Liverpool's coaching evolution: from the boot room to a throw-in specialist

Bill Shankly; Bob Paisley enjoys a drink after the 1981-82 season; Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran discuss business in the boot room in 1983; Roy Evans in 1994; Jürgen Klopp at Melwood; and throw-in Thomas Gronnemark. Composite: PA; Bob Thomas/Getty; Christopher Thomond/Guardian; Courtesy of Thomas Gronnemark

It is difficult to imagine Jürgen Klopp squeezing into the narrow confines of the converted broom cupboard that became known as the legendary boot room at Anfield. There would not have been nearly enough space for the backroom staff Klopp has assembled at the club since taking over in 2015. The manager has an assistant for every occasion – including throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark, whose contract was extended by the club this week – but, just like Bill Shankly did 60 years ago, Klopp readily acknowledges the crucial role his supporting cast play in preparing the Liverpool team, admitting he is “nothing without them”.

Shankly knew that feeling. When Liverpool earned promotion from the old Second Division in the 1961-62 season, he was quick to thank his assistants. “Without the help of Reuben Bennett, Joe Fagan, Albert Shelley and Bob Paisley we could have achieved nothing,” said Shankly in an interview with the Liverpool Echo.

Shankly, like Klopp, also worked with an intriguing group of trusted lieutenants. Shelley is perhaps the most interesting character as he was largely unknown outside Anfield and was not involved on the coaching side but had been around the club for ages as an odd-job man. “He was a volunteer, he wasn’t even on the payroll,” says Peter Hooton, author of The Boot Room Boys. “His love of the club had become an obsession and he wanted to be there and just be involved, and no one ever questioned that.” As he was so much part of the fabric, Shankly insisted on him being included in his close-knit team.

The other three had more specific roles to fulfil. The uncompromising Bennett was ruthless in his determination to improve players’ fitness, driving them on mercilessly. Fagan served as a tactician and a confidant to the players. Paisley had been more directly involved on the coaching side for a couple of years before Shankly’s arrival and also had a keen eye for potential transfer targets.

When Ian St. John told Shankly he was going on a coaching course, he responded: ‘Tell them nothing, son!’Roy Evans

When Shankly had been appointed back in 1959, the original four feared the worst after they were summoned to speak to the new manager. He immediately reassured them their jobs were safe. “Some managers bring their own people with them,” Shankly said. “Not me. I have my own system and it will work in co-operation with you.”

Together they gathered in the boot room at Anfield to plot the club’s future domination of English and European football. The dynamic of that cramped space, bursting with knowledge and littered with training paraphernalia plus the odd bottle of hooch, was that of an inner sanctum where strategies were conceived, discussed and refined to devastating effect as Liverpool entered their golden age in the 1970s and 1980s.

Roy Evans in 1985, when he coached the Liverpool reserve team.
Roy Evans in 1985, when he coached the Liverpool reserve team. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Roy Evans has a unique view of the boot room and coaching at Liverpool, having supported the club as a boy, signed for them as a teenager, played for the first team and then served as an assistant coach, manager and even co-manager. Evans did not quite make it as a top-level player, clocking up just nine league games for the club in as many years. Shankly’s quip that “the lad’s pace can be deceptive – he’s much slower than you think” became a slightly cruel epitaph to his playing career. When Paisley succeeded Shankly in 1974, Evans entered the boot room and enjoyed great success as reserve team manager. The club won the Central League seven times in nine years and Evans was responsible for bringing through Liverpool greats such as Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and Sammy Lee.

Evans says they had to be all-rounders. “We didn’t really have people who were qualified,” Evans says. “For example, we had a doctor who would make the key decisions but we would do most of the medical work. We all took a first-aid course. I went to Lilleshall [the FA’s former school of excellence] for a course just to make sure we could get an injured player off the pitch safely.”

Their approach to injuries would not stand up to modern standards. “Early on Bob Paisley acted as the physio even though he hadn’t been trained,” says Hooton. “Tommy Smith used to say that Paisley didn’t know how the equipment worked so he was understandably a bit reticent when getting any sort of electric shock treatment.” This is a million miles away from today’s environment, where the current team doctor Andy Massey has 24 trained medical staff working for him across Melwood and the academy, including several fitness and conditioning coaches, two masseurs and a nutritionist.

“We would also take all the coaching sessions for all the different levels at different times,” says Evans. “Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and myself would even have to take the kit home to get it washed. But none of us had a coaching badge. Whether it be Shankly, Paisley, Fagan or Ronnie Moran, not one of them held a coaching qualification.” Evans recalls when Ian St. John told Shankly that he was going to do a coaching course at Lilleshall, Shankly responded: “‘Tell them nothing, son’. But it wasn’t quite as polite as that and had a few more swear words!”

Bob Paisley his assistants pose outside Anfield.
Bob Paisley his assistants pose outside Anfield. Photograph: Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Although Evans acknowledges the need for specialists in the modern game, he says the simplicity of the boot room served them well. “There were four or five of us doing all these different jobs that are now carried out by 15-20 people,” Evans says. “The upside is as the manager you only had to listen to a handful of opinions. Sometimes the more people you’ve got, the more difficult decision-making becomes.”

Evans says he benefited from the autonomy he was given while in charge of the reserves. “They let me get on with it, so I had the pick of all the players who were not in the first team. If you were 16 and good enough you were in and playing against men,” Evans says. “That made them better players who were not overawed if they then made the step-up to the first team.” Today’s academy players rarely play outside their specific age group, so do not get opportunities to mix with more experienced players. Sign up for the Recap, our weekly roundup of editors’ picks.

Evans’ departure from Liverpool in November 1998 effectively signalled the end of the boot room era. Although Klopp will not be converting any broom cupboards in the near future, he knows football management is a team game. “I feel very blessed to be supported by both Pep Lijnders [first-team coach] and Peter Krawietz [assistant coach], as well as John Achterberg [goalkeeping coach], Andreas Kornmayer [head of fitness and conditioning] and the countless others at Melwood who are vital to us.” The names, titles and sheer numbers may have changed, but the principle remains the same.

Richard Foster’s new book From An Acute Angle is out now and you can follow him on Twitter.

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