Football: Storm clouds gather over Liverpool: A 2-0 defeat at Wimbledon yesterday leaves Graeme Souness in even deeper trouble. Norman Fox reports

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The Independent Online
NO RESPITE here and none expected. Wimbledon had already won at Anfield earlier in the season and were unlikely to hold the umbrella to shield Liverpool from the continuing storm.

All that they could snatch by way of comfort was the fact that for 45 minutes they controlled everything but their own destiny. That is what happens when the world seems against you. To compound their problems, they offered Wimbledon an undisputed penalty which proved the turning point, but one that recent history indicated they had to expect.

What could be more poignant than Liverpool, whose recent decline culminated in their FA Cup defeat by Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday, immediately having to face the club that nearly five years ago inflicted their greatest embarrassment, at Wembley itself? Graeme Souness wants everyone to believe that the pride, passion and loyalty that then made such a result seem to be an unbelievable, unrepeatable freak is no longer his to command. His claim is not likely to be swallowed by the fans of a club that during his reign has seen so many changes that there is no longer a basis for loyalty and consistency.

After the events of the past week, indeed the past year, the answer to why Souness can no longer rely on the spirit of the past is obvious. When he took over from Kenny Dalglish there were already signs of decline, which may even have been the reason why, after some panic buys, that canny manager decided it was better to leave rather than be associated with the ebbing of a great club. Souness needed to be positive, and be seen to know his own mind. His steps were positive enough but only took Liverpool in the wrong direction. His purchasing power was at first almost unlimited. He bought badly and now his power to purchase is severely restricted.

The question is whether the club will accept his accusations of mercenariness and disloyalty among the players or view such complaints as churlish attempts to find scapegoats for his own debatable judgement of players. Since he took over, the club has spent pounds 13,525,000 and recouped pounds 9,025,000.

The situation now is that the directors of Liverpool are understandably reluctant to back Souness in any future purchases and they know there are players on the books who were bought at exorbitant prices and are currently of little value. They are also deeply concerned that next season the club may not qualify for Europe. That would hurt both pocket and pride.

A romantic view of Liverpool is that the days of boot-room and team continuity could have gone on indefinitely. Dalglish himself knew that was unlikely. Before he took over, the club had always had remarkably few injuries and all the time the legend of Bill Shankly and the inner strength of Bob Paisley remained, players felt they were invincible, or at least were joining an invincible club. Once Shankly and Paisley had gone, the aura began to fade. Nevertheless, Joe Fagan and later Dalglish were able to keep collecting trophies.

Dalglish was loved by the fans, but he clung on to ageing players who began to suffer more and more injuries. As a result he was forced to break the theme of the club, which was to replace like with like and slot each one into a proven, successful system.

The evidence suggests that Souness has accelerated the discolouration. It would not be unreasonable to ask why, if he was so keen to harness the enthusiasm of British players to join Liverpool, and when money was available, he chose to buy ordinary ones from abroad. And how come if money, as he says, is the root of most of Liverpool's present problems, he agreed to improve various already extortionate contracts?

There would be more sympathy for Souness if it were not for the fact that one of the biggest problems he inherited remains and has little to do with difficulties over injuries, money or the high average age of the squad he took over. Liverpool have been conceding goals to free-kicks and centres not met by their central defenders for so long that every club in the Premier League now knows the way to beat them. When a team such as Bolton, who if the name of the First Division had not been upgraded would this season have been in the Third, can exploit the same weaknesses, the writing on the Anfield walls that used to bear praise for the omnipotence of Ian St John and the rest will surely soon campaign for some casting out.

Any temptation Souness may have had to do some dramatic casting out himself was limited by availability. Nevertheless, he brought in Mark Wright, Don Hutchison and David James, and, with Ian Rush still available, left John Barnes to take the responsibility for prompting an attack lacking in numbers and dependent on Hutchison.

Some inventive touches by Barnes promised more than they produced, simply because there was neither sufficient power nor pace around him. Not that he could be exonerated from blame for failing to finish the best of several promising, if undernourished, first-half attacks. Jamie Redknapp had made a surprising amount of unimpeded progress through midfield and sent Hutchison away on the right, but when the centre came over Barnes screwed the ball wide from the far post.

The error was costly. After 35 minutes, Steve Cotterill was bustling through the Liverpool penalty area and had too many options to be taken lightly. So Torben Piechnik took him heavily and so close to the referee that a penalty was inevitable. John Fashanu casually sidefooted in from the spot.

Once Sanchez had headed on to the Liverpool bar and Stig Bjornebye and the substitute Steve Harkness had cleared the same player's lob off the line, the likelihood of Liverpool's dominance being rendered meaningless became even more apparent. Even a brave attempt by James to dive at the feet of Robbie Earle turned to disaster when the ball rebounded to Cotterill, who slammed it back in.

Wimbledon: H Segers; R Joseph, G Elkins, S Cotterill, J Scales, D Blackwell, N Ardley, R Earle, J Fashanu (D Holdsworth, 89 min), L Sanchez, A Clarke (S Talboys, 73 min). Sub not used: N Sullivan (gk). Manager: J Kinnear.

Liverpool: D James; M Marsh, R Jones, P Stewart, T Piechnik (S Harkness, 38 min), M Wright, M Walters (R Rosenthal, 72 min), J Redknapp, D Hutchison, J Barnes, S I Bjornebye. Sub not used: M Hooper (gk). Manager: G Souness.

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).

Goals: Fashanu pen (1-0, 36 min); Cotterill (2-0, 62 min).

(Photograph omitted)

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