The Boot Room: Liverpool’s engine room for European royalty – part eight

Joe Fagan

A bombshell has dropped on the world of football – Bob Paisley, the most decorated British manager at the time, has pulled the curtain on his duties as Liverpool boss. The streets of Liverpool, already basking in ambivalence over continued fear of the conservative government and their dismantling of the country’s poorest cities, are shocked that their beloved football team is without their statesman.

For many, Liverpool’s swathe of success was the only thing keeping sanity unsullied, especially during the Thatcher Premiership of the 80s, which saw the closing of factories in the city browbeat the steep disfigurement of the spirit that was so distinctive in the northern regions.

While life in Liverpool off the pitch was torrid, there couldn’t have been a starker polarity on the pitch. The Reds had won everything under Paisley, including three European Cups and six First Division titles. But when he announced his departure, it momentarily felt like judgement day for the red half of Merseyside.

There were more questions than answers as Paisley’s retirement hung over Anfield and the surrounding streets like an ominous dark cloud – after all, it was a fortress that held the key to unprecedented success under the philosophy of their County Durham-born manager.

But just like the Boot Room had provided in the decades before his departure, the club’s inner sanctum already had a replacement in mind – once again, someone close to his predecessor, and once again, an author of ‘The Liverpool Way’.

The 1983-84 season heralded the start of Joe Fagan’s reigns as Liverpool manager. Just like Paisley, he never really wanted the job, but as the Boot Room highlighted, it was an endless production line of football brains that were prepared to take Liverpool into their next era.

Christened by the rest of the Boot Room as the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, Fagan was a focal point in the tactical activity, which took place in the smoky broom cupboard. He made up one-sixth of the club’s original members of the fabled think tank.

In accordance with his benevolent pragmatism, the Walton-born scouser ushered The Reds in the direction of their fourth European Cup mastery. Although only operating at the club’s helm for two seasons, his dominion during that time instated Liverpool’s dynasty with one last dance.

Much to the city’s gratefulness, Fagan was no different to Paisley.

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Nowadays, painting everybody with the same brush would be met with a hostile glance or mass protestation. But from the period between the early 60s to the mid-80s, each Boot Room member was rightfully shepherded into the same category.

Everyone involved with the orchestration of Liverpool’s engine room had the treasured artistry of progressing the club forward, and they were all well-equipped to clutch another trophy or two.

For the first time in its existence, in 1983, the Boot Room was occupied by five members that were born and bred in Liverpool as Fagan demonstrated that he was capable of continuing The Reds’ silverware-laden ambit.

In this eighth and final part, we will go about telling the stories of Fagan’s famous and short-lived managerial tenure and wrap up our series with a look at the legacy that the Boot Room had for the rest of Liverpool’s history.

Reluctance turns into ambition

As did his predecessor, Fagan took the managerial role at Anfield with reluctance. One of the concerns he had was ending his first season in charge without a trophy to show for it as Paisley had done in the 1974/75 season. The spectre of such a feat drove the manager forwards to ensure that wouldn’t be possible.

Across Stanley Park, some 970 metres away, Everton were beginning to emerge from their decade-long trophy-winning hiatus under the guidance of former player and legend Howard Kendall. The two Merseyside clubs would go on to establish themselves as the nation’s finest, and, by the end of the 1983/84 season, they would achieve an astonishing clean sweep of every major honour on offer.

While tensions grew from a political standpoint in the mid-80s, the success that flowed through the blades of grass at Anfield and Goodison Park amidst breathtaking football and incomparable passion, civic pride in Liverpool was restored upon the closure of the 1983/84 season.

Perhaps it was the happenings around Fagan’s beloved city that served as a motivation for the Boot Room legend to reward his fans with such a season, or maybe it was his undying hankering for pride and glory that pushed him to an unprecedented treble.

Either way, Fagan’s forced upon fame was about to take shape.

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To complement the rationale that the transition from Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan did not change the sentiment at the club because of the duo’s unparalleled tactical intuition that led Liverpool to persistent triumphs, Fagan opted to keep most of his squad in the transfer window unchanged.

Whereas the decision to appoint Fagan as Liverpool manager was made to keep the Boot Room Boys unified, the unassuming successor of Paisley’s felt obliged not to make many signings in his first summer at the helm as he already knew the squad at his disposal.

The only significant arrivals in the summer of 1983 would be centre-back, Gary Gillespie, from Coventry City, for £325,000, and a man the Kop uncharitably nicknamed ‘Fatty Robbo’ – formerly known as Michael Robinson – from Brighton for £200,000. Besides the two new signings, Fagan was responsible for the development of the squad that beamed with serial winners, having taken the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, and Ian Rush under his wing in various roles as a Boot Room operator.

To all intents and purposes, Joe Fagan knew the Liverpool squad like the back of his hand, and ultimately, he knew how to achieve the greatness that replicated his forerunners, Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

No, he never really wanted the job, but he was about to take the city by storm.

1983-84: The treble-winning heroes 

It wouldn’t be a conventional Liverpool season if there wasn’t some sort of dry patch entwined within it. Luckily for Fagan, this occurred at the start of his first season in his new position, in the 61st edition of the FA Charity Shield against Manchester United.

The match would start somewhat bizarrely, with Bob Paisley and Matt Busby being slowly paraded around the pitch in a vintage open-topped Land Rover as they showed off the four major trophies they had won for their clubs the season before. It’s questionable whether the 92,000 fans at Wembley Stadium would greet the idea with the same warmth in the modern game, but nonetheless, the two ends met in harmony on that day, both alike in colours and passion.

For Liverpool, it wasn’t the outcome they had longed for, though.

By virtue of two Bryan Robson goals, Fagan’s start to life as Liverpool boss faltered. In his first opportunity to grasp a trophy, the Englishman was unable to bring home the Charity Shield. Come what may, though, the biggest prizes were on the line later in the campaign, during The Reds’ stint at their apex.

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Liverpool soon extenuated their poor start to the season by offloading their disappointment and translating it into a successful start to the First Division. By the time The Reds entered the European Cup in September, they had gone unbeaten in the league, recording three wins and a draw. They would then crown their upswing in form with a 6-0 demolition to Danish champions Odense.

The second leg of the fixture held particular significance as it saw Kenny Dalglish break a record held by Denis Law by reaching 15 goals in European competition, and even more astoundingly, it was the first match that Phil Neal was absent from since December 1974.

A successful start to September was thwarted by defeats to Manchester United and Sunderland – which rekindled the idea among the Kopites that Fagan was, in fact, not the right man to take the club forward after all.

This, of course, wasn’t helped by his post-match conference after the defeat to Sunderland, in which Fagan admittedly professed that he did not know what to do with the squad to improve them. You could imagine the outcry that would transpire if Jurgen Klopp said such a thing today, but little did people know at the time just how tactically adept their new statesman was.

Liverpudlians were quick to jump on the bandwagon and slam Fagan for being a Shankly and Paisley imitator. To the generation of the period, Fagan was no more than just an assistant manager looking to ‘try his best’ in a position that was far out of his comfort zone.

In truth, Fagan was way more than that.

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The Boot Room was a collective cooperation of the greatest brains in football. As Kenny Dalglish would call it years later, it was a “University of Football”, so no matter who was in charge, the same outcome of dignified glory was bound to unfold.

However, Joe Fagan played a far more important role than most of the other Boot Room composers.

The idea that he was just implementing methods and blueprints that Shankly and Paisley once used is missing the fact that most of those philosophies were formerly given birth by Fagan in the first place. The Boot Room was a communal effort, so it was difficult to tell whose idea was who’s – but Fagan was often at the centre of it all.

There was a reason the rest of the Boot Room called him ‘the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club’, even if, during his managerial tenure, he possessed laissez-faire tendencies that could have been cited as laziness.

His approach was based on simplicity and on trusting players to do their jobs on the pitch without relying on detailed instruction from the bench. Something Graeme Souness and Jan Molby found out to their cost. When both asked how the manager wanted to play, they were met with a stern lecture about how much money the club had spent on them and why they should know how to play football without any lessons from him.

Positivity returned in October and November as Liverpool continued to progress in the League Cup and European Cup. Following an 8-1 aggregate scoreline against Brentford, The Reds booked their place in the fourth round of the domestic competition after victory over Fulham.

In Europe, Fagan’s chances of progression were placed in jeopardy after a goalless home draw in the second round, first leg, against Athletic Bilbao, handed him a treacherous trip overseas to Spain, where a vociferous, partisan crowd awaited them.

Liverpool rode the waves of the first half diligently – a gameplan that had worked so well for them in the past. Befittingly, The Reds supported their early defensive work with a well-worked attacking paradigm in the second half, with Ian Rush tucking away an Alan Kennedy cross from the right to silence an otherwise anarchic San Mames Stadium.

The concatenation of positivity around Anfield persisted in November and December, with Fagan navigating his team over a busy winter period that featured two games in 24 hours – astonishingly, combined with the 80s drinking culture among footballers, The Reds were forced with a visit from Leicester City just a day after they had beaten West Brom at the Hawthorns.

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Fatigued by the lack of rest between fixtures over Christmas or still drunk, Liverpool would have to settle for a draw against The Foxes after late goals from Sammy Lee and Rush brought Fagan’s team level with seven minutes on the clock.

Thankfully, a point at Anfield was enough to keep Liverpool at the summit of the First Division, three points upwards of their nearest challengers, Manchester United, heading into the new year.

Although not as entertaining as some of the past great Liverpool squads, Joe Fagan was grinding results for The Reds, and all of a sudden, silverware didn’t feel so far away again. After the anticlimax of his first managerial trip to Wembley Stadium, which ended with the loss of the Charity Shield by way of Ron Atkinson, Fagan was handed a chance for redemption in the form of an all-Merseyside League Cup final on March 25, 1984.

Their third successive appearance in the League Cup final and fourth in five years saw Fagan unable to attain glory at the National Stadium as a run-of-the-mill performance led to a goalless draw – setting up a replay at Manchester City’s Maine Road three days later.

In a final, that was played to the backdrop of a sea of red and blue mixed together as songs of choice in the stands emitted of Merseyside rather than of their respective clubs, the unity at Wembley and Maine Road was unmatched. Perhaps seen as a rally against the tory government, the harmony that ensued wasn’t disrupted even when Liverpool snatched the 1-0 victory.

Significantly, Joe Fagan had hoisted his first trophy as Liverpool boss, disproving his doubters. The Reds were gallivanting towards their third league title in a row, and although they had slumped out of the FA Cup, they were too busy focusing on their European Cup semi-final against Dinamo Bucharest.

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Knowing the expertise that this Liverpool team of the 80s had, the Romanians played the two legs with an emphasis on frustrating The Reds, tackling hard, and aggravating an already-hostile crowd.

Continuous fouls and time-wasting antics boiled the Kop, but little did everyone know that Graeme Souness was experiencing the same simmering feeling as those behind each goal. Liverpool went ahead midway through the first half thanks to a Sammy Lee header from a setpiece. But Bucharest insisted on going about their Machiavellian tactics.

In a moment shrouded in red mist and away from the referee’s watchful eye, Souness floored the Bucharest captain, Lica Movila, with a showstopping uppercut to the chin. Remarkably, with the absence of VAR in 1984, each one of the officials missed the pandemonium, allowing the Scotsman to continue in the game and hold out for a 1-0 first-leg victory.

However, it meant that he became the focus of Bucharest’s hard tackles in the second leg. Unfazed by a ferocious, thunder-clapping crowd of 60,000 in the Romanian capital, the Scot rose to the challenge and dictated the midfield. The Reds coasted to a memorable 2-1 victory, with Souness’ performance getting a mention in parliament the same week as Liverpool Walton MP, Peter Kilfoyle, recommended that the skipper be awarded the George Cross for his bravery.

The Reds, under their self-effacing new manager, were heading to their fourth European Cup.

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Before they would travel to Roma’s own backyard to challenge them for the continent’s biggest prize, The Reds would seal their third successive League Title with a goalless away draw against Notts County on May 12, 1984.

In his first season, Fagan had guided his beloved Reds to two domestic trophies, rubberstamping his name in the club’s folklore. Many still believed Liverpool were a shadow of their usual best, but it didn’t matter when the trophy cabinet began to fill up just like it had done under Fagan’s predecessors.

Given the abiding nature of the Boot Room’s ambition, Fagan wasn’t finished for the 1983-84 season. While their noisy neighbours latched onto the FA Cup after beating Watford 2-0, the pressure was mounted on The Reds to complete a clean sweep of every major honour for Merseyside.

On May 30, 1984, Liverpool were crowned champions of Europe for the fourth time after Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ stole the show from Alan Kennedy’s penalty-scoring celebration in an atmosphere likened to a cauldron that lesser teams would have wilted in.

Liverpool Football Club confirmed themselves as undisputed kings of the continent as Joe Fagan became the third emperor in a dynasty of great Liverpool managers. On the night, the backroom staff consisted of Fagan, Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans, and Chris Lawler – an all-star lineup of four scousers, a feat that probably won’t be replicated ever again.

Joe Fagan became the first manager to lead an English club to an unprecedented treble, all while in his debut season at the helm. It was a historic season for Liverpool, and for Merseyside, as they used football as a catharsis in their fight against the conservative government in the mid-80s.

Thatcher repeatedly tried to rupture the heart of Liverpool. But, in 1984, with the help of Fagan and his boys, and Everton at Wembley, Merseyside took home all the silverware, proving that not even the evilest of institutions could stand in the way of European royalty and domestic superiority.

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1984-85: The fall of the Boot Room

In summer 1984, Liverpool was shimmering in hope and optimism of continuing their domination in the upcoming season. With the Boot Room still operating, an end to fortune was imperceptible.

The difficulty for Fagan was replicating a historic debut season in charge, and unfortunately for The Reds, the 1984-85 season exhibited Fagan’s farewell, domestic woes, and their darkest day in European competition history.

Perhaps triggered firstly by the departure of Graeme Souness, Liverpool’s downfall in the season after their treble-winning heroics was spectacular. From the offset, Fagan was handed the unenviable task of appointing a new captain, but replacing a figure of the stature of the Scotsman was almost impossible.

Added to the problems was the dilemma of Ian Rush’s injury, which meant he would be absent for the first three months of the season, while Kenny Dalglish was 33 years old, and a replacement for his goalscoring habits was urgently needed.

Fagan was also involved with ongoing feuds with Craig Johnston, and Sammy Lee’s form took a turn for the worst in Autumn. It made a difficult start to the new season. But as the football restarted, The Reds made a textbook start, sitting in second after four games.

It was, however, a false sense of security.

Eight weeks flew by before Liverpool would pick up another league victory as they drew three and lost four in a run that was topped off by their first Anfield Merseyside Derby defeat since 1970, with Graeme Sharp’s Goal of the Season being the difference-maker.

Conversely, The Reds cruised their way through the first two rounds of the European Cup with confident triumphs against Lech Poznan and Benfica, and a return to match sharpness for Ian Rush brought with it the hope of better things to come.

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Shortly after, though, Liverpool would loosen their grip on the League Cup, a trophy they had won the previous three seasons, with a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur.

And despite a league run of 17 unbeaten games at the turn of the year, it wasn’t enough to crown The Reds as champions of England, with their rivals Everton pipping them to the country’s top-flight division.

The void that was felt upon the exit of Graeme Souness was present throughout the season, and although there were constant flickers of brilliance in the Liverpool team, Fagan was unable to be as clinical and consistent enough to gain any silverware.

In the final league run-in, Liverpool lost to opponents of significance. Tottenham grabbed their first Anfield win since 1912, and Manchester United also took three points from them, while a final day defeat to Everton was their third of the campaign against the Blues.

Now without the League title and League Cup, Fagan’s attention shifted to two semi-finals in the European Cup and FA Cup. In the first of two important evenings in their European conquest, Anfield welcomed an assuring 4-0 win over Panathinaikos.

Jim Beglin, who filled in for the injured Alan Kennedy, got himself on the scoresheet, while Paul Wark and an Ian Rush double put a spring in Liverpool’s step ahead of their semi-final tie at Goodison Park.

On a magnificent occasion, Liverpool twice drew level when all had seemed lost. While Whelan was on hand to bring the game 1-1, Walsh scored in the 119th minute of extra time to take a 2-2 stalemate to Maine Road on the same week.

Unfortunately, a chance to compete in a first-ever all-Merseyside FA Cup final was missed by The Reds, who fell to a 2-1 defeat in the second leg, despite leading at halftime.

While The Reds were riding the cusp of the wave at the turn of the year, their fortunes were less imperious again at the business end of the season. Nevertheless, Liverpool’s chances heading into the European Cup final were good.

Juventus were having battles of their own, with domestic inconsistencies and a sixth-placed Serie A finished leaving them needing a European Cup to qualify for the competition next season.

And as for Liverpool, Fagan had informed the club’s hierarchy months before of his intentions to retire at the end of the season. Added to this, Peter Robinson, the Liverpool club secretary and his Juventus counterpart had voiced their concerns over the suitability of the dilapidated Heysel Stadium to be playing host to a European Cup final.

The questions and fears raised were ignored.

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What should’ve been known, much to Liverpool’s dejection, as Juventus’ famous European Cup odyssey, became infamously remembered for the Heysel disaster, whereby clashes between supporters led to the death of 39 spectators.

When a crush occurred in Section Z of the stadium, in the Liverpool end where Juventus fans had been sold tickets for, tensions quickly escalated into violence as rocks from a tumbling wall were used as projectiles between the two sets of supporters.

An inadequate chain-link fence that separated the fans was dismantled, causing fans to flee and create a crush that resulted in the darkest hours of the Boot Room Boys’ tenure. After that, the inner sanctum of Anfield was never the same.

Upon his return to Merseyside after defeat, both on and off the pitch, Fagan was visibly shaken by the avoidable repercussions of the Heysel Stadium disaster.

Within 24 hours, Kenny Dalglish was announced as Fagan’s successor, as the Walton-born scouser’s Liverpool reign ended in the club’s darkest circumstances. He deserved so much more for such a long-serving servant to the Liverbird on his chest, and after his departure, the Boot Room began its decline, too.

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Certainly, the rule of Kenny Dalglish brought about continued success, with the beloved Scotsman leading The Reds to three league titles and two FA Cups.

He did his best to keep the Boot Room culture alive.

But as far as original members of the Boot Room were concerned, none of them would manage Liverpool again. Joe Fagan’s immortal triumphs in the 1983-84 season was also the last time the Boot Room would establish European Royalty status.

The legacy of the Boot Room

Now that all three of the managers we spoke about during this seemingly neverending series have passed away, their stories forever live on through those who were lucky enough to be within their masterful presence.

Their tactics and outlooks in football also make regular returns in today’s world, with Jurgen Klopp, as recently as 2020, using two midfielders as centre-backs – a philosophy that Bob paisley invented after noticing the proficiency that Red Star Belgrade had in that area of the pitch in 1974 (Although Klopp’s decision to field such lineup was partly due to an abundance of injuries).

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The Boot Room became the most important four walls in football during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but upon Liverpool’s first league title in 30 years, their current statesman, Jurgen Klopp, brought the Boot Room back to life – later describing it as his ‘favourite pub in Liverpool’.

Although it doesn’t serve the same purpose as it did back then, the German manager’s restoration of the fabled think tank shows just how far the club has come under his leadership. Winning the Champions League and Premier League in the space of three years injects an air of nostalgia among Liverpudlians that experienced the highs of Shankly, Paisley, and Fagan.

To many, Jurgen Klopp is the modern-day Boot Room superintendent, and the legacy of those who came before him lives through his philosophy of rock’n’roll football and European endeavours.

With his Liverpudlian-Esque pride and unwavering service to the city, it feels like the Boot Room has gone full circle towards the end of the 2010s.