James Lawton: Houllier must hope Robson's hoodoo is impervious to pace and panache

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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier might just take some encouragement from something peculiar that today pops out of the great maw of football statistics. But if the fact is odd, and on the face of it encouraging, the Liverpool manager is probably not in the mood to take anything for granted before this evening's hazardous FA Cup tie with Newcastle United.

It could be just as well. When linked with the law of averages, and the relative form of the teams, the detail is disquieting for the Frenchman. It is that Robson has never won at Anfield as a manager.

In all those years with Ipswich, when his teams were marked by such craft and width, when they were shaped by the imperative of all good managers, the seamless blending of defence and attack, the walls of the Anfield fortress were never breached by Robson. Nor has he done it with a Newcastle team to which he has brought, in another lifetime it seems, all those old virtues of balance and pace - and leavened, inevitably, by an exciting measure of panache.

Both men need to win today, but for different reasons. Robson was recently reminded that he works for one of the most unforgiving boards in football, one with short memories and trigger reflexes at the first hint of terrace criticism. By comparison, Liverpool directors are considered by many to have turned the virtue of patience into a possibly irredeemable vice. But have they? We will know a little better if the worst happens today, if Robson makes his breakthrough and Liverpool are left to trawl exclusively for the soulless glory of overtaking Charlton for entry to the Champions' League.

What is certainly beyond argument is that Liverpool have displayed a unique tolerance of Houllier's failure to develop a system of play, a natural progression, from the startling impact of his early surge of trophy wins. As recently as this week, one Anfield insider was at pains to demolish the widespread belief that Liverpool's public confidence in Houllier is merely the mask for another intention - to install Martin O'Neill in the summer after a dignified parting with a Houllier. But apparently the instinct against such a severance still runs strongly in the Anfield boardroom, where it is felt that for all the current failing of the team, Houllier and his assistant, Phil Thompson, have at least imposed some good values in terms of discipline.

Indeed, the word was that if for any reason Houllier was to leave the club in the immediate future, the instinct would be to appoint Thompson - at least for a trial period. Given the shallowness of Liverpool's game, its lack of momentum and style, such a policy statement could only deepen the gloom on the Anfield terraces - and no doubt hasten the departure of Michael Owen.

But if even the most objective of Liverpool fans are beginning to join the clamour for change, they would hopefully still prefer a certain caution to the vulgar operating style of the men who run St James' Park. The recent onslaught by the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, on the players and, at least by implication, his distinguished manager, came from the moral Olympus of a win-win situation. If Newcastle had failed in their third-round tie at Southampton, the chairman would have painted himself as a trouble-shooting realist. If Newcastle won, as they did on the back of a spectacular performance by the brilliant but erratic Kieron Dyer, he could claim to have provided the catalyst.

Either way, he had departed from the classic pattern that has served Liverpool so well down the years while Newcastle have been hurtling between the stars and the dirt: a display of club unity and faith in a carefully appointed manager.

It has to be said, though, that a defeat for Houllier today, after an abject performance at Spurs last weekend and a painfully laboured draw with Wolves in midweek, would surely provide the most vigorous test of the board's commitment to him. In symbolic terms alone, such a defeat would be devastating.

Robson's youthful predecessor, Ruud Gullit, came dressed in designer clothes with the promise of sexy football, and left a team in chaos. When the old man arrived, in the eyes of so many a time-expired dreamer, he didn't talk of erotic entertainment. His style was more organic than orgiastic. It was about the fundamentals of a winning team, the most essential being a means of playing coherently and expressing the best of your team's talent. It is possibly another bleak augury for Houllier that, at the moment, one of Newcastle's most striking assets is the wide, quick, skilful Frenchman Laurent Robert.

Houllier, with Owen and Steven Gerrard back in the team and with the bonus of the stiffening effect of Dietmar Hamann, will again hope for the benefits of competitive character and individual ability. Robson knows the value of that, of course, but he has also always displayed a faith in a certain way of playing. If it should profit at Anfield for the first time, there has to be the suspicion that it will be more than a defeat for Houllier. His worst critics might just see it as a final exposure.

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