Football: This is the lost legacy of Anfield

For the dignified model club left behind by progress, the catch- up game begins.
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THE leaving of Liverpool was as dignified as the arrival 35 years before. Bill Shankly would have been proud of Roy Evans, his backroom protege. But the overwhelming impression at the end of a traumatic week at Anfield was of an old family firm struggling to adapt to a strange new world. Not easy when the hypermarket known as Manchester United is doing a roaring trade at the other end of the East Lancs Road.

"We don't want to go completely foreign," said David Moores, the Liverpool chairman, in explanation of the decision to bring back Phil Thompson as assistant to Gerard Houllier. The tone was faintly bewildered, like a man used to holidaying in Southport suddenly confronted with a fortnight in Ibiza. Going foreign has not been Liverpool's way. Even Houllier has done enough time in the city, as a teacher, to understand the depth of the bond between the people and its dominant football club.

The last person to come fresh to the city was Shankly himself. Shanks had no time for foreigners or their football and the legacy of that attitude has perhaps lingered a little too long for comfort. While Jaap Stam pleaded with his club, PSV Eindhoven, to drop his price and waived a signing- on fee to join United, Liverpool failed to persuade Taribo West to leave Internazionale of Milan and have been looking for a decent central defender ever since. Reliance on the stolid qualities of the north European or Scandinavian rather than the more exotic and quixotic skills of France, Italy or South America might have mirrored the blue-collar image of the club but has burdened the new boss with a surfeit of mediocrity.

The real fear for all those who regard Liverpool as the true standard-bearer of English football is the distressing sense of a game moving on. Liverpool have been hanging on to the coat-tails of a European Super League, relying on reputation for adhesion. Their values, loyalty and tradition, have been exposed by an age which worships the more cashable qualities of the stock market. Evans, as Moores knows deep down, should have gone a year ago, certainly last summer when the long-predicted arrival of Houllier brought added confusion to a club in dire need of a return to benevolent dictatorship.

Long before defeats by the regular Anfield fall-guys, Derby County and Tottenham Hotspur, clarified thoughts of "the people upstairs" as he calls them, Evans had lost contact with his players. The fault line can be traced back to the FA Cup final of 1996. Evans confirmed as much when he mentioned the "disappointment" of defeat that day in his final press conference. Liverpool dressed like Boyzone and, against Manchester United of all people, played worse. It was the betrayal of all Shankly had taught, all the principles Evans had absorbed with Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennet and Bob Paisley amid the smell of mud and Dubbin in the old Boot Room beneath the main stand. Evans felt the sense of hurt more deeply than he ever cared to admit. Blood-letting was not Evans's style, but if United or Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest had been so publicly exposed, a few well- known names would have been inscribed on one-way tickets out of town.

After that, deception followed flattery with embarrassing regularity. Every Saturday afternoon, win or lose, Evans would demand more consistency from his team. The measure of the failure could be found in more telling ways than the position in a league table. The Liverpool of old turned good, steady, players - Ian Callaghan, Alec Lindsay - into very good players and very good players like Kevin Keegan into great ones. The reverse process has afflicted Liverpool this season. Steve Staunton, as dependable a player as any manager could wish, has suffered a fearful bout of nerves and Vegard Heggem is unrecognisable from the bright, bouncy, young figure who began the season. The insecurity will not end with a shuffle of personnel at the top.

The import of Thompson is not just a further nod to the past, another desperate attempt to revive a fading mural, but is a tacit admission of Houllier's motivational shortcomings. It is hard to imagine Jack the Lad locals like Fowler and MacManaman, arch exponents of the "verbal dance" once outlined by Alan Bennett as the chief characteristic of the Liverpudlian, searching deep into well-padded souls to dredge up that extra ounce of spirit on Houllier's behalf. Thompson has been hired to put the boot back into the Boot Room. But whether that combination will prove any more effective than the cuddly double-act performed by Houllier and Evans, which the press rightly divined as being unworkable from day one, is open to debate.

Houllier is a studious man, educated, elegant, the author of Entraineur: Competence and Passion and the architect of the highly successful youth development system in France. Judging by his written work, Houllier's tactical team talks may as well be delivered in Swahili for all the sense Jason McAteer will make of them. The Kop's general idea of what is required involves a row of millionaires' backsides and a pair of size tens.

Roy Evans will probably not feel it, though he might wake up this morning with a genuine sense of relief that the problems are no longer his, but there was widespread approval at the way the handover - dismissal and resignation seem too coarse words for Evans - was engineered. It was actually Evans himself who first voiced the disquiet in the offices of his chairman, not the other way around. And when Moores said, close to tears, that he had known Evans from boyhood and that their relationship would not be affected, no one was in any doubt about the robust certainty of the statement. Nor was there any question about the strength of the entente cordiale between Houllier and Evans. "It's not about personalities," Evans added. "It's about the club." Though offered a post upstairs, Evans did not want to be a "ghost on the wall" as he put it. Liverpool have enough of those to fill the Walker Gallery. After the prolonged managerial circuses at Leeds and Tottenham, the executions at Liverpool were commendably clean.

It is a measure of the respect in which Evans was held in the city, both halves as it happens, that the Kop turned on the team well before they pinpointed the easier target in the dug-out. A schizophrenic atmosphere had pervaded Anfield in recent weeks as the crowd wrestled with their anger and their abiding sense of loyalty to the club rather than this mercurial team. All along, they knew that Evans understood their frustration. The end of an era? Evans was asked. " 'Tis for me," he said.