O'Neill's men slip the noose

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The Independent Online

BEFOREHAND, THEY were still wiping the blood off the Leicester boardroom walls. Muzzy Izzet, with a late equaliser, ensured that nobody had to sweep the tears from the home changing-room floor, too, after a contest in which an exhilarating performance by Michael Owen, rewarded by two goals - his first in the Premiership since early April - eclipsed the shenanigans which have brought the Midlands club to ridicule.

BEFOREHAND, THEY were still wiping the blood off the Leicester boardroom walls. Muzzy Izzet, with a late equaliser, ensured that nobody had to sweep the tears from the home changing-room floor, too, after a contest in which an exhilarating performance by Michael Owen, rewarded by two goals - his first in the Premiership since early April - eclipsed the shenanigans which have brought the Midlands club to ridicule.

Kevin Keegan, casting his eye over several contenders for the friendly against Belgium next month, must surely have been entranced by both Owen, who only started because Robbie Fowler was injured, and Izzet, whose performance was described by his manager Martin O'Neill as "absolutely unbelievable". In the end those inspired exhibitions by England's brightest young talents and a spirited fight-back by Leicester just about won the day over off-field politics on an afternoon when boardroom infighting cast a disturbing shadow over Filbert Street. The request by Leicester's manager, Martin O'Neill, that protests from the faithful over the role played in this sorry affair by the Leicester plc chief executive, Barrie Pierpoint, should be dignified, were largely observed. Sheets handed out to supporters bearing the legend "Pierpoint out" were raised in unison during the game, accompanied by appropriate chants and there was a further demonstration outside the stadium after the final whistle.

Unfortunately, the players did not respond with similar decorum. In an ill-tempered match, Leicester's Frank Sinclair was dismissed by Uriah Rennie for two bookable offences shortly after the interval, by which time Gérard Houllier's side already held a 2-1 advantage. The visitors' David Thompson followed him for similar indiscretions in the closing minutes. In between, Matt Elliott should also have gone for a shameful assault on Owen, elbowing the England teenager in the face, but that went unobserved. Liverpool's humour would not have been improved by Elliott fashioning the opportunity for Izzet to steer the ball beyond Sander Westerveld for Leicester's 85th-minute equaliser.

"I was delighted to score, but I thought that, with them down to 10 men, we should have gone on to score more," Owen reflected. "We know that was not good enough."

The last British hangman was Albert Pierrepoint and it is appropriate that a namesake is held responsible by the City regulars for dragging their club towards the scaffold. Pierpoint has long been regarded as O'Neill's nemesis and events at a tumultuous boardroom meeting nine days ago brought matters to a head.

The board is split between the so-called "gang of four" - Pierpoint and three directors - and Sir Rodney Walker, the chairman of the plc, and John Elsom, the chairman of the football club, the first group having claimed that their rivals had resigned.

Whether resignations were tendered or not will be resolved by the Stock Exchange. Regardless, O'Neill has emphasised that he will report to Elsom - who watched yesterday's game from the directors' box - and by implication to no one else. Despite the impassioned manager's declaration on Friday that he would not be departing despite the turmoil, O'Neill's continued presence at Filbert Street hangs by not so much a rope as a thread. However, humour rarely departs the Ulsterman. "The chairman told me last night that he wouldn't miss it for the world," said O'Neill, with a chuckle. "I told him, 'Not if they don't give you a seat, you won't'."

He added: "Whatever happens around the club the players never let you down, or very seldom, and today was no exception." As far as he was concerned, the protests were no distraction to his men. "Not the way we started," he insisted, referring to Tony Cottee's opener after 70 seconds. A measure of O'Neill's managerial acumen is that Leicester recorded a double over Liverpool last season. Indeed the Foxes had not lost to the Anfield club for three seasons. And they maintained that record with a doughty performance that belied their 10 men and a first half in which Liverpool had exuded class in all quarters other than defence.

At the kick-off the supporters were still brandishing their anti-Pierpoint propaganda, but their protestations were turned to jubilation. The frailties of Liverpool's rearguard had been brutally exposed by Manchester United a week ago, and here again the back line was immediately found wanting. Dominic Matteo was the initial culprit, conceding possession to Izzet who sent an unmarked Cottee in on Westerveld's goal. The veteran Leicester striker applied the finishing touch with aplomb.

It did not bode well for Houllier's side; yet they responded in style and by half-time had seized the advantage. Gerry Taggart and Elliott were constantly troubled by the Liverpool striking phenomenon, Owen, and a deft header from Titi Camara's cross struck the far post with the reserve goalkeeper, Pegguy Arphexad, stranded.

He was just warming up. After Patrik Berger was felled by Taggart, Owen deceived Arphexad from the spot and six minutes before the break he converted his second after Matteo had fashioned the chance. By the hour, Owen inevitably looked fatigued and Liverpool went into decline. Leicester are not a team to overlook such gifts and an afternoon that had begun with the shrill voice of fury ended with the roar of euphoria.

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