Houllier heartened as Hyypia is honoured

Dave Hadfield finds the Liverpool manager is being rewarded for his patience

They should have been humming "Yesterday" on Merseyside this week, with news of Sir Paul McCartney playing The Cavern again and of an award for another nostalgic specimen - a high-class Liverpool defender. You have to hark back to the days of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson for the last time they collected such plaudits at Anfield, but the selection of Sami Hyypia as the Carling Premiership player of the month for November could mark a turning of the tide for Gérard Houllier and his side.

They should have been humming "Yesterday" on Merseyside this week, with news of Sir Paul McCartney playing The Cavern again and of an award for another nostalgic specimen - a high-class Liverpool defender. You have to hark back to the days of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson for the last time they collected such plaudits at Anfield, but the selection of Sami Hyypia as the Carling Premiership player of the month for November could mark a turning of the tide for Gérard Houllier and his side.

Liverpool, in action against Sheffield Wednesday this afternoon, had become a byword for defensive insecurity, with each new combination at the back apparently more porous than the last. "It's ironic that a year ago we were being made fun of because of our defensive record," Houllier said. "A year later, we've got a much better standard and we've won a player of the month award - and he is a central defender, would you believe?"

Word of Liverpool's frailties at the back was not confined to Britain. It reached Hyypia, a Finnish international playing for Willem II in the Netherlands. "I'd heard something about them conceding a lot of goals," said Hyypia, a childhood Liverpool fan whose heroes were not the defensive kingpins, but forwards such as Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and Ian Rush.

Hyypia started as a midfielder before moving back as his career developed. Liverpool were first alerted to his potential by a television cameraman. "We followed it up and tracked him for some time. We weren't the only club after him," Houllier said.

When Liverpool won the contest to sign him, for a relatively modest £2.6m, his was not exactly a name to set pulses racing on Merseyside. Few knew how to pronounce his surname, let alone anything else about him, and accusations that Houllier was signing "foreign nobodies" were directed at Hyypia as much as anyone.

He believes that has worked in his favour. "Because nobody had heard of me, there was not so much pressure," Hyypia said. "The only pressure was to prove I could play football." His successful partnership with Stéphane Henchoz at the heart of the defence - the two have conceded just three league goals in eight games together - evoked memories of pairings featuring Hansen, Lawrenson and Houllier's assistant, Phil Thompson, which Hyypia still feels are premature.

"It's nice to have those comparisons made, but it's still early days," he said, with a commendable grasp of the relevant English footballing idiom. "I still have a lot to prove." Not to Houllier, for whom it must be something of a turnaround to reflect that his remaining problems are - largely due to factors beyond his control - at the other end of the field.

Not only has he lost the services of his captain, Jamie Redknapp, until March following knee surgery, but Houllier has problems up front. "We're halfway through the season and Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler have played just 60 minutes together," he said.

They are likely to add to that tally today, although by how much is uncertain. Fowler is sufficiently recovered from a stubborn ankle injury that has seen him miss 12 of the last 13 games to have played most of a reserve match in midweek, but Houllier was undecided whether to start with him today.

One team-mate who will surely welcome him back more warmly than most is Owen, because, in his partner's absence, the full attention both of opposing defences and critics has concentrated on him. For the first time in his short career, Owen has been getting a less than glowing press, with his booking for diving during the defeat at West Ham that ended a seven-match unbeaten run, helping to tarnish the once pristine golden-boy image.

Houllier insists Owen stumbled trying to avoid a tackle, rather than attempting to milk a penalty, and he is equally convinced that his strike force will be as effective as ever once back on the field at the same time.

"After the difficult parts of life, you get more strength out of it," said Houllier. "That's what Robbie and Michael will get. Robbie is more experienced, but Michael is a very strong-willed character as well. Once this part is overcome, they will get back to their best." And the team's sudden solid appearance at the back can only help.

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