Football: Houllier builds around the `good heart' of Liverpool

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD have been easy to change five players at half-time, Gerard Houllier remarked, sitting in the air-conditioned interview room at Ewood Park shortly after his Liverpool team had drawn 2-2 with Blackburn Rovers in the energy- sapping heat of Saturday afternoon. But he had resisted the temptation to give them a breather. "I wanted them to suffer a bit," he observed, with a small grin.

In recent seasons, suffering has been a condition more generally associated with the supporters than the players of Liverpool FC. In the public mind, no squad has benefited more from the explosion of affluence among professional footballers while doing less to keep its side of the bargain with those who fork out for the season tickets and the replica shirts. Ten years after the club's last championship, Anfield's representatives seem to be earning their supercars and their mansions less by virtue of their own efforts than from the sweat of their illustrious predecessors who took the club to 14 post-war League titles and four European Cup victories.

Now the burden of restoring Liverpool's fortunes rests on the shoulders of one 51-year-old Frenchman. And Gerard Houllier's personal history with the club - which began when he watched Bob Paisley's side from the Kop while working as a teacher in the city in the 1970s - will count for nothing if he should fail in a task which starts its next and most crucial phase at Hillsborough on Saturday.

Houllier begins the campaign in sole command of the playing staff, a year after the inauguration of the ill-fated experiment in joint management with Roy Evans, which was terminated last November. The team ended the season in seventh place, with none of the leading questions resolved. According to one view, the fans understood that the club was in transition, and that Houllier deserved time in which to make the necessary changes. But this season, after pounds 25m-worth of activity in the summer transfer market, there will be no room for making allowances.

Such an analysis does not necessarily coincide with the manager's opinion. "In football there is no transitional year," he said one evening last week, sitting in his small offices at Melwood, the club's training centre. "There used to be, when you had time, but you don't have time any more. You could even say this year is a transitional year, with all the new signings needing time to gel together. But I don't think you can say that in football any more."

In other words, the volatility of modern football and the demand for success mean that a top club needs to be in a state of permanent transition, something calling for vision and subtle management skills. But Houllier's preparations for a vital season have featured some pretty blunt methods: the departure of familiar names (Steve McManaman, Paul Ince, David James), the introduction of less familiar ones (Titi Camara, Sami Hyypia, Sander Westerveld, Dieter Hamann, Vladimir Smicer, Erik Meijer), and the application of a more disciplined fitness programme aimed at preparing the team to meet the physical challenge that remains the Premiership's defining characteristic.

Hence the need to make them suffer in a South Lancashire heatwave, less than 48 hours after they had beaten the Norwegian side Vallarenga in similarly oven-like conditions, their fifth victory in five pre-season friendlies, with an aggregate scoreline of 20-0. As the reports filtered back to Merseyside from Oslo, Belfast and elsewhere, old dreams were rekindled. The several thousand fans who made the 40-mile to Ewood Park on Saturday would have come away with a more realistic assessment, but still in a mood of optimism.

Houllier could be satisfied with the contributions of all the five new faces in the starting line-up, several of whom evoked memories of famous red-shirted forbears. Hamann, replacing Ince as the holding midfield player, gave a composed performance more reminiscent of Ronnie Whelan or Graeme Souness. Smicer, wide on the right, showed the darting industry of Brian Hall or the young Ian Callaghan. Hyypia, at centre-back, suggested the lean athleticism and anticipatory instinct of Alan Hansen. Westerveld, despite a mix-up with Jamie Carragher that led to an own goal, looks to have the right combination of physical and psychological presence. And Camara's muscular runs and perceptive touches, which led to the goals for Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp, made the Guinean striker look, at pounds 2.5m from Marseilles, like an early candidate for the bargain of the season, although he will probably have to stand down when Michael Owen returns, probably in the third or fourth week of the season, from protracted treatment for his bad hamstring injury.

The remodelled Liverpool were, of course, playing a freshly relegated Blackburn side with a long injury list. But, as Houllier said, they made enough chances to have won 7-2, while conceding enough to have lost 3- 2. And as David Dunn raced through the momentarily untenanted left flank of the Liverpool defence to strike the equaliser, the defensive lapses that so frequently deflated Anfield's hopes of revival last season did not seem to have been entirely eradicated.

Houllier put it down to fatigue. "We stopped running at them and putting pressure on the ball-carriers. Instead of defending actively, of making things happen, we became very passive. But actually I'm glad about the result today. Some of the players could have been getting carried away. It's a good reminder, a bell for them."

So is this going to be the season when Liverpool rejoin Manchester United and Arsenal at the pinnacle of the English game? "I'm sorry to come back to this," he said, "but it took Alex Ferguson four years to win a trophy and seven years to win the title, and he's the first one to stress the fact that it's because there was some kind of stability in the club that he was able to do so. We need time - although not as much, because we've got some very talented players who in a couple of years could gain a lot of experience."

The length of his personal contract is not disclosed, but he has a schedule in mind, although he refused to volunteer its specifics while agreeing that qualification for Europe would be the minimum expectation this season. On the championship prospects, he was more circumspect. "I think when you look at Chelsea, who started four or five years ago and have not won the title yet, and at the fact that it took Alex seven years... well, I think in three years' time we should be in the top three of the Premiership. That's being very realistic." But shouldn't Liverpool aspire to winning the title within three years? "I hope so. But I keep my feet on the ground."

As did Ferguson, Houllier has found himself beginning the job of rebuilding the culture of the club by confronting the negative factors. His pragmatic approach can be judged by the contrast between the exit of the influential but ageing Ince and the decision to hand the vice-captaincy of the club to Robbie Fowler, despite last season's antics.

"A lot of progress has been made," he said. "The core and the heart of the Liverpool team has got to be kept, and we're lucky to have, I would say, a good heart. Arsene Wenger had a back four who were the culture of the club. We've got some players - maybe younger, which is why it will take time - who are a good nucleus to pass on the tradition of the club. Jamie Redknapp, the captain, is one. He's not a Liverpool boy, but he came here when he was 17 and he's been here nearly 10 years. Robbie is another. He's eager to win something."

In football terms, the problem is relatively straightforward. "The figures speak for themselves. Last season we could score goals but we were vulnerable at the back. As a team we lacked strength and solidity - which doesn't mean just the back four but the whole team. Now we have a new goalkeeper, two new defenders, a new defensive midfield player. That forms a kind of diamond."

The key to success may lie with the less glamorous role played by Hamann, anchoring the midfield. "He's a good player who makes things happen from a position which is very important in modern football. For Brazil in 1994 it was Mauro Silva, alongside Dunga. Now it's Deschamps, Desailly when he was at Milan, Vieira. And look at Barcelona last season. As long as Guardiola was injured, they were third or fourth in the table. They got him back, they won the title. That's the job Hamann will do. But I don't want somebody who is fixed, sitting there and not moving. The system we have allows flexibility and freedom."

There have been criticisms that Houllier, like Arsene Wenger and Gianluca Vialli, has sold Englishmen and bought foreigners. It is, he said, nothing to do with the quality of the local product, just the fees quoted for them. "It's true that I wanted some English players. But either we were told: `Hands off, they're not for sale,' which we understood and respected, or we were quoted a price that meant we would have to sell one stand, maybe, to afford them. So we had to look somewhere else. At the end of the day, you have a budget and you try to be clever with it."

He is pleased with what his pounds 25m has bought, but the experience makes him grateful for the club's recent pounds 12m investment in a football academy. Supervised by Steve Heighway on a 54-acre site, it is intended to produce the successors to Owen, Fowler, Carragher, Matteo and the new generation on the fringe of the first team - the likes of David Thompson, Stephen Wright and Steven Gerrard, whom Houllier names among an "outstanding" generation of English players aged between 18 and 23, including Jonathon Woodgate, Alan Smith, Francis Jeffers and, mentioned with a particularly heartfelt whistle of admiration, West Ham's Joe Cole.

Yet, as with Wenger and Vialli, he could select a credible team entirely devoid of Englishmen. Not a chance, he replied. "I think there would be a kind of a Liverpool heart that would prevent me from doing that. I'm too keen to have four or five lads who are Liverpool-born. But the fans don't care about the fact that Sami Hyypia is Finnish or Karlheinz Riedle is German. To them, they're Liverpool players and they love them as much as Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen. As one of our players said recently, Liverpool is our country and the language is football. That's all."