James Lawton: Houllier brings life to the spirit of Shankly

The surprise is not that the grip Manchester United and Arsenal have on the game has been loosened but that the process had taken so long
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The Independent Football

It is hard to imagine there is a football ground more guaranteed to make you think about the past, and to contemplate the uncertainties of the future, than Anfield. The favourite theory must be that it is the work of the ghost of Bill Shankly.

On Sunday, when Gérard Houllier's team surely blasted away the last doubts – with their fourth successive victory over Manchester United – that they are genuine contenders, a memory of him certainly came into the sharpest of focus.

He was sitting in his pokey office beneath the main stand – it was as bare as a monk's cell – discussing the progress of the young team which he expected to carry on the work of great men like Ron Yeats and Ian St John and Tommy Smith when there came a faint tap on his door. It was a player scarcely out of his teens who had come, with extreme nervousness, to tell the boss that on Saturday he would not be available to play against Everton. His girlfriend was pregnant and the families had made arrangements for the marriage. There was a long, agonising silence before Shankly uttered an oath, and said: "Laddie, don't you realise we're fighting for our lives here."

Earlier, Shankly had stood on his desk and clasped his hands together to indicate how his latest young team would impact on football like a "great bloody bomb going off in the sky." It never did. Though his heirs would pull in no less than four European trophies, Shankly's days of thunder had come and gone. But he understood, as Sunday's loser and passionate fellow Scot Sir Alex Ferguson also knows so well, that the day you stop fighting for your life, the day you lose a stride, is the day you start to surrender the ground that was so hard to win.

Shankly's empire never knew the perils that have faced those of Ferguson and his partner in crisis, Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, for so long, but if the father of Anfield did not have to confront freedom of contract, fast-lane lifestyles, and the relaxing effects of extreme wealth, he knew all about the dangers of complacency upon which Ferguson has now declared war.

Time was an enemy you had to keep at bay. Time has ambushed the foundation of Wenger's strength, eroding completely now a defence upon which he could build so gloriously with signings as filled with acumen as those of Vieira, Petit, Anelka and Henry, and now it works against Ferguson. Indeed, for those with some perspective on the ebb and flow of success in football, the surprise on Sunday was not that United's hold on the game was being so dramatically loosened but that the process had taken so long.

For so many years Ferguson, aided hugely no doubt by the success of his youth policy, had managed to keep the flame of ambition burning so fiercely at Old Trafford. But now, like Wenger, shell-shocked by the 4-2 home defeat to Charlton, he had to face the reality of an official crisis. The new, and thrilling, dimension is provided by the work of Houllier and Leeds United's David O'Leary. They have young, hungry teams and in the last few weeks both of them have been writing in the sky, Shankly style, of a possible new order in the English game.

Houllier's assistant, Phil Thompson, struck a perfect tone after the superbly realised performance against United. There was no triumphalism, no assumptions about the certainty of eventual success. But he did say that at last the great, daunting enemy had been truly engaged, something which Houllier was reluctant to do even after a double success over United in last year's Premiership. Then, though, Houllier was aware enough that United were skating to another title. Now, for the moment at least, United's skating days are over. Ferguson has to fight as hard on the home front as the one abroad. He has to pray for the swift recovery of Roy Keane and he may have to invest again in the calming presence of the kind of dominating central defender he believed he had before seeing what he deemed to be irredeemable decline in Jaap Stam before the end of last season.

Meanwhile, he can expect no respite from the league leaders, Leeds, or Liverpool. On Sunday Houllier's team, as never before, looked authentic challengers to the aura of United. They were mean in defence and midfield, and they were voracious in attack. They would have pleased Shankly's heart, no question, in their willingness to fight for their football lives.

Nor, we must believe, will they have done any harm to the repaired one of Gérard Houllier. In three years of insomniac passion culminating in serious cardiac problems, Houllier has made a strong and shining team – and possibly a new horizon in English football. It has been remarkable work, not least in its assault on the belief that in these days of Bosman and mushrooming self-interest the concept of ferocious teamwork is even fleetingly viable. And so, for the moment at least, time works for Gérard Houllier and against Sir Alex Ferguson. Who better, after all, than the Frenchman to bring resonance to Shankly's timeless cry that football has to be about fighting for your life?