‘Smart people will always try to hire others who are cleverer than themselves,’ Jurgen Klopp said recently and it was impossible not to be struck once again by the way he echoes Bill Shankly, the man who made Liverpool great.
Shankly was the figurehead, rebuilding the club from top to bottom from 1959 – including a Melwood training ground which had consisted of an old wooden pavilion with a veranda, air-raid shelter and no means of watering the pitches. Yet he also retained a group of coaches steeped in the club who, without ever planning it, formed perhaps the most powerful manifestation of a brains trust that football has ever known. The forenames of its members – Bob, Joe, Ronnie and Tom – were as ordinary and unaffected as the poky, windowless room where they convened: the place which gradually gained sacred status and was called the ‘Boot Room’.
It came in to being during the mid-1960s Shankly era, when Joe Fagan – the trainer who would lead Liverpool to the 1984 and 1985 European Cup finals – worked a few evenings a week as football coach to the employees of the Guinness Export brewery at Aughton, north of Liverpool. He was repaid in kind with a healthy supply of the stout and stored it in the room with a wonky, double-doored cupboard where the players’ boots were kept, under the Anfield grandstand stairs.
Joe Fagan, Roy Evans and Ronnie Moran (left-right) in the Boot Room at Anfield, with goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar in 1982; the sacred space, filled with football boots, beer crates and topless calendars, was where Liverpool’s brains trust met
The coaching staff – Fagan, Bob Paisley, Ronnie Moran and the more erudite talent spotter Tom Saunders – took to meeting there after training, initially sitting on upturned beer crates to dissect players, opponents and challenges ahead. Some of their ideas would make it back to Shankly, though he was not part of the collective and didn’t tend to venture in.
There was a calendar of topless models, a threadbare carpet on the floor and a kettle. The occupants could have easily have been mistaken for the caretakers, given that they always walked around Anfield with bunches of keys hooked to their trousers.
When the vastly less self-possessed Paisley succeeded Shankly in 1974, the gatherings continued, with Paisley joining them after making his obligatory manager’s phone calls – including the one to his bookmakers. ‘They developed a new style for European competition in there,’ says 1981 European Cup-winning full back Alan Kennedy. ‘It was a slower, more cautious way of doing things than we employed at home.’ And it worked. The elite continental trophy, never captured by Shankly, was won four times in seven years between 1977 and 1984.
Roy Evans joined the Boot Room when Paisley asked him to become reserve-team manager at the age of 25, in 1974. He particularly loved Sundays in there when, having examined injured players and sorted out the kit for the next day, there would be time to reflect on Saturday’s game.
‘We’d have been sitting there for 15 minutes,’ Evans says. ‘And then someone would say, “What about it? What did you think about yesterday?” Someone [else] would throw a player’s name out: “I thought he could have been better.” That’s how it would start.’
With footballs and training kit stuffed onto grey metal shelving all around them, nothing was ostentatious or above suspicion. A Perspex notice board appeared one year. ‘Just like Real Madrid,’ read the ironic message Moran scrawled across it.
Legendary Liverpool manager Bob Paisley toasts his side’s Division One Championship success in the Boot Room
There was a pecking order of a kind. Paisley, like Shankly before him, believed in a vague kind of ascendancy. It was always the job of the assistant manager’s wife, for example, to wash the reserve team’s kit. And everyone knew that Paisley’s Boot Room seat, where he would nurse a glass of scotch, was the one on the far left, as you entered. They’d sit in there as late as 5pm some days, reflecting, arguing, planning, obsessing over fine detail. They would have scoffed at the idea of this being the science of ‘marginal gain.’
The players knew not to cross the threshold or breach the sanctity of the place unless invited to – which they almost never were – with the sole exception of when they were collecting their boots before leaving for international duty. Tommy Smith had the temerity to put the carpet out for sweeping one day. He was told in no uncertain terms to put it back.
If the players, and especially the younger ones, were making a noise outside, a head would reach around the door and issue the order: ‘F*** off or shut up.’
Part of the process on those occasions would be to log details of the training sessions in the black notebooks known as the ‘Anfield bibles’, which Paisley and Moran had begun keeping in the Shankly days, containing details of drills, injuries, opponents – the kind of stored collective memory which would today be called a database. The notes were a continual reference point amid changing times: a stored collective memory as to what had worked. Klopp would surely smile at this notion. His own guru, his Mainz manager Wolfgang Frank, also kept newspaper clippings and a training regime archive in big files.
The hyper-competitive Klopp would also appreciate the way that the Boot Room became part of the Liverpool weaponry without the opposition remotely appreciating it.
As the sanctuary assumed a mythical status, curious opposition managers and entourage took to stepping inside – including Elton John, after bringing his Watford team to Anfield one year. ‘Do you have pink gin?’ asked the singer. Paisley always liked to relate their reply: ‘Sorry, we’ve only got Export.’
Long-serving coach Moran sorts out some training shoes for midfielder Phil Boersma in 1975 (left); Fagan (right, with Moran in 1983) worked his way up from reserve-team coach to first-team coach, assistant manager and finally manager
But to the occupants of the place, the 10 minutes spent with opposition managers at 5.15pm every other Saturday mattered hugely. ‘We tried to find out what other people did,’ says Evans. ‘Travel, food. And then later, when they’d gone, we might say, “We should think about that.”‘
The little reception committee for Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy left him feeling that these were some of the nicest individuals in football, yet he later came to realise that their offer of beer and talk was a hustle.
McMenemy arrived on one occasion wearing a fashionable new light-coloured raincoat, and when Paisley told him to ‘sit there, son’ and pointed to a dusty beer crate, he felt he was being tested for a reaction. A glass of Scotch from a cup or a beer were the offerings. McMenemy, ‘wanting to be one of the lads’, took a seat and started talking players, teams and systems with them. Five minutes in, he realised he was imparting information about his own players – ‘best foot, ability in the air, his personality.’
The penny eventually dropped. ‘You’d been getting the third degree without realising it,’ McMenemy says. ‘If you’d said anything positive about the player in question then you could expect them to turn up at your next home game to scout him.’
No-one seemed to grill Liverpool in there. The only person who Paisley remembered asking a meaningful question during all those years in the Boot Room was Arsenal’s Don Howe. ‘What are your methods? How do you do training?’ he asked. The Boot Room men always respected Howe for that.
Paisley, who had his own dedicated seat in the Boot Room, hands over the reins to his successor, Fagan, in 1983
The continuity of the Boot Room was a result of Liverpool always appointing coaching staff from within, though it was the accession of Kenny Dalglish – the first manager in the post-Shankly era not to have graduated from it – which began to mark a break with the past. Its significance and relevance diminished, though Dalglish has always disputed the notion that he took it apart.
‘It is utter rubbish that I dismantled the great Boot Room,’ he said years after stepping down as manager. ‘It is an institution, one I would never have meddled with. But I never went in there after games for one very good reason – I wasn’t clever enough. I knew what Ronnie and Roy did to visitors from other clubs who they invited in there. They would sit in their famous hideaway, chatting away, dispensing a little bit of liquid hospitality to visiting managers and coaches. But it was so cunning.’
Dalglish was ‘clever’ enough for the place, of course. But the more international, cosmopolitan nature of the game meant less room for the old ways. There were squads populated with continental players who trained differently and simply could not be fed the old diet of British working-class football socialism which the Boot Room bred. Though the inner sanctum vanished entirely during the management reign of Graeme Souness, who took over in 1991, it existed in name alone by then.
‘That rumour [I destroyed it] is still doing the rounds today but it’s absolute rubbish,’ Souness justifiably said in an interview for the book ‘Men in White Suits’ about Liverpool in the 1990s. ‘It was the club’s decision to demolish it. They wanted to expand the press room. The Premier League said the old one was too small, so a decision was made above my head.’
Roy Evans was welcomed into the Boot Room in the 70s and helped continue the traditions and successes built there
Today, the Boot Room is the name of the upstairs cafe-bar next to the Liverpool FC museum at Anfield, though the last five years have provided ample evidence that clubs need such a philosophical and intellectual core. In part, Manchester United slumped after Sir Alex Ferguson left because his successors wanted to rip it up and start again.
Countless other clubs spend millions but throw in their lot with a new manager, then throw everything out again. Manchester City have done most to create the same ‘holistic’ sense of what they want their club’s identity and philosophy to be yet the club is certainly no socialist panacea. Pep Guardiola is the emperor of all he surveys.
Klopp’s assistant Peter Krawietz has described the current manager’s coaching team as ‘like a music band, with their own instrument.’ Klopp, Krawietz said, is ‘the band leader, and others are behind him playing the bass guitar or drum.’ Yet the divisions in that team brought the departure of the German’s so-called ‘Brain’ Zeljko Buvac on the eve of the Champions League semi-final against Roma.
There were no leaders in Anfield’s old, windowless room. The Boot Room was collectivism incarnate. Liverpool are still searching for the glories it brought.
The Boot Room became outdated and is no more, but its legend lives on, with the likes of Jordan Henderson evoking its spirit
THE MANAGERS BRED BY THE BOOT ROOM
Bill Shankly revolutionised Liverpool and kick-started their extraordinary success, but was never part of the Boot Room. These, instead, are the managers who learned their trade in its confines among some of the game’s great brains:
(Manager 1974-83; Trophies won: 3 European Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, 6 League titles, 3 League Cups)
Paisley is Liverpool’s most successful manager, who spent 50 years at the club as a player, physio, coach and finally in the top job
(Manager 1983-85; Trophies won: 1 European Cup, 1 League title, 1 League Cup)
Fagan celebrates winning the European Cup in 1984 after beating Roma on penalties in the final in the Stadio Olimpico
(Manager 1994-98; Trophies won: 1 League Cup)
Evans (right) toasts title glory in 1991 with Moran and Kenny Dalglish, who became the first non-Boot Room manager since Shankly