool got off to a terrible start to the season and at one point went seven games without a win. Fagan equally showed that there was no sentiment for players being picked purely on reputation as Kenny Dalglish was dropped for the first time away to Spurs. Although Liverpool lost 1-0 it showed that he had the ruthlessness to drop a big name.


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Liverpool had crashed out of the League Cup early against Spurs, and knocked out in the semi-final stage against Manchester United in the FA Cup. Although they had managed to put on enough of a run to claim second place behind champions Everton, it was the European Cup which looked like Liverpool’s best chance of success. Comprehensive wins against Benfica and Panathinaikos saw Liverpool face Italian champions Juventus in the final.

Contrary to what some people believe, Fagan, after two seasons in charge, had decided to step down at the end of the season prior to the final. The plan had been that Fagan would manage for two or three seasons with either Phil Neal or Kenny Dalglish to take charge after what he hoped would be a fitting finale.

Sadly that was not to be, with the horrific events of Heysel resulting in the deaths of 39 fans – mainly Juventus supporters. Despite the violence, the match was still played with Liverpool beaten after Michel Platini scored a penalty. However, the result had no real meaning.

The image of a broken Joe Fagan being supported by Roy Evans after Liverpool had touched down at Speke airport spoke volumes as to how it had affected him. It was something that he couldn’t comprehend and was to force a sad end to an illustrious career. After all the years of loyal service to Liverpool, it should not be the lasting image of Joe Fagan nor should his achievements be forgotten, both as understudy to his more illustrious peers or during his lone stint in charge.

Joe Fagan, alongside Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, did the most difficult thing in football by not just constantly adapting to the changes in the game but consistently staying one step ahead.

Paisley in his cardigan and Fagan in his flat cap may have looked and even acted like your favourite uncles but were as hard as nails if you was silly enough to cross them. They knew the ins and outs of the various personalities of footballers and as a result knew how to get the most out of them.

Playing under any of the three, you were expected to take personal responsibility and to give your all no matter what job you were given. Failure to do so would see you being shown the door. Reputations or egos didn’t come into it. If you didn’t do your job then you were no good to them.

That’s not to say that it was ever easy. In many ways it may have been one of the reasons why Fagan had decided to step down as manager after two seasons. From reading the diary extracts of his authorised biography – by his son Andrew Fagan and Mark Platt – there appears to be a sense of frustration at not being able to work closely with his players in training. An extract from his second day as manager reads: “I have been here since 9.15am. The time now is 10.15am and there is no sign of anyone or anything happening. I am also dressed up in collar and tie. It is not my normal gear – but it becomes me.”

Despite achieving unprecedented success in the short space of time that he was in charge of Liverpool, Fagan is largely forgotten outside of the club; not that it would have bothered him. He had no agendas and viewed football as simply doing a job. Indeed, he could never understand why people would still stop him in the street to chat about the game long after his retirement.

There is no doubt that Fagan was a down to earth man, with universal praise from the people he worked with. He was always as gracious in defeat as he was in victory, and would spend time with opposing managers – young and old – for the betterment of his own football knowledge and theirs.

While winning the treble in 1984 will undoubtedly go down as his premier achievement, his role in turning Liverpool from a struggling second tier club – alongside his great friends and peers, Shankly and Paisley – was both pioneering and undoubtedly vital.

His record stands above most managers and coaches to have ever been involved in professional football, and his personality separates him from so many of the brash, arrogant characters that have adorned our sport over the years. It’s for these reasons that Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of the finest coaches and managers in British football history.

By Brian Benjamin. Follow @Benji14B

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