Why Warnock's champing at the bit part

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The Independent Online

What goes on in the psyche of those Liverpool players? What positive force is it that, once they get a whiff of the Continent, seemingly awakens them, their senses heightened, as revitalised as breakfasting British tourists descending from their rooms to strong coffee and croissants?

Early-season Premiership shortcomings and the ignominy of last Tuesday's Carling Cup exit at Crystal Palace, with performances of a nature that would have Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley incandescent in their celestial Boot Room, continue to exercise the logic processes of all connected with the club. Yet belief permeates Anfield that last season's Champions' League triumph can be repeated or, if not, closely matched.

Liverpool's left-back Stephen Warnock contributed to that remarkable sequence of games, though he was omitted from the final squad. This season, he harbours a desire that the club should return, and a belief that this time he will be selected. He does not need to declare the latter. The clear, confident eyes of this genial Ormskirk-born player betray it. "Liverpool need to progress to the last four because we are a massive club and we should be competing at that level, in the élite group, if you like. We're good enough to do that," he says. "I think a lot of teams won't fancy playing us in Europe. I don't know why, but we seem to turn it on in Europe. The competition suits us."

On Tuesday, his team meet Anderlecht at Anfield, the second leg of a double-header, having won 1-0 away. Victory would increase the Reds' total to 10 points and ensure that the final two games, against Real Betis and Chelsea, are only relevant in terms of determining the group winners. "It's not a different challenge [from the Premiership]. It's just a different style of football," Warnock argues. "I don't think anyone can put their finger on why we do so well in Europe but are not doing as well domestically, except to say that the Premiership is a very quick, up-and-at- 'em type of league, very high- tempo, and every team's always firing on all cylinders. In Europe, the pace is a bit slower, although once you get to the final attacking third it picks up."

He adds: "Anderlecht are out [of contention] now, so they could go out all guns blazing and really take the game to us. You just don't know. But we are at home, and those European nights at Anfield are very special. The atmosphere's outstanding."

He speaks from the experience of a former Kop-ite, a member of that celebrated choir perpetually determined to rehearse its own version of the Hallelujah Chorus. Those supporters will no doubt forgive him the heinous sin that he once watched his football at Goodison. "My dad [Mike] and my brother [Neil] had season tickets there; they're confirmed Evertonians, you see," he explains. "I was always a Liverpool fan, but as a boy I went with them - although I used to support all the away teams! Then my friend down the road had a spare ticket for a Liverpool game. I went, and was hooked."

His career since signing as a trainee in 1998 has been characterised by steady progress, punctuated by a significant hiatus, a lengthy period during his years at Liverpool's academy when he broke his leg three times. He has emerged as a left-sided player lauded by club and country. This summer, Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benitez, extended his contract by two years. Then the 23-year-old was called into the England squad to face Wales and Northern Ireland.

"That came out of the blue," says Warnock, who as a schoolboy played for England Under-15s with Joe Cole and Leon Osman. "I went there with a view to just enjoying it, because it may not happen again; to work hard and take it all in. When we went to Cardiff to play Wales, it was actually the first England game I'd ever been to, even as a spectator."

An experience which leaves him imagining that he can be part of the solution to that perennial England left-flank problem? "I'm not even thinking about it," he insists. "It's just something at the back of my mind. My first ambition is to cement my place in the Liverpool team. Yes, I've been called up [by Sven Goran Eriksson], but I've not even got on the bench. I'm a long way from getting in the team."

Should he do so, it will be testament to the work of the academy staff, including Dave Shannon, Hugh McAuley and Steve Heighway. "They'll always try to test you, even upset you every now and again to see how you deal with things," Warnock says wryly. "Sometimes they'll just give you a bit of a bollocking in front of the team after a game, to see how you react to it; make you understand that that's going to happen in your career. You've got to react to things that go against you in the right way."

Like accepting Benitez's rotation strategy, and the fact that he must compete constantly for a place with the likes of John Arne Riise and Djimi Traoré? The current uncertainty is in studied contrast to his loan period at Coventry in 2003-04. "I must have played near-on 50 games that season, and I loved it," Warnock says. "Now I can be in for a couple of weeks and out the next. But it's something I've learnt to get used to now."

If Benitez's much-debated approach leads to another Champions' League final, who would condemn it? Certainly not a player for whom perseverance is but one of his qualities.

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