The Matt Holland Column: Memories of me, Houllier and the old school yard

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The Independent Online

Courtesy of one wonderful and emotion-packed performance by Liverpool and another clinical dismantling of an opposition defence by Manchester United, English football is once again excelling in European competition.

It is a pity that Arsenal could not complete the set but the other two have given us a realistic chance of winning the Champions' League. And what a boost before the World Cup that would be.

Of course they may yet meet each other in the semi-finals, which would give our domestic game a night to savour and remember, but before we can start contemplating that they have to dispose of Bayer Leverkusen and Deportivo La Coruña.

As you would expect at this stage there are no easy matches. Whoever they had drawn would have been a daunting proposition, but the other six teams would have been thinking the same about them. Admittedly, Europe has feared Manchester United for a few seasons, but they will have noted how Liverpool beat a hugely respected side like Roma, and more importantly did it when the pressure was greatest and without Michael Owen.

My formative years were filled with nights in front of the television watching Liverpool dominate foreign teams on their way to being the best and most consistent side in Europe. I can remember the buzz of the crowd and the fantastic atmosphere at Anfield, which we tried to recreate the next morning in the playground, and I felt that Tuesday night with the return of Gérard Houllier was very similar to those special days.

It may seem odd to say that the return of a manager can have such a galvanising effect, but there is a special bond between Houllier and his players. If anyone doubts the power of the mind or the importance of psychology in sport, they could do worse than study Houllier, his effect on the players and how they respond to him.

We have a special atmosphere at Ipswich at the moment, but it is forged from less pleasant circumstances. The rest of the season is nothing more than a good old-fashioned scrap for survival. I know in reality we have been in one since November, but it gets more frenetic and desperate as the time and matches run out. Each point is magnified in importance and our hard-fought draw against Newcastle last week produced a much needed boost (and point) to the club.

Admittedly people will remember the missed penalty by Alan Shearer, particularly as it was the last kick of the game, but we did not deserve to lose. In fact after the match I chatted to a group of Newcastle fans who said that we played well and were worthy of at least the point. It is always good to have a decent performance recognised but is even more gratifying when the praise comes from the opposition fans.

However, the reality is that we need points, not praise, and each game is a do-or-die cup final. It is difficult not to single out the Bolton match as the vital one, but it does not matter where we get the points. The draw against Newcastle has proved that we can get something from the bigger clubs and with a run-in that includes Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool we may need to.

At least the press have given us a little motivational boost. Liverpool had the return of Houllier and we have the "they don't have the stomach for it" headlines. I can tell you that the players were and are focused on the League but have an added edge courtesy of those comments. People should never underestimate the strength of "I'll prove them wrong" motivation. It's similar to the mentality that the Republic of Ireland have cultivated. And next week's friendly will be no different despite losing both Roy Keane and Mark Kennedy to injury. We view these friendlies as an integral part of the World Cup and players will be trying to cement their place in the squad. If we did not consider them serious games there would be no point playing them.

From a personal point of view I am finding that as the actual tournament approaches I am starting to think about it more. It's only natural and I am picking my moments. When I am at Ipswich I am only thinking about the battle against relegation. When I am with my children I am totally focused on preventing them causing complete havoc, sometimes less than successfully it must be said. And when I am with Paula shopping I think about the World Cup. Dragged around Bluewater last Wednesday, she may have been in Next and Marks and Spencer but I was definitely in Japan and Korea.

East London and East Anglia concern me more over the holiday weekend though as we are away to West Ham and then host Chelsea. Little Sam has started a new nursery school and within the first couple of days had taught the other kids some football songs. Clean ones of course but it must be hell for the teacher.

I hope after next week he'll be able to teach them "Ipswich 2 Chelsea 0" and "we're staying up". At the moment it is as big a dream as the World Cup.

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