Football: Mersey beats suffer a loss of tempo: As Sheffield celebrates, the Merseyside derby takes place today with Liverpool's big clubs in almost unprecedented decline. Joe Lovejoy investigates

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a football dinner in Liverpool, and all was sweetness and light ale until Howard Kendall, the guest speaker, came out with an old chestnut: 'A manager lives or dies by the players he signs.' The growl from the back could have been Shankly reincarnate: 'Then you and Souness have got a fortnight to live.'

To the relief of the Mersey monoliths, results picked up during that fortnight, and neither manager is on the point of expiry, but an air of unreality surrounds this afternoon's derby, which finds both teams plumbing uncharted depths, in the bottom eight. Until last Saturday, when Liverpool won at Middlesbrough while Everton were seeing off Nottingham Forest, the unthinkable was possible. The collision at Anfield had the look of a relegation six-pointer.

The pressure eased with those two wins, but they are not out of the woods yet. Liverpool, in 14th place, have 42 points - the same number as the old enemy, who are 17th. Kendall believes as many as 50 may be needed to survive, and warns: 'Neither of us can take anything for granted.'

Liverpool and/or Everton relegated in the Premier League's inaugural season. That would be some shot in the eye for the greedy elitists. Tranmere Rovers coming up to replace them has a certain appeal, and for months Evertonians have been ribbed about needing to play on Friday nights in future to avoid a clash of fixtures with Birkenhead's finest. It is not going to happen, of course. Rovers have been missing their Roy, alias John Aldridge, and their more celebrated neighbours should stay out of real trouble, if only through the shortcomings of the teams below them.

Wherever the two fallen giants finish, though, it has been a traumatic season. A generation on Merseyside has known nothing like it. Both fell at the first hurdle in the FA Cup, which had not happened since 1951, and in the league Liverpool are condemned to their worst placing for 30 years while Everton could lose an unbroken membership of the top division stretching back to 1954.

Strangely, for a public so accustomed to success, the fans are accepting failure with stoical good humour. There are murmurs of discontent, naturally, but no more than you might find at Middlesbrough.

Souness is coming in for more criticism. The wheeler-dealing which saw Beardsley, Saunders, Houghton and Staunton give way to Walters, Stewart, Piechnik and Bjornebye has gone down like a Manchester United shirt on the Kop. The demolition of the boot room and changes in routine have also done nothing for the popularity of a man whose eagerness to make a mark has seen him indicted with that gravest of crimes at Anfield - messing with tradition.

It was a brave, and contentious, move to break with a training regime set in stone since Shankly's time. Five-a-sides, used to ingrain instinctive, first-time passing, are no longer the be-all and end-all, and the training ground, not the stadium, is the players' new home. Souness spent some pounds 300,000 on upgrading the club's Melwood complex, on the outskirts of the city, and the players now report there by car every day, instead of bussing out from Anfield. The old guard miss the 'crack' - the banter which enlivened the coach trips to and fro - and team spirit is said to have suffered.

Whatever the reason, the swaggering confidence of old has long gone. It is noticeable even in the pre-match warm-up. Liverpool used to strut out and knock the ball around with intimidating arrogance. Now, they straggle on to the pitch and go though the motions with a few desultory passes before returning, with relief, to the sanctuary of the dressing room.

Apart from binning tradition, Souness is wide open to criticism of his transfer record. He has spent more than pounds 12m for little reward, with the plodding Paul Stewart, at pounds 2.2m, probably the worst of his acquisitions. He would like to buy again, but the club are reluctant to stake him at a time when they have just sunk pounds 8m into a new stand, and are committed to seating the Kop for another pounds 4m.

No relief in the market, then, yet protest remains muted, with crowds holding up remarkably well. Liverpool are the best supported club in the country this season, with an average home attendance of 36,546. Souness has had little abuse, not even when Bolton Wanderers ousted his team from the Cup on the most embarrassing night Anfield has endured in modern times. Whether the directors will be as indulgent as the fans come May remains a matter of conjecture.

Across Stanley Park, the blue half of the city is showing the same restraint, for different reasons. At Everton (average attendance 21,000), blame is directed at the board for not supplying the money to complete the refurbishment of a tatty team.

In his case, supporters know he can do it, given the wherewithal. He has done it before. Between 1984 and 1987, Kendall's Everton overtook Liverpool as the best side in the country, winning two championships, the FA Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. Howard the Hero then left for Atletico Bilbao, returning in November 1990 to find he was back where he started, in every sense. There was one welcome difference. When he was struggling to get it right first time around the fans turned on him to a wicked degree, daubing his home with offensive graffiti, distributing leaflets calling for his dismissal and going beyond the pale in distressing his children at school. 'They were cruel,' he says, 'but it made me tougher. If it ever happens again, I'll be prepared.'

There has been no sign of a recurrence, nor should there be after three wins in four games, against Blackburn, Coventry and Forest. Kendall agrees today's is an 'unusual' derby. 'More often than not, one club would be in the hunt for at least one trophy. People might say there's not really anything to play for, but there is. We're both down there, still not safe.'

The absence of criticism - the vitriolic sort, anyway - was a pleasant surprise, which, he felt, had a lot to do with the mutual misfortune of the two clubs. 'If you spoke to Graeme, he would probably say the same. He's delighted we're down there, and we're certainly delighted that they are. Being in trouble is even worse if you've got one set of supporters taking the rise out of the other.'

Inconsistency, that managerial euphemism for a variety of inadequacies, had been the undoing of both clubs this season, Kendall thought. 'Graeme, like me, is searching for his best 11, and until you find it, you are going to have inconsistency, because your selections are inconsistent.'

Everton had got off to a flier, beating Manchester United and Aston Villa in the first 10 days, but were unable to cope with injuries, principally to John Ebbrell, the finished article from the FA School, and Mark Ward, a feisty competitor from the university of life. 'We started well with those two in the side, then Ward broke his leg at Blackburn and Ebbrell needed a hernia operation. They are two influential players, and we struggled a bit without them.'

Injuries are a poor excuse. Every club suffers; the knack is to have sufficient cover to get by. Reinforcements would help, but Everton have had financial problems, and Kendall's critics point to the pounds 2m spent on Maurice Johnston and Paul Rideout, which is looking like money wasted.

If he could find another Beardsley - a steal at pounds 1m - there would be no hesitation about giving him the pounds 2m received from Arsenal for Martin Keown. As it is, the fee for the England defender is being used to placate the bank, with Kendall having to be content, for now, with the pounds 100,000 he is paying Birmingham for their right- back, Paul Holmes.

Success is proving more elusive second time around. 'The first time I was here, we were into my third season, and had a poor start, then turned the corner. We got to the League Cup final, then won the FA Cup, and it ended up being very successful. This time the third season hasn't been, and people will naturally be looking at next year as The Big One. It's time to do something again.'

Easier said than done? He nods. 'I wouldn't have been invited back if there hadn't been problems, and it takes time to sort them out. I'm close to sorting them, but it's not easy to find money to buy quality players to put the finishing touches to the job.'

Unlike Liverpool, where virtually every position is up for grabs, Everton's basic framework is in place. In Kendall's opinion, Neville Southall is still the best goalkeeper in Britain, Dave Watson has been 'outstanding' all season at centre-half, Beardsley is second to none in terms of technique and Tony Cottee is not only scoring goals, he has also learned to work for the collective good.

The task of filling in the gaps had been complicated by the outlawing of the back-pass, and the consequent acceleration of play. Kendall had to look for players who could cope with the high-speed power game, while staying true to his principles, which demanded style and composure, with the ball passed rather than kicked. 'A lot of clubs have gone for a certain type of player who is effective under the new rule. He may not be able to control the ball, his first touch may be useless, but he's quick and strong, and he can turn defences and leave them facing their own goal.

'The sides who are going for this type, to exploit the back-pass rule, are the difficult ones to play against. They have picked up a lot of points this season, playing the long ball over the top. We won't do it, and I think the supporters appreciate that. They've been patient because they see that we're trying to play, and be successful, in a way they want to see the game played.'

Improvement was needed in certain positions, and money was tight, but Kendall felt everyone, Everton and Liverpool included, could draw encouragement from the transformation in Norwich City's fortunes. 'They had to win their last game to stay up last season, and they've turned it around amazingly well with very few changes. That shows the rest of us what can be done.'

A nice derby-day irony here, Norwich having admitted that they used Liverpool as their role models. Time, perhaps, for a role reversal, with teacher learning from star pupil.

(Photographs omitted)

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