Football: Houllier puts accent on desire

Anfield, once the spiritual home of winning, has nurtured too many losers. A Frenchman is on the case
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The Independent Online
GRARD HOULLIER says it with unforced frankness. "I still think we would've lost to Celta Vigo at full strength." Excuses, like some of a top-heavy Liverpool squad, are clearly past their sell-by date at Anfield. A new age of realism has dawned under the sole leadership of Houllier and if admittance of failure is the first step to solution, Liverpool's patchy season is already subject to the needle and thread.

"When I saw some of the matches earlier this season, the Charity Shield and others, I knew for sure that some teams were better than ours. We had to improve in commitment, tactics and technique," says Houllier. The Frenchman is not one of the spade as damned shovel brigade; his English is a little too idiosyncratic for that, his expression a little too sophisticated. But the idea that Houllier, who has the benign air of a favourite uncle, will be a soft touch is not one in which the Liverpool players should invest too much faith.

Insiders at Anfield say that Monsieur Houllier's regime will be very far from the holiday camp for pampered multi-millionaires which Fortress Anfield had become under Roy Evans. Red heart perhaps, but no red coat. The accepted myth is that Houllier is from the same stock as Arsene Wenger, a gentle, cerebral thinker about the game rather than a hell-raiser. His demeanour throughout a tortured three and a half month spell as joint manager was never short of exemplary. He and Evans genuinely did get on. The mistake, acknowledged by everyone except the top brass at Liverpool, was to put either man in such an invidious position in the first place. But the Liverpool team had their eyes opened by the ferocity of Houllier's attack after a shambolic, almost comical, night in Vigo just over a fortnight ago.

Splattered against the dressing-room wall, along with some fancy reputations, was the stereotyped portrayal of Houllier and Phil Thompson, his assistant. The Frenchman is quite versatile enough to play Jekyll and Hyde. Indeed, were it not for the patent decency of the man, it would be possible to concoct a Machiavellian scheme in which Houllier had calculated the odds of Evans' survival and, as a way of easing the culture shock which the direct appointment of a Frenchman to the bastion of British football might cause, agreed to joint ownership. The plan ends with Houllier occupying roughly the same position he occupies now, and with a dollop of goodwill thrown in for good measure.

Houllier's considerable credentials will be tested to the limit over the next two years, just as his team's fragile nerves will be stretched to breaking in a visit to Wimbledon today. L'Esprit Commando, the up- and-at-em approach despised by Houllier as a motivational tool, should be on tap. The state of Anfield has been rotten to the core for some years and only now, after a month in charge, will Houllier be fully coming to terms with the extent of the dry rot.

A taste of the future came in the wake of the 1-0 defeat by Vigo on Tuesday, which ended England's pathetic challenge in the Uefa Cup. A story emerged that Paul Ince, the club captain, would be sold; two days later, Houllier not only denied the claim but said he would be building his team around the England midfielder. That raised almost as many eyebrows.

Ince is 31, but his age seems in inverse proportion to his maturity. Nothing has happened in Ince's tempestuous time at Anfield to suggest that the solution to Liverpool's deep-seated ills lies within his ageing rubberball frame. Like an experienced doctor not entirely sure of the diagnosis, Houllier prefers to generalise the symptoms of inconsistency which have turned once essential values into the red plague.

"There are many players who want to succeed, but not so many who are prepared to do what it takes to succeed," he says. "That adds another dimension to a player. He pursues his responsibility, it's part of him, it's not the referee, the manager or their opponents, it's him. All I can do is explain to the players that when they get on the field, it's down to them and no one else.

"You have to set a target and stick to it. Some players want to achieve their target but aren't prepared to put in the effort. They think they have the experience, they look at what they've done. But that's in the past. You have to assume the responsibility. Big players, big winners do that." The implication of that, and his confirmed interest in Thomas Helmer, the 32-year-old Bayern Munich defender, is that Liverpool, once the spiritual home of winning, has nurtured too many losers. Some, over the next few months, will find the black iron gates of Melwood, the club's training ground, being shut for good behind them. Steve McMan-aman has shown every intention of leaving when his contract expires in the summer; Robbie Fowler's long-term future is far from assured.

Houllier's belief in developing young talent, which lay so clearly at the heart of the French World Cup triumph that an extra medal was minted for him, has already found expression this season in the elevation of David Thompson and Steve Gerrard, the latter, Houllier admits, earlier than he would have liked. The chance of coaching Michael Owen, one of the initial attractions of the job, has provided a rare shaft of sunlight amid the gloom. Houllier highlights three facets of the boy almost certain to become the youngest winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award tonight.

First, his "supersonic" speed; second, his enthusiasm; third, what the Australians would call his mateship. "I've not seen any difference in his commitment or his attitude from the first day I arrived here to this morning's training," Houllier purrs. "He has the same heart, the same passion, the same laughs, the same jokes. He is a good team player, he never tries to do too much himself and he's eager to learn." Houllier's regard for Nicolas Anelka, a product of his youth system in France, is well documented, but is more than matched by his praise for Owen.

"In terms of quality and attitude he's the best I've ever seen and he's just turning 19. But, if you think about it, there is a wave of promising young athletes in different sports. Ronaldo, Martina Hingis, Tiger Woods. The most difficult thing with Michael is to stop him." A sentiment echoed by the Argentinian defence and by Wimbledon, who had the first glimpse of the prodigy in this fixture 18 months ago. Owen came on as a substitute and, a sign of his precocity, scored from the penalty spot.

Houllier will be relying on similar flashes to haul Liverpool back on to the coat-tails of the title race. Anything less and the unthinkable, a season without Europe, could ram home the extent of the decline. Houllier's relationship with the fans is healthy enough at present. "They're saying to me all the time, 'Don't be afraid, don't worry, you'll do a great job'. They seem to have a positive approach to the fact that there will be some changing, not overnight, but there will be some. I really enjoyed their attitude against Celta Vigo."

Given his bundle of troubles, Houllier will need every ounce of their faith over the months ahead. Like his countryman at Arsenal, Houllier has to mould attitudes without losing matches. Wenger brought in Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit to reinforce his style; Houllier has no foreign players of equivalent stature and Owen is too young to banish the prevailing complacency on his own. Now, as Houllier acknowledges, is not the ideal time for change. "We're in the boat and we go," he says quaintly. Watching the voyage will be an abiding fascination. Not least for the present Liverpool crew.