The troubled shooters on trial

Simon O'Hagan talks to Stan Collymore about the stuttering start to his Liverpool career; As rich and poor prepare to deal with the consequences of the Bosman transfer judgment two strikers who may be the last of an expensive breed face each other at Anfield today while a smaller club is confident of a strategy for survival
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The Independent Online
STAN COLLYMORE'S heroes when he was growing up were not out-and- out strikers. "I liked Glenn Hoddle and Michel Platini," he said last week, sitting in an empty dressing-room at Liverpool's training ground a couple of miles east of Anfield. "Players who did things differently, had a bit of a swagger about them. Marco van Basten - he was my model, really. He was a great goalscorer, but he was a great player as well."

Britain's most expensive footballer is sensitive to these nuances, not least because he can see himself being judged by much narrower criteria than he would like. "My problem is I don't want to be recognised just as a goalscorer. If I've scored a goal but haven't played as well as I can that's not satisfying. Equally, if I come off and have had a great game but should have scored that doesn't please me either. So maybe I'm looking for perfection. But there were times last season when I was getting that."

In spite of a goal in each of his last two matches, both player and club acknowledge that the 24-year-old Collymore is still falling short of what was expected when he moved from Nottingham Forest to Liverpool for pounds 8.5m in the summer, a move that, post-Bosman, may be among the last of the multi-million pound deals. "As marriages go, it's got a lot more to offer," said Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager. "The best is yet to come out of me," Collymore agrees.

As Collymore prepares for the match at home to Manchester United this afternoon, the question of how his highly individual talents can be most effectively fitted into the Liverpool system of passing and teamwork remains unresolved. When he does find the right role for himself then surely he will be understood in the way he wants, butone cannot help wonder whether the marriage was right in the first place. Was it born of true love?

"It's difficult to say that," Evans said. "I think we both wanted the same thing, to be successful, and that still stands. It hasn't been all wine and roses, but it's a working relationship and it's heading in the right direction. The expectation is still high."

It is easy to forget that Collymore made the best possible start to his Liverpool career, scoring a superb winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day of the season. But injury and illness struck, and even when Collymore was fit he found the old Ian Rush-Robbie Fowler combination was keeping him out of the team. He was not happy, and he let it show in a magazine article in which he was critical of the way he felt he was being treated by Liverpool. "We made it plain we weren't happy with what he had said," Evans said. As a result, Collymore decided he would not speak to the press.

Trouble certainly follows him around. There were training ground bust- ups earlier in his career; in February this year he was cleared of an assault charge after an incident outside a nightclub; last month, he had the worry of his mother falling seriously ill.

On the playing side, things have started to pick up. With Rush injured, Collymore is back in the team, and says he is feeling the benefit of the work in training that he and Fowler have been putting in. But in lifting his self-imposed ban on interviews he is standing up for what he believes he does best. "I think I've got to," he said.

So. what has been stopping him performing to the level that brought him 41 League goals in two seasons at Forest and made him the most exciting and sought-after striker in Britain? "First, it's settling in after being in and out of the side. Plus, I think, the differing styles of play. Forest suck teams in and then hit them on the break. I was the spearhead of that there, whereas at Liverpool it's the opposite. We play from the back and try to weave our way through. The ball is shared around the team and you can go for some time without seeing it."

But the onus is on Collymore to adapt to a method which has been established over generations. "You say generations," Collymore said, "but the successful Liverpool teams of old played with a flat back four and two wide men pushing up. We play with a flat back five, which puts more emphasis on that part of the pitch." Patience, Collymore said, was what he was having to learn. "I'm certainly not getting as many chances as at Forest."

Evans can appreciate the way Collymore would like the game played, but he points out that the sort of space behind defences that his man exploits so well is often denied to Liverpool. "We'd like him to get hold of the ball more and maybe lay it back to people and move off again," Evans said.

This seems to be the core of the issue: Collymore the solo artist versus Collymore the ensemble player. "There were times at Forest when the players were saying the same thing, but out of, say, four situations like that, two I might turn and run into a brick wall and two I might go on and score." When Collymore gets the ball, instinct - some would say arrogance - takes over. "If I start analysing things when I'm out there I think it will detract from my game. That's what I'm worried about more than anything.

"I'm meant to be classed as one of the top strikers in the country, and if you look at the others it's not as if the system's tailored to them, but the team is set up in such a way that not only is the team successful but the goalscorer can score goals. Alan Shearer springs to mind, Les Ferdinand. Andy Cole is having a pretty similar problem to me. I'm not saying Liverpool should adapt to me, but I'm saying that when you buy a player you buy for a reason."

Shortly after Collymore's controversial comments appeared, Cole was quoted as saying Collymore should stop complaining. This time it was Cole's turn to feel he had been misrepresented, and he was on the phone to Collymore. "We had a little chat and wished each other luck," Collymore said.

Did the combined wisdom of pounds 14.5m worth of footballing talent come up with any suggestions as to how to overcome their shared difficulties? "No, we've got to learn that for ourselves, but I'm sure when it happens we'll not only be better footballers for it but better people. I've come too far and been too successful for anything to get me down, even though the last six months have been patchy. I certainly won't let that worry me."