Football: Barnes' exit heralds a new order

COMMENTARY: Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 1
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Liverpool were struggling. More than an hour of possession had brought no reward and, against the run of play, they were losing 1-0 to Wimbledon. Roy Evans, a manager whose shoulders weigh heavy with the burden of expectation, looked along the substitutes' bench.

He saw John Barnes, a decade at the club, the only man left who remembered winning a championship with Liverpool, last year's club captain and, in his time, one of the great attacking talents.

He looked again, and saw Danny Murphy, a 20-year-old summer signing from Crewe Alexandra, a busy, confident young man, but one who had never played in the Premiership.

He summoned Murphy. Four minutes later Liverpool were level but Barnes did not need that long. He knew, in that instant, that his future lay away from Anfield.

Liverpool's subsequent decision to grant Barnes a free transfer is as clear a declaration of intent as anything which has happened this summer. Ten years ago Barnes' exciting wing-play was the symbol of change, as Kenny Dalglish added elan to Liverpool's customary efficiency and created arguably their finest team.

A decade on, Barnes' revised game, with its accent on patient passing, is seen, not altogether fairly, to exemplify the team's lack of a championship- winnning edge. His imminent departure marks another change.

Murphy was not directly responsible for the goal which brought Liverpool a 1-1 draw at Selhurst Park but he did liven Liverpool up and his appearance, alongside fellow debutant Paul Ince, confirmed that Liverpool have a new way of playing. They still play a passing game but they do so with a new aggression both in winning the ball and using it.

It was not enough to beat Wimbledon, who had gone ahead through a marvellous 25-yard free-kick by Marcus Gayle, but Liverpool, after five defeats and one win in the last six seasons' meetings, were happy enough with a draw. Points are always important but, at this early stage, performances matter, too and Evans was pleased enough with what he had seen.

"We were not as fluent as I would like but it was always going to be difficult in weather like this (105 degrees). We have a lot more options now, we have bought some decent players and we have some good young kids. All of them are going for places."

The "decent" players include Ince, Karlheinz Riedle and Oyvind Leonhardsen, who missed a reunion with Wimbledon through injury. The kids include Murphy, Under-21 internationals David Thompson and Jamie Carragher, and the most dazzling prospect of all, Michael Owen.

It was Owen who scored Liverpool's equaliser from the spot, and who had consistently provided their greatest threat. Quick and direct with an eye for goal he still has much to learn but, for a 17-year-old, he is stunning. Like Murphy there is no sense of his being overawed - such was their confidence the pair argued over who should take the penalty.

"A lot of people say they are for the future but the future is now," said Evans. "I don't believe in mollycoddling people when they are ready. Both are strong and determined, they are well-educated, sensible boys. Murphy has a head like a 30-year-old, it is as if he has been here for years. Owen is confident and determined, he won't be pushed around. He'll learn from playing with Karlheinz."

It was Riedle who earned Owen's penalty, falling under Vinnie Jones' clumsy challenge. "He has great technical ability," said Evans, "and Ince has the perfect attitude. If we get wobbly he can strengthen us. We need both of those qualities if we are not to fall by the wayside as we have before."

If they do, it won't be for a lack of players. As well as Leonhardsen, Thompson and Carragher, Robbie Fowler, Patrik Berger, Jamie Redknapp, Bjorn Tore Kvarme, Mark Kennedy and Dominic Matteo were also absent from Saturday's 16. Given that strength, Neil Ruddock's unfortunate knee injury should be comfortably absorbed.

Joe Kinnear can only look enviously at such resources. He has spent 10 per cent of the pounds 4m they received from Liverpool on a Leonhardsen look- a-like, Ceri Hughes, and the rest has gone to the bank. Until Sam Hamman's dreams of a new ground come to fruition (along with more supporters) they will always lack the depth and quality to win a title.

They remain hard to beat and it may not be irrelevant they they have no foreign players at all (Robbie Earle and Efan Ekoku, capped respectively by Jamaica and Nigeria, are English-born). Not that Kinnear is against the idea, but he is not prepared to break the club's tight wage-structure on expensive and ageing free-transfers nor buy foreign for the sake of it.

"It's second-rate Norwegians coming in now," he said. "There are good players out there but they are hard to find." To that end Terry Burton, his assistant, has been seconded to a year-long Continental scouting mission while the successful youth system has also been stepped up.

"It's all very well saying these players learn from watching Zola and Bergkamp," Kinnear asked, "but how long can you watch them? The only way to learn is by the seat of your pants, out there on the pitch. If you can play with them, fine, training's not enough."

Liverpool, able to pair Owen with Riedle, may have got the balance right for England. The question this season is has Evans got it right for Liverpool?

Goals: Gayle (58) 1-0; Owen (pen 74) 1-1.

Wimbledon (3-1-3-3): Sullivan; Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Cunningham; Ardley, V Jones (Castledine, 81), Earle; Holdsworth (Hughes, 63), Ekoku, Gayle (Clarke, 70). Substitutes not used: Thatcher, Heald (gk).

Liverpool (3-4-1-2): James; Wright, Ruddock (Harkness, 23), Babb; R Jones (McAteer, 84), Ince, Thomas, Bjornebye (Murphy, 70); McManaman; Riedle, Owen. Substitutes not used: Barnes, Warner (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing). Bookings: Wimbledon V Jones, Castledine. Liverpool Babb, Harkness.

Man of the match: Owen. Attendance: 26,106.

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