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)

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories