Football: O'Neill shows his worth to Leicester

Leicester City 2 Liverpool 2
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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL'S PENCHANT for turning nobodies into somebodies is normally manifested in a positive way. The game's history is full of instances of unsung strikers or unknown keepers seizing the spotlight. But, like the Derby chairman in the Brian Clough era, Sam Longson, who won a Pyrrhic victory over Martin O'Neill's mentor, Barrie Pierpoint is an exception to the rule.

The name of Leicester's hitherto anonymous chief executive was on thousands of lips and placards before saturday's match. When it was over, hundreds gathered outside the main stand, not to hail Muzzy Izzet for his point- saving goal, but to chant Pierpoint's name. Unhappily for his ambitions, his new-found fame came cloaked in an entirely hostile context.

Traditionally, fans will tolerate any amount of boardroom shenanigans as long as results are positive. However, by challenging the club chairman, John Elsom, and the plc chief, Sir Rodney Walker, for control, Pierpoint and the three directors who back him have revived the prospect of Martin O'Neill resigning.

Leicester's latter-day Clough had announced on Friday that he was staying, but no one should be in any doubt that the manager will quit should his allies be ousted. If the "Gang of Four" needed evidence of how damaging that scenario might prove, the afternoon provided it in spades.

O'Neill patrolled the dug-out area like a caged beast, roaring instructions, snarling at officials and opposition alike and generally whipping up the crowd. So motivational was his presence, so intense his involvement that no one would have been unduly surprised had he taken the odd swipe at the ball.

Given that Liverpool enjoyed a numerical advantage for 39 minutes between the dismissal of Frank Sinclair and the red card shown to David Thompson in second-half stoppage time, O'Neill's role as the "extra" man was of particular significance. Occasionally, the one-time law student who had exhorted protesters to remain dignified looked as if he might self-combust, but he kept a sufficiently cool head to make the crucial tactical switch.

Matt Elliott was sent forward to maraud among a Liverpool back line renowned for vulnerability to crosses. In the event, Elliott used his feet like a tannaba' player from his adopted country (even if the Londoner is about as Scottish as Scotland Yard). Izzet, controlling his chipped pass, capped a display of prodigious industry with the equaliser.

Liverpool had only themselves to blame. Having shrugged off the shock of conceding a goal in 80 seconds, crafted by Izzet and converted by Tony Cottee, they out-passed Leicester and went ahead through Michael Owen's first Premiership goals since April. But instead of killing off opponents who became depleted by Sinclair's rash challenge on Titi Camara, they tried to kill time.

From being four minutes from victory, Izzet's intervention meant Gerard Houllier lost two points as well as Thompson for a late tackle on Robbie Savage. The Frenchman did not mince his words: his team had a "bad habit" of playing "safe" square balls and lacked the necessary "composure and control".

Although such qualities are not conspicuous in Leicester's make-up either, the inclusion of six young Englishmen in Houllier's side plus a trio of contenders in the home ranks was enough to attract Kevin Keegan. The England coach must have left reassured by Owen's sharpness and pondering caps for Izzet and Emile Heskey against Belgium next month, while perhaps remaining unconvinced by Steve Guppy's claims.

It would have been fascinating to know how Scotland's manager, Craig Brown, might have evaluated Elliott's contribution. Apart from his flash of "extraordinary class", as O'Neill put it, the defensive man-mountain hit Owen with a forearm smash that would have done Jackie Pallo proud. Since a similar folly left the Scots facing 45 minutes in the Faroes with 10 men in June - with costly consequences - Brown may now decide he has learned nothing.

Uriah Rennie, who detected Alan Shearer's elbows swinging when no one else could, now developed selective myopia, despite being ringside at the assault. Leicester should have been down to nine players, which would almost certainly have had the effect of ensuring that Liverpool preserved their lead and deflecting the crowd's anger from the directors' box on to the referee.

Instead, Filbert Street holds its breath and waits to see whether it is O'Neill, who intends to "keep reporting to Mr Elsom", or Pierpoint who goes.

Goals: Cottee (2) 1-0; Owen pen (24) 1-1; Owen (39) 1-2; Izzet (86) 2- 2.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Arphexad; Sinclair, Elliott, Taggart; Impey (Oakes, 61), Savage, Izzet, Lennon, Guppy; Cottee (Gilchrist, 67), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Fenton, Zagorakis, Fettis (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Heggem, Hyypia, Carragher, Matteo; Thompson, Gerrard, Redknapp (Murphy, 79), Berger; Owen, Camara (Meijer, 56). Substitutes not used: Song, Staunton, Friedel (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Leicester: Sinclair. Liverpool: Gerrard, Thompson. Sending- offs: Leicester: Sinclair. Liverpool: Thompson.

Man of the match: Izzet.

Attendance: 21,623.

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