Mark Godfrey

Mr. Vain - in search of Liverpool's number 1 Spice Boy

Mark Godfrey
Mr. Vain - in search of Liverpool's number 1 Spice Boy

This article originally featured in Issue 16 of The Football Pink. Get it here and listen to the podcast on English football in the 90s.

In the mid to late nineties, English football was awash with new money, and the ‘Spice Boys’ stereotype was born. Here, WILL MAGEE goes in search of the Liverpool star who most epitomised this phenomenon.

I know what I want, and I want it now,

I want you, ‘cos I’m Mr. Vain.

– Culture Beat, ‘Mr Vain.’

Looking back on the ‘Spice Boys’ phenomenon, it’s not hard to figure out how it came to be. In the mid to late nineties, with the upper echelons of English football awash with new television money and the country intoxicated on the success of the Premier League brand, footballers’ pay packets bulged and swelled at a near uncontrollable rate. When the second Sky television deal kicked in in 1997, worth a mind-boggling £670million in total, it is estimated that the annual growth of Premier League wages came in at 28.52% for the season following. That represented record growth for salaries in the top flight, and so it is perhaps little surprise that, among the Premier League’s callow and easily influenced young talents, this enormous influx of cash helped cultivate tastes for hedonism, debauchery and novel excess.

Of course, one man’s hedonism, debauchery and novel excess is another man’s average Saturday evening. For the human inclination towards pleasure to be relentlessly judged with the Old Testament rigour it so manifestly deserves, one must have a moral arbiter on the scene. For the Spice Boys, that moral arbiter came in the form of the nineties tabloid press, whose ethical qualifications at the time included defaming those who died at Hillsborough, serial corruption and hounding one of their favourite public figures to her death. This was the other side of the Spice Boys phenomenon – not only did it require young footballers to have more disposable income than ever, it also required salacious hypocrites eager to print stories about the revels which came about as a consequence.

With an abundance of cash and tabloid overexposure coming together to form the perfect storm, the age of the Spice Boys was basically inevitable. That said, the locus of the phenomenon was somewhat strange. The city of Liverpool in the mid to late nineties was an industrial hub and socialist heartland dominated by old-school Labour Party politics, and as such hardly the natural focal point of football’s most garish form of celebrity culture. One might have thought that a team from London would have been the natural instigators of the Spice Boy movement, with even nineties Manchester and its Britpop boom more associated with hedonism and the high life than Liverpool. Indeed, as one former Spice Boy pointed out later on, “we were doing nothing more than the players at Arsenal or Manchester United.” Even so, it was Liverpool where the Spice Boys stereotype was born, and Liverpool where a group of young players would be tainted by association forever more.

Still, while Liverpool was an incongruous setting for the rise of the tabloid footballer – even more so considering that one major tabloid was actively boycotted and shunned on its streets – there were several reasons that the Spice Boys tag came to stick at Anfield. The first, and most obvious, was that the contemporary generation of Liverpool stars allowed it to happen, and despite regularly professing their innocence repeatedly played into tabloid editors’ hands. The second was that, unlike their counterparts at Arsenal and Manchester United, the Liverpool squad of the mid to late nineties were perceived as chronic underachievers. While this was arguably an excessively harsh judgement, a trophy return of a single League Cup between 1995 and 2000 was hardly a resounding riposte.

Though Liverpool struggling to win major silverware might seem par for the course from a modern perspective, it is worth repeating – with emphasis – just how unusual their travails were in the context of the nineties. This was a club which had won six league titles over the course of the eighties along with all other domestic silverware and the European Cup (twice), so the fact that they were barely even in the title race for much of the decade was seen as little short of a disgrace. In this sense, the Spice Boys generation laboured under comparisons to their eighties predecessors, with the likes of David James, Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler never likely to live up to the standards set by Bruce Grobbelaar, Steve Nicol, Ronnie Whelan and Kenny Dalglish.

When one considers that the supporting cast of the Spice Boys consisted of Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock, Jason McAteer and Stan Collymore, it’s little wonder that the side were unable to reach the towering heights of their forebears. While these men were not bad footballers by any means – regardless of what they were like as people – they were flattered to an even lesser extent by comparisons to, say, Alan Hansen, Steve McMahon and Ian Rush. There was another aspect to the Spice Boys’ struggles that also involved unflattering comparisons, though this time to the teams they found themselves competing with. Pound for pound, the Liverpool side of the mid to late nineties had neither the raw talent nor the strength in depth of Manchester United and Arsenal, two teams who between them hoovered up almost all the silverware available in the latter part of the decade.

Reminiscing, albeit rather reluctantly, about the Spice Boys era to the Evening Standard in 2010, Jamie Redknapp made this particular point with almost a little too much gusto. “United were incredible," he said. "They had a crop of players that would never ever happen again: Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers and Paul Scholes, one of the best footballers of any generation. That United team came through at the same time as us and we were always second best to them. That's how it is sometimes.” Though Liverpool fans might resent the vaguely fatalistic tone of this analysis, there are few who would contest the basic premise. The Spice Boys were neither as good as the club legends who preceded them, nor their main rivals for winners’ medals and success.

Nonetheless, Liverpool would most likely have been more successful had their players not facilitated an orgy of headlines. Their efforts were constantly hampered by sensationalist press and feverish coverage, the tone of which vacillated between indulgent and nigh on Biblical. There is much academic debate as to precisely when and why the Spice Boys tag was coined. Some put the token Spice Girls link down to Mel C’s Scouse origins and her penchant for wearing Liverpool trackies; others point to Steve McManaman sharing a manager with them in the form of Pop Idol mastermind Simon Fuller; and others still cite tabloid rumours concerning a fling between Baby Spice and Robbie Fowler. The Spice Boys couldn’t necessarily help speculation about relationships with nineties pop stars, of course, but there was much they could have done to stop these stories morphing into something rather darker.

Just as marketing execs wanted to sell the Spice Girls on their sexuality – sometimes with clearly exploitative consequences – so too the tabloids wanted the Spice Boys narrative to be all about sex. Soon, sex wasn’t enough, and editors seemed to decide that the whole thing needed to be all about degeneracy. The comparatively innocent celeb relationship rumours became tales full of lewd insinuation, and whether or not these were particularly accurate the players did little to dispel them. In fact, the Spice Boys played directly into their hands with their infamous 1998 Christmas party, which the Daily Mail described as an “orgy”, calling for “an immediate and honest inquiry into the whole squalid affair.”

Summoning up all the righteous indignation of Little England, the Mail painted a scene from the last days of Rome, with players allegedly fucking in front of guests, sex toys being brandished, and Herculean amounts of alcohol being consumed. The News of the World was even more lurid, spinning a yarn about a young Jamie Carragher, dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, “cavorting” with whipped cream and strippers, an image that remains both disturbingly surrealist and vaguely comical to this day. Whatever the truth of that festive evening – this was reported by the News of the World, after all – the fact that the players were so unguarded in such a public manner was perhaps most damning. One way or another, they had provided the titillation, and enabled a tabloid hack’s wet dream.

So too did they enable the press with their naivety and undeniable vanity, whether it was bawdy interview given to Loaded by Fowler and McManaman – one in which they would later claim to have been misrepresented, though by then the damage was done – or the modelling done by Redknapp and David James, the latter of whom became an official Armani underwear model in 1997. If Redknapp was so aware of the incredible talent at Manchester United at the time, he should surely have realised how the media would represent this behaviour in contrast to that of the serial winners at Old Trafford, and how that might affect perceptions of his team. In reality, David Beckham had already begun an ostentatious media career, but he could get away with it on the back of a spate of medals and league titles. Likewise, United were seen as being marshalled by the intimidating masculinity of Alex Ferguson, as opposed to what was generally perceived as a soft, avuncular regime at Liverpool under Roy Evans.

There was almost certainly an element of the media who were terrified of Liverpool’s newfound metrosexuality, with a latent vibe of reactionary homophobia running through the coverage of their modelling careers. Redknapp, James and co. should not necessarily have felt compelled to give up this lucrative sideline, but they should at least have understood that – combined with perceptions of underachievement – it would be used against them and their club. Had the negative coverage spurred them on to prove their critics wrong on the pitch, then the narrative might have been rather different. That wasn’t the case, however, and so the characterisation of the Spice Boys as narcissistic and egocentric was given even more weight in the eyes of the public and Liverpool’s frustrated fans.

The ultimate public relations blunder was, of course, the 1996 FA Cup final. Facing Ferguson’s United in what was already being presented as a clash of identities – the soft, self-indulgent sensuality of Liverpool against the hard, lean determination of their rivals – Roy Evans’ side turned up pre-match in cream Armani suits. This, combined with a piss-taking interview by those two likely lads McManaman and Fowler, fulfilled every aspect of the stereotype that was fast coming to consume them. Naturally, they went on to lose 1-0, which gave even greater credence to Ferguson’s later claim of “knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”

Being the post-retirement raconteur that he is, Ferguson claimed in a 2015 documentary that he knew United would win the minute he saw those suits. Perhaps more insightful was an additional comment by Ryan Giggs, as reported by the Manchester Evening News. Ferguson’s former protégé said of the affair: “The Liverpool episode at Wembley where they were wearing the white suits. He [Ferguson] used stuff like that.” This was the number one problem with the Spice Boys – they played to type, and their opponents actively used it against them to the detriment of the football club that funded their lavish lifestyles.

That said, the Spice Boys generation were never quite as bad as they were made out to be. With the exception of the 1998/99 season in which they finished a lowly seventh, Liverpool’s league finishes between 1995 and 2000 read: fourth, third, fourth, third, fourth. If they really were raving to Eurodance in Merseyside nightclubs until four in the morning, then they generally managed to shake off their hangovers and swashbuckle past lesser teams on a Saturday. While they matched neither their predecessors nor their rivals, they generally played free-flowing football with goals galore and no shortage of entertainment. In that sense, they were perhaps a bit like the modern Arsenal team – inadequate compared to the glory days that came before, but not half as terrible as some would like to make out.

In hindsight, many of those players have identified where they went wrong, with introspection and a degree of navel-gazing the result of their enduring reputation. Some of them never truly recovered from the relentless tabloid assault, with their careers failing to reach the same heights again. Writing for The Guardian in 2007, David James gave a telling anecdote about the 1994/95 season, this in the context of Liverpool’s consistent inferiority to United. “We allowed ourselves too many distractions and once we'd won the League Cup all but switched off. We were seduced by things peripheral to football. I remember Robbie Williams travelling down to Aston Villa with us on the team coach, and he was strolling about on the pitch before the game. He was a decent bloke, but what the hell was he doing being allowed on the team coach? Unlike Roy Evans, Fergie would never have let that happen.” Again, Liverpool lost the match.

Williams, a friend of Reds defender Phil Babb, was just another unnecessary distraction for Liverpool. Speaking about that same incident in an interview with The Telegraph, fellow centre-back John Scales said: “It fuelled the whole Spice Boy thing. We all hated the tag but the truth always hurts, doesn’t it? I know I could have done more to avoid it. All the boys could have.” Ultimately, the whole phenomenon comes back to this: The Spice Boys played up to their tabloid characterisation. They weren’t a bad side, they weren’t unqualified failures, and some commentators have even made arguments in favour of their effervescent form of team bonding. Unfortunately, they were chronically naive in the way they went about it – indeed, some even admitted that as immature young men they actually quite liked their libertine image, even if it was overblown.

And as for the ultimate Spice Boy? It’s hard to look past one of Fowler and McManaman, considering how often they crop up throughout this apparently debauched tale. Fowler, especially, sums up the two sides of the Spice Boys stereotype, in that he was actually a highly effective striker who scored 171 goals in his first spell with Liverpool. What’s more, he was more than just a vainglorious hedonist out for his own gratification, famously showing off a slogan on his undershirt supporting striking Liverpool dockers in 1997. Then again, two years later, he was sniffing the line of the Anfield penalty box in imitation of doing a huge hit of chop. If that’s not playing into the hands of the tabloids, then God knows what is.

WILL MAGEE - @W_F_Magee