It's time for Stan to show he is the man

Liverpool have paid pounds 8.5m for a richly talented problem-child, says Phil Shaw
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On a summer's day in Stafford, a few hundred people gather in a park to watch a team of ex-players from the town's non-League club take on the Wolves veterans.

The tackling is as sedate as the setting, but one man is like semtex in shorts. He asks the referee how long there is left, mutters something about giving the crowd what they came for and sets off on a run. A rising drive brings up the hat-trick.

Athough it was only a charity match, the episode reveals something about why, two years on, Liverpool have agreed to pay Nottingham Forest pounds 8.5m to make the scorer the most expensive player in British football history. Show Stan Collymore a roof and he will try to raise it.

By some criteria, Collymore's new status is no surprise. Since his pounds 2.6m move from Southend to Forest the day after his Stafford swansong, he has become a prolific Premiership marksman and broken into the England team. He combines speed and strength, and at 24 has his best years ahead of him.

Despite his ability, the solo runs and spectacular shooting, doubts persist. In terms of both playing style and personality, he is arguably a surprising choice for a club where the teamwork ethic is as strong as at Liverpool.

Brought up (an Aston Villa fan) in the Staffordshire mining town of Cannock - where he still lives - Collymore was released by two clubs as a teenager. Tommy Coakley, who signed him for Walsall, recognised his raw talent but suspected he would end up in Sunday-morning football. Graham Turner, who had him briefly at Wolves, remembers flashes of brilliance but also the absences from training: "There was obviously an attitude problem."

At Stafford Rangers, he finally began to show his potential, though the "lazy" tag followed him. It takes all sorts to make a team, of course, and players who assert their individuality are often unfairly derided. Whatever the truth about Collymore, Crystal Palace saw enough to pay pounds 100,000 for him early in 1991.

Palace were then blessed with a front pairing of Ian Wright and Mark Bright. On the rare occasions Collymore did appear, Steve Coppell tended to use him in a wide role. He had started only four games before Palace recouped their outlay from Southend late in 1992. Collymore's scoring feats soon earned a characteristically over-the-top endorsement from Barry Fry.

It was perhaps significant that when Frank Clark made rare public criticism of his contribution to a match with Tottenham last season, Collymore retorted that the Forest manager "never praises me like Barry Fry". It seems he has a child-like desire to feel wanted; Joe Royle said, revealingly, that Collymore picked Liverpool rather than Everton because he had "mates" there.

He had few at Forest, where he quickly came into conflict with Frank Clark after Brian Clough's affable successor had ventured a club-record fee on him in the summer of '93.

During their honeymoon period, Clark admitted to me that he had paid too much for someone of such limited experience. He added: "But it's an investment because this boy's got everything: pace, power, height, two good feet and an excellent first touch, though he still does things to make you tear your hair out."

This judgement was vindicated on both counts. While Collymore rattled in nearly 60 goals over the next two years, there were also club fines when he failed to turn up for training and fisticuffs on the practice pitch with Alf Inge Haland.

Collymore's colleagues made their feelings plain by not going to congratulate him after he scored. The City Ground crowd also cooled towards him as he made noises about wanting a bigger stage, a wish that might have been granted sooner had Alex Ferguson not switched to Andy Cole after being unable to contact Clark.

His critics at Forest argued that tactics had to be tailored to his requirements; that he and Bryan Roy did well together but were never a true partnership. Collymore, they said, was a law unto himself, though that also made him harder to mark. Rather than tussling with the centre-backs like the more orthodox (if slower and possibly less skilful) Alan Shearer, he roamed free.

No one can argue with his record. What Forest insiders took issue with was what they saw as selfishness, arrogance and tendency to complain. Collymore's agent said he had never asked to leave. He just made it plain he did not want to stay.

None of which makes him a bad buy for Roy Evans. But even if the antipathy towards Collymore at Forest was based on jealousy, even if there was a failure of man-management, harnessing his talents to Liverpool's team pattern may not be easy.

Ian Rush, whose place alongside Robbie Fowler he will presumably take, works defenders tirelessly. In coaching Collymore to do likewise, and to curb his petulant streak, care must be taken not to inhibit his natural explosiveness.

Back in Stafford, they remember him with incredulity and affection. Jim Arnold, the former Everton keeper who runs the borough's parks, says that with the Forest deal imminent he was surprised when Collymore turned up that day, boots in hand.

"I told him he ought to weigh up the situation, so Stan said he'd kick off and play for five minutes," Arnold recalls. "But he stayed and scored a few. He remembered his roots, and I admired him for that."