The Writing's on the Wall

Posted by Rushian on February 28, 2004, 01:04:33 AM

“Four points from a possible thirty underlines the simple, brutal truth that Liverpool are not good enough.”

It could be said that emphasising the date of the Liverpool Echo in which this line appeared, or identifying the game to which the author of this entirely honest statement was reflecting upon, would prove a largely futile exercise.  For in truth the latter sentiment serves as a conclusion that could be applied to the majority of Liverpool’s performances over the last fifteen months, such has been the abysmal nature of our form of late.  We are simply not good enough.  Yet if you were to take a moment and cast your mind back just a couple of seasons, you could I’m sure recall a time when smiles were not uncommon on the Kop, and when the trophies were rolling in thick and fast.

For I can remember a time when Houllier seemed incapable of completing an interview without mentioning the word ‘character’ when describing his team.  And with these discussions usually following yet another consistently solid, if somewhat unspectacular Liverpool performance, he was more often than not within his rights to employ such a term.  There was solidarity in our solidity, and didn’t we reap the rewards.  But two years on, with Liverpool practically in freefall and seemingly lacking in direction or purpose, I wonder how many members of the current squad such an adjective could be applied to?

Some of you might perceive the following account to be a triage of abuse directed at the current head of the Liverpool family.  In truth it is meant to be anything but.  For there was a time, recent in years if somewhat distant in the memory, when Houllier was a man I genuinely believed in.  He was empowered as the man who held the key to our future.  And transcending age, he was a father figure to every kopite - the man who we thought could make amends for the torture we had suffered for ten long years.  Indeed at the height of his success at Liverpool Houllier appeared to be a man of great strength. 

However, for those of you who have continuously subscribed to the Ian St John school of thought when it comes to ‘The French Fella’, and have always despised the defensive approach he has adopted ever since being placed in sole control of team affairs then fair enough.  You may well have seen the great sides of old.  Though as a member of a younger generation of kopites I cannot really pass judgement on your current viewpoint, coming, as it almost certainly will have, relative to an era of supremacy that I did not experience.  But personally however, when Houllier was given the hot seat, I felt the brink of insanity was almost upon me, following the devastatingly barren 1990s.  I freely admit that all I craved were trophies, regardless of the quality of football we played in order to achieve success. 

And for all his critics, Houllier certainly delivered trophies.  For the quintet of 2001 was unforgettable, and gave us some cherished memories we will take with us to our respective graves.  The wins against Everton and Man United, Dortmund, Leeds, Barcelona, Alavez, Arsenal and Porto would all compete fiercely for places in the top ten.  The Owen-inspired victory in Rome though, despite the relative lack of significance of the occasion, if viewed as an isolated encounter, remains in my opinion our greatest night of football under Houllier.  I still throw the video of the game on from time to time, and the hairs on the back of my neck still stand briskly to attention whenever I relive the footage.  I would even go as far to say that being in Rome to see us win there was possibly my proudest moment watching Liverpool. 

Yet in terms of my memories specifically of the manager, for me two surpass even that game.  The homecoming is one, viewed personally from a cracking vantage point from the roof of the overpass on the Dock Road.  That is one day I will never forget.   But for me the most memorable Houllier moment came at the thirteenth Hillsborough anniversary service.  For the impromptu standing ovation the manager received when he quietly vacated his position at the end of the service was almost tangible proof of the regard he was held in.  You could see the gratitude, the respect, the awe on the faces of nearly everyone present.  And despite the garbage we now pay to watch every week I will never lose those memories of him.  For the Liverpool revolution was all down to one man.

Upon his arrival, his most pressing objective was clearly to sure up our ultra-generous defence.  Henchoz and Hyypia were inspirational purchases, as were the additions of Hamman and Westerveld.  The experienced Babbel was a breath of fresh air, with the rejuvenation of Caragher illustrating that the manager could also redirect a current player’s career as well as locate and attract the right players to be brought into the squad.

The resurrection of Murphy is another example to whom the former rule could also be applied.  Furthermore McAllister and Litmanen were further astute signings and proved valuable additions, adding weight to the notion that Houllier had the right balance in terms of the approach to the ‘experience Vs youth’ debate that has shaped the policies of football managers for half a century. 

But whilst many Houllier loyalists will point to his numerous more obvious shrewd and intelligent signings as proof of his good management, evidently an important criterion on which a manager’s ability should be judged, I would point more to the particular purchases of the almost forgotten Westerveld, Barmby and Ziege as further evidence of Houllier’s management credentials.  I didn’t hear many complaints when the three were brought in, for all were good additions to the squad.  And they were undoubtedly Houllier’s players - he didn’t inherit them.  And yet he had no problem and showed no remorse in getting rid of them when their use was exhausted.  For this period was at a time when our now troubled manager had a ruthless streak.  There was no room for favouritism back then.

There were even times, when Fowler still wore the red of Liverpool, where Owen couldn’t get a look in.  Now it seems the board would willingly rename a stand after him such is their desperation to see him put pen to paper on a new deal.  By stark contrast to today’s situation, Kewel, undoubtedly a quality player, is a man who needs to be dropped.  But who could be brought in as a temporary replacement?  He is out of sorts and a little reminder that his place in the side is not actually guaranteed would do him and indeed the team no harm at all.

But the Liverpool of today is a distant relative of the team that represented this fine city that clings to the Mersey just two years ago.  I can’t help but think that the banner ‘Forever in our shadow’ was actually the creation of Sander Westerveld, held aloft by the forgotten Dutchman in protest at the state of the current Liverpool team compared to the one of which he was a part, and not a Kopite’s reminder to our Mancunian rivals that for now, we’re still England’s most successful club.

So what has happened?  Where did things go wrong for Liverpool and Houllier?  Well, there are those that will tell you, whilst peering once again through their Ian St John spectacles, that even when the fields of Anfield Road were rosy, cracks were beginning to appear in the Houllier regime.  The infamous ‘ten games from greatness’ Houllier quip serves as one notable example.  There seemed a strange administration of justice when Man United fans unveiled their ‘Liverpool - thirty miles from greatness’ banner in the Anfield Road end prior to the meeting between the two giants of English football earlier this season.  Bitter rivals they might be, and ludicrous in sentiment this utterance undoubtedly was, but we deserved it.  In fact the statement of Houllier’s in itself, more than the mediocrity (at best) which has followed, has served largely as his undoing.

Tactically some always maintained Liverpool would win nothing (and by nothing they meant the title) with our defensive style of play.  And indeed it was our approach in games more than the playing staff we employed that saw the beginning of the end.  For Houllier believes in solidity.  A defensive style of play which may not see you win every game, and certainly won’t see you annihilate many teams but one that is also unlikely to result in scores of defeats.  Say what you like, it was a style of football that brought five trophies through Shankly’s gates in six months. 

Though it wasn’t THE trophies that really matter, and I’m sure the whole city (red and blue) made Houllier acutely aware of this.  So in a bid to regain our ‘bread and butter’, he then bowed to the weight of popular opinion, and changed his tactical thinking - and against his own better judgement in my opinion.  Without radical changes to the squad, the defensively-minded team he had assembled were seemingly ordered to go out immediately and attack teams from the onset of last season.  And as a result, after twelve league games we were unbeaten.

Within that run we had led 2-1 at Blackburn and at home to both Birmingham and Newcastle with five minutes to go, and yet succumb to late equalisers in all three games.  Had we have held on in these games, we would have won an incredible twelve out of twelve at the start of that campaign.  But I can honestly remember, despite this apparent promise, being genuinely concerned at the way we were playing at the time.  Several of the players, previously appearing to be unshakable athletes, almost robotic in nature when competently completing the clear tasks set for them, now looked visibly unsure of themselves and their redefined role in this new look Liverpool.  Such an offensive development was undoubtedly required to turn Liverpool into genuine and consistent championship (and Champions League) challengers, but over a couple of years, not a couple of months.

The weekend before we were to fly out to Basle for the game that so nearly proved one of the most memorable in our illustrious European history, Liverpool travelled to the bleak capital of Europe that is Middlesbrough for unlucky league game number thirteen.  MacClaren’s side were a struggling team lacking in confidence, and yet we abandoned our attacking approach that had seen an unsure yet unquestionably successful spell during the first dozen league games.  The contest in question was obviously there for the taking, and yet we mysteriously played one up front and showed no attacking threat as a result, subsequently succumbing to a defeat thanks to a solitary Southgate goal.  One can only assume the Liverpool players, previously a little unsure, were now completely clueless as to what was expected of them.  And since that game, up to this very day every single month has seen a consistent and undeniable demise in the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club. 

Sure, in the fifteen months since that bleak day in the north east, there have been some bright moments.  If there had not have been, the manager would surely no longer be an employee of our great club.  His record in derby games for example speaks for itself.  He enticed the much sought after Le Tallec and Pongolle to Liverpool.  He brought a record seventh league cup to Liverpool in an unforgettable day at Cardiff against ‘them’.  He signed Kewell, and then proceeded to make Ste Gerard club captain.  And yes there were even the odd show of solidity in our performances.  6-0 and 5-0 wins over West Brom and Spartak Moscow respectively, together with a win at last at Stamford Bridge served as memorable, albeit infrequent occasions that made watching Liverpool a little more bearable.
 
But should we let these momentary lapses in mediocrity alter our mentality?  For last season, less we forget, was simply tortuous.  I know this only too well, for the first quarter of an hour of the Anfield encounter against Sheffield United amounted to the only football I missed during the entire campaign.  And this term has seen little or no improvement.  Now I may not be a man in his fifties who has seen it all.  But I’ve been to my fair share of games since I first went to Anfield as a four-year-old in the autumn of 1984.  I remember the ’88 side vividly enough, and surely football can’t get much better than that.  One cannot deny however, that the current regime is taking us further away not towards our objective, which has to be to emulate the great Liverpool sides and regain the league title.

With many searching for the causality of our subsidence, many have attributed our downfall to the manager’s illness.  And indeed since that season progress has not been forthcoming.   We got through the remainder of what proved to be another excellent season, in which we even reached the brink of glory.  I’m sure however that caretaker boss Phil Thompson had no problems motivating the playing staff in Houllier’s absence. You can only assume that the majority of team talks revolved around the health of the manager.  For this was at a time where the players played for Houllier, and the fans sang for Houllier - whether he was there or not.

But sadly he no loner appears to have that ruthless streak which brought such memorable achievement.  Dudek’s blunders have far outnumbered Westerveld’s and yet the former ‘keeper is still well in contention at Liverpool.  Added to this, there have been some strange moves in the transfer market of late.  McAllister and Babbel have moved on and not been adequately replaced.  Attempts to fill the void have seen the acquisition of Riise who initially looked a good buy, and had a good six months at the club, yet has done literally nothing since to warrant a place in the squad.  Also Steve Finan was signed, a player about whom some may argue it is too soon to comment on, though for me has not impressed in the slightest since his summer move from Fulham.  Then there is Biscan, a man who should never ever be allowed to wear a Liverpool shirt again.  Ever.  And as for Diao, well I wouldn’t even let him in the club shop if he wanted to buy one. He is even worse the hapless Croat.  Signing two goalkeepers on the same day was another questionable utilisation of our precious transfer funds.  Not even the Chelsea billionaires have two first choice stoppers.

Diouf though, if he had been promoted during his transfer as a midfielder instead of a goal scoring sensation, would I’m sure have been heralded an overpriced though not entirely imprudent purchase, rather than a loon from the Senegalese ghetto who can’t finish.  After a settling-in period, he has actually been quite impressive in midfield.  And the much-berated Cheyrou has also shown signs of promise of late.  (And whilst on the subject of player promotion, is it any wonder your bottle goes when you’re billed as ‘the next Zidanne’?) On the balance though, our activity in the transfer market has frustratingly seen us take backward not forward steps.  To add weight to this argument, Litmanen, Fowler and Anelka have also left - and rightly so in my opinion - and yet not been replaced. 

Now all three were undeniably excellent footballers.  But Litmanen was a little over the hill, as he has since proved by his indifferent form since returning to Ajax.  Fowler, once the legend of the Kop was more of a destructive presence than anything else in his latter days at the club.  He too has proven in his performances at first Leeds and now Man City that the £12M we got for this home-grown talent represents some of the best business Liverpool have conducted under Houllier’s reign.  And as for Anelka, though a quality player, I respect the management’s decision not to take the option of securing the player on a permanent deal following some questionable stories about his private life.  Yet whilst I would not bemoan the sales of these three, what of their replacements?

Well of our current forwards, the brilliant Owen tops the list, although he is undoubtedly a man who suffered under the shadow of Fowler for too long in my opinion.  Indeed you could dedicate an entire article of this length just to detailing the problems of Owen’s relationship with the Liverpool fans.  The root of the problem lies in the fact that this gifted albeit squeaky clean and injury prone striker was made most famous for his exploits in an England shirt, something which most Liverpudlians, myself included have struggled to accept.  He is a great player but one who I don’t believe has ever been truly received with open arms by the Kop.  Our recent application of his name to the ‘St-John’, ‘Tosh-ack’, ‘Dal-glish’, ‘Fow-ler’ song, a chant reserved for the Kop King of the era, represents a desperate attempt to rekindle some of the rapport between player and supporter that threatened to develop pre-France ’98.  He has been an integral part of the team for eight years, and yet only now, when he looks certain to leave, have we announced him to be the current King of the Kop.

Milan Baros is a superb player, a man whose absence this season revealed the cracks in the Liverpool team to a similar extent that his presence in the last campaign served to hide them.  If given the opportunity I believe the Czech star could progress to become a fantastic player for Liverpool - another insightful Houllier purchase I might add.  Antithetically however, Emile Heskey is a striker who somehow struggled for confidence even in the treble season.  I could refer back to the ‘character’ argument on which this article was launched in reference to the number eight, for it appears he has very little.  The sooner he moves on the better. 

And then there is the enigma that Djibril Cisse, who has widely been billed as the long-term replacement for Fowler, despite the fact he doesn’t even play for us yet.  Though being patient in the hunt for a striker, as we evidently have been for Cisse, is something that can pay dividends, pending two conditions.  Firstly that the player you’re waiting for is the right man, and secondly that you’re not waiting an eternity for his arrival.  Man United waited a year to sign Ruud Van Niistolroy, a decision that hasn’t exactly done Ferguson’s side any harm.  But the weight of expectation that lies over the impending (and seemingly never ending) Cisse deal is likely to see more impatient and overzealous assessments in the early days of his Liverpool career, should he complete the formalities and sign for the club.  One can only hope he makes a good start as a Liverpool player, so to ease the pressure on himself.  However although Houllier has evidently been instrumental in brokering the deal, what is far from evident, is whether the player will actually play under the former French national team coach when he eventually does arrive from Auxere.

For at Liverpool it’s been well documented that Houllier appears to be rapidly losing the dressing room.  Not only that, but one cannot deny that he has also completely lost the fans.  And I don’t mean the once a season foreigners or the ‘I’ll go when I can’ brigade, who jump on whatever bandwagon the media send rolling in our direction at weekly intervals.  I’m referring to the home and away die-hard faithful, a band of which I proudly claim membership.  And of every fan of this latter pedigree that I know, I just about stuck by him the longest, despite the bombardment of ridicule that came my way from certain quarters.  Now though, it seems every game does more to convince me that he should not be in place as our manager next season, despite his recent claims to the contrary.  The squad has been weakened since the treble season, but not dramatically.  Yet those who remain or have been brought in since are no longer playing for Houllier, and I can’t see the current plight changing without a change of manager, a fact of which the fans are clearly aware.  Indeed even whilst one-nil up at Chelsea, which saw us win there for the first time since about 1712, I heard a lad sing, almost under his breath ‘Allez Allez do one Houllier’ to the once scarf-swinging tune to which the rest of the travelling kop were singing the name of Pongole.  False dawns should, nay, must not be tolerated.  It’s time we awoke and smelt the title.

So are we a club in crisis?  Certainly not.  From the current crop of players, I would replace only five or six from thirty-odd.  That does not amount to wholesale changes.  If the board are proactive at the end of the current campaign, and listen to the fans, this could see us move forward and prevent the squad from collapsing completely.  You only have to take a look at Leeds to see how quickly that can happen.  The appointment of a new manager would bring an element of risk, but not to the extent that keeping the existing manager threatens.

But the board have certainly got a difficult task ahead of them, if indeed they do decide to replace him.  For what does amaze me though, is that of just about everyone I have spoke to on the subject whose opinion I respect, regardless of when they decided they wanted the manager to go, very few have been quick to offer the name of a suitable candidate to replace him, emphasising the complexity of the task of replacing Houllier.  O’Neil has been touted around for months now, and while he has been successful at every level at which he has managed, it should be remembered that those clubs are Wycombe, Leicester and a team from Scotland.  His record at Celtic is second to none, but less we forget the last successful manager in Scotland we brought in to manage Liverpool.  And for those whose loathing of Houllier seems to be superseded only by their hatred of Heskey, they should remember it was O’Neil who gave the misfit striker his chance in the Premiership.

As well as the Celtic boss, there is also the usual list of European managers that get linked with every vacancy of note on the continent, including the likes of Ericcson and Cuper, though neither of whom take my fancy.  But one thing is for certain, our next manager must be someone with a strong European pedigree.  Dalglish was brilliant at Liverpool and Blackburn, but failed subsequently at Newcastle (and Celtic), in my opinion because he didn’t really know the European market.  His Blackburn side were the last British looking outfit to take the title from Ferguson’s grasp, but his purchases from the foreign market post-1995 have reaped little reward.  I wouldn’t like to see a young aspiring British manager get the job therefore.  The Liverpool hot seat is still one of the top positions in European football, and it demands an experienced and probably high profile figure.  What also seems clear is that the next Liverpool manager should be in place in the summer.  Indeed I can’t see any argument of any sustenance to the contrary.  Oh, and my choice by the way?  Well if Capello is “intruiged” by Tottenham then he would be positively spellbound by the prospect of coming to Anfield.  He speaks fluent English, has won titles in tough leagues and even knows what it takes to win the European Cup.  Promotion from within is no longer an option, as the post-Dalglish era serves to substantiate.   It’s time for us to bravely face the future.

Liverpool are not in the disastrous state we were in when Houllier took sole charge from Roy Evans in 1998, thanks to the rebuilding that the Frenchman has conducted since then.  The next manager therefore wouldn’t come with a ‘three year plan’ to get us back on track.  He would instead inherit what is largely a promising side in need of a fresh approach and a couple of new faces to spark a bit of intra-squad competition and instil a change in fortune.  These are changes that could be conducted relatively quickly if the ball is set in motion this summer.  But the initial and more important question appears to be, do the Liverpool board see it the same way?  Does Houllier understand or share our concerns?  Question marks seemed concerned more with Owen’s future than Houllier’s at the moment.  If we finish fourth will Houllier stay, or has his feat been predetermined regardless of the achievements in the remainder of this season? 

One thing is for certain, we need to be in the Champions League next year to maintain some stability at the club.  Losing out on the £10M jackpot could have more serious connotations than most people seem to think, and that fourth place has to be our priority.  A trophy this year is clearly out of the question, with us already having gone out of both domestic cups (and to mediocre sides).  To win last year’s UEFA Cup all we had to do was beat a woeful Vitesse Arnem, overcome a poor Auxere and an average Celtic, before doing away with spineless Boavista en route to what would only have been a moderately tricky clash with Porto.  This year Valencia, in my opinion the best team in Europe, together with sides of the calibre of Inter, Roma, Barcelona and Galatasaray all stand in the way of Liverpool notching a record fourth trophy in the competition.  I don’t doubt that we will win it - I know we won’t.  The question remains though, what will the repercussions be for Houllier following consecutive failures?
 
Although I think the time has come for him to be replaced in the summer, I will always love Gerard Houllier for what he has done for our club.  If it weren’t for his arrival then such was the demise of Liverpool under Sunness and Evans, we could easily be the Aston Villa of the modern league - teetering consistently below the level of mediocrity.  Houllier brought us considerable success, albeit for a short length of time, once more igniting the flames of passion that victory can bring.  Furthermore after coming close to death following heart problems, he returned to the Anfield hot seat, when many would have called it a day.  The night we beat Roma 2-0 on his return was one of the most emotional we have ever known.  No one, not even Ian St John could argue with that.  I will tell my kids about him, and ensure they instil the same education to theirs.  For Houllier created a cracking side at Liverpool (note my refusal to employ the adage ‘great’), that was extremely successful.  Added to this his former Liverpool connections gave it a kind of fairy tale feeling.  But he is simply not the same man he was in 2001, and the time has come for the board, the management, and the man himself to finally accept that.  If he leaves with dignity this summer he will be remembered with fondness for setting the foundation stones in place in the rebuilding of our great club, and also for the glory he masterminded in 2001.  I only hope he leaves before his relationship with the fans begins to turn sour, a process which is clearly already in motion within certain quarters, as the anti-Houllier banners at Anfield recently serves to substantiate.  If he does depart quickly and quietly, I’m certain the good times will be the overriding memory we have of him, not the torturous latter days.  For I love John Barnes for how good he was from ’87 to ’91, regardless of how fat he was in ’95.

When Houllier does eventually leave, he will join the list of managers - Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish (interestingly enough, my four middle names) - as Liverpool legends.  Further proof if ever it were needed to help substantiate the argument that Liverpool, like no other club in Britain truly is a dynasty.  Man United have been brilliant for a decade, you can’t deny them that.  But when Mark Wright lifted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1992, United had won only seven titles and a single European Cup.  The other team currently at the top the pile, Arsenal, are currently a brilliant team, but it should be noted that they won only one title between 1953 and 1988 and have a pitiful European record that is not even worthy of a mention.  The collective history of these two, our closest on-field rivals, pales into insignificance when compared to ours.  But I am not a bitter man.  This is their time, and they are due praise for the football their teams have played.  I’m sure however, you could speak to fans all over the world, from Gillingham to Nottingham Forrest, from Chievo Verona to Fiorentina and they will all tell you that whatever phase, whatever state your club is in, its fortunes will inevitably change in time.

And I don’t doubt that Liverpool will one day again be champions of England, and maybe even crowned Kings of Europe.  What I do know is that this will never happen under Gerard Houllier, and as such the writing surely is on the wall.  That writing does not contain the word ‘aids’ or ‘die’, but ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbye’.  It doesn’t make me happy or smug to argue that the time for his departure has come - far from it in fact.  Indeed there was a time when I never thought I would have to write such an article.  But times have changed, and I refuse to stand alone in support of a manager in whom I have lost all faith.  And yet it is only the management in whom my faith has been shaken, not the squad and certainly not the club.  For there is a banner you’ll see wherever Liverpool play in Europe that states: ‘Those who remember the past are destined to live through it again.’  I know because it accompanies me on every trip we embark upon.  And I firmly believe that if we as a club act now and find the right man to take us forward, one day we will.

© Joel Rookwood 2004

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