Football: Souness gasps for air of invincibility

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the satellite television people had in mind when they described the Premier League as a 'whole new ball game' it was not the prospect of Coventry and Norwich competing for top place, as they did yesterday. What wonderful irony. Even if by the end of the season the comparatively prosperous and famous have regained their eminence, the old game will have thumbed its nose at the television manipulators who thought the 'new' League was going to be all about the illustrious Uniteds of Manchester and Leeds, perhaps Arsenal and, of course, Liverpool, but not a tale of two modest cities and one rich man's diversion called Blackburn Rovers.

The people who founded the Premier League projected an elite group in which clubs like Coventry and Norwich would merely make up the numbers. But a whole new ball game is taking on a whole new meaning. If, for instance, Manchester United again failed to be champions, their credibility would be doubly unhinged. Leeds, now dropping silly points, would be looking like one-off champions. Arsenal would have nothing to blame but their own testiness, and Blackburn Rovers would have shown that money is not everything. But what of Liverpool? Explaining their demise would amount to a full-scale inquisition.

Presumably, Liverpool will not stay as low as they are now. Probably they will finish where Norwich and Coventry usually finish. Even so, an awful lot of people on Merseyside and beyond will still want to know why a club that dominated the Football League and Europe for so long could be so diminished as to seek satisfaction in mid-table. On the face of it, Graeme Souness has a lot to answer for. Most other clubs accept that an occasional drop into consolidation land is necessary. Not Liverpool. For them it would be an admission that an era is over. They are highly unlikely to finish better than last season's sixth place whereas in the previous 26 years they were never outside the top five and were champions or runners-up 20 times.

In spite of that record, and even at their best, Liverpool suffered occasional curious setbacks. These days the bad results come regularly and injuries, which used to be rare, now come by the wardful. Last weekend seven players with first- team experience were absent. In midweek a denuded team struggled to draw with Chesterfield in the Coca-Cola Cup. Everything seems to be against Souness who, when he took over from Kenny Dalglish in April of last year, was immediately aware that the established Liverpool policy of gradual replacement had been abandoned.

Souness's judgement was soon tested, and in some cases was found wanting. His outgoings exceeded the quality of his imports. Over an extended period the selling of Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton and Steve McMahon might have been justified. One could imagine Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley doing just that, but quietly and not before replacements had blended in over several months. The injuries merely emphasised the fact that Souness tried to do in a few months what traditionally Liverpool do over several seasons.

When injuries multiplied, the changes backfired. The inexperienced English-born players like Steve Harkness, Jamie Redknapp and Don Hutchison were like callow youths compared with the men upon whom Liverpool had built more than two decades of success. They had to defend the club's name against long-suffering teams who, after so many years of being given inferiority complexes, were only too pleased to find that they could get their own back. Souness's reaction, the purchase of Dean Saunders, especially, was not that of a convincing, experienced manager. Saunders is a fine goalscorer against poor defences, as was shown last Saturday, when the poor defence in question was that of Liverpool themselves.

The question Souness now faces is whether even when he does have all of his squad fit, it will be good enough to finish in the top half dozen. The answer is to be found as much in the past as the future.

When Dalglish walked out on Liverpool, the club was falling from greatness, and perhaps he felt unsure of himself. He had inherited a solid group of players and an organisation that took good care of the club. The back-room staff was still more or less intact. Then, in his last season, a good start was followed by several poor results. He was inexplicably reluctant to play Beardsley and Ronny Rosenthal. There were some panic purchases and injuries to influential players. More than a few Liverpool supporters would say that, in spite of the fact that under Dalglish Liverpool had remained highly successful, his appointment was a flawed decision. He was too young, too inexperienced, too taciturn. But if the seeds of the club's present difficulties were sown under his management, the problems he faced during his last few weeks at Anfield were nothing by comparison with those now concerning Souness.

A perfectionist, Dalglish was depressed by defensive failings that were putting pressure on the forwards to score more. They were doing so, but for how long? Souness took over a team that had lost not only Ronnie Whelan and McMahon to injuries but its air of invincibility. That lost shield, built partly on impressive football but also on bullying, is proving as damaging to Liverpool as any injury problem. Recently there was what proved to be an apocryphal rumour abroad in Liverpool that under the legend 'This is Anfield' above the visitors' exit to the pitch, someone had scrawled 'So What'. The fact is that the message needs no written confirmation. If Chesterfield had gone to Anfield a few seasons ago and known that most of the regular Liverpool team were injuried or being rested they would still be intimidated by Shankly's famous remark: 'There are two great teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.' Souness will be more haunted by Paisley's quip: 'Mind, I've been here during the bad times. One year we came second.'