Nick Townsend: Houllier hounded by whispering faithful

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The Independent Football

You glanced through the obituaries and wondered what Jesus Gil would have made of the prevarication, the hand-wringing, the unseemly debate over the future of Gérard Houllier. Indeed, the whole future of the Anfield club. That old rogue, Spanish construction magnate, mayor of Marbella and for countless years president of Atletico Madrid, who died recently, would have overseen no such agonising. Patience was an alien concept to a character who was Deadlier that Doug.

The Aston Villa chairman's reputation - unjustly earned, in truth - is nothing compared with that of a man who was breathtaking in his brutality, the grand señor of summary justice. This was the original master of the revolving-door strategy, shuffling through 40 coaches in 15 years; all guilty of "failure". They included Ron Atkinson and Claudio Ranieri. Six arrived and departed in one season. "I pay the bills, so the coach has to agree with my ideas about the team," he once said.

Such a regime may have no rightful place in British football today, but some of Gil's ruthlessness would not go amiss at Liverpool, where it is still fondly believed that, granted a managerial maestro to conduct affairs, and two or three world-class players to enhance a team already blessed with Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Harry Kewell, the glory years can be restored. The Tottenham faithful have been claiming something similar for years.

It is an absurd yet harsh truth of football life that a club's health will always be judged against history. Not any old history (until Roman Abramovich materialised at Stamford Bridge, no one seriously believed that Chelsea's sole championship of 1955 would be emulated), but recent history, and one where several former players are prepared to hurl what may have happened "in their day" into the mix.

Thus, not only has Houllier had to contend with reflections on his record at Anfield, he has also suffered the opinion of those like Ian St John who, of course, brought such gravitas to football punditry alongside Greavsie. "Fans don't get turned on by Houllier's team," he declared last week as he and others sat like old women knitting at the base of the guillotine, gossiping over such imperatives as: would Martin O'Neill, Alan Curbishley, Steve McClaren or the Valencia coach, Rafael Benitez, be summoned to replace Houllier? In that event, would Houllier be shown the door to "upstairs", or the exit? If the latter, would "King Kenny" Dalglish return?

Even if the Liverpool administration, and specifically the chairman, David Moores, together with his chief executive, Rick Parry, were to maintain their long-held faith in Houllier at Thursday's board meeting, it is scarcely conceivable that the avuncular Frenchman will not, ultimately, be damned by a thousand faint praises.

Word in the city suggests that Moores and Parry may be influenced by anti-Houllier outpourings from those who log-jam the radio phone-ins, not to mention the ex-player pundits, as the Red seas continue to be parted by dissension. With the ongoing debate over potential investors, apparent restlessness in the playing camp - both Owen and Gerrard are reportedly not content with Liverpool's lack of progress, which places both their futures in doubt - the club who once epitomised the concept of quiet evolution with their "boot room" are displaying disturbing signs that a full-scale revolution is afoot. It would be the first time a Liverpool manager has been dismissed since Don Welsh in 1956, and it would be a decision taken with considerable reluctance.

Would pride allow Houllier to be kicked upstairs? He has done that once before, with the French national team. In Britain, it has become almost a term of derision. Director of Football. Old retainer. Sinecure. In the public perception, they all add up to the same thing: maintaining the pride of a man who they feel has outlived his usefulness, but may actually impede the wishes of the appointed manager. Perhaps sensing that down at Spurs, they have adopted a new title, that of Sporting Director, for Frank Arnesen, under what chairman Daniel Levy describes as a "continental structure". We await developments there with interest.

Back at Anfield, with no obvious reprieve in sight for Houllier despite his claims yesterday that he was "100 per cent certain" that he was staying in charge as he discounted the speculation as "a load of rubbish", there has been a certain futility about his posturings as he has effectively pleaded for his footballing life. It has not been a pleasing spectacle (particularly in mind of his serious illness last year), even if Houllier's reaction was a plaintive response to the immediate threat that one of his critics, would-be investor Steve Morgan, posed to him.

Morgan, for the moment, has decided on what is presumably a tactical withdrawal, having had offers in different forms rejected by the board. A minor victory for Houllier, although there is something perverse about a situation where, as manager, you benefit more from the possibility of a Thai politician and businessman, with no natural affinity with the club, sitting on the board than a locally born long-time supporter. For once, better the devil you don't know.

The relish with which Liverpool initially entertained the Thai bid, over which there should have been misgivings concerning Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's human-rights record, and the source of his investment, confirms the desperation with which Liverpool desire new funding. They are not unique. Just across Stanley Park, Everton's vice-chairman, Bill Kenwright, told me last week: "There's not a football club in the country who, I believe, is not interested in outside investment at the moment." Everton, Manchester City and Fulham are thought to be on Thaksin's reserve list.

But who will attempt to exploit such an injection? Five years ago, Houllier appeared to enshrine all the qualities required by the Kop. A Scouse Wenger, here was a lucid speaker, endowed with the tactical acumen honed at no less an institution than the French national set-up. Gérard possessed passion, but also dignity. Gérard would identify players of Liverpool quality, wouldn't he? Gérard would employ a modern, visionary strategy, on the pitch and off, wouldn't he?

The reality? Well, six trophies have been won, but never the ones that count: the championship and Champions' League. An ally, the League Managers' Association chairman, John Barnwell, claims that fourth position and a European place are "excellent". The problem is that there is an honourable fourth and a poor fourth which conceals the truth. When your club finish closer to the relegated clubs than the champions, as Liverpool have, it can only be the latter.

There is also a question of style. It may be unreasonable, but history - that word again - demands it at Anfield. Arsenal are richly endowed with pace and élan; so, too, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Newcastle on their day. But too many of their faithful believe that Liverpool have simply failed to inspire for a season or two.

Houllier's acquisitions have proved variable. Doubts persist over Salif Diao, El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Igor Biscan. Kewell's form is spasmodic. Few young home-produced players have emerged, but that is not for want of trying. Houllier has established an admired youth set-up, has instilled discipline, and generally produced a degree of stability after a turbulent period. A rousing conclusion to the season has allowed Liverpool to tread on the sacred soil of Europe in late summer. Yet there remains the feeling that this is a disfunctional extended family, which requires a God Almighty row to settle things before normal life can continue.

Houllier's most pertinent retort to Morgan was the following: "He goes on about getting back to the culture of the Sixties and Seventies, but if Liverpool want to do that, they will do it without me. Football has moved on and you cannot live in the past." The Frenchman may have got it only partly correct. Football cannot live in the past. Regrettably, Liverpool will almost certainly look to the future without him. Another dismissal after nearly 50 years? Señor Gil would have approved.

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