For the Liverpool-supporting anorak, I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It is a pretty easy sell. But for fans of other clubs, this new book by Tony Evans, the football editor of The Times, seems a pretty unpromising proposition. It’s a detailed account, not of the history of another club, but of just one season, with a description of every single game - including seemingly endless League Cup replays. League Cup replays. Seriously?
But it’s worth making the effort because Liverpool’s astonishing season of 1983-84 actually has two elements that make for a great book: a triumph-over-adversity narrative, and some outstanding characters. Even more important, however, is the background. Because compared to the slick, lucrative Premier League of today, this book – set amid a hooligan-ridden sport in a city seemingly in terminal decline – might as well have been set on Mars.
First, the narrative. (No worries about spoilers here - the cover has the team with the European Cup, so you know how it ends.) At the end of the previous season, Liverpool’s manager, Bob Paisley, stood down after an astonishing period of success. From 1976 - his second season in charge, having replaced the legendary Bill Shankly - through to his retirement, Paisley had won six league championships, three League Cups, the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. Oh, and the small matter of three European Cups, a feat only recently matched by Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancellotti. The travails of David Moyes this year in trying to follow the success of Alex Ferguson only illustrate the difficulties.
So to whom did Liverpool turn? The club promoted from within, but it was still a controversial choice. Joe Fagan was 62 years old - just two years younger than the retiring Paisley – and had to think long and hard before stepping into the spotlight. In the end, he did it in part to keep the rest of the Liverpool coaching staff – the famous ‘Bootroom’, so called for where they held meetings – in their jobs.
Worse, while Liverpool’s first-choice 11 was pretty damn good, there was little depth to the squad. Yes, there was still the ageing Kenny Dalglish, arguably the best player in the world in the gap between Johann Cruyff and Pele and the rise of Diego Maradona. The club’s young whippet of a striker, Ian Rush, was starting to score goals for fun. But stalwarts like defenders Phil Neal and Phil Thompson were also getting on a bit; the safe and reliable Ray Clemence had been replaced in goal by the eccentric Bruce Grobbelaar; and there was little cover if injuries struck. Which is just what happened when Irish midfielder Ronnie Whelan was sidelined early on. New signing Michael Robinson was no match for his illustrious strike partners, either.