Search for lost Anfield factor

Simon Turnbull says Liverpool are relying on a return to home comforts
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Once upon a time, March 1972 actually, Bill Shankly was so concerned to detect an air of confidence among the arriving Newcastle United team that he headed for the "This is Anfield" plaque to ensure Liverpool would gain their customary psychological home advantange. Before Shankly could point to the sign and deliver some cunning observation, Malcolm Macdonald clocked him and, being as sharp of mind as of foot, got a canny piece of retaliation in first.

"So, we're in the right ground then," the Newcastle No 9 said to Joe Harvey, his manager, gesturing towards the reminder above the tunnel. Shankly was not impressed. "You'll soon bloody find out you're in the right ground, son," he said. Then he took his seat in the dug-out to savour a 5-0 victory.

Shankly disciple though he is, Roy Evans knows he would be wasting his time using the old master's tricks when the Newcastle team bus pulls up at the Liverpool ground tomorrow. He was on the home bench when the Anfield factor was at its strongest - no defeats and just two home draws in the 1978-79 season, parity with Leeds and Everton being achieved respectively with a Terry McDermott penalty and a Kenny Dalglish goal. Newcastle's manager and his right-hand man will need no reminding of where they happen to be. Neither will the players. Their losing role in last season's seven- goal Anfield thriller remains painfully fresh in the memory.

It was the night the Premiership race was effectively lost. And, while win or bust would be a premature overstatement, it is certainly make or break time for both Liverpool and Newcastle tomorrow night. With Manchester United threatening to break clear, their northern pursuers can ill-aford to lose further ground. In the case of Liverpool's challenge, the need for home reassurance has not been greater since Shankly, tired of looking up the Christian names of the opposition players in his Rothmans and strolling out of his office to strike the fear of God into them upon their arrival, asked Bert Johnson, the Anfield maintenance man, to make the plaque instead.

The next season, 1972-73, the team Shankly rebuilt won Liverpool's first championship since 1966. Unless Evans can guide his team past Manchester United between now and 11 May, that seven-year hitch will be eclipsed as Liverpool's longest title-less spell since the start of the Shankly era. "Lack of consistency is our biggest problem," Evans acknowledged after the Villa Park defeat a week ago that cost his team the chance to cut the gap to a single point. And failing to find that consistency at home has been particularly costly so far this season.

Newcastle dropped only four points at St James' Park last season and still finished four points behind Manchester United. Liverpool have allowed 15 to slip through their grasp already. They have not mastered the art of killing off middle-to-lower-order opposition on home soil. Blackburn and West Ham have fought out goal-less draws in two of the last four Premiership fixtures at Anfield. Sunderland, Leicester and Everton have also been among those who have made a point at Liverpool.

The frustration for Evans is that so many points have been frittered away while he has tightened his defence to such good effect; Ian Taylor's late winner last Sunday was the first league goal Liverpool had conceded since New Year's Day, and their goals-against record is the most miserly in the Premiership.

While Neil Ruddock's lumbering performance in the 1-1 draw against SK Brann in Bergen on Thursday suggested Liverpool cannot afford to be without Mark Wright's defensive presence for too long, critics have been pointing to the absence of a midfield enforcer as the reason why Liverpool lack the required mean streak. Evans knows he needs to staunch the flow of points down the Anfield drain. Otherwise, the last man to guide Liverpool to the championship will remain the manager who heads for the away team dug-out after passing under Bill Shankly's psychological sign-post tomorrow night.