FOOTBALL: Liverpool fail to recreate Shankly's Anfield

Liverpool 2 Coventry City 0
THE TABLES in the match programme hinted that this would not be a normal day. Preston North End were there in black and white commanding the heights of English football while Burnley and Fulham were just two points behind. Liverpool? They were mid-table mediocrity in the Second Division.

The economics of the modern game exposed the information as a fragment from history. Preston, with a small population and limited resources, could no more lead the League today than Doug Ellis expect a warm welcome at Upton Park, but it did underline how far Liverpool have travelled. The programme was the first published while the club was under Bill Shankly's management in 1959; the Anfield it was being sold in a monument to his work.

"Every thing you see here is a tribute to him," Kevin Keegan, the great communicator's brightest jewel, said. "Other people worked hard too, but the man who deserves most credit is Bill Shankly. He changed my life. I miss him."

Keegan led a group of former players who were paraded on the pitch to mark the 40th anniversary of Shankly's arrival at Liverpool. Anfield was hushed, pipers played "Amazing Grace" and the Kop held up cards that made up a mosaic with the word "Shanks" crowning the St Andrew's flag. Nostalgia swirled in the icy wind, you were invited to look back and the temptation grew stronger the longer the match went on.

Two very good goals were a compensation but Liverpool present are a long way short of Liverpool past. Perhaps the players were, as Gerard Houllier suggested, overwhelmed by the occasion but you were left gasping for a touch from the men who had departed. Keegan, Peter Thompson, Ian Callaghan, any would have done, even Peter Cormack, who is not the first name you would pluck from the Anfield galaxy but whose subtle artistry would have illuminated a dull midfield.

There were compelling performances in that department but they came from Coventry's old men, Gary McAllister and Carlton Palmer, who eclipsed Dietmar Hamann and Jamie Carragher and were unfortunate not to have taken home something for Christmas from Anfield.

Noel Whelan missed with a free header from 10 yards after eight minutes; McAllister made a hash of an attempted lob when he was clear after 28; Palmer should have hit the target with another header; Vladimir Smicer cleared off the line from Cedric Roussell; if the scoreline had finished 2-2 it would have been hard to mount a case that an injustice had been perpetrated.

Instead Liverpool, who have won seven of their last eight matches, got the three points that keeps them in touch with the leaders thanks to a delightful turn and stabbing shot by Michael Owen that suggested reports of his demise might be premature and a 25-yard shot from Titi Camara which may or may not have been deflected off Owen's back.

That was the assertion of Gordon Strachan, whose antics are becoming more eccentric by the match. On Saturday he eschewed the stairs and leapt into the crowd to get from the stand to the touchline, and received a stern wigging from a steward as a result. You shudder to think what the Coventry manager's reaction would have been if matters on the field had taken a turn for a worse but the fact that the man in the yellow jacket is not having Strachan's pen removed from a painful place reveals a compromise was reached.

What had galvanised Strachan was an off-the-ball incident between Gary Breen and Owen which left the England striker on the floor clutching his face. The crowd, the players and the linesmen did not know what had happened and the referee, who was similarly mystified, took the "if in doubt" option and booked the Coventry defender.

Houllier said the referee was "brilliant" even if he was wrong - it had to be either a red card or nothing and as the consensus afterwards was it was an accidental collision, Breen has every right to feel aggrieved - but the Liverpool manager was also effusive with his praise about his team's performance, so perhaps he was so taken by the Shankly celebrations his judgement was impaired.

On this evidence the parade of Houllier "greats" in 39 years time is unlikely to include anyone other than Owen and Sami Hyypia.

Goals: Owen (45) 1-0, Camara (73) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Gerrard, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Smicer, 36; Murphy, 89), Hamann, Carragher, Berger; Owen, Camara (Heggem, 86). Substitutes not used: Song, Nielsen (gk).

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Telfer, Breen, Williams, Froggatt; Hadji (Norman, 74), Palmer, McAllister, Chippo; Keane, Whelan (Roussel, 70). Substitutes not used: Eustace, Gustafsson, Ogrizovic (gk).

Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay).

Bookings: Coventry: Keane, Breen.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 44,024.