Ken Jones: Houllier falls victim to the creed of success at any cost

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The Independent Football

Sport in the first decade of the 21st century holds no encouragement for anyone who, in these troubled times, tenaciously clings to the belief that something can be done to restore values that prevailed before the thundering onset of commercialism.

Sport in the first decade of the 21st century holds no encouragement for anyone who, in these troubled times, tenaciously clings to the belief that something can be done to restore values that prevailed before the thundering onset of commercialism.

If some think this fatuous or sentimental or pathetically typical of my generation, I'm pretty sure they are people who are prepared to accept most things in the cause of what passes for progress. It is anybody's guess when this deplorable attitude began to prevail but what we have today is a creed conforming to promotion and profit, one that scorns the legend of decency and proper business ethics.

The further we go on, the more it seems that sport is floundering in a fog of cynicism. At the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year dinner last week, a fellow toiler in this trade who has lost contact with the game and was in attendance for the first time in many years, found himself sitting with a number of agents. "They gave me the impression that their influence spreads to the sports pages," he said. "Unquestionably," I replied. "It's the way things are today."

Each of us brings our own sensibility and neuroses to the sports arena, enabling us to find whatever we want there, from fun and games to hero and scapegoat. Trouble is, the desire for success overwhelms every other consideration.

Take one of the issues presently before us. Liverpool's decision to dispense with the services of Gérard Houllier came after weeks of speculation turning, it was suggested, on the uncertainty expressed by the club's two leading players, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. If at no point did they call for Houllier to be removed from office, Owen's reluctance to extend contract negotiations until there was evidence of change may have sealed the Frenchman's fate.

For a while it seemed Houllier would deliver what he set out to accomplish. After Liverpool won three cups in 2001, he was cheered. When he spoke about Liverpool's spirit and mounting a challenge to Arsenal and Manchester United he was cheered. He talked about next year. He was cheered. He could have recited the rules of parliamentary debate and he would have been cheered.

The players went through the emotional bends with Houllier. When they won, they won for Gérard, especially when he was fighting back from a life-threatening heart condition. When they lost, they had let Gérard down. But as time passed and a number of expensive signings flopped, they began to whisper that nobody knew what the hell was going on.

A new manager or coach is new hope, a chance to show that the old coach failed to recognise their extraordinary ability. It means they won't have to listen to the same old spiel, the same threats and pleas, but to exciting new ones.

Professional footballers seldom care what you do to them if you win. Rub hot coals on their bellies, impugn their masculinity, get down to the nitty-gritty of grid-iron coach Joe Schmidt that "Life is a shit sandwich and every day you take another bite." It doesn't matter. Just win.

A fall-out of critical hindsight has billowed through the sports pages and across the airwaves. There were, it has been suggested, doubts in the dressing room linked to his obscurity as a player, and a motivational gap. Flaws that would have been overlooked or deemed acceptable in a winner transformed into fatal shortcomings.

In the enormous reverberation of football's popularity, the coach is burdened with ever more responsibility. Houllier, meeting the minimum requirement set by his chairman, David Moores, saw Liverpool qualify for the Champions' League in fourth place but finish so far behind Arsenal - 30 points - that he needed a telescope to keep them in his sights.

Claudio Ranieri fared better, taking Chelsea to second place in the Premiership, their highest finish in the League since winning the championship in 1955. But for a tactical blunder in the first leg of the Champions' League semi-final against Monaco he would probably have been contesting the big prize last night in Gelsenkirchen.

Popular with his players, a man of endearing good humour whose job was on the line from the moment that Sven Goran Eriksson became Roman Abramovich's preferred choice as manager, Ranieri deserves better than to be left wondering about his fate. But that's a shocking proposal to put to any club owner. What do they think he's in this game for - sport?

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