Jason McAteer tells JOE the truth about the Liverpool Spice Boys - and why he still "resents" Gerard Houllier
The Spice Boys. Over time it has become more than a tag that was given life by the press before going mainstream, it has come to define a period in Liverpool's history, one in which success eluded them as a direct result, critics claim, of a collective attitude that fell below previous high standards.
It is also one that still irks Jason McAteer to this day, not only because he believes it is unfair but also because it damns a generation of Liverpool players with a reputation he feels they do not deserve.
What started, in McAteer's recollection, as a headline in the Daily Mirror quickly took a hold on the national consciousness and has remained there ever since.
The basic premise was straightforward – Liverpool had a group of talented players, including McAteer, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Phil Babb, David James, Stan Collymore and Jamie Redknapp but they lacked the professional commitment to turn their individual ability into collective success.
While their contemporaries, most notably those at Manchester United, stopped at nothing to win trophies, so the theory went, Liverpool's players were too busy collecting celebrity girlfriends on numerous nights out to match their achievements on the pitch. McAteer almost spits the phrase out before endeavouring to pick its implications apart.
“The funniest thing about all that Spice Boys stuff is we used to bump into the United players all the time when we were out. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, loads of them.
"They were doing exactly the same things as us but they won the 1996 FA Cup Final and we lost it. Maybe if that game had gone the other way it might have been different but it didn't.
“From then on it was always about us being the bridesmaids, wearing the white suits, the pop star girlfriends and all that stuff. But when it came down to it all we were doing most of the time was going out for meals.
"We weren't out going mental or anything like that. So I look back on that as a bit of a sad time because we knew how much it was hurting us when we weren't winning things and how much it still hurts us to this day, but the Spice Boys thing means there is a different perception of us and that isn't fair.”
But the facts are that Liverpool didn't win the 1996 FA Cup Final and they did, somewhat infamously, wear white suits to that game as James took advantage of his relationship with Giorgio Armani, for whom he was modelling at the time, to kit his team mates out in the most memorable but also most controversial attire to be donned at Wembley.
Again, McAteer argues that the image that this portrayed and the perception it created are not in keeping with the reality of what that Liverpool team was about.
He also believes that had the small margins gone in Liverpool's favour that day, it could have been a turning point for the club. As it was, United enjoyed a dynasty of success while Liverpool continued to fall short.
“Everyone will bring up the white suits but a white suit doesn't win a football match,” McAteer says. “The flip argument to that, of course, is that was [Alex] Ferguson's team talk done but at the end of the day we were seven minutes from extra time. They were as bad as us and the game could have gone either way.
"Jamie had a good chance in the first half but put it over the bar. The goal came from a back pass that went out of play, the corner itself was a shambles, Jamo punched, fell into Rushie and then [Eric] Cantona gets his leg up here and scores on the half volley with the ball somehow finding a route through about half a dozen players. It could have gone either way.
"The thing is if you wear dark suits and lose like that there's no big fuss but if you've worn white suits the accusation is you've been acting like playboys or whatever.
“The question I'm always asking is 'Where does team spirit come from?' I think it's part of the manager's job now to create it. I know in Liverpool's case some of the foreign players will go around to Philippe Coutinho's house or whoever's turn it is and have something to eat but they're not all going around there in a big group. So where is team spirit created?
“Jurgen Klopp is doing it now by winning games and saying to the players, 'Listen, if we keep winning we are going to create something special'.
"But he does it through force of personality because he is a one off. Our team spirit was created by ourselves and we did that by going out for meals, going out for a drink and generally just bonding with each other. We would go out mob handed and that meant team spirit wasn't something that Roy [Evans] had to worry about."
Failing to win the 1996 FA Cup Final marked the start of a period in which Liverpool developed an unwanted reputation for being under-achievers, an image that was lent further weight the following season, 1996/97, when they finished fourth in the Premier League having led the table by five points at the turn of the year. Once again, their critics had a field day, accusing them of “finishing fourth in a two horse race” as United were crowned champions but McAteer maintains it was a shortage of winning mentality throughout the club rather than any fecklessness that undermined them.
“Not winning the title was a mentality issue more than anything else,” he insists. “It was a collective team mentality, it's not about blaming any individual. Jamo took a lot of criticism but it was a mentality that we didn't have that United perhaps did.
"We were by far the better team on the eye that season, we didn't concede that many goals despite the defence taking a lot of criticism, and our attack was as good as United, Newcastle and Arsenal had that season.
“But we lost games against the smaller teams – Coventry at Anfield was the famous one, but we also lost to Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa – and that comes down to mentality.
"They also had a manager who knew how to win the title whereas Roy didn't have that experience. For as much as he'd been here, it's different when it's on you to make decisions. Ferguson just made more right ones than Roy.”
That the Liverpool side of that era continued to fall short of both expectations and of living up to the exacting standards set by their predecessors made change inevitable but when it came it was driven by Gerard Houllier, who initially worked alongside Evans as joint manager before assuming sole control, in a way that McAteer admits he still resents to this day.
Not only was it too much, too soon in his opinion, it also forced Liverpool away from the methods that had been passed down from Bill Shankly's time and marginalised some of the legendary manager's Boot Room devotees.
The process of modernisation that Houllier instigated was successful with Liverpool winning a cup treble under his management in 2001 as a more hardline approach yielded positive results.
But while McAteer accepts the end results mean Houllier's way was vindicated, at least in terms of bringing success to the club, he still resents some of his decisions and the way he treated some of his players and staff.
“The stats and winning the treble will always suggest that he went down the right route,” McAteer says. “I grew up in a world in which Liverpool Football Club was always winning titles but there was also a DNA to the club and when I was here the DNA was still the same.
"It had started with Shankly and people like Roy Evans, Ronnie Moran and Tom Saunders were all still here. Then on the playing side you had people like John Barnes and Ian Rush who knew exactly what Liverpool was about. The club was still run very traditionally in the way that it had been in the 30-40 years previous to that.
“I just felt that, even though I knew football was moving and needed to change in some ways, as soon as Houllier walked in the DNA of the club changed.
"We then went through the emotional period of Roy leaving and seeing him devastated in the dressing room and I resented Houllier for that. I also resented the way Ronnie Moran was treated and I blamed Houllier for it.
"All of this stuff about having been a Liverpool fan who'd watched them on the Kop, I just wasn't buying it. I thought he was telling everyone what they wanted to hear while behind the scenes he was changing the club's DNA and moving it away from what it had always been.
“Listen, when you are immersed in something you might not think it's right but then when you step away from it you might think that was the way it needed to go in and in the club's case it was becoming a business that needed to get bigger and bringing in foreign players was one of the directions it had to go in.
"That's a valid argument but it was changing and changing very fast and for me, we were not far away from winning that title. We were two or three players away from it.
“We were a really good bunch of lads, we were close, there was a brilliant team spirit and there was some fantastic talent, Macca, Robbie, Michael [Owen] was coming through as were Steven [Gerrard] and Carra [Jamie Carragher].
"The playing side of things was really healthy and I just think he arrived with this attitude stemming from the Spice Boys tag and I just wanted him to get to know us first and make his own mind up.
"But I think the media made his mind up for him and he came in to change things and he ruled with an iron fist and one by one we left. I just thought he'd done it too soon and, yes, I resented him for that.”
Not for the first time, the Spice Boys tag and its implications left McAteer nursing a grievance that still remains.
Blood, Sweat and McAteer: A Footballer's Story is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is released on Thursday 29 September.