Tony Evans, respected football editor at The Times and boyhood Liverpool fan, has produced a labor of love with his new book on the Reds' extraordinary 1983-84 season. With excerpts from manager Joe Fagan's diary, copious quotes from the players themselves, and a perhaps unparalleled knowledge of both the club and the city it so successfully represented in that tough, unforgiving decade of British history, Evans' book is an excellent re-telling of a campaign that brought the 1st Division championship, the European Cup, and the League Cup to Anfield.
The book is not without a few flaws. The opening chapters are a bit clunky, ironically mirroring Liverpool's own stuttering start to the season, and have a tendency to repetition:
Shankly had an epiphany. He realized he could not win the Continent's premier trophy with a hulking, traditional British stopper like Larry Lloyd. The twenty-year-old Thompson was ushered into the first team and Lloyd was shipped out to Coventry. (page 21)
Shankly reflected on the defeat and decided Liverpool could not win Europe's biggest prize with hulking, traditional English centre-backs... Thompson was promoted from the reserves at Larry Lloyd expense. (page 41)
Once the action gets underway, though, the book takes off. As Liverpool, driven by Souness, Dalgleish and Rush, start to find a rhythm and style, so does Evans' prose. At times, he demonstrates a lovely turn of phrase -- "Bustling and eager, [Robinson] had the subtlety of a cosh" -- and he is able to showcase a vast amount of research and players' quotes with ease.
Evans is at his best recounting the cut-and-thrust of football matches themselves. He superbly structures the narrative around them, recounting each with a journalist's flair for the moment, but skilfully contextualising to flesh out the footballing action with a wider picture of the period. The opening of chapter nine is a superb example of this, narrating the decline of Liverpool as a city and the emergence of 'casual' culture as an introduction to Liverpool's first continental away fixture of the season at BK Odense. Similarly, chapter 20's use of the political turmoil of Liverpool City Council as a backdrop to the derby League Cup final illustrates Evans' ability to blend football and astute social observation.
As Liverpool's season gains momentum, so does Evans. The frenzied, violent atmosphere of the European Cup semi-final away leg against Dinamo Bucharest is beautifully rendered and focuses, as do many of the book's best parts, on the irrepressibly talented Graeme Souness. Indeed, Evans clearly relishes the human quality of the players, and the book is peppered with anecdotes and quotes; personally, I found the up-and-downs of Australian midfielder Craig Johnston particularly interesting.
The climax of the book is marvellous. The importance of Fagan, the rest of the Bootroom, and the coterie of senior players is clear as the tension builds around the European Cup Final in the cauldron of Stadio Olimpico. The focus from the Liverpool staff was on the mental steel required and a total faith in the skill and combative spirit of the players; little was said about the opposition, Roma, or how they would play. The action stretches over several chapters, but doesn't lag. The meaning of the book's title also becomes apparent, but I won't spoil that for you.
The issue with season-long stories is that we know what happens already, in broad terms if nothing else. I am not a Liverpool fan and have never had any particular interest in the club either. It is a testament to Evans' powers of story-telling, and to the intrinsically fascinating nature of the characters involved, that I was gripped. Whether or not you're a Liverpool fan, I Don't Know What It Is But I Love It certainly does that unforgettable season justice.