James Lawton: Reality bites as Houllier bids farewell to Anfield

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The Independent Online

Gerard Houllier, like his countrywoman Edith Piaf, had no regrets yesterday when he was removed from the Liverpool challenge that he insisted ran way beyond the healing powers of a "quick fix". The trouble was that six years in the life of Liverpool Football Club, with ever declining evidence that you have what it takes to be at least in contention as one of the best teams in England, were not some brief, jarring interlude. It had begun to look like the end of life as it had always been known at Anfield, and to suggest otherwise was pure Houllier.

Gerard Houllier, like his countrywoman Edith Piaf, had no regrets yesterday when he was removed from the Liverpool challenge that he insisted ran way beyond the healing powers of a "quick fix". The trouble was that six years in the life of Liverpool Football Club, with ever declining evidence that you have what it takes to be at least in contention as one of the best teams in England, were not some brief, jarring interlude. It had begun to look like the end of life as it had always been known at Anfield, and to suggest otherwise was pure Houllier.

He has many admirable qualities, and not least physical courage, but a willingness to face up to the realities of failure is not one of them. Indeed, there have been times over the last few years when as a spin artist he might have forced even Alastair Campbell to bend the knee.

The problem with spin, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out all those years ago when he said that you can't fool all of the people all of the time, is that it can take you only so far. This is particularly true of football. Once a week, sometimes twice, you are obliged to send out your team to show what you have got them to do. On far too many occasions it was embarrassingly clear that the answer was not very much at all beyond developing a herd instinct to get behind the ball.

There are some places where you can get away with talking endlessly about the potential of your team. Liverpool is not one of them, and when Houllier talked of winning six titles in six years that old Lincoln principle kicked in with some force.

What Houllier's Liverpool won was four trophies - and two knick-knacks, the Charity Shield and the Super Cup. You might get away with such blurring of the facts in some football outpost, where winning is not claiming your due but something close to fantasy.

From Bill Shankly taking over Anfield at the start of the Sixties until Houllier's reign, Liverpool won the old First Division title 13 times and the European Cup four times. This wasn't a run of success, it was a right of conquest - and the brilliant adherence to a winning tradition which was built unerringly on certain basic principles.

The most fundamental of these was the signing of good players who were introduced into a system of play that was unwavering in its belief in the importance of form and shape and a capacity to attack with the ball. When Shankly's successor, Bob Paisley, signed Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness he didn't oblige them to treat the ball as though it was a hand grenade with the pin removed. They were asked to do what they did best: use it with craft and imagination.

Souness had a deserved reputation as one of the ultimate hardmen ball-winners, but in possession he was equally effective. Dalglish and Souness, among other things, were masters of subtle movement. Asking them to scamper behind the ball at every opportunity would have been like handing Picasso a paint-by-numbers set.

Yesterday even Houllier was obliged to face the fact that the patience of the club and the city had run out when his close friend and the Liverpool chairman, David Moores, finally acknowledged that this was a Liverpool team, for all the bravura form of Steve Gerrard and the scoring talent of Michael Owen, that was plainly going nowhere.

Some Houllier apologists have asked why Liverpool have some divine right to a place at the top of the mountain. Other football empires have passed. Across the park at Goodison, Everton are a shell of the old force. Tottenham have made a parody of the old fighting cock worn on the shirts of such titans as Dave Mackay, John White, Danny Blanchflower and Cliff Jones. European Cup-winners Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa have had many lean days. Leeds United have defined how not to run a top club. So what is so cataclysmic about Liverpool spending a few years in the shadows? The special problem is that Liverpool are a football club who have continued to do more or less everything right.

It's true they had the aberration of appointing joint managers when Houllier and Roy Evans were put in charge of the team, but the absurdity of the move was noted and acted upon within a few months. Either side of that folly, Liverpool have been demonstrably Liverpool, supporting their manager - Houllier's is the first sacking since Don Welsh fell in 1956 - and ploughing money into the team at regular intervals.

More money than, for example, Arsenal in some recent years, which brings us to the nub of the issue. Houllier wasn't sacked for a failure to fulfil some crazed desire for overnight success. What he didn't deliver, unlike his countryman Arsène Wenger, was a clear sense of a developing team. It was not so much that Liverpool didn't get better. They got worse. Fans, especially those at Anfield, are not always idiots raging down a phone-in line. Houllier lost the fans, beyond a few flurries of sentiment, some time ago.

It happened for the most basic reason of all. It was because of the way his team played. He did some excellent work, especially in the early going. He imposed genuine discipline and competitive pride. He reminded the dressing room of what had gone before. He even won three trophies in one season, but some - including quite a number of the players who in their time had been cornerstones of the old empire - refused to be swept away. Liverpool had played hard and with some good fortune but they had not unveiled a way to play football that might just take them back to the top of the English game.

That was always the ultimate test of Gérard Houllier. The harsh but unavoidable truth is that he failed it. However, the new man will be required to sit the same exam and that it is essentially a fair one was confirmed recently by one of Europe's hottest coaches, Jose Mourinho, who made it clear that in many ways he was more tempted by the standards of decency at Liverpool than by the vast but crudely applied wealth of Chelsea.

Mourinho has every chance of winning the European Cup for Porto tomorrow night. Who knows, he might just consider Liverpool a suitable case for his attention. With six years and a big budget to play with, he might see it as rather more than an invitation to work a quick fix.

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