Whip-cracker way at the deadwood stage

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As a well-known jinx, I am prepared to take my share of the blame for the situation that led to the tearful departure of Liverpool FC's Roy Evans on Thursday. From Boot Room to Boot Hill, it was a route lined on either side by weeping mourners. It is as difficult to recall a manager who was seen off the premises amid such lamentation as it is to establish the ratio of those genuinely moved by the sight of a proud man vanquished to those who simply had a guilty conscience.

I shall relieve myself of mine by confessing that back in September I committed the cardinal sin of expressing supreme optimism in Liverpool's ability to win the championship. I have been guilty of that on so many previous occasions that friends who are far more fanatical fans than I am beg me to restrain myself because every expression of my confidence is followed by an Anfield slump.

My only excuse this time is that I was goaded into it by the prospect of Rupert Murdoch acquiring control of Manchester United. We still don't know whether that venture will get official approval because the bureaucrats are handling it as they do every awkward situation; by putting the hot potato into a cold file and whipping it out when they think we're not looking.

It was in anticipation of it getting the eventual go-ahead that I professed some alarm about the whole business. It so happened that the day after BSkyB's bid became public Liverpool beat Coventry in what could only be described as a mightily encouraging performance. In this column I announced myself luxuriously comforted by the thought that by the time the acquisition was finally approved "Murdoch's first experience as a club owner will be the sight of Liverpool's arse disappearing up the top of the table".

I am a little concerned whether the use of the words Murdoch and arse in the same sentence render me liable to appear before some commission or other but my defence is that I wrote them long before recent developments in that area. What is more important is that within a few days of my writing the above Liverpool had embarked on the slump that has resulted in Roy Evans losing his job.

Whereas I am ready to admit my part in his downfall, however, I am aware of no other rush to share the burden of guilt that Evans takes into his lonely retirement. While it is true that had he belonged to a club where sentiment and loyalty are not so deeply embedded in the foundations he would not have survived as long as he did, it is also true that he is a victim of a strange situation in which it now appears he had half the control and all of the blame.

Perhaps, it was only as an attempt to protect Evans from the consequence of a few unsuccessful years that the Frenchman Gerard Houllier was brought in to form a management partnership. If so, it was a brave idea but workable only if the board kept a close watch on the constraints of such an undertaking.

Although it has been clear for some time that it wasn't working, there is no evidence of any helpful intervention and we are left to assume that it was only Evans's half that was at fault.

Given that Houllier is a football academic and not one for jollying up the troops and that Evans has never been a natural whip-cracker, it should have occurred to someone that the twin commanding officers needed a sergeant- major. In the most ironic twist of the saga, Phil Thompson is brought in to do that very role and Houllier is in the fortunate position of being able to put the failings of the past months behind him and start from scratch.

We will never know whether Evans-Thompson would have worked better than Houllier-Thompson or, indeed, if Evans-Houllier-Thompson might have been a winning treble. Thompson soon indicated in which direction he thought some of the blame should be hurled when he indicted some of the players for not giving their best recently.

He promised that kicks up the backside would be central to his initial approach and so touched on an aspect of managerial failure that is rarely voiced; the contribution of player attitude to a club's plight. While it is true that the ability to motivate is an essential part of any manager's armoury, you might think that the enormous wages players nowadays receive would ensure a little self-propulsion in the effort and inititiative departments.

This doesn't seem to be forthcoming and what happened to Wolves after the departure of Mark McGhee 10 days ago was a vivid illustration of this. Forty hours after he left, Wolves won 6-1 at Bristol City and last Tuesday beat Sheffield United 2-1 at home. I can understand players cutting loose if they are suddenly released from the yoke of a tyrant but I fear there are far less excusable reasons at work.

Some players, perhaps subconsciously, allow their performances to adopt a hangdog droop while there's a manager around to take the ultimate responsibility, but once he goes they quickly discover a willingness to get busy, if only to impress whoever is taking over.

Liverpool have not previously been the sort of club where that feeling has been permitted to take root. Neither has their admirable feeling for collective responsibility ever allowed them to believe that the firing of one man is a solution to a problem. The sacrifice of Evans is dangerously out of character.

It was probably just a coincidence of television scheduling but BBC's This Is Your Life programme featuring Bob Wilson on Monday provided a poignant contribution to a week of remembrance. Wilson's career as a goalkeeper with Scotland and Arsenal and then as a TV anchorman was already interesting viewing before he revealed that his boyhood hero had been Bert Trautmann, the German paratrooper who came here as a prisoner of war and remained to become a famous goalkeeper with Manchester City.

The German was, Wilson quietly explained, a difficult hero for him to have because two of his brothers, one a Spitfire pilot and the other a rear-gunner, had been killed in the war. Trautmann was an inspirational idol, nevertheless, and Wilson copied his daredevil style of diving at the feet of oncoming forwards; a dangerous tactic that led to Trautmann playing the last 20 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck.

This programme normally has a high cringe quotient but Trautmann's appearance brought a lump to the throat that certainly wasn't the smallest of the week.

Dion Dublin celebrated his high-profile transfer to Aston Villa by scoring two goals on his debut last weekend and it was to be hoped that this feat would divert attention from his main physical attribute to his footballing prowess.

Unfortunately, the gasps of wonderment than greet his appearance in the showers are still the subject of most of the gossip about him throughout the game. As you might have expected, the matter was discussed with typical puerility in Thursday's edition of BBC TV's They Think It's All Over.

For a more subtle approach, we have to rely on Dublin's new team-mates. My colleague Phil Shaw tells me that from the Villa Park dressing room has come the question: What have Dion Dublin and Dennis Wise got in common? The answer is: Two-foot tackle.

Comments