James Lawton: St John finds himself in Houllier's firing line

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Gerard Houllier didn't like it much when Graeme Souness made a slighting reference to his lack of a top-flight playing career. He cried "cheap shot."

This did not, however, prevent him from being even more scathing about the managerial career of another great Anfield player, Ian St John. Houllier was dismissive that St John should dare criticise his reign as Liverpool manager.

He said he had reviewed St John's time as the boss at Motherwell and Portsmouth back in the 1970s - and found his audacity laughable.

According to Houllier, it is thus perfectly acceptable to take the briefest flip through the record books before trashing the performance of a manager who just happened to be, and apparently quite inconsequentially, a superb performer on the field. But then it was absolutely foul play to make Souness's point that there are certain areas of football which will always be a mystery to those who didn't play the game at the highest level.

In all of this there is surely a simple, unswervable truth. Every situation in football is shaped by different circumstances, and those separating the managerial careers of Houllier and St John are at such variance they might have occurred on separate planets.

Here, anyway, is a brief outline of the managerial experience of St John, the man who was so adored by Bill Shankly, both for the skill and courage of his play and the sharpness of his mind, that he compared him to one of his all-time heroes, the great middleweight boxer Stanley Ketchel.

St John had 18 months at Motherwell, and by any standards they were successful. He recalls: "When you go to a club you know very quickly if you have a chance, and things went well at Motherwell. I was able to move out those players who I didn't think were good enough, made a few decent sales, and brought in some players that I really believed in.

"We had quite a bit of success on the field, and we beat Celtic for the first time in many years. Before joining Motherwell, I had an agreement that if a job came up in England, I would be free to move. My wife preferred life in England and that was a big factor, but it was very satisfying to leave the club in good shape - on and off the field."

Houllier might say that St John would say that. However, it was an assessment endorsed by arguably the greatest football manager ever produced by these islands, Jock Stein.

The great man had seen, and felt, the effect of St John's work, which is why he called Leeds United to recommend him when Don Revie was appointed manager of England.

Unsurprisingly, given the weight of Stein's endorsement, St John made it to a short list of two, the other contender being Brian Clough. Some 44 days later, when the Clough regime collapsed, St John was no longer available. He had said yes to the blandishments of Portsmouth chairman John Deacon.

"I often think what might have happened - and how your life is shaped by random events," says St John. "One thing is certain. I wouldn't have upset the reigning champions, I wouldn't have insulted Eddie Gray - or got on the wrong side of Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner. I admired those people very much. I had played against them, seen close-up what they could do."

St John had three and a half years with Portsmouth. He had a nice house on the South Coast. His wife was very happy. It was, for one thing, so much warmer than Lanarkshire. It should have been a good life but unfortunately the football kept getting in the way. Deacon had promised St John a big budget to lift Pompey out of the Second Division but after the first board meeting -- "after which I should have left the club," says St John -- the chairman told him that the money had disappeared -- along with planning permission for a series of building locations he had secured in the Southampton area.

In three and half years St John was able to make one signing, Paul Gilchrist. His first idea was to sign, for £10,000, a kid who was marking time in the Nottingham Forest reserves. It was Tony Woodcock, who would go on to play for Cologne and Arsenal and England. But Deacon said there was no money. This became increasingly evident down the years.

BT cut off St John's phone, the club having failed to pay the bill. The team travelled in four cars to away games. There was no money for a bus. They did their own laundry, the cleaning company having been unpaid one too many times. The players' pay cheques and St John's, from time to time, bounced.

Looking back, St John picks out the odd high-point of his Portsmouth days. He found a young goalkeeper, Alan Knight, who played for the club for the best part of 20 years. He unearthed a raw-boned lad named Graham Roberts, who went to play for England and Rangers, and another big stopper in Steve Foster, famous for his headband and defiance. He traded with Tommy Docherty at Manchester United, sending the veteran Welsh striker Ron Davies to Old Trafford in exchange for George Graham. Chris Kamara was sold at considerable profit.

St John, perhaps understandably, was ready for a break from football and he took it when television offered him the chance to build a hugely popular partnership with Jimmy Greaves. Greavesy and The Saint were never short of opinions. Now, as a member of the National Union of Journalists and a regular guest columnist and broadcaster, St John feels qualified to pass a view on today's game, including the state of play at Anfield.

He is sorry that he is no longer invited to play host at a hospitality suite at the ground; when a roster of members of the Liverpool former players' association, of which he was chairman, was set up, he would receive an invitation on average four times a year. It paid £250 a time, but the invitations dried up when the roster was taken out of the hands of secretary Ian Callaghan and placed with an official of the club.

At the club's last general meeting, St John, just a little mischievously, asked if he was now officially banned from the ground where he had worked his thunder. Another former player, Alan Kennedy, who works in local radio, was obliged to attend a meeting with Houllier after voicing some criticisms. He was then ordered to apologise to the players. Earlier, he had been told that the club was not happy. Kennedy feared a withdrawal of co-operation, or professional death. St John looked askance at such developments.

He says: "Reading the papers now, I see a picture of a vendetta between me and Houllier. It is not the case at all. When I'm invited to pass an opinion, I do so. I'm not interested in taking cheap shots. I don't think my view is extreme, but it is my own. I haven't been impressed with a lot of the signings over recent years and I don't think the team have developed a convincing style of play. The thing I most regret is that nothing was made of Jari Litmanen, a signing of real class - a tremendous player who knew how to unlock a defence."

For the moment Houllier is in better shape than for some time in the public relations battle. He was hugely buoyed by the gesture of his player Steven Gerrard, who rushed to the touchline to embrace him after scoring a goal against Levski Sofia in the Uefa Cup tie last Thursday.

This has been interpreted by some Anfield-watchers as confirmation of Houllier's belief that "when the father is attacked, the rest of the family grows stronger". In fact Gerrard, in all honesty, has to be placed in a special category. He was recently handed a long-term contract, along with the captaincy that was taken away from the highly competent and experienced Sami Hyypia. Michael Owen, to whom Gerrard applied great public pressure when, while speaking on national television, he urged him to sign a long-term contract, is currently displaying body language somewhat less enthusiastic about the course of events at the club he has served so magnificently for the last six years.

One Sunday paper's headline proclaimed: "Let the old stars rant, at least the Kop is supporting Houllier". This somewhat arbitrary view was, apparently, provoked by cries of "Allez, Allez, Houllier" from the Kop when Gerrard drove home his goal. The opinion of one impeccably objective observer of Liverpool since the days of Shankly, offers the view that in fact the Kop were doing no more than reacting decently to anti-Houllier graffiti daubed on the walls of the Melwood training ground.

The verdict on Houllier's reign, you have to suspect, is much less agreeable for his more fervent supporters. It is that the manager has almost certainly taken a team hopelessly adrift of the Premiership leaders as far as he can. It might also be recorded, without any desire to fuel a vendetta, that when St John took over at Fratton Park, there were debts of £300,000. In three and a half years he spent £5,000. In five years at Anfield, Houllier has got through £118.5m. That, even he would have to agree, is an uncomfortable fact - not a cheap shot.