Football: Liverpool's U-turn keeps Souness in place: Anfield director resigns in protest after chairman's surprise announcement that manager will see out remaining three years with the club

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The Independent Online
LIVERPOOL last night put an end to a week of damaging and embarrassing speculation about the future of Graeme Souness, but their announcement that the manager would be staying on for the remaining three years of his contract raised as many questions as it answered.

In an astonishing and farcical U-turn, the Liverpool board assembled at Anfield to give their backing to the 40-year-old Souness, who in turn pronounced himself 'relieved and delighted'.

Their unity was not without cost. One director opposed to Souness's continuing, the solicitor Tony Ensor, felt his 'strongly held views' were incompatible with his position and has resigned after eight years' service, during which he guided the club through a legal minefield in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster. He will be replaced by Tom Saunders, Liverpool's former chief scout.

During a tense press conference, which also confirmed the promotion of the club's long-serving coach Roy Evans to assistant manager, it emerged that other board members had also harboured reservations over whether Souness should carry on after two years as manager. The club had even offered to pay up his contract, while the chief executive, Peter Robinson, conceded that discussions had gone on until as late as Saturday evening.

David Moores, the Liverpool chairman, made it clear that the waverers had been won over. Describing the past few days as 'probably the most difficult in the club's history', Moores revealed that Souness had actually initiated the whole affair by approaching him to ask whether he still had the full support of the board. The manager's concern followed a meeting last month at which it became clear there was some anti-Souness feeling among the directors.

'That sparked off a whole series of discussions within the board and with Graeme,' Moores said. In fact, the Liverpool board met a week ago last night without Souness's knowledge, and reconvened in his absence last Tuesday. There was a conspicuous lack of support for Souness after either gathering, and he stayed away from Saturday's home match against Tottenham.

Acknowledging that the club had 'not been much help to the media', Moores maintained that while the discussions had gone on 'rather longer than anyone would have wished', their priority had been to reach 'the best conclusion - not the quickest'.

He read a statement intended to put 'one or two matters very firmly on the record'. At no time, he insisted had Souness expressed any wish to leave; during their talks with him, the club had told him that if he wanted to go, they would pay him off in full. Souness had informed them 'very clearly' that he wanted the job, not the money.

Souness admitted it had been 'a very stressful week', but said he hoped to see out his five-year contract. He felt the club were only 'two or three quality players' away from their old pre-eminence and planned to bring in newcomers this summer.

'I came here because of the feeling I have for this club,' he said. 'The job I had before (at Rangers) was regarded by many managers as the best, because I was a shareholder, director and manager. But the pull of this place was so great, I felt that I had to come back.

'The two years I've had here have been slightly less successful than I'd have liked. We won the FA Cup last year, but this season has been traumatic partly because of the great number of injuries we've had. The players, I'm sure, can do better, and get this club back to being No 1 in England and hopefully in Europe too.'

Disenchantment with Souness's abrasive management style surfaced last April after he sold the story of his heart bypass operation to the Sun, a newspaper widely disliked on Merseyside because of its coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.

It has continued this season, especially after Liverpool fell to Second Division Bolton at the first hurdle in the FA Cup. Souness's patchy record in the transfer market has also raised eyebrows at Anfield, along with the team's poor disciplinary performance, and relations with several senior players have been strained. As recently as Saturday evening, Ian Rush was pressed to endorse his management on BBC Radio 5, but stopped short of doing so.

The 44-year-old Evans, who made nine appearances for Liverpool during the Bill Shankly era before retiring at 25 to join the Boot Room, will clearly be expected to act as a buffer between the volatile Souness and the dissidents. Asked whether the decision to elevate the former full-back had been his, Souness replied tersely: 'No - it was the board.'

The position of Ronnie Moran, the veteran coach who took charge for Saturday's 6-2 victory over Spurs, remained unaffected, Souness said.

However, the manager will be back in command for tomorrow night's testimonial match for Joey Jones at Wrexham. With his chief opponent on the board removed, Souness's position looks to have been strengthened considerably.

Reports and results, pages 26 and 27