Gerard Houllier's volte-face in the matter of Steven Gerrard's appalling tackle on Aston Villa's George Boateng was swift and abject and, of course, utterly justified, but it still left a troubling impression.
Houllier took a long time to analyse something that should not have occupied more than a millisecond of an honest football man's instinct.
The manager's initial reaction that the referee had acted harshly in showing the young England hero a red card, a mistake, according to Houllier, which had been partly provoked by Boateng "overdoing it a bit," was surely enough to make even Arsène Wenger cringe. It is no doubt true that the myopic manager, who totally misses the skulduggery of his own men even when it is practised within yards of where he is sitting, has become a gut-wrenching norm and indeed, generally, it has become a matter of bleak mirth. But then surely sometimes the moral irresponsibility it has come to represent among the men who are supposed to be shaping the game, intelligent, successful, hugely rewarded men like Houllier and Wenger, Ferguson and O'Leary, demands a closer examination. The Gerrard affair is certainly a case in point.
Ally McCoist expressed amazement on behalf of the nation that Houllier should have done anything but roundly deplore a tackle which might easily have sent Boateng to hospital and could only be described, in the real sense, as "diabolical," but it is a rare Saturday these days that does not justify a flash or two of such outrage. Self-interest reigns just about totally.
Houllier's statement, that the referee had erred because Gerrard had won the ball, was risible. The miracle was that he did not also win Boateng's leg. That Houllier came to so sharply modify his view after looking at a series of televised re-runs was plainly inevitable, but what was he thinking about when the collision occurred? His comments made it plain that he saw the incident, amazingly enough, in that he and many of his colleagues are usually studying the pattern of a spectator's sweater at the back of the stand when anything vaguely contentious happens. So how could he see anything but a dreadful flouting of the law and the spirit of the game?
In such a moral vacuum, it is easy to understand why the recent action of Leeds United's full-back, Danny Mills, in attempting to win a throw-in by kicking the ball against his fallen opponent, Ashley Cole of Arsenal, sparked little more than mild reproof despite his sending-off. In itself, it was a tawdry little incident, but it said so much so devastatingly about the level of respect, for themselves and their opponents, which so many players bring to the field these days. Gerrard's outrageous tackle was seen by some as merely fresh evidence of the recklessness of youth, and all the more readily discounted, presumably, because it came from a player who in the last few weeks has become utterly central to the nation's hopes in next year's World Cup finals.
The opposite should be true. Gerrard, after a difficult few years battling against physical fragility, is entering the formative stage of a potentially magnificent career. It is a vital time for the shaping of a great talent and the process will scarcely be helped by the behaviour that marked reactions in the Liverpool dug-out to Saturday's incident. When John Deehan, Villa's assistant manager, leapt instinctively from his bench when the Gerrard tackle went in, he was immediately rounded upon by Phil Thompson.
Houllier's No 2 spends much of his time at most matches yelling a stream of instructions and exhortations from the "technical area" of the touchline, just recently with rather questionable results, and certainly his reported role in the controversy over Robbie Fowler's future at the club did not exactly suggest a calming presence. On Saturday, Thompson's demeanour was simply inexcusable.
For Liverpool and other fellow challengers of Manchester United, a vital lesson is surely available at Old Trafford. It is some time since Sir Alex Ferguson has been obliged to make any reflex defence of an erring player, and the consequences show plainly enough in the record books. Discipline is not only about the good name of the game. It is also about winning.
Interestingly, only last week Sven Goran Eriksson was obliged to offer more than a hint of advice to the upwardly mobile Gerrard. The England coach was asked for his reaction to the player's apparent eagerness to humiliate his Anfield team-mate Dietmar Hamman in the last minutes of England's dramatic victory. Said Eriksson: "Respect is such an important part of football; respect for your coaches, your team-mates, the kit-man, and your opponents. The moment you lose respect, especially for your opponents, you go down."
For some time last Saturday, respect for both an opponent and the truth touched rock bottom at Anfield. The unswerving eye of the camera brought the reappraisal. How much better it would have been had it come not from unavoidable television evidence but the heart of an influential football man.Reuse content