Football: Souness leaving Liverpool a losing legacy: What's gone wrong at Anfield? Joe Lovejoy offers a personal view on why a once-flourishing club is now struggling

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AFTER King Kenny, Solvite Souey. The flypaper manager was still sticking stubbornly to his job last night, causing Liverpool the sort of embarrassment which will have Bill Shankly spinning in his grave. It has been common knowledge on Merseyside all week that Graeme Souness will not be in charge at Anfield next season. The club want him out; he is ready to leave. Only the not so small matter of compensation has delayed a formal announcement, and there were signs yesterday that agreement was near.

The quaffer turned gaffer - not for nothing was he called Champagne Charlie in his playing days - has been seeking a pounds 1m settlement on the three years his contract has to run. The indications are that he will go after today's match at home to Tottenham with more like pounds 700,000.

Poor man. Still, not a bad kiss-off for presiding over two years of steep decline which have turned Mighty Liverpool into just another club.

All told, Souness has cost them at least pounds 1.6m - not including his pounds 5m deficit on transfers. To that exorbitant golden handshake must be added the pounds 400,000 paid to Rangers when he was poached from Ibrox, and an annual salary in excess of pounds 250,000.

In return, the club who became a byword for success have had their worst season for nearly 40 years. The shrinking band of Souness admirers will cite the FA Cup, won at Wembley 12 months ago, but the vast majority are unimpressed.

History cuts no ice. Spoiled by Shanks and his heirs, the Kop and company demand perennial rather than occasional reward for their enduring loyalty.

If Souness had any doubts that the party was over, they will have been dispelled on Thursday, when his 40th birthday found the news ratpack encamped on his lawn, the local paper conducting a telephone poll which suggested that 67 per cent of supporters wanted him to go, and still wet graffiti at the club's Melwood training ground screaming 'Sack Souey'.

The previous night, a disaffected team had suffered Liverpool's first defeat by Oldham Athletic for 71 years. They have failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in 30 years, and went out of the FA Cup to Bolton Wanderers - their worst result in the competition since 1959. It was time to go.

He would have gone before today but for the sort of faux pas which would have been as unthinkable as losing to Bolton under the old regime. When Sir John Smith was chairman, Liverpool prided themselves in acting first, then telling the world afterwards. Leaks were for plumbers. Nowadays at least one director has been prattling like a jilted bimbo.

The latest indiscretion let slip that the board had met in secret session last Sunday, to discuss a change of management. The intention had been to reach a corporate decision, to present Souness with a fait accompli. But the meeting broke up without achieving unanimity, and Deep Throat promptly blabbed to the hacks.

Forewarned was forearmed. By the time the directors convened again, 48 hours later, the element of surprise had been lost, and they had Souness and his lawyer, Jim Keegan, girding their legal loins. Cover blown, the grubby laundry would have to be washed in public. It was not only on the field that standards were slipping.

How had the paragons of British football - often imitated, never duplicated - come to this? Bad management. Inflexible management. Too many wrong choices, too many wrong changes, too much iron fist and not enough velvet glove.

Souness was probably the hardest player of his generation, and is possibly the toughest manager. He seems never to have learned that players are diverse characters, some of whom respond to the carrot more readily than the stick.

To say he has bought badly may be an over-simplification. Perhaps he has bought quite well, but managed badly. Dean Saunders, Mark Wright, Paul Stewart and Michael Thomas, in whom he invested pounds 8.8m, may have been disappointing, but others would have been only too happy to acquire them at the same price, and Saunders' renewed prosperity at Aston Villa suggests a bad workman may have been quarrelling with perfectly good tools.

Not that Souness's record in the market is exemplary. Far from it. Torben Piechnik, Stig Bjornebye and Istvan Kozma have won him few friends, and David James, the goalkeeper he bought for pounds 1.1m, has proved every bit as error-prone as Bruce Grobbelaar.

In attempting to rejuvenate an ageing team too quickly, Souness fell into the trap of selling good, proven performers who had enough left in them to make him regret it. Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton and, to a lesser extent, Steve McMahon have done just that. So, too, have younger players he has sold. Steve Staunton and Gary Ablett could only improve that brittle defence.

Rebuilding on the grand scale, rather than piecemeal, was always going to take nearer the five years Souness was hired for than the two he has lasted, but neither club nor manager have had the required patience.

'My weakness,' Souness said recently, 'is that I'm impetuous and a little irrational.' True to type, when results dipped, the man flipped, savaging the team as a whole and breaking with the tradition which kept the criticism of individuals within the confines of the dressing-room. Pointing the finger in public, he dropped senior professionals like Grobbelaar, Wright, Barnes and Rush. None of them were prepared to be scapegoats for the collective degeneration. All four stood up for themselves and fell out with the manager to such a degree that morale suffered irreparable damage.

Grobbelaar, relegated to third- choice goalkeeper, behind James and Mike Hooper, had two major rows with his erstwhile team-mate, and was given to understand that he would never play for the first team again. The old bush fighter is shedding no tears over this week's turn of events, which could see him restored at the start of next season, when James will be suspended.

Barnes, too, is unlikely to petition for a stay of execution, having said he will only sign the new contract he has been offered if the manager goes, and Rush, whose renaissance has brought nine goals in the last 12 games, pointedly made no reference to Souness when he revealed the source of his renewed motivation. 'I've been trying my best because I want to be here next season,' the master striker said.

In the circumstances, with the manager and key players barely on speaking terms, the wonder is that a team with more grudges than goals managed to stay out of the relegation zone. Results were poor, form patchy, at best, but the fans would probably have put up with that. All week they have been telling anyone prepared to listen of the light to be seen at the end of the Mersey tunnel.

If it had just been a question of results and performances, Souness could have weathered the storm, but there was more to it than that. Two things have exacerbated the situation. Success may be cyclical, but Liverpool would rather it was anyone other than Manchester United riding their bike. There is a longstanding antipathy between the two clubs, which goes far deeper than the comparatively friendly rivalry between Liverpool and Everton or United and Manchester City.

Worse, and more damaging than anything in the supporters' eyes, is Souness's relationship with the Sun - a newspaper reviled on Merseyside for its criticism of the crowd in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy. Scousers were outraged when Souness sold a story to the paper they were boycotting, and the board made him issue a public apology.

Sorry was not enough. Many have never forgiven him for his insensitivity, and sympathy for his fate now is greatly diminished by the memory. If Souness does go, he would be well advised not to share his version of this week's events exclusively with Sun readers.

Whose will replace him? After rounding up the usual suspects, we can eliminate Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish from our enquiries. Both would be assured of a hero's welcome, but are doing very nicely, thank you, with Newcastle and Blackburn respectively, and show no inclination to return to their spiritual home.

If it has to be an 'old boy' - and they may be tiring of that particular tradition - what price John Toshack, a protege of Shankly in his Swansea days, or Phil Neal, who was seen at Anfield this week?

If they are to go outside the family, Ron Atkinson and Peter Reid, both Liverpool-born, have obvious credentials. Likewise Gerry Francis, who has done such a good job with limited resources at Queen's Park Rangers.

Genial Gerry, though, has one major disadvantage. They have no great affection for pearly kings on Merseyside, and in quoting Francis as 9-4 second favourite yesterday, Liverpool's Daily Post summed up his chances with droll disdain. 'His main handicap is likely to be cultural,' the Post man sneered. 'Francis talks like one of the spivs who prop up the Winchester bar in TV's Minder.'

Eureka. If it's Liverpool culture they want, send for Tarby. After all, it is, as those Manchester United T- shirts tell us, pantomime season on Merseyside.

(Photograph omitted)

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