Houllier's Anfield future thrown into fresh doubt

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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier is facing a crisis at Liverpool and may be sacked even though his side did sneak into the Champions' League qualifying by finishing fourth in the Premiership.

With the club the subject of competing investment offers, the Frenchman was involved last night in talks with the chairman David Moores and the chief executive Rick Parry at a secret location in the Lake District. The meeting broke up with all parties pondering the future, but the word from inside Anfield last night was that Houllier could be forced out or pushed upstairs amid major changes in the managerial team.

Houllier thought he had kept his critics at bay and saved his job when Liverpool secured fourth place and the possibility of a Champions' League place, but there now appears to be a move under way to find a younger man with new ideas for leading the club forward. That could entail the Frenchman being offered the role of director of football but he might not see that as a job he could accept.

Last night's talks signalled a remarkable twist, coming so soon after the board rejected an investment plan put forward by the wealthy supporter Steve Morgan, who is a critic of Houllier and the players he has purchased. Moores and Parry have stood behind Houllier before but there have been signs of their support weakening over the past few days.

Even before last night's summit meeting Houllier knew he would go into the summer with a cloud hanging over him. Whatever the outcome of the investment battle involving Morgan and the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, which looks set to result in millions of pounds being injected into the club, Houllier already knew that his role was under threat. He was aware that a victory for Morgan in the share battle would most likely have spelled the end for his reign.

The club needs the investment from either Morgan or Thaksin if they are to buy the top-class players required to push the team forward, while also developing a stadium that would generate the funds the Merseyside club needs to compete in the longer term with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Houllier has one year left on his contract, and only a stronger challenge for the Premiership title will satisfy the fans. The Frenchman can point to three Champions' League qualifications in four seasons and six trophies won during his reign, but those achievements pale as long as the club trails in the wake of this season's top three.

The money put in by either Morgan or Thailand, plus a potential £20m from the Champions' League and a guaranteed £9m Premiership prize-money could add up to £100m coming into the club and the board must be confident that Houllier is the man to spend it or seek a new manager.

Stéphane Henchoz, Dietmar Hamann and Sami Hyypia helped secure the treble of FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup in 2001 but they are ageing, while El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou, Djimi Traoré, Igor Biscan, Markus Babbel, Gregory Vignal and Vladimir Smicer have not proved good investments at more than £40m. Now Emile Heskey must be replaced, too.