Football: Houllier's authority on the line

Norman Fox fears the Fowler affair highlights lower standards
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The Independent Online
ROBBIE FOWLER once remarked that "while I might be a lot of things, I've never been a scally". He made a good attempt to prove otherwise with his obscene gesture towards Graeme Le Saux at Chelsea last Saturday, leaving the Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, again biting his tongue about the club's continuing decline in standards.

The incident may serve to explain why his former management partner, Roy Evans, lost the plot and later his job. Problems ran far deeper than Liverpool's failure to string a few passes together or make visitors tremble at the very thought of visiting Anfield.

Another confirming moment was the arrival of Phil Thompson as Houllier's assistant. We are talking about discipline of the sort that in Bill Shankly's time was rarely needed or was inflicted quickly with that scalpel of a tongue. When Thompson returned to the club with his "show us your medals" hardness, it was said his responsibility would extend beyond disciplinary matters on the pitch. It needed to. Liverpool's reputation for being a tight ship had been badly holed.

Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, has pleaded with Fowler to make a proper apology for his part in the rumpus when he receives a private letter of remorse from Le Saux for his elbowed retaliation.

Taylor believes Fowler's faxed response from Anfield on Friday in which he regretted the incident was not enough. "I'm hoping that things may improve and that when Robbie receives the personal letter of apology there may be something more equivocal from him," Taylor said. "I am disappointed with the wording of the response, but he has no doubt taken advice from people, including legal help."

Fowler spoke of his actions being "misinterpreted", that he was being made a "scapegoat" and that Le Saux's elbow to the back of his head was "highly regrettable". Taylor commented: "I have had the interests of two of my members, both in the England squad, and I would hope that apologies from both sides will help to defuse the situation. I want them to put this behind them and I hope it will defuse the situation. I have spoken to Robbie, explained the problem and underlined that we have not taken sides in a one-player-versus-another row."

Discipline had gone astray at Liverpool not only in terms of the side's failure to act as a unit in the old way but in relationships between groups of players and between players and management. Players who have left the club over the past two years have spoken of factions and wild living. Hence, the Scouse Boys tag.

Naturally, those who remain suggest otherwise. Jamie Redknapp calls the whole idea of deep-seated disciplinary problems "utter nonsense". Yet when it became known that Fowler had been offered a four and a half year contract worth a reported pounds 35,000 a week while Steve McManaman had agreed to join Real Madrid, privately Houllier was relieved. He said all the right things about not wanting to lose McManaman, who had been offered an improved contract, but it was obvious that he was not inconsolable at seeing the pair drawn apart.

It was assumed that as a Scouser himself Evans was too close to be critical of anything but on-the-field performances. Houllier is not easily drawn on internal club matters but offered the cryptic remark: "They have to ask themselves what they want to do and what they want to get from their lives. As professional footballers they must believe that life is about winning."

Although still the club's policy to resolve disciplinary matters in-house, Houllier's recent public outburst against a referee suggested that he might be tempted to perform a public hanging of one of his players. More likely, his anger at the way Fowler has brought this once great club into disrepute will be vented in private, but the fans need to know that it has happened.

Rebellion against both Evans and Houllier spilled over last October when Michael Owen criticised them for resting him. Had he blustered into Shanks' office and demanded to know why he had been effectively dropped to the reserves, he would have slunk out of the door having been told, like one predecessor: "Because we don't have a third team." That was discipline.