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The Treble - Crazy for Hou (But Not That Crazy)

By Monsignor Bonehead
From Issue 52, Summer 2001

Cast your mind back 5 years. In Roy's heyday, we were beautiful to watch, always had more of the ball than the opposition, and frequently dominated games that we lost 1-0. The Spice Boys, blah blah blah. Five years is a long time in football. I can't honestly say that we're beautiful to watch at the moment, 127 goals notwithstanding (!), but now we have a side that wins Cup Finals by playing for the last 10 minutes, a side that can bore Italian teams into submission (the irony), a side that can dig its heels in. Definitely not the Spice Boys. Houllier deserves all the credit for this. Losing McManaman was hardly his own choice, losing Redknapp to injury wasn't either. Getting rid of Ince and James definitely were.
McAteer, Babb, Kvarme and Bjornebye were all regulars in the Liverpool side 5 years ago. In hindsight, I have to say Roy was some kind of genius in managing to get such muck to play football for so long. The feeling is less that we should have done more with that side (which I felt at the time) but more that we really did get away with it for an awfully long time. None of this is to say that Gerard is a stunning judge of a player (hiya Rigobert), but he does seem to have the knack of realising when a player just isn't up to it, and the courage to get rid quick. Apart from Collymore, think of the players Roy should have got rid of a lot sooner - James in full-on Nintendo mode, Ruddock and his "always booze" philosophy, all the names mentioned above. Compare this to Houllier's treatment of Ziege this season. Sure, he gave him more than one chance to show his worth - hell, we all would have, knowing that inside that pock-marked head there is a football brain trying to get out - but when it became clear that he was only here for the cash, out he went. This is impressive when you consider that Houllier had a lot riding on Ziege, having fought with Boro over him, shelled out a lot of cash for him and sold a decent left-back to make way for him.
So, our manager took a sham of a squad and built a team. He's given us some pride back. He's allowed us to hold our heads high again. He's given us as many memorable days in one season as we've had in ten years. He buys less duds than his predecessor, and many, many fine players. He's got a genuine love for the club and the people. He has won some trophies. He's a decent man. And yet, for me, doubts remain about our manager. I'm uncomfortable with the hero-worship, and with the singing of the manager's name rather than our best players, and with the label of 'supreme tactician' and with the clamour for Manager of the Year awards. What more do I want? Blood?
James Lawton wrote a fine article a couple of days after the Alaves game, where he quoted the ubiquitous "old pro" as saying the following: "When are Liverpool going to get down to really playing?". Liverpool's style, or lack of, this season has to cause concern to any of us. This side simply can't be faulted on many of the aspects that great sides need: grit, determination, spirit, etc. When it actually comes to using the ball, however, we're far from the finished article. The temptation to knock it up to Heskey when he's playing is one that is almost never resisted for a start. Ten years ago we would have balked at playing as many long balls as this. Two men are especially guilty, both of whom have been heroes in other ways for the Reds this season: Henchoz and Carragher. JC has been brilliant this season, but almost entirely in a negative sense. Creatively, you might as well have Rolf Harris on the left side. This isn't meant cruelly: Jamie simply isn't cut out for bombing down the line, skipping past people and swinging in crosses. His attributes are manifold, but his deficiencies are there for all to see. At home to Derby a few months ago, Jim Smith's tactics seemed to involve leaving JC as much space as he wanted but to deny everyone else. It worked perfectly. They knew he wasn't going to hurt them, we knew he wasn't going to hurt them, I think the dogs on the street probably had a fair idea he wasn't going to hurt them. Henchoz is another who gives his all - he frequently looks knackered after the warm up - but he has also probably launched more hopeful/hopeless long balls than any other outfield player in my time watching the Reds. This is a huge test for the manager, as the inability of key defenders to retain the ball will tell too often in the season for our forwards to bail us out. Incidentally, is anyone else worried about the tendency for Henchoz to go pear-shaped on our big days? Three finals: Needless penalty given away in the first one; Skinned alive in the second one; Stank so badly in the third one I thought I had brought something in on my shoe.
The aesthetes among us can't have been too impressed with some of our tactics at times this season either. Catching teams on the break is one thing, boring them into submission is quite another. The Porto game away was, in one sense, a job well done. In another sense, it was a complete bloody embarrassment. We all saw how utterly awful Porto were in the second leg, so why didn't we try to cross the halfway line over there? I know you try to silence the crowd early on in a European game, I've read my share of bad autobiographies, but they were catatonic after watching us. After Barcelona, when we were at least playing a decent side, a friend of mine said "I'd rather have lost 5-0". I couldn't disagree with him. We weren't saying that in May, so maybe the end justifies the means, but I found it very hard to get that excited about a display that involved putting everything behind the ball for the whole game. I have faith in these players even if our manager doesn't. Sure, keeping Rivaldo quiet over two legs is some achievement, but am I the only one to feel that Heskey, Fowler and especially Owen could have troubled their sieve of a defence at some stage of the away leg?
Memo to Gerard: we may need to win an away match if we get to the Champions League. This could mean doing some attacking. How many teams have we whinged about coming to Anfield for a point desperate not to play an ounce of football? Just because it's us doesn't make it right, lads. A Bluenose friend of mine, a relatively sane one at that, had a good dig at me recently: How come "Dogs Of War" Blue-style was sneered upon so much six years ago, yet it's OK now because the shirts are red? I laughed, but we both knew he had a point. Even if our Dogs are thoroughbreds to their mongrels.
Irish readers will be familiar with the Waldorf & Stadler of football punditry, Eamon Dunphy and John Giles. Dunphy may need some introduction to others: an ordinary Irish player in the seventies who went on to transform himself in the eighties and nineties into an entertaining if barking journalist. I have never paid much attention to his views on football - he reckoned O'Leary should have been Manager of the Year this season! - but he is always good for an impassioned rant. He's been on LFC's back all year ("We're not here to be cheerleaders"), sometimes to a degree which made him seem even more of a caricature than usual. However, the odd line did hit home. After one display, he cranked himself up: "I've seen this side playing Birmingham. I've seen them play Wycombe. Everton, Porto, Barcelona. I am sick of watching this side. Sick!". Now, Everton apart, you'd have to say most of those games were pretty awful. On the other hand, it's not a circus, the Reds aren't there to entertain the supporters of Leeds United.
However, while I don't give Dunphy much time, Johnny Giles has always been that rarest of things: a pundit who doesn't make you want to puke. He always speaks his mind, whether it's what you want to hear or not. He was comparing Fowler favourably to Jimmy Greaves after 3 months in the team, and he has constantly berated successive England managers for their treatment of Owen. His commentary on the day LFC beat Leeds 5-4 at Elland Road a decade or so ago summed up the man for me. Liverpool go 4 up against a team presumably close to his heart, and his reaction is along the lines of the following: "People accuse me of being a Liverpool fan. This is why. I'm not a Liverpool fan, I'm a football fan. And this is football the way it should be". In short, not a man with a grudge about LFC. This season, though, he has been far from fulsome in his praise. While giving the team credit for their resolve and so on, he frequently came back to what he sees as a lack of a real direction, a lack of a real pattern of play. For all our fine players, and this is a hell of a squad we've got, we have rarely looked completely in control of a game for the entire 90 minutes. United do it in their sleep.
James Lawton also makes reference to a 'meddlesome theoretic streak' that Houllier often seems to have. This is a point that Giles also repeatedly comes back to about managers in general and Houllier in particular. Giles' philosophy is simple: you pick your best players, and you go and play. It sounds ridiculous to even say this - of course you pick your best players. And yet, come FA Cup Final day there was no place in the first eleven for Gary McAllister, a man possessed for the previous six weeks. The impetus which should have been handed to us by Wenger's inclusion of the woeful Grimandi was handed straight back by our exclusion of the best player in the country in the last six weeks of the season. You can't tell me that McAllister needed to be rested for the UEFA Cup Final either, when a man is playing in the form of his life tiredness is the last thing on his mind.
This sort of tinkering has been all too familiar this season, but (eventual) results have meant that the spotlight has not shone on this aspect of the manager's character. Consider this: would you have substituted Michael Owen against Alaves? Or to put it another way: Gerard, what was it about our world-class, in-form, whippet of a forward that you felt we could do without against a defence that was ragged, tired and terrified of people going at them? They must have been as happy to see him go off as we were about Moreno's weird departure. As it was, when Alaves got their equaliser and we needed to push on again, our Cup Final hero wasn't on the pitch. Consider this too: would you have tried out a new formation on Worthington Cup Final day? Biscan on the left wing had the haunted look of a Vietnam vet in an overwrought Oliver Stone epic, and in truth he hasn't looked the same since. Building your whole attack around the wretched Smicer in a free role had the appearance of a bet Gerard made with Patrice after the boys had downed a bucket of their favourite claret. Both games were won, so it doesn't matter. Does it? I would feel that when it ain't broke, it doesn't need fixing.
Finally, it has to be said: we were blessed with luck in the last few months of the season. We weren't the first team ever to have won three trophies in a season with a lot of help from the Gods I know, just ask your Manc mates who've been supporting them ever since 1993, but someone was smiling on us those last few weeks. Regardless of whether justice was done or not with each incident, try these: there was the tanking we got from Arsenal and got away with, there was the penalty that wasn't against Roma, there was the golden own goal, there was the tanking we got from Charlton first half and got away with, there was Gary Mac's goal from four miles against Everton. The following is from a pretty funny Irish Times article by a Leeds fan bemoaning LFC's "extraordinary strain of jamminess", talking about the aftermath of the Everton winner:
"McAllister's celebrations are almost marred when he comes close to dying from laughter. M Houllier is on the pitch with his big jammy grin too. We are jammy. Nous sommes les jamants!" Wise old man say: a good manager is a lucky manager. By this criteria, we've got ourselves a good man here. This isn't meant to denigrate our achievements , as I didn't see us getting much luck around November and December time when we could have done with it. To use my 84th cliché of the piece, you make hay while the sun shines.
An alternative title to this piece was Adventures in Nit Picking. Because, let's face it, I love the man. I started work in 1993, United won the title 3 months later. 8 years of total smugness from the Mancs, 8 years of gallows humour from the Reds who had to grin and bear it. And finally, thanks to GH, it's our turn to gloat a wee bit. I delight in discussing a trip to the Super Cup in Monaco, just because I can. I love talking about our Treble in front of people who think they own the word. Other Reds I discussed this article with said things along the line of: "Well, I'm not complaining" or "Beggars can't be choosers." And my search for the perfect manager is about as realistic as my hopes of being plucked from my five-a-side games on a Friday night to star for the Reds. But God yes, I'm hard to please. I grew up spoiled: Dalglish and Rush, Barnes and Beardsley. Now, after a decade of Paul Stewarts, Nicky Tanners and Phil Babbs, we've got ourselves a team again, and we're close.
Let Burley have his award, he's deserved it. The eternal optimist in me likes to think our man will have his turn this season, after he's led the Reds to glory. We'll be gorgeous to watch, Litmanen proving to be everything Smicer isn't (who said "a footballer"?), Stevie G running the show, Robbie, Michael and Emile terrorising defences, Sami and Marcus treating the opposition with disdain. But then I snap out of it. I really don't expect miracles - United aren't that likely to be weakened by Veron coming in for Nicky Butt - but just to challenge again for the League, in a style befitting this club, would prove the manager's worth to me. And if we do challenge, with style, win or lose, I'll be there in my best mock-Scouse-French: "Ger-ard, Ger-ard Ooo-leee-aaaa".