Liverpool legends Neal and Evans back Brendan
Published 26/07/2014 | 11:00
Brendan Rodgers will face his biggest challenge to date when the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League season kicks off in three weeks time.
Says who? Liverpool legends Roy Evans and Phil Neal, that's who.
Evans, now 65, is a Bootle-born Scouser who graduated through Bill Shankly's famous bootroom. He gave 28 years of Anfield service as a player and reserve team coach before finally landing the job of first team manager in January 1994 when he succeeded Graeme Souness.
In his time at Anfield, former Liverpool captain Neal played in 22 trophy-winning sides with his personal haul including eight English League and four European Cup medals, making him the most decorated Englishman in football history.
"It's a test to any manager to better a season like last year," 63-year-old Neal reckoned.
That said, the pair were quick to commend Rodgers on Liverpool's outstanding campaign last time round.
"We'd never known a season like last year," Evans enthused. "He's done a great job.
"I was delighted with how the season went last year – making the Champions League and finishing where he did in the league was a great achievement."
Evans and Neal were in Belfast ahead of the staging of The Official Story of Liverpool Football Club at The Odyssey in September.
Basking in the scorching Belfast sunshine, they agreed that things at Anfield are better than in the days of Rafa Benitez, for one simple reason.
"Belief," said Neal. "Brendan believes in his players and they believe in him. Everything has been very positive – he's got good man-management skills and a very positive attitude."
Evans admitted the loss of Luis Suarez, who followed up his infamous World Cup biting incident by joining Barcelona for a fee of £75 million, creates a problem. Even so, he is optimistic.
"Of course we'll miss him (Suarez) but I think we'll cope very well," Evans predicted. "In my opinion, Suarez was the best player in the world last season so obviously we'll miss him. He was absolutely phenomenal to watch."
But Neal stressed that Liverpool are no one-man club.
"Nobody is bigger than the club," he said. "What you have to remember is that it was a whole team performance last season, not just Suarez.
"He (Rodgers) needs a a few more players, though then problems can form with people not gelling and things like that. But nobody is bigger than the club."
Neal likened the situation to Kevin Keegan's departure from Anfield in 1977.
"Kevin Keegan left us for Hamburg but then Kenny Dalglish came to replace him and look what happened there," he pointed out.
Evans added: "I'd like to see a couple more additions this season. I'd really like to see (Dejan) Lovren there from Southampton, I think he'd be great."
Neal's concern was getting the right balance and blend. He said: "I just hope he (Rodgers) gets the people he wants. There's enough potential there, he just needs the backbone. Individually, they're all very talented but when they start to play together...that's the difficult part."
"It's great that Brendan has put Northern Ireland on the map but it really would be lovely to see more players from here coming through too," said Evans.
Cue a question on young full-back Ryan McLaughlin's progress.
As the best player ever to have worn the Liverpool number two jersey, Neal's telling response was: "Brendan gives young players the chance. He goes to the Academy and wants them to give him something. If he (McLaughlin) gets the chance, he has to go for it.
"I think our defence needs to be stronger," he added.
And in a reminder to the current generation of Reds of the standard set when he was playing, Neal pointed out: "In 1979 we conceded only 16 goals in 42 (league) games so the defence was strong and that's what Liverpool need now.
"With the set-up we had, I was still bombing on. But that area in the Liverpool squad has to be amended to push to a championship," he admitted.
Evans agreed, albeit with a proviso. "I'd like to see the team a bit better defensively but he gives his players a license to run and I like that style of football," he revealed.
Significantly, both are optimistic that Rodgers has what it takes to take Liverpool to the next level.
"There was a gentle build-up this year and we got to the top and he thought he'd got it, but we didn't in the end so it was a learning curve for him," Neal said.
Evans explained: "Once you've done it once, the expectation rises. It always happens. There was a period when we hadn't won anything and once you get near it again the expectations get bigger and bigger."
Both believe that too much emphasis is put on winning the Champions League nowadays.
"For me, you've got to win all of these competitions – the League Cup and everything else, not just the Champions League," said Neal.
Evans welcomed club captain Steven Gerrard's decision to retire from international football as a positive for Liverpool.
"I think he's made a sensible decision," Evans said. "He spoke to Brendan and they both agreed that it was the sensible decision. He's done his fair share for Liverpool over the years.
"He'll get a little bit of a break which will be good for him, especially with the extra Champions League games," Evans said.
With The Official Story of Liverpool Football Club coming to Belfast, Neal and Evans gave some insight as to what fans can expect.
"It's all of our history. It's not just the good bits, there are the bad bits too," Evans said. "We've been very fortunate and won loads of trophies, but we've also had two terrible tragedies (Heysel Stadium, 1985 and Hillsborough 1989) and they're included in it too."
Neal added: "We've had the joys of Paris, Rome twice and London and this ties it all together. It makes more of our history, like what happens in the dressing room, songs, The Beatles, the nights out, the Shankly days, the league, everything. It combines all the pluses with the negatives.
"When we all watched it together, I almost cried. They united a city and full credit to them for doing it."
Kop some tickets for the Liverpool show!
Smash-hit stage show, The Official Story of Liverpool Football Club, is on its way to Belfast for a three-night run at the Odyssey Arena in September... and you can win tickets to it!
Charting the 120-year history from the club's first days in which Monaghan man John McKenna played a key role, the show highlights strong and continuing Northern Ireland links, through legends such as goalkeeper Elisha Scott right up to present boss, Carnlough’s Brendan Rodgers.
To win one of three pairs of tickets for the show, simply answer this question: Who was Liverpool boss before
Brendan Rodgers? Email your answer to email@example.com by lunchtime on Monday, July 28.