Former Liverpool Managers – Part 11 – Uncle Joe
Joe Fagan 2nd July 1983 – 29th May 1985
Joseph Francis Fagan was born in Walton Hospital, Liverpool, on 12th March 1921, growing up in the Litherland and Scotland Road areas. His parents, Patrick and Mary, as their names suggest, were both of Irish descent, though his father was a dubious character who was often absent from home. It was mostly left to Mary to bring up the young Joe. By the age of 14 he was captaining his school team, St Elizabeth Central, to win the Daily Dispatch Trophy, a Lancashire Schools FA competition.
Fagan left school in 1937 and joined Earlestown Bohemians in St Helens, who played in a strong amateur league called the Liverpool County Combination. Both Liverpool and Everton’s ‘A’ teams played in the league and he impressed enough to get an invite to Anfield for a trial. The then 17-year-old Fagan again impressed, Liverpool’s manager at the time, George Kay, offered him a contract, but he turned it down as he felt he would not get into the team. Instead he signed for Manchester City on 8th October 1938.
Over the next few months, he quickly progressed from B team, to A team and on to the reserves. Just as he began to challenge for a first team place in the following season, the league was suspended due to the war. With Fagan being just 18 at the time, he was ineligible for the armed forces at that time, so Man City game him permission to play for Hyde United in the Cheshire County League. Fagan managed 26 appearances for Hyde before that league was also suspended at the end of the season.
Fagan returned to City, who were playing in the new regionalised leagues. In the opening North Regional League game he made his first team debut in a goalless draw with Everton, making a further 5 appearances before he became eligible for service. Immediately Fagan volunteered and chose to join the Royal Navy, only to discover he suffered from seasickness! He was posted to Egypt, where he worked as a telegraphist with a minesweeping flotilla, spending the rest of the war there, returning in 1946. During leave spells he was able to play 6 more times for City and also fitted in a match for Portsmouth.
When the league resumed, the Cityzens were in Division 2 and under the management of Wilf Wild, who overlooked Fagan. It was only when Sam Cowan took charge in December 1946 that ‘Patsy’ (his nickname which was a reference to the Irish folk song Hallo Patsy Fagan) moved into first team contention. More than 8 years after signing, Fagan finally made his debut for City against Fulham at Maine Road on 1st January 1947 and they ran out 4-0 winners. Fagan played a key role in the team in the second half of the season as they went on to win Division 2.
“He was just a very genuine nice man. He was a very humble, down to earth person. He had a lovely way about him and was very gentlemanly. Underneath that soft exterior, there was also a hardened professionalism. Joe had authority and when strong words were needed, Joe could produce them.” – Jim Beglin.
He was an extremely popular member of the squad due to his team ethic, loyalty and ready smile and by November 1949 he had made 121 consecutive appearances since making his debut. However his career was cut short in 1951 when he broke his leg aged 30 and he decided to leave and take up coaching.
Ahead of the 1951-52 season he was appointed as player-manager of Nelson in the Lancashire Combination and led them to the title in his first season in charge. Fagan also worked in a factory checking gas meters for leaks while managing them. It was a short-lived spell in charge though as Nelson failed in an application to return to the Football League and Fagan left.
In 1953 he turned out 3 times for Bradford Park Avenue and then played for Altrincham before becoming Harry Catterick’s assistant at Rochdale the following year. At Rochdale Fagan also did the laundry, marked the pitches and sundry other duties for the club. It was Catterick who recommended him to then-Liverpool manager Phil Taylor, who offered him a coaching role, which he took up in 1958.
The following year everything changed at Liverpool as Bill Shankly arrived as manager. Shanks was quick to speak to all the staff there and decided to keep them, his first words to Fagan were, “you must have been a good player Joe, because I tried to sign you.” He then appointed Fagan as reserve team coach. Fagan’s time in charge saw him bring through some of the club’s greatest players, such as Roger Hunt, Ian Callaghan and Tommy Smith. He had a huge hand in their development and was an integral part of the Shankly-era.
Fagan’s skill at man-management shone through as he dealt with the players, such as Hunt, who was struggling for fitness as he initially signed amateur forms while doing national service. As he was often unavailable for games, his match fitness dipped alarmingly, in one game for the reserves against Preston North End his performance had deteriorated so badly that Fagan dropped him back into defence midway through the second half. After the game Fagan took him aside for a chat about what he needed to do to make it as a pro. Hunt worked harder and built up his fitness after that.
“First game, West Brom. I’m in the dressing room and I’m looking around – John Toshack, Steve Heighway, Ian Callaghan – all these great players. I ask Joe Fagan if I can have a word. ‘Yes son,’ he says. ‘What is it?’ And Joe always spoke in a quiet voice, so you had to lean in. I said, ‘Joe, I’ve been here a week and nobody’s spoken to me. How does he want me to play?’ And he leaned in, so I leaned in, and then he just said, ‘FUCK OFF!’ in this big booming voice. ‘We’ve spent all this money on you and you ask me how to play football!’ and he walked away shaking his head.” – Graeme Souness.
There was more to it than just having a chat, he also commanded respect and young players wanted his approval. That showed through when Tommy Smith got a professional contract after 2 years on the ground staff at the club, as was the way in those days. His ground staff colleagues asked him if he would help sweep the home dressing room but Smith just scoffed at them and told them his days of skivvying were done now that he was a pro. Fagan had overheard it all and, with a sigh, said to Smith: “Tommy, pick up the brush, son.” An embarrassed Smith quickly picked up the brush and set to sweeping up.
Often as reserve team manager later on, he would have to deal with senior pros that had dropped down from the first team, but he had to get the best from them and ensure they did not become disgruntled and disrupt the team. Fagan found ways to do that, for example when Ian St John was dropped Fagan made the Scot captain of the reserve team and would ask his opinion in front of the team, making him feel valued. He was so successful that the reserves won 3 consecutive championships between 1969 and 1971, losing just 14 of 126 Central League fixtures under his oversight.
“His thinking was always football-orientated, but above that he was a real people’s person.” – Brian Hall
Fagan is also, like Paisley, credited with creating the fabled ‘Boot Room’. Except that his claim is probably the real one due to his friendship with Paul Orr, who managed local amateur side Guinness Exports. Fagan would help out with some coaching and arrange for their injured players to get treatment at Anfield. As a thank you, Orr would send crates of Guinness and other ales for Fagan, which ended up stored in the boot room. With a ready supply of ale, it just naturally became a common room for the coaching staff to gather and discuss football.
In 1971 his excellent work with the reserves led to him being promoted to be a first team coach. When Shankly retired three years later Fagan was promoted once more to become Paisley’s assistant. His work there was invaluable, if a little unorthodox and unlikely to be accepted today, but even a great like Bobby Robson called him the best assistant in the game. Fagan’s role was to be the buffer between Paisley and the players. In that role he excelled, knowing what was needed, such as when Alan Hansen first arrived and was struggling early on in matches to get into the game for the first 15 to 20 minutes. Fagan spotted it and told the Scottish defender that, “you’ll have to start looking after yourself better”. Hansen retorted that “I’m doing just that. I’m not going out. I haven’t touched a drink in weeks. I’m watching what I eat and I’m training hard.” Fagan immediately told him: “Well then, that’s your answer. You need a good night out!”
One thing he was always careful of was avoiding destroying the confidence of younger pros, if they needed a message to buck up their ideas, he would tear a strip off a senior pro in the youngster’s earshot. It was enough to remind the youngster that he needed to pull himself together without any harm done to his confidence. He certainly was not afraid to speak his mind when it was necessary as Phil Neal related following a 3-1 Boxing Day defeat to Manchester United in 1981 which dropped the team to 12th in the league table: “One morning we came into training and Joe Fagan said to Bob Paisley: ‘Boss, you go down to Melwood, I’m going to have the lads. Joe sat us all down and had a go at every single player, to Souness, to Dalglish, to me. He said: ‘We’ve had more meetings in the last month at this club than I’ve had in 17 years. Hansen, start heading the ball. Souness, you haven’t won a tackle. Dalglish, you should have twice as many goals by now.’ Joe was such a strong man that no one would doubt what he was saying. His finishing words were: ‘I’ve said my piece. You’re all playing like individuals, start playing as a team. I’m not having another meeting from now ’till the end of the season.’ We went on to win the league.”
When Paisley decided to retire, he told the board that Fagan was the right man to succeed him, even though he admitted that Fagan had never shown any ambition to be manager. On 1st July 1983 it was made official and Joe Fagan became Liverpool manager, though he was just a year younger than his predecessor at the age of 62. Like Paisley, he was reluctant to take the job: “My first reaction at the time was that I wouldn’t take it, but I thought about it carefully and realised someone else might come in and upset the whole rhythm. I finally decided to take it and keep the continuity going for a little longer.”
“He was very reluctant to take the job. Joe’s feeling was that he was so ingrained in the club’s rise to champions of Europe that he was almost duty-bound to take the job, especially as he was next in line to the throne. He also felt that if an outsider came in there was a strong chance he’d destroy the bootroom ethos that was behind Liverpool’s success. Joe pretty much told Roy Evans, Ronnie Moran and the rest of the staff that he took the manager’s job so they would keep theirs. The club’s long-term plan was to give the manager’s job to one of the senior players – Phil Neal and Kenny Dalglish were both in the frame – but they still had much to offer as players so Joe was seen as a more than worthy short-term appointment. And given he was 62 when he took the job, just two years younger than Paisley, that was all it was ever going to be, short term.” – Mark Platt.
Fagan’s first job was to deal with complacency within the squad, the previous season had been easy and the players coasted the final games, failing to win any of the last 7, losing 5 of them. But Fagan had an ally in Graeme Souness: “Joe spoke in a quiet voice. I think he did it on purpose, so you had to really concentrate on what he was saying to you. On the odd occasion – I may have seen it 10 times in my seven years there as a player – he did lose his head with someone. That was horrible to see. You’ve got this image in your head of a quietly-spoken, gentle man but when he blew his top he certainly did, he didn’t hold anything back. I had a real fondness for him. We were playing Southampton away and we stopped in Oxford for lunch. My mother had been seriously ill and there were no mobiles then. I was late getting on the bus because I had been on the phone to my brother, who told me my mother was going to die that night. So I got on the bus late and they gave me a telling-off for that. I didn’t go to the back of the bus, I was sort of sat half way on the bus and someone must’ve pointed out that I was upset. From Oxford all the way to Southampton, he sat with me with his arm around me. I’ll always remember that. I was his captain and I responded to his type of management. He was just a lovely, lovely human being. But he did have a side to him when it came to serious football stuff.”
“Souey was a big fan of Joe’s. That pre-season he called a meeting just for the players. He came in and said: ‘Right, we think the world of this fella and this year we are absolutely determined to be successful for him.’ To a man everyone said: ‘Yep, you’re right.'” – Mark Lawrenson.
One of his first signings was Lawrenson’s former Preston & North End and Brighton & Hove Albion teammate Michael Robinson who asked Fagan how they wanted him to play. Fagan told him: “Well, we thought you might already know that….We usually play with 11 men – as to not give the opponents a disadvantage. When you get the ball, put it in the back of the net, and if you can’t do that, then pass it to someone who can. When we get the ball in midfield, we always try to pass it to another red shirt. And in defence, we give our heart and soul to not let one in.”
The beginning of the season saw Fagan’s attempts to revamp the team stymied by failure to sign Michael Laudrup and Charlie Nicholas. Fagan showed he was not going to shy away from big decisions by leaving Phil Thompson out of the squad for a pre-season tour, as he looked to make his mark on the team early and stamp his authority on them. It was to be the start of something special though Robinson still struggled to understand what he was meant to do: “In our fourth game of that season, we played Tottenham at White Hart Lane. On the way back home, Fagan sat next to me on the team bus and piped up: ‘Something wrong here?’ ‘Well boss,’ I said. ‘All of this give and move…’ ‘Do you know why we do that Michael? Do you like hunting? If you see a hare three yards away eating grass, you can kill it. But if the hare runs off, it’s much harder to kill it. Michael, think of the ball as the hare. If it is stationary, the other team will take it. It it’s moving they can’t. The ball is the hare Michael.’ That was Uncle Joe Fagan, a brilliant man.”
Liverpool’s season was remarkable but it got off to a slow start and critics were quick to jump on Fagan, with claims that Liverpool were a fading force and their time at the summit of the game was over. Even Fagan wrote in his diary: “At the back of my mind I have got this feeling that certain players are going through the motions. They have lost that spark to win more feelings.” But things improved as the team beat Athletic Bilbao away in the European Cup, Liverpool becoming only the second team to beat them at their home in European competition, and beat Everton 3-0. Critics were back in force after a 15-match unbeaten run was ended by struggling Coventry City, who thrashed Liverpool 4-0.
“He was a superb relayer, putting his arm around you, ‘Come into the Boot Room. Hey, what’s up with you?’ He delved into personalities and everything and got to know what was wrong when you weren’t out performing at Anfield for an hour-and-a-half or away from home. I was with Joe all the way through and that was lovely to actually get to know him. You could talk to him about any aspects, maybe with your family or whatever, ‘Go and see Joe, he’ll sort it out.’ I loved him to bits and he was admired by all people. He would calm things down or stamp things up as well – don’t forget that he could stamp it up in his own way.” – Phil Neal.
Jim Beglin, in those days a young reserve at the time, remembers Fagan’s fury after the result: “I’ll never forget that day. I ended up sitting there not knowing where to look. There were tea cups flying around all over the place.” Fagan once again noted the day in his diary: “What a pathetic performance. It’s so long since a Liverpool team have needed to be given a blasting I’d forgotten what to say.” His fears continued to grow and in March after a 2-0 loss to Southampton, worried by a lack of personalities in the squad, he splashed out £450,000 on John Wark from Ipswich Town.
It had been a long, tough season, Liverpool had made it to the Milk (League) Cup final, but had needed 2 replays to beat Fulham in the 3rd round and replays to get past Birmingham City and Sheffield Wednesday. They even made hard work of Third Division (now League One) Walsall in the semi-final, drawing 2-2 in the first leg at Anfield, as those days it was played over two legs. But, eventually, they got through to the final to face the other half of Merseyside in the shape of Everton, in a Wembley final that was the first-ever all-Merseyside cup final. It was probably most notable for the sight of fans all mixed in together, red and blue sat side-by-side, as they all chanted Merseyside as one. Sadly something that would never happen nowadays. Sadly the game did not live up to the crowd and 100,000 gathered at Wembley witnessed a 0-0 draw. Both teams did a lap of honour together after the match.
“Of course I’d have preferred it if we had won but at the end when I looked around and listened to the fans chanting ‘Merseyside! Merseyside!’ I thought at least they are all going home happy. On reflection it was a fair result. We didn’t play particularly well – no snap, no sparkle – too methodical in thought and action.” – Fagan.
The game went to a replay at Maine Road, with a Souness goal winning it for Liverpool 1-0. Liverpool had played 13 games to win the competition, a record that will probably never be beaten. Bruce Grobbelaar remembered the pressure seemed to lift off Fagan afterwards: “That win really took the pressure off and you could visibly see the change in Joe after that. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Any man would have been anxious following in the footsteps of Bob Paisley, and Joe, although he never showed it, was no different. Winning the Milk Cup also gave everyone the belief that more could follow.”
There was more to come as Liverpool triumphed against a very good Dinamo Bucharest side in the semi-final to reach the final, in Roma against AS Roma in their home stadium, the Stadio Olimpico. After the win over Dinamo, the players returned to the dressing room in celebratory mood only to find a stern-faced Fagan waiting for them. He told them to shut up, sit down and listen before launching into the Liverpool mantra of ‘don’t get carried away’ etc. As the players began to deflate, Fagan suddenly let out a roar of delight, punched the air with his fist and screamed, “You beauties!”
The English league title was wrapped up with a 0-0 draw away to Notts County on the penultimate day of the season. After the game, Fagan swept the dressing room while the players celebrated around him. Afterwards he spoke to journalists and told them: “Not bad is it? I don’t know how we did it. Well, I do really. It’s the players.”
There was time for a little break after the league season ended, a much-needed break after the exertions in the League Cup, and so the team jetted off to Tel Aviv in Israel for some rest and relaxation and a friendly match. While there the players got into a drunken brawl with each other as they let off steam, which the Italian press jumped on as a sign that this Liverpool team were broken and no match for Roma. Those journalists got more ammunition when Fagan told them the day before the final that: “Our team talk will be longer than usual for this one – about five minutes.” Though he did warn the players about a new UEFA edict which forbade players from jumping over advertising hoardings to celebrate with fans: “Be careful with the first two goals to keep UEFA happy, but do what you like when you score the third.”
For once he did actually prepare a pre-match team talk and some of the notes still survive: “Conti goes to the left, the right and also ends up in centre-forward position. Don’t forget if he is in our way close up on him – he can do a bit. Don’t give free kicks away outside the box – you know how good they are at falling down. We are not going man-to-man Falcao. But the nearest man pick him up quick. We shall respect them but we are going to win here. Let them do all the worrying about us. We are as good as them if not better. All this shit talked about a good match is not on. We are going for the ball nothing else – get it first then let’s play our natural game. Same formation that brought us to the final. Kenny and Craig in the deep-lying wide forward position – ready to get it off their midfield men then strike quickly. All the best – let’s do ’em!! Don’t forget – move don’t stand. Goalkeeper – can’t hold a shot – parries the ball.”
“Joe was a lovely man, someone who was always around to give you advice and help in any way he could. I remember once, we were at the Daresbury Hotel, where we always stayed before a home game, and I was injured and needed to get to Anfield for some treatment if I was to stand any chance of playing that afternoon. Nobody was around to take me, so Joe said he would. We got in his car and, on the way, he asked if I was hungry and wanted to eat something before my treatment. I said I wouldn’t mind so he drove me to his house where his wife Lil made me scrambled eggs. That was typical, not just of Joe but of his entire family – they were lovely, down-to-earth people.” – Ian Callaghan.
However, Souness remembers the team talk was actually very different in reality: “The morning of the game we go for a walk. It was meant to be a training session but the training ground wasn’t very good, so we couldn’t train and we’d been stitched up a bit. We came back to the hotel, we were having lunch and after everyone had finished, he tapped a spoon or knife on the glass, like a wine glass, and asked the waiters, ‘Boys could you leave us?’ We were all nudging each other, thinking he was going to make a long speech – we didn’t have team meetings. So, he stood up and it was obvious after about 30 seconds he was talking to himself. He said, ‘Big game tonight. These must be a good team, they’ve got several World Cup winners, a couple of Brazilians.’ Then there was a pause and he said, ‘They’re not as good as us. And make sure you’re not late, the bus leaves at 5.15.’ That was his team talk for the European Cup final.”
The teams lined up in the tunnel ready to come out, when the Liverpool players began to sing a Chris Rea song, loudly and raucously, all signing together, shocking the Romans, who had been told that they faced a team in disarray. A tough match ended up in a penalty shootout, with Fagan telling Grobbelaar before it began: “You’ve done your job, we can’t blame you now. But try and put them off.” Grobbelaar took the instructions to heart and famously produced his jelly legs on the line, putting the Roma players off. When Graziani missed Roma’s 4th, to make it 3-2 to Liverpool, it just needed LFC to score their final penalty to lift the trophy. Grobbelaar was meant to be taking the 5th penalty, but he was so busy celebrating that Fagan turned to Alan Kennedy instead. Kennedy had missed with a number of practice penalties in training a couple of days before the final, blasting them all to the keeper’s left and missing the target completely. Fagan was stood shaking his head watching and afterwards took Kennedy aside and said to him: “Promise me if it goes to penalties you’ll place it to the keeper’s right.” Kennedy did as he promised and duly won the European Cup for Liverpool, their third European Cup and third trophy of the season, the first English club to win a treble.
Despite the success, Fagan was still as willing as ever to share the credit with all at the club, with former player Chris Lawler remembering: “We were walking back to the coach and I was in charge of the reserve team then, he had hold of one side of the cup and I had the other. He said to me, ‘It hasn’t been a bad season for us, me and you.’ I said, ‘Joe, I’ve only won a Central League, you’ve won a European Cup.’ He said, ‘Ah, we’re all in it together.” That summed up Fagan to a tee. It was never about him, it was always about the team.
“Genuinely just a smashing bloke. The players had trust in him. If he was going to leave you out of the team, he would let you know before he announced the team. He was that type of guy who’d tell you you’re not playing today and give you a reason. He just had a special way of doing things that kept people involved. I always remember we played a pre-season game at Tranmere and I was reserve team coach at the time and he was manager. I didn’t know he was coming to the game. I’m sat in the dugout and this fella was shouting behind me, ‘You’re rubbish Evans!’ You’re trying to brush it off. It just went on and on. In the end, I turned around and said, ‘Will you….’ and it was Joe! Just things like that, support and a bit of fun. He was just one of those guys who seems to know when to be funny and when to be serious. My dad will always be my dad, but I always looked at Joe Fagan a bit as my second dad if there’s such a thing as that. That’s how much I admired him.” – Roy Evans.
However the following season was difficult. The loss of captain Souness to Sampdoria was huge and a young 21-year-old Jan Molby, who came in from Ajax, was not ready to step into his shoes. In the end Fagan played Mark Lawrenson in the centre of midfield for large periods of the season, but, with Dalglish struggling for form and Rush out injured until October, a 1-0 defeat to Everton on 20th October left Liverpool in 17th place in the league. While they soon climbed up the table, Everton beat them to the league title and everything ended up riding on the European Cup final against Juventus at a crumbling Heysels Stadium in Brussels. Fagan had already decided to retire and told the players that they would be able to call him Joe rather than boss after the game. Sadly for Fagan he was not to get the send off he deserved.
Instead a disaster awaited, one that could easily have been foreseen. The stadium should not have had a safety certificate to hold any game, let alone the biggest game in European football. Then there was the constant menace of hooliganism which, while often referred to as ‘the English disease’, was as prevalent in Italy as it was in England. Added to that, there was ill-feeling between Liverpool fans and Italians after a number of Liverpool fans were attacked and stabbed in Rome before and after the previous season’s final. Roma fans even now are fond of stabbing opposing fans, with a ‘traditional greeting’ being to ride up behind opposition fans on a scooter with a homemade lance and stab them in the backside. It was almost inevitable that there would be trouble.
Sadly that trouble led to the most serious of consequences, not helped by Belgian police who made themselves scarce the moment the Juve fans and Liverpool fans began to pelt each other with missiles. The state of the stadium was clear as the Italians were even throwing pieces of the stadium into the crowd! A stampede occurred as Liverpool fans looked for revenge by charging the Juventus ultras. Tragedy was to follow as a wall collapsed and 39 people lost their life among the Juventus fans. What happened afterwards on the pitch is really an irrelevance, something that almost all have completely forgotten, and would never have taken place but for UEFA forcing the matter as they feared more violence if they called it off. Juventus won to leave Liverpool trophyless for the first time in many years. Fagan was a broken man after what he witnessed there and was seen crying on Roy Evans’ shoulder as they got off the plane back in England. A sad end to a fantastic career for a truly great football man.
“The cynics said he’d simply inherited the treble winning team from Bob Paisley…..What a load of rubbish….It was typical of Joe that he answered his critics in the best possible fashion.” – Roy Evans.
In his 698 days as Liverpool manager, his team played 131 times, winning 71 and losing just 24, scoring 225 goals and keeping 63 clean sheets. He had a 74% win ration in Europe, the best of any Liverpool manager, with 14 wins from 19 games. In his time at the club, Fagan had been a part of 33 trophy successes, three while he was manager.
After retirement Joe Fagan devoted his life to his family up until his death at the age of 80 from cancer. Hundreds of Everton and Liverpool fans lined the streets for his funeral procession, for a man respected by all. No more would he walk round training pitches shouting at players, “get it, give it, move! Get it, give it, move!” as they played mini-matches with a 1 or 2 touch rule.
“No disrespect to Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. But to me, Joe was the best.” – Roy Evans.
Written by Tris Burke June 01 2023 09:35:17