Football: The perfect partners in their prime

As Old Trafford prepares for a game of two prolific pairings, Houllier puts the accent on natural chemistry

THEY score goals, we score goals. As the combined total for the two clubs the previous weekend had been a princely 13, this assessment of today's FA Cup fourth-round tie at Old Trafford could have been uttered by Simple Simon not Gerard Houllier. Of those 13, nine came from the two most potent combinations in the Premier League, and it would be a brave bookmaker who bets against one of those four names making the decisive contribution before the roast potatoes have gone cold at lunchtime today.

Between them, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke have scored 21 (Yorke 11, Cole 10) of Manchester United's 49 goals in the Premiership this season, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen 22 (Owen 13, Fowler 9) of Liverpool's 43. Last weekend, the Cole-Yorke axis provided five of United's six at Leicester and Fowler scored a hat-trick and Owen one as Liverpool routed Southampton 7-1. As significant in Houllier's eyes was the fact that Owen, the most gifted goalscorer in the league, had provided his partner with two of his three goals, confirming the new Liverpool manager in his view that the two players have complementary not contradictory skills.

Houllier talks of the scepticism which greeted the initial pairing of two players of such transparent similarity. Fowler and Owen, it was said, would halve each other's effectiveness rather than double the team's productivity. There was mileage in the argument. Owen relies on pace to score his goals, Fowler has a Lineker-like instinct for being in the right place at the right time. But the natural streak of selfishness which runs through every top-class striker seemed sure to find them occupying roughly the same square yard in the penalty box. Rarely do strikers of equal genius hit it off. Romario and Bebeto for Brazil in the USA in 1994 and Zamorano and Salas for Chile in France last summer were golden exceptions. More often, good striking partnerships flourish when roles are more clearly defined: Shearer and Sheringham, Beardsley and Lineker for England, Beardsley and Cole for Newcastle. There was never much doubt who was going to score the goals. Though the SAS - Shearer and Sutton - lifted Blackburn to the title, Shearer's preferred striking partner was the less gifted but more generous Mike Newell. The chemistry between Hurst and Hunt kept Jimmy Greaves, the most gifted English goalscorer this century, out of the 1966 World Cup final.

If managers could bottle the secret ingredients of successful pairings, they would never need to scour the jobs vacant page. At Liverpool, Kevin Keegan and John Toshack struck up such an instinctive understanding that they were once asked to test their telepathy on television. Sitting back to back, each had to guess what was on a card held up to the audience by the other. The surprisingly accurate series of results confirmed what defenders throughout the league already knew. Only years later did they reveal the truth. The reflection in a television monitor had helped the process a bit.

Neither needed much help on the field; Keegan would scurry round big Tosh like a terrier round its master. At Leeds, an arguably more potent partnership provided the cutting edge to one of the most ruthlessly efficient teams in British club history.

Well before Smith and Jones came Clarke and Jones. Nowadays, Allan Clarke manages a plant hire firm in Wakefield and Mick Jones sells leisure gear in Worksop. They still keep in touch, like the bulk of that extraordinarily closeknit team built by the "gaffer", as they still call the late Don Revie. "How's yer mate?" Frank McLintock had asked Clarke at a recent game. And they were mates. Clarke was bought by Revie from Leicester for pounds 175,000 in 1969. Jones had already arrived from Sheffield United. He was a good, honest, hardworking centre-forward, but the arrival of Clarke, who already boasted a prolific goal-scoring record with Walsall, his home club, Fulham and Leicester, transformed the pair of them.

It was football's equivalent of love at first sight. "From day one, we just clicked," Clarke recalled last week. "It was just telepathic right from the start. Normally, I would expect a striking partnership to take a season to understand each other, to work out where the other's going. I never had that with Mick. He was at the near post, I went far. He went far, I went near. There wasn't much talking between us."

It helped, Clarke adds, that the pair, their wives and families were good friends off the field. "We were different types of players. Mick was more unselfish than I was. He led the line and, if we were defending a bit, he would be on the halfway line and I would drop back into midfield to see if I could pick up the ball. But I always tried to keep within 10 or 15 yards of him." Clarke recalls one goal in particular as much for Revie's tactical incisiveness as his uncanny duet with Jones.

"It was against Birmingham in the semi-final of the Cup at Hillsborough. The Gaffer had told us that their full-back tended to tuck in very tight and that if Jonah or I peeled away at the back stick we would find some space. Sure enough, Peter Lorimer floated this cross right to the back post, I peeled off, headed the ball across to Jonah who tapped it in. It was so easy at times, we never thought twice about it. Only when I became a manager and tried to coach it did I fully understand what we had."

The friendship between Yorke and Cole at United has been cited by Alex Ferguson as one reason for their instant choreography. Fowler and Owen are different types from different generations bound by the same ties to the same club. Fowler is a child of the city, from Toxteth, Owen was brought up in Cheshire, in the village of Hawarden. Good team-mates rather than good friends, as Houllier says, but they have complicite. In English the same word means "partnership in evil action" which might prove an uncomfortably accurate definition for United's defenders.

"I could understand people's scepticism about the pair of them playing together," Houllier said. "But they are two very different players. One [Owen] is good on the break, is quick and likes to run at players, the other [Fowler] has the better touch, is improving in the build-up and is a clinical finisher. Both are young and both are improving, in the way they run off the ball and the way they drop off each other. For example, I could be interested in Robbie Keane at Wolves, but I don't think he would blend with Michael."

Under pressure for the entire second half at Arsenal, Houllier admired other, less glamorous, qualities. "They were with the team, not just standing and waiting for the ball to come to them and I liked that." They are starting to remind him of Rocheteau and Susic, the strikeforce which took Houllier's Paris St Germain to the French title in 1986.

The hesitancy over Fowler's future blurs the long-term forecast of the Liverpool manager. But the numbers used to entice Fowler to stay show how critical he is to the Frenchman's vision of the future. A diminutive Fowler-Owen front line would need proper and quite specific service, more inspired and consistent than they are getting now. "It will not be a successful partnership if you have to bring everything to it, work at it all the time. It has to be naturally successful." Just ask Clarke and Jones.

MANCHESTER UNITED 6 LIVERPOOL 0: INTER-CITY CUP DUELS OF THE POST- WAR YEARS

1948

Man Utd 3 Liverpool 0 (4th rd)

THE immediate post-war United team which Matt Busby inherited contained ample talent but needed his tactical vision. Using Pearson, Delaney and the three goalscorers, Rowley, Mitten and Morris, in an impressive attack, and having the inspiring Carey as his captain, Busby predicted FA Cup success, which was duly achieved with a 4-2 win over Blackpool in a wonderful final. On the way, United faced First Division opponents throughout the competition, among them Liverpool whose squad, including Bob Paisley, had too few young players to cope. Old Trafford was still closed because of bomb damage during the war, so the match was played at Goodison Park.

1960

Liverpool 1 Man Utd 3 (4th rd)

IN 1959 the chairman of Liverpool visited Bill Shankly, who was then with Huddersfield, to ask whether he would like to manage "the best club in the country". Shankly replied: "Why? Is Matt Busby packing up?" Even so, he still joined the then Second Division Merseyside club, who had never won the FA Cup. In 1960 he was still in the process of building the base of the team who were to become so successful under his control. With Hunt in rampant goalscoring form, Liverpool had no worries in attack, but they lacked strength in defence and Bobby Charlton scored twice for the side which United had rebuilt after the Munich air crash.

1977

Man Utd 2 Liverpool 1 (Final)

UNITED had struggled to get past Southampton - they managed it only through a replay in the fifth round - but Tommy Docherty eventually got his hands on the trophy after failing in three finals as a player. It was to be his last match in charge of the Old Trafford club as he was sacked during the summer. The final was one of the better ones, although all of the significant action was packed into six minutes. Pearson scored for United, Case equalised powerfully, then a mistimed shot by Macari hit Greenhoff and spun past Clemence. Kennedy twice hit the bar. Liverpool's massive compensation that season was a League and European Cup double.

1979

Liverpool 2 Man Utd 2 (S-final)

BOB PAISLEY had made significant changes since taking over from Bill Shankly. Dalglish had replaced Keegan, Souness had established himself and Hansen was emerging in defence. The team duly took the League title and conceded only 16 goals on the way. They reached the last four of the Cup without conceding a goal then made a hash of their opportunity for the Double. McDermott missed a penalty and several other chances went begging but it was an enthralling game in which Hansen scored a late equaliser. United won the replay 1-0 at Goodison Park with a Greenhoff goal but then lost to Arsenal in the final.

1985

Liverpool 2 Man Utd 2 (S-final)

JOE FAGAN had taken over from Paisley by this time, and Souness, the team's driving force, had moved on to Italy. In the previous season Fagan had presided as Liverpool swept all before them, winning the League championship, the European Cup and the Milk Cup, but in the next term their hopes of taking the FA Cup as well ended in a replay of this semi- final. The first thrilling match, at Goodison Park, went into extra-time, with Liverpool equalising twice, Walsh scoring in the last minute of the extra half-hour. In the replay, United were a goal down before coming back to reach Wembley, where they went on to beat Everton 1-0.

1995-96

Man Utd 1 Liverpool 0 (Final)

UNITED had won the Premiership for the third time in four years and this victory at Wembley gave them the FA Cup for a record ninth time. But it was a disappointing match, save for the skills of Cantona, who two days before had won the Footballer of the Year award. The match was far too physical and was littered throughout with poor passing. But with only five minutes remaining Cantona hit the winning goal, threading the ball through a mass of Liverpool defenders. Sir Bobby Charlton said Cantona was "simply a great player". More recently, Cantona himself said that winning the Cup was his proudest moment.

NORMAN FOX

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