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A Reluctant Champion

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Friday, September 23, 2011 by Paul Grech


Book Review: Joe Fagan - Reluctant Champion by Andrew Fagan and Mark Platt

There are two iconic images that seem to perfectly sum up Joe Fagan's time as Liverpool manager. The first has him lounging by a pool in front of two Italian carabinieri and the Champions Cup, won the night before, besides him.  The second, taken a year later, shows him distraught to the point that he can barely walk as Liverpool arrive at Speke airport from Heysel.

For many that was Joe Fagan: winner of a magnificent treble - that included beating Roma on their back yard in the Champions Cup final - but also the unlucky man who was Liverpool's manager on one of their darkest and most tragic nights.

Even when he was achieving what no other British manager had managed at the time - the treble - his success was often downplayed.  This was the team that Bob Paisley had built, one that knew how to play from memory: anyone could guide it to success.

It is this erroneous belief that has relegated Fagan to a mere footnote in the history of the English game when instead his should be a name mentioned alongside those of the greatest to ever manage the game.

Just how vital a role Fagan played in Liverpool's success over three decades emerges in his recently published biography written by LFC.tv writer Mark Platt and Joe's grandson Andrew.  Pieced together thanks to interviews to more than thirty former players and people with whom Joe worked who help add depth to the story, this book helps reveal an honourable man who was thoroughly in love with the game of football and with a brilliant talent for improving players.

A particularly revealing story is the one about his decision to take over from Bob Paisley as Liverpool manager.  What drove his wasn't the ambition to prove that he could to the job but rather the responsibility he felt towards the rest of the coaching staff.  If someone from outside came in the in all probability he would bring his own people in meaning lost jobs for those already at Liverpool.

Fagan wouldn't have that and neither did he want to put at risk all the good work that had been done at the club.  So he went for it.

Aiding him was his coaching diaries in which he jotted all that happened during games and training.  In his diaries, along the technical notes he puts in personal thoughts.

These end up being the most revealing part of the book. Fagan's writings are simple yet profound, showcasing the genius of a man who could distill any situation to the core issue and which made solving that problem all the easier.

It wasn't precisely the Moneyball strategy but it wasn't far off, either.  With Liverpool struggling to replace Graeme Souness,  Fagan opted to buy Kevin McDonald who bore little resemblance in his style of play to the club's former captain,  Yet Fagan had noticed the number of passes he delivered and saw that it was a talent from which it the whole team could benefit.

Ultimately McDonald never played that many games of Fagan who decided to retire at the end of his second season in charge.  We're never told why that was but the feeling is that he felt the pressure from having to tell players that they weren't in the tam

Whatever the reason Fagan certainly didn't deserve to bow out of football on that dark night in Belgium and the scenes he witnessed that night clearly left their mark on him.  What he does deserve is a book like this that helps minute the life of one of the game's greats.


Full Disclosure: a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.