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Football: Anfield heroes who turned Villans: Saunders, Staunton and Houghton are ready for a Mersey dash. Phil Shaw talks to Mark Lawrenson about the dynamic trio

WHEN Liverpool lost 4-2 at Aston Villa in September, some of their supporters pleaded mitigating circumstances. Why, they argued, we were without three of our best players: Dean Saunders, Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton.

The sarcasm was aimed at the man who had offloaded the popular trio to Villa Park. Graeme Souness rode out that particular crisis, but criticism might flare again if Villa's former Anfield contingent were to inspire the championship contenders to a repeat performance in tomorrow's return fixture.

Mark Lawrenson managed Saunders at Oxford United and played with Houghton, Staunton and Souness for Liverpool. Now a perceptive match analyst for HTV and Radio 5, the ex-Republic of Ireland defender points to differences between Liverpool's passing game and the version espoused by Ron Atkinson. Differences which made the most contentious sale - that of Saunders for pounds 2.25m - good business for both clubs.

If the Liverpool manager did err, it may have been in buying Saunders from Derby for pounds 2.9m in the first place. 'I knew he'd score goals for them, which he did, but somehow I couldn't see him and Rush playing together,' Lawrenson said. 'They're similar in many ways, although Rushie is better at linking with midfield and joining in the build-up.

'More often than not, Liverpool are putting sides under pressure, whereas Villa have faster forwards and let teams come at them before hitting them on the break. The goals I've seen Dean score this season have come almost exclusively in that way: ball out wide, winger crosses and he's there with his pace, getting in front of defenders to knock it in.

'He needs to run on to balls, either behind the defence or into the channels. That's why Ray Houghton was such a brilliant buy for Villa. They played together at Oxford and Liverpool, and they have an instinctive understanding.

'But I admire Graeme for being honest enough to admit that Dean wasn't the right player for their style. There are only so many teams he'll be successful in.'

Ironically, Lawrenson's first managerial break ended because of a dispute over an earlier Saunders transfer. Despite Oxford's relegation from the old First Division, he had persuaded the Welsh striker to sign a three- year contract on the understanding that he could leave at the end of the season if they did not go up.

Managers who spoke to Lawrenson about Saunders included - further irony - Souness, then with Rangers, Graham Taylor at Villa and Kenny Dalglish of Liverpool. 'So I knew I could sell him if I wanted, but I'd get a replacement in first. I had in mind Gary Penrice (then with Bristol Rovers, now of QPR), who would've cost pounds 200,000. If clubs knew I'd got pounds 1m for Dean they'd be asking silly prices.'

Such logic was lost on the Oxford owners, the football-loving Maxwells, who informed Lawrenson that Saunders was being sold to another of the family concerns, Derby. 'I saw Robert Maxwell and he told me that a) Dean was unhappy, which was rubbish, and b) 'It has ---- all to do with you anyway'. I'd threatened to quit but he sacked me. His exact words were: 'No one resigns on the Maxwells'.'

Houghton had already left, a year earlier, and quickly impressed as a player in Liverpool's best traditions: a master of the difficult art of playing simply. According to Lawrenson, who also played with him in Irish green, he was perpetual motion personified, a player whose movement off the ball created space for others, but also an exceptional passer.

'Watch Ray closely,' he explained, 'and you'll notice he starts off with 10 or 15-yard passes. As the game develops, he begins playing it longer, though his big thing is slipping forwards like Dean through. What's great about Ray is that the first pass he looks to play is always forward, but he has such quick feet that he can adjust quickly if it's not on.'

Apart from Gordon Strachan, he has seen no more consistent right-sided midfielder. Souness was equally lavish in his praise last season, when Houghton was one of the few Liverpool players to avoid injury and maintain form. That made his summer switch baffling.

'Graeme has said that Ray wanted to leave. Because of his age (Houghton is 31 tomorrow) and the fact that Villa were offering pounds 925,000, he felt it was a good deal. After all, he's the only Liverpool manager in 30 years to have to generate money to buy players.'

Souness had traded Staunton - who left with League and FA Cup medals though he is not yet 24 - for pounds 1.1m the previous summer. Liverpool's doubts may have concerned a lack of pace at the highest level, but Lawrenson remembers his 'sweet left foot' and penchant for pinpoint passes to the front men from deep positions.

Staunton, aka 'Stan', is an uncomplicated, quietly influential character - 'he just comes in, trains, plays and he's off again' - whereas Houghton and the outwardly bubbly Saunders need regular reassurance and encouragement. 'They don't respond to rockets and rollickings. That's why they get on with Ron.

'When he bought Staunton and Houghton he knew they'd be pluses for Villa's team play. With Saunders he wasn't too sure but he knew he'd score goals. It's great to be able to buy a chunk of the Liverpool side, with all their experience of winning things.'

However, Villa's current form is patchy and Saunders is struggling. After eight goals in his first 10 matches, including two against Liverpool, he has netted only once from open play in 11 games. Lawrenson sees no cause for alarm. 'Dean couldn't keep scoring the way he was - a bit like Shearer at Blackburn - but he'll still get 20-odd goals.'

More than a nostalgic return for three individuals, tomorrow will be a test of Villa's credentials. In Lawrenson's heyday teams opened the champagne if they took a point from Anfield, but Villa need more.

'There's a consensus that if you go at Liverpool at the moment, you'll get results,' Lawrenson said, recalling Bolton's example last Sunday.

'Villa's centre-backs, Paul McGrath and Shaun Teale, are so strong that they don't need much protection. With three points at stake they must take the game to Liverpool, and I think they will. That's the nice thing about Aston Villa and Ron Atkinson - they lose games trying to win them.'

(Photographs omitted)