Phil Thompson's temporary stewardship of Liverpool is already one of the most remarkable aspects of this tumultuous season. Rising to the top of the Premiership is only part of his achievement. Even more arresting is the way he has done it. Some stunned observers believe that he is in danger of becoming a football statesman.
When Gérard Houllier was forced into a period of convalescence, a persuasive theory – and one supported here – was that the Frenchman's remarkable transformation of the club would be imperilled if it was not placed in surer hands than those of the impassioned, and sometimes abrasive, Thompson.
Passing the reins from an erudite former schoolteacher steeped in the culture which has brought France the World Cup and the European Championship in the last four years to a touchline ranter scarcely seemed like smart business. It smacked of giving John Prescott the Foreign Office. So much for the pre-judgement. It was spreadeagled long before Thompson's measured chastisement of the celebrated Fabio Capello's failure of etiquette before Liverpool's eminently worthy Champions' League draw in Rome's Olympic stadium this week.
Thompson did not say that the Roma coach's categorising of Liverpool as "robotic" was outrageous, scandalous or any other of the labels that spring so easily from football's easily triggered language of outrage. No, Thompson said Capello had been "disrespectful." He was right, of course, and this was so whatever the seeds of truth in the Italian's remarks. It was Capello's job to beat Liverpool rather than heckle them, and Thompson got the better of him on both counts. No question about it, the man who opposing fans have christened Pinocchio, and delight in singing for him to remove himself from the touchline coaching area, has grown with the job. His touch has been just about unerring, especially in dealing with the swirl of emotion that accompanies the end of most games.
When he did lapse into the old furies with a petulant outburst against the Sunderland defender Bernt Haas, who had been the recipient of a two-footed tackle from Dietmar Hamann and in Thompson's opinion had contributed to the German's dismissal with an exaggerated reaction, the apology was swift and gracious.
Some might say a pinch of cynicism perhaps needs to be applied at this point of the game. Thus far Thompson has seen things go mostly swimmingly, and if Barcelona did administer a serious lesson in the finer aspects of the game recently, no one could say that he had received anything less than a full-blooded effort from his outclassed players.
It certainly seems fair to say that, as caretaking goes, Thompson has produced something close to a master-class. Even the potential emotional maelstrom of Robbie Fowler's departure was handled with great deftness, which was something of a challenge given the freshness of the training ground eruption between the men that had first highlighted the extent of the player's frustration with Houllier's rotation policy.
Given the flow of results, Thompson's post-game footwork has mostly been concerned with striking a note of modest satisfaction, and here to he has carried all before him with skill. If his eyes shone like warning lights on a foggy night on the Mersey after the defeat of Manchester United last month, he studiously avoided the trap into which Leeds' David O'Leary fell after his team's impressive draw at Old Trafford. O'Leary later disputed the suggestion that he disparaged United's performance, and had questioned Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics, but by then the damage had been done. O'Leary had discussed his opponents. Thompson did not. He said that he had enough to do getting his own team right.
Despite Liverpool's position at the top of the league, and their revival in Europe, Thompson will have more than Capello in agreement with that last point. The truth is that Liverpool have done rather better at producing results than stirring the blood, and question marks against their future as serious contenders both at home and abroad do not concern only the level of entertainment that can be expected in today's game with Middlesbrough at Anfield.
There must also be legitimate questioning of Liverpool's potential for serious advancement, and such doubts can only be heightened by the surge of confidence exhibited by the team who must now be considered the most likely successors to United if Ferguson is unable to check the champions' slide. Arsenal, undoubtedly, are the form horse emboldened by a stiffening in defence and wonderfully fluent work up front.
By comparison, Liverpool have been looking both workaday and flattered by suggestions that they are emerging as a classic counter-attacking team. That was a label applied to Brian Clough's European Cup-winning team at Nottingham Forest. In fact, Forest's football was markedly more creative than that of today's Liverpool, much of it revolving around the subtlety of the withdrawn winger John Robertson. The fact is that all great teams are dangerous on the break, which is why all of them have been built on the foundation of solid defence. There was no better example of this than the Liverpool of Alan Hansen, where so much of Liverpool's best work flowed from security at the back. That team, though, had the axis of Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish.
Liverpool, it seems, too often have no more than a well organised defence – no doubt influenced by Thompson, an international defender of great acumen – and the ambition of feeding a long ball to Emile Heskey or Michael Owen. That this process often follows bouts of intricate but essentially unprogressive passing in midfield is a limitation which, you have to believe, has to be addressed sooner or later. The incentive is surely not lacking with Hamann, Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister all capable of delivering the ball to the feet of the strikers with both precision and bite.
Such matters no doubt have been high on the reflective agenda of Houllier during his enforced sabbatical. His time of taking stock has surely been hugely enhanced by the knowledge that he will get back the team he had to hand to a man known most widely for the capacity of his lungs rather than the depth of his insight. The salient fact is that Thompson has managed to lower his voice at no cost to the altitude of his team. It is, indeed, one of the wonders of the season.Reuse content