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Book Review: Men in White Suits by Simon Hughes

Paul Grech Sunday, April 12, 2015 , ,
As someone who grew up during the decade, Liverpool struggling and falling short – which they so often did during the nineties – was normality for me.  Of course, I was aware of the club’s past and how successful the previous two decades had been but for me that only fueled the belief that this was only a blip (even if, admittedly, a rather long one) and that eventually success would inevitably return.

If I’m being honest, there was a part of me that in the irrational way that a supporter thinks, believed that this lack of success was in some way down to me; that I’d somewhat cursed the club.

So it was somewhat of a relief to read Simon Hughes’ latest book ‘Men in White Suits’ that talks about Liverpool during the nineties and which I feel finally exonerated me from any guilt.

Not that it is easy to discern just why Liverpool fell away so dramatically.  Of course, all of those interviewed seem to have a clear idea of what went wrong but most of them are convinced that they weren’t part of the problem.  Indeed, there is a lot of finger pointing and excuses made for the failings but no one seems ready to admit that they could have done more.

The title of the book obviously refers to the white suits worn before the 1996 FA Cup final that Liverpool lost to Manchester United (it was a crap game where both teams played poorly) and which cemented the public image of the club’s players as being more interested in appearances than in winning.

The three players who actually wore those suits and which are interviewed here all insists that this wasn’t the case.  They are insistent that, whilst they did party and ride on their celebrity status, it didn’t have an impact on their performances.  They’re equally insistent to mention that the Manchester United players partied as hard as they did but winning meant that everything was forgiven for them.

This obviously raises the observation that perhaps they should have parked partying, focused on winning and, once that was secured, then they could relax a little bit more.  But, of course, to them this doesn’t even register as a possible solution.  The blame lies elsewhere, with management or the failure to win that final (most seem to believe that a win there would have given Liverpool the confidence to push on which, frankly, is a load of bollocks).  In their mind the fault lies anywhere but with them.

Perhaps the most frustrating passage of the whole book is the one where Roy Evans admits that he acted in the way that he did – basically not being a strict disciplinarian – because he realised that times were changing and he had to change with them.

Now, I happen to be among those in awe at Evans’ footballing knowledge.  His comments after Liverpool games when he happens to be on LFCtv are insightful and reveal the sharpness of someone who has spent most of his adult life thinking about the game.

So it saddens me to say that Evans got it absolutely and completely wrong if he felt that being a bit more relaxed was the best way to move with the times.  Liverpool needed someone who could move ahead of the times, not with them.  When Bill Shankly arrived at the club he achieved success not by doing what every other manager was doing but by adopting techniques that were alien to everyone else.  Same goes for Bob Paisley who had a knack of tweaking tactics to stay ahead of the game.  And when Kenny Dalglish took over, he realised that the game was moving towards big money transfers and ensured that he got it right in that respect (that he did likewise at Blackburn a couple of years later shows that, at the time, he had few peers at building teams).

So Evans shouldn’t have moved with the times but found a way to motivate and drive players who were on their way to becoming millionaires.  Perhaps he should have realised that the team needed more winners to help infuse the rest with the drive that often was missing, particularly against lesser teams.

At least Evans admits his faults as does Souness in what probably are the best two chapters of this book.  Hughes, the book’s author, has adopted a similar strategy to the one that brought him so much success with Red Machine the book through which he looked at the eighties by talking to eleven people who were at the club at the time.

Once again he has shunned the big names – there is no chat with Steve McManaman or Robbie Fowler – but has instead opted for lesser characters with Jamie Redknapp being the only exception.  Obviously, this was a harder book to write because, contrary to Red Machine, there was very little that is positive to talk about.

Yet, it also highlights Hughes’ ability as an interviewer and writer – I’d go as far as saying that this is the book that truly cements his journalistic credentials – because he manages to get the interviewee to open up and then doesn’t flinch from reporting what was said even if it probably won’t make for comfortable reading for that interviewee.  I doubt, for instance, that Jamie Redknapp will enjoy the conclusion of his chapter which frankly makes him look a prick.

Of course, it isn’t all great.  The chapter on Eric Meijer, although entertaining, seems misplaced whilst much though Hughes tries, the chapter on Ronnie Rosenthal reads more like a personal advert for his ability to spot players (although, admittedly, Hughes eventually gets him to recant).

Overall, however, this is an amazing piece of evidence on a critical decade where Liverpool lost its way and from which the club has never really recovered.  Most importantly, however, it allows me to rest my conscience, comforted by the knowledge that it wasn’t my fault.  Which, much though they protest to the contrary, is something that those featured in this book cannot claim.


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