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One R or Two: Gerrard versus Gerard

By Cam and Steve Kelly
From Issue 59, Winter 2002

All the concern for Steven Gerrard did not start just after the Basle game – this has been going for fourteen months or so. The press he received after the Germany game went to his head a little bit and his form dipped slightly. The shit he got from them after he had a few late drinks almost a week before the Greece game knocked the game out of him.

He went through an awful time on the pitch and should have been dropped. An injury crisis on the right meant he had to be picked there – where he was consistently crap. He then had a very average run-in to the end of the season back in the centre. That level of form has carried on into this season. He’s been ‘rested’ then brought back. He has contributed to a number of ‘leaked’ goals and indirectly to a few more (including all three at Basle).

I’m his biggest fan but he deserved to be dropped on form alone, particularly when Hamann, Murphy and Diao are performing so well - but there are also concerns about effort, application and confidence.

We know he’s always been trying the “Hollywood” ball when a simple pass was on, but he’s also stopped running. He doesn’t track back. He’s not running forward, either. He’s never really been one to get into the box, but he’d always get on the edge and have a crack. All good football is based on Pass & Move – and he’s not doing either at the moment.

So whether it’s drink, nightclubs, a girlfriend, a break-up, a gangster’s wife, dickhead mates, a family illness that this alleged “problem” behind the scenes – he still needs to concentrate more on his game.

Some have said it’s unfair that Houllier has never criticised Heskey or Murphy or even Owen in this way. First of all, their work ethic was usually spot-on (even if nothing else was) and Owen, despite his goal drought, was in great form and his attitude could never be faulted.

Some say it was unfair to do it in public. As I said straight off, this has been going on for 14 months. GH has had private words, encouraging as well as bollocking. The staff has had words with him. Senior pro’s like Hyypia and Hamann have had a chat. Alan Kennedy has said even he and Rushie have had a private word at Houllier’s request. What else was left?

This was a last resort by the manager. The player likes to read about himself (is he Posh in disguise?) and likes the media attention. This was a very public cul-de-sac. Sure. It’s a gamble that may blow up in Houllier’s face, but it’s up to Stevie now. He hasn’t seemed interested all season. I’m not saying it’s deliberated, but it’s got to end. If this doesn’t work, then we’re better off without him.

CAM (via the web-site forum)

A lot of good points made there, but I still think it was a bad thing to do – yet another indication that the manager’s finely-tuned sense of self-preservation comes before his own much-touted “team first” philosophy.

I’m not totally against players being publicly hauled over the coals, you understand. The general consensus now seems to be that Steve was given plenty of private warnings, none of which were heeded. There have been plenty of other examples of talented young footballers going off the rails, and for a manager who can claim to have reversed the ‘Me’ culture at Anfield any sign of rebellion was bound to be stamped on swiftly.

It was the timing, and previous managerial lapses, that concerned me the most. Those who read the editorial and diary will know I’ve become fascinated with Gerard’s unique talent for putting his foot in his mouth, whether he’s piling praise on himself or heaping criticism on anyone but. He always used to have the odd little turn now and then, but since his return from illness the number of idiotic comments seems to have increased. “Ten games from greatness”, “you keep possession, we’ll keep the result”, “no, it wasn’t wrong to sub Didi” (it bloody well was), “I’ll tell Alex how to beat Bayer Leverkusen” (even though you couldn’t), “D’ya know who we need? Lee Bowyer!”, “unhappy players are a cancer”, “Henchoz’s an unsung hero”, “I rated Baros but my staff didn’t”, “the Valencia game was too much for Diouf” – and now this.

We should be getting used to his style of management by now, but it has become a little unnerving how many times Houllier asks us to take his side against an individual player. Ultimately, that’s how it should be, of course. He runs the show, and it’s his neck on the block if anything goes wrong. It’s still interesting to count the number of furious Internet debates about whether a particular player was ill-treated or not: Fowler, Litmanen, Camara, Westerveld, Thompson, Anelka, Diouf. That’s before we get onto the still-prickly issue of whatever possessed him to chase Bowyer in the first place. And now it’s Steven Gerrard’s turn. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if John Arne Riise was next up on the chopping block.

Each individual case can be argued persuasively, I’ll grant you that – but look at the number of times it’s happening. Brian Reade, not Gerard’s biggest supporter it must be said, put it best when he wrote “MY FAULT – the two words Houllier cannot say”, and he’s absolutely spot on.

Let’s really get into the full text of what Gerard told journalists the day after the Basle debacle. The printout I was sent came from an article by Henry Winter, so I assume it was originally in the ‘Telegraph’. Let’s not have any of that “word-twisting hack scum” subterfuge. Winter is one of the good guys, so there’s no hint of a stitch-up here. It’s not an isolated comment blown out of proportion, it’s more or less a tirade. And no-one, not even the usual GH derriere-smoochers, is denying that it’s something Gerard has done on purpose. The more you read this thing, the more you wonder whether it was simply an attempt to shock Stevie out of his complacency - or something a bit more sinister.

“Once a player thinks ‘I am king of the world’, there is difficulty and danger”. So far, so not-so-good. “The problem isn’t physical. He didn’t go to the World Cup, so he can’t say he’s tired”. No, but you can say this is a young lad whose fitness problems have been a matter of record for two years, who had also been stretchered off during an England game a month before.

“Maybe it is a matter of his environment” ………now Houllier later denied that he’d made any comments about Gerrard’s social life but, like Boateng’s “brethren” comment about Nicky Barmby, surely the manager must have seen how his words could be interpreted as such? It certainly sparked off a stream of Internet lunacy, involving underage sex, family feuds, gangland ransoms, drugs – and all of it could easily have been avoided. Bluenose taxi drivers must have had a field day!

Then there was stuff about “you notice it more in a good team like ours” – this just after the lowest ranked CL side had raced into a 3 goal lead against us, so how “good” that actually makes us is unclear. We’ve been top and the results have been great, but only the sycophantic could possibly believe that our football merited such results. Compared to last season, the performances of players like Dudek, Riise, Hyypia, Heskey and even Owen have also been below par at times, so clearly Steven Gerrard is not the only one performing below his best.

“I gave Stevie five times the opportunity to show my trust in him”………well, look, I’m not going to be a smartarse here because my French is utterly appalling! Still and all, “5 times” isn’t a significant run (and not always in central midfield, either) for a player to rectify the current flaws in his game. If we wanted to be really mean about it, we could mention a certain striker who was given about 20-30 matches in a row last season before he actually managed to start scoring in any acceptable games-to-goals ratio at this level. Houllier has often had to fend off accusations of favouritism, and a plea of guilty wouldn’t come as a complete surprise after this.

Then it got truly surreal. This is a first for me, and maybe there are more anally retentive Reds around who can recall the last time a Liverpool manager attacked one of his own players by deliberately listing the games he’d appeared in (and we’d lost) and compared them to the games he’d missed (and we’d won). It’s a new one on me. “Without him the team beat Leeds and Spartak in a very efficient way” ………”I brought him back for Tottenham, Valencia and Middlesbrough”.

It is at this point that the charge of Scapegoat-ism is strongest. He didn’t play here – we won. He did play there – we lost. How can anyone not come to the conclusion that Gerrard was actually being BLAMED for the bad results? And how come the 3-1 Worthington Cup win over Southampton (when Stevie captained the side!) was omitted? If you’re gonna start spewing out facts and figures – and Le Boss sure loves his stats – then let’s hear the whole story. Or does Houllier only like ‘facts’ so long as they say what he wants to hear?

“Players need managers when they are going through a bad spell – he cannot say we haven’t been supportive”. Saying that during what amounts to a public roasting is laughable. “I don’t know if he’s a listener, but he must be a good reader”. Henry Winter kindly added the words “of headlines” in brackets at the end, just in case the manager’s snottiness hadn’t been completely clear to the Telegraph’s readers. Winter also added a few paragraphs of his own further on. “Some may see Houllier’s comments as a plan to deflect attention away from the manager’s own tactical mistakes against Basle” – now there’s a thought………

And it wasn’t just Basle, actually. A lot of fans thought the boss had screwed up at Middlesbrough too. Top of the league by four points: were McClaren’s side really deserving of such respect? The verbal diarrhoea poured out after that fiasco, too. “I thought we controlled the game” – sorry, Gerard, but you were the only one who did. So the invective unleashed against Gerrard really did seem as if he didn’t want people to look too closely at his team selection, and he needed a distraction.

Gerrard wasn’t given a chance to challenge the manager’s words where it would done have most good – on the pitch. If the verbal battering really had been for his own good, why deny him a chance to hit back straight away? Riise was also dropped for the Sunderland game, and you start to flinch slightly because it began to look as if he’d also cop for some flak. He was many fans’ Player of the Year last season, a thrilling left-sided midfielder who scored some memorable goals. He has barely featured in that role this season, but another player has – Emile Heskey. Now if we were to take a poll and ask everyone who they think SHOULD play in that position, how many hands would be raised for Emile? Only ones with six fingers………but have you noticed that the Riise song, so popular six months ago, is never heard any more? Maybe that’s a good thing? Maybe John was starting to think he was “king of the world”, too?

It started a week of headlines, claims and counterclaims. It was great copy for the press leeches who’d normally get zero respect from any of us. We couldn’t beat Sunderland, but Gerard had his stats ready for any complaints. In fact, they were the same ones he produced after Middlesbrough. We can’t be boring, we’ve had more goal attempts than anyone except Manchester United. Taken to its ‘logical’ conclusion, that makes us more entertaining that Arsenal, yes? Well, we’ll abstain from this vote because of our natural bias, but let’s give the nation a chance to choose who they’d rather watch between us and Arsenal………on second thoughts, let’s not.

Saying such a thing after the rubbish that was served up at the Riverside was only slightly less ludicrous than the “control” quote. We were credited with ELEVEN goal attempts at Middlesbrough, but in all seriousness can anyone name one of any note, apart from Heskey’s stretch late on? That such a statistic is Houllier’s proof that we’re not boring would normally defy belief, if it weren’t for the fact that we’re getting used to such far-fetched claims now.

The manager’s call for unity after Sunderland took everything into Lewis Carroll territory. After he’d singled out one of his own players for special public criticism after a result that could have far-reaching consequences for the club (and thus for Houllier’s job), to then ask everyone for a show of solidarity is utter hypocrisy. “There are times when you go through difficult periods as a club and that’s when you need everyone to stick together” – it’s a shame he didn’t heed his own philosophy a week before that.

He also drew attention to the fact that we did not boo the team after Sunderland. Things really have taken a weird turn when you have to thank the fans because they didn’t have a riot after a 0-0 home draw! Are we really so pathetic, so spoilt, so demanding? Or are there other factors at work here? In the cold light of day, Gerard is absolutely right: we are in a very good position, still in Europe in a way and almost top of the Premiership after two very good seasons. It seems strange that this can be called a “difficult period”.

In-depth examination shows otherwise. Liverpool’s support is split three ways – not equally, but there are three definite groups. Group One is absolutely thrilled with everything: the manager is a genius and never wrong, the football is good to watch and everything’s just hunky dory. Shut your fucking prattle, boo boys, or piss off to Goodison where you belong.

Group Two is a little less enchanted, but is mindful that results have been very good. They’re not too pleased with the kind of football that Liverpool play, and if they were being honest they’d admit they haven’t been happy for a couple of years now – but they’re delighted we’re involved in the title race, and made up that we were in the Champions League. So they’re gonna turn a blind eye. For now.

And then there’s Group Three, the miserable bastards who are never satisfied. At least that’s how we’re always portrayed. Another way of looking at it is that we don’t accept any old propaganda. Houllier isn’t perfect. We don’t have to play this way in order to win. Just because we have 11 attempts at goal on Teesside doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an excruciating experience. And Emile Heskey will never be a left-sided midfielder as long as he has a hole in his arse. I’ll keep quiet while Group 1 whines on and on about what I know in comparison to Houllier, Eriksson or O’Neill – I’ve heard it all before (and the “you want Evans back” shite, too).

But it’s not people like me or the Mirror’s Brian Reade who are the problem. It’s the fans from Group Two, the blind-eye merchants. They’ll accept what’s going on as long as we win. To outsiders, it may look as if Liverpool fans get shirty far more quickly than anyone else, but there’s a lot of bottled-up frustration out there. Liverpool’s football is results-oriented, it has no other purpose. And if we’re not winning, then there is NOTHING else to commend it. That’s when the middle group starts to act up. Liverpool fans didn’t get angry last season merely because we couldn’t beat Southampton at home – it was the manner of the draw, and the culmination of weeks of percentage football that didn’t even produce wins!

And let me state quite clearly that I don’t think it’s all Houllier’s fault. There’s also the greed of the players, and the club’s desperation for success to pay what is now an obscene wage bill. Elimination from the European Cup is no longer the cue for sadness and a shrug of the shoulders. After all, you can’t win every game. No, the draw with Basle sent a shudder through this club, and if we are not in the top 4 come May 2003 I honestly think heads could roll. We’re not in Leeds’ precarious position yet, but there is definitely huge pressure on the manager to secure results at any cost. There’s an awful lot of money at stake. That could also explain why our morality went out of the window during the Bowyer saga.

Look at the start of this season. We were playing with greater attacking freedom, but we weren’t taking our chances and we weren’t devoting all of our attention to defensive solidity. Points were dropped through carelessness, but that was only to be expected during what would have to have been a period of transition. And don’t kid yourselves that it isn’t necessary: we are not going to become one of the best sides in Europe by continuing with the cautious style of the last two or three years. We have to change.

But what can the manager do? He can see how the players aren’t used to taking their chances. The draw with Sunderland was put down to bad luck, but the finishing was poor. The opposition goalkeeper was lionised out of all proportion to what he actually did. 24 attempts at goal, and he made, what, three great saves? We hit the bar and one was cleared off the line. That makes 19 attempts that didn’t push him too much or didn’t even hit the target.

That’s feeble, and not uncommon. Newcastle and Birmingham should also have been battered, but they weren’t. We have to keep playing like this, though, because the players can’t practise taking chances in high-pressure situations – not unless 40,000 of us turn up at Melwood and shout “HIT IT!!!” just before they’re about to shoot. Ironically, it was Basle who made GH run for cover. We hammered them too, but could only draw. The next game was at City; grab a goal, shut up shop, hit them on the break. 3-0. Houllier decides we’ll go back to what he knows works, and in truth we haven’t seen a lot of good football since then.

But it only works up to a point, and we were “found out” by Valencia. That’s no disgrace, they’re a quality team, but we’d been on a knife edge for a good long while before that. It could have gone either way: we’d start producing performances to match the results, or results to match performances. As I write, the recent record is W2 D2 L2. Not devastating, but the wins were against West Ham (who are awful) and Southampton (in a competition no-one cares about).

So the pressure’s on, and I believe that’s why the manager attacked Gerrard like he did. It’s not something we haven’t been saying ourselves, in fairness. Steve has been showboating for a lot of this season, always looking for the killer pass instead of a good short pass – but even that could be put down to the way the team is asked to play. Long passes, throw ins and free kicks have become the regular source for Liverpool nowadays. Check the Treble video – half the goals come from set pieces or a long ball, but nobody was complaining then, nor were there moans about Stevie G at Leeds or Ipswich last season. What we were moaning about was the inaccuracy of the passing, not the fact that he was trying it at all. And if his form is woeful, then who is it who selects him for the team? I’ll give you a clue: it’s the same bloke who threw El Hadji into the lion’s den at Valencia, then complained that he wasn’t up to the job. I’m sure that was also for Diouf’s own good…………

So what do we want? Well, a bit of consistency. Team First should also apply to the manager. I’m not asking for a blinkered refusal to accept criticism and a wave of obscenities – the words “Ferguson” and “Veron” and “fucking great player” spring to mind – but if Gerard is not yet aware that the press is out to slaughter us for every fragment of discord it can snuffle out, then he is a very stupid man indeed. When he hands it to them on a plate, deliberately, the result is not pretty and we are still feeling the after-effects. If he has a squad of players who are wondering who will be sacrificed next, success will slip through our fingers. And it will be Gerard Houllier himself who pays the ultimate price.

SK

Ps, after I wrote this I went and had a look at the 2001/02 video. For someone who “had an awful time on the pitch”, he seems to have made a crucial input to the season. Some of the passes (Old Trafford and Stadium of Light, to name but two) were match winners, and without the second goal in Kiev, we’d have been knocked at the first stage last season too.

There was also the alarming drop in the team’s performance at White Hart Lane, when Gerrard was missing – or is arbitrarily picking out moments and ‘coincidences’ the sole preserve of the manager nowadays?