Football: Houllier defence is the real joke

Liverpool 3 Everton 2

IT MIGHT all have made more sense had it been 1 April instead of 3 April. We could have laughed off Gerard Houllier's explanation of Robbie Fowler's little "joke" as another attempt at taking the Michel.

However, Houllier maintained he was totally serious when he revealed his scallywag of a striker was actually pretending to devour grass rather than snort the white stuff, a bit of "ceremonial" slapstick apparently imported from Metz with Rigobert Song.

Grass or any other substance, the Everton supporters in the box seats for Fowler's bizarre performance had no doubt this was a retort to their taunts about the player's alleged social activity.

In any other circumstances, brief mimicry might have been giggled off by the fair-minded as harmless fun. Are we not always lamenting the passing of the characters from our game?

Unfortunately for Fowler, his current circumstances are such that any mistimed one-liner is likely to land him in more trouble than a mistimed tackle. To make matters worse, he repeated the gag, then stood provocatively in front of the Everton compound. Disapproval on the part of the police and the Football Association alike is understandable. They will doubtless consider he crossed that white line which separates acceptable humour and bad taste.

As for Houllier, he was palpably not cut out for music hall. He cast himself as the April Fool with his babbling monologue. He must now cringe at the re-runs. His embarrassment will be withering.

The real pity about all this is that the controversy has served to obscure the positive aspects of this stirring, passionate spectacle. Fowler himself scored two of the five goals, a penalty which brought him to his hands and knees, and the far-post header which might have brought Everton to theirs. Fowler's strikes tilted the balance of the match Liverpool's way after Olivier Dacourt's deflected volley gave Everton the lead after just 40 seconds. And when it seemed the endeavour had taken its toll, Patrik Berger's volley extended Liverpool's advantage and triggered an explosive finale.

Francis Jeffers pulled one back in those closing, nerve-wrenching minutes, and Steven Gerrard performed goal-line heroics to confirm Liverpool's first derby success in 10 meetings stretching back five years.

It was pulsating, at times raw, even crude, but always compelling and unpredictable. These tribal skirmishes may no longer hold the attention of the nation, but on Merseyside they mean as much as they ever did. Witness the delirious touchline antics of the normally dignified Houllier at the final whistle. Perhaps that "ceremonial" was shipped in too.

The result was hugely important for him, of course. Local pride could scarcely take another blow and sections of the Anfield crowd have been venting their disenchantment with Houllier's stewardship.

Liverpool were far from convincing yet clung on and Houllier has bought more time. But the clock could be chiming the doom of Everton before too long. While Kevin Campbell toiled manfully to enhance his prospects of a permanent escape from Turkey, the other debutant, Scot Gemmill, seemed hypnotised by the mayhem all about him.

Dacourt's imported commitment kept Everton afloat when lesser spirits were in danger of going under. Walter Smith, the Everton manager, will need a good deal more of this esprit Dacourt if he is to ensure Everton survive another late-season tempest. They are at home to Sheffield Wednesday today in a match they dare not squander. This time they have no derby ritual to lift them, only the looming spectre of relegation to the Nationwide League.

Goals: Dacourt (1) 0-1; Fowler pen (15) 1-1; Fowler (21) 2-1; Berger (82) 3-1; Jeffers (84) 3-2.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Heggem (Gerrard, 70), Song, Staunton, Matteo; McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Berger; Owen, Fowler (Riedle, 85) Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Bjornebye, Thompson.

Everton (4-4-2): Myhre; Short, Watson, Materazzi (Weir, 45), Ball; Barmby (Jeffers, 75), Dacourt, Unsworth, Gemmill; Campbell, Branch (Cadamarteri, 63). Substitutes not used: Siemonsen (gk), Grant.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow). Bookings: Everton: Gemmill, Barmby, Campbell.

Man of the match: Berger.

Attendance: 44,852.

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