For the second time this season, defeat at Portsmouth has intensified a crisis of confidence in Gérard Houllier's management at Liverpool. While it remains confined to supporters, the Anfield board cannot have avoided the dissent, bordering on militancy, as they tuned into radio phone-ins and perused the local press yesterday.
Four months ago, as he faced the flak after his team's Premiership defeat at Fratton Park, Houllier took comfort from what he understood to be the Liverpool directors' "reputation for patience". This time he expected to be "slaughtered" by press and public alike, yet only one manager, Don Welsh, in charge when they were relegated 50 years ago this spring, has ever been sacked by the club.
Liverpool's FA Cup exit on Sunday is not expected to strain this tradition of tolerance unduly, at least in a short term which sees them play the Bulgarian team Levski Sofia in a home Uefa Cup match on Thursday. However, the pressure on the 56-year-old Houllier to secure entry into next season's Champions' League has undoubtedly been rachetted up.
A poll of fans in the city's Daily Post suggests a serious lack of confidence in Houllier. Some 28.4 per cent said he should resign now; 48.6 per cent agreed he should be sacked immediately; 12.3 per cent said he should go at the end of the season; and less than 11 per cent believed he ought to be given more time.
Liverpool players from more successful eras added to the swelling dissent. The influential Mark Lawrenson went so far as to nominate Celtic's Martin O'Neill as the man most likely to end a period without a championship that already stretches to 14 years.
Houllier, while often over-sensitive to the brickbats, earned a growing number of bouquets as Liverpool built on the 2001 treble of League Cup, FA Cup and Uefa Cup by starting to threaten the Arsenal-Manchester United duopoly. In 2001-02, they squeezed above United into the runners-up spot. The stage seemed set for Liverpool to go one step further and by the first week in November last season they occupied top spot, unbeaten in the first 12 fixtures and seven points clear of Arsenal.
A week later, with 82 minutes played at Middlesbrough and the match goalless, Jerzy Dudek spilled a cross and Gareth Southgate ended the illusion. With it, with alarming speed, went Liverpool's confidence. The players retreated into a negative style, while it became clear from the displays of El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou that Houllier had spent less than judiciously during the summer. They trailed in fifth.
Sixteen months and a further close-season spree later, a tilt at the Champions' League qualifiers via fourth place in the Premiership (they are sixth) and another Uefa Cup run are the best they can hope for. As the remodelled, more attacking style of the early-season looks to have been abandoned, unease grows that the prize assets, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, will leave to secure regular Champions' League football.
The Anfield hierarchy are not prone to knee-jerk reactions. They have backed Houllier's judgement to the tune of another £14m for Djibril Cissé, who arrives in the summer. The chief executive, Rick Parry, conceded that defeat by Portsmouth was "a massive blow" and Champions' League qualification an "absolute priority", but was too shrewd to be drawn into a vote of confidence in Houllier.
Ian St John, a cult figure in Bill Shankly's side, was less circumspect, saying: "The fans don't get turned on by his [Houllier's] team. They sit there like zombies and boo them off at the end. If there was a change [of manager] tomorrow, they'd be happy. Five years is enough for anybody ... The plan was to win the League, but the teams at the top are so far away that you need binoculars to see them."
Lawrenson, a mainstay of Bob Paisley's all-conquering side and now a BBC pundit, said: "I like Gérard Houllier and think he improved the team when he took the job. But 18 months ago they were far closer to challenging for the title than they are now. They're fading into obscurity - I feel the time for change has come. The chairman [David Moores] and chief executive [Parry] are for Gérard, but you can't kid the Liverpool crowd."Reuse content