Phil Neal: Football needs more men like Joe Fagan

February 4, 1984
Liverpool’s phenomenal run of success owes a great deal to the individual habits and quirks of its great managers – and Joe Fagan is no exception according to his long-serving England full-back, Phil Neal.

“I didn’t play under Bill Shankly, but I know a good deal about his approach, and of course I’ve served under Bob Paisley for several seasons,” he recalls.

Both of them had their own way of motivating the lads, and Joe Fagan had his way too. We have a little joke going between us.

“Before every he goes out to have a look at the pitch, and when he comes back I say to him: ‘What’s it like then, boss?’”

Bit of a giggle.
He always says exactly the same thing – “Perfect lad, you’ll enjoy playing on it” – and I always have a bit of a giggle because quite often you know perfectly well that the pitch is really terrible.

“The important thing is the attitude, which is that you have to believe you can play well, and not let yourself be worried about problems in advance.

“I’ve known a good many sides lose game in the past because they were worried about the referee or the pitch or one of the other side’s defenders, and didn’t play up their own potential.

“We’ve played on a few funny old pitches in recent weeks, and we might easily have lost if we’d allowed ourselves to think.

“It was a mud heap at Sheffield, which was all against our style of play, and like a skating rink at Aston Villa, but we just went out and got on with the job.

“If we had complained it wouldn’t have made any difference so you might as well make the best of it and pretend everything in the garden is lovely.

“Against Villa, we conceded a goal quite early on which we knew came from an offside position – even their lad Paul Rideout agreed it was clear cut.

“If we had let that upset us we’d have lost because Villa are a good side, but it just made us that bit more determined to get back into the game.”

Fagan’s attitude is hardly surprising, given his long association with the club and its traditions. “We’ve all known Joe for years and we were delighted when he was given the job,” says Neal.

“He’s about the most honest man I’ve ever met. There are not too many people about who can look you straight in the face and tell you exactly how you’ve done, without pulling any punches, but without any malice either, and who can make totally unbiased comments.

“Not that that came as any surprise because we all knew what he had done under the old boss Bob Paisley. Joe has always been very close to the players, and for years he was the person we always went to with problems.

“He’s the man you not only respect but like as well, and I tell you what, if we come near to winning anything this season, the players will be pulling out all the stops for him. We’d dearly like to give him a bit of silverware to remember us by after all those years in the background.

“Playing Villa the other night reminded me of that time a few seasons ago when we got done 5-1. I’ll never forget what he said to us afterwards, behind closed doors, and the effect it had.

“We went on to win the League, and most of us remember that an awful lot of the credit for that was due to him.

“You hear a lot about flamboyant managers who are constantly in the headlines, and about managers, who are always criticising players and other managers in public.

“The gaffer never does that sort of thing. I can’t remember him criticising anyone in public even once since he took over. Football needs a lot more men like him.”

Joe Fagan’s promotion hasn’t made much difference to Neal’s own style of play, which remains much as it was when he first came into the team.

“I suppose I used to go down the flanks more than I do now,” he agrees. “When I first came in, I was always doing overlapping runs, but now I tend just to go forward and fill in midfield.

“Of course we play three rather than four in the middle now so there’s more room for that, although really we have never stuck rigidly to any formation.

“Basically our game has always been about running and passing, with those not in possession trying to find space.

“We have never paid too much attention to other sides – we never watch video recordings of games – or set piece situations. Running and passing are what it’s all about, and it hasn’t done too badly for us!”

(Source: Liverpool Echo: February 4, 1984; via © 2018 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited

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