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Friday, Dec. 20, 2002

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool fans experiencing knee-jerk reaction to team's woes


LONDON -- The phone lines to Liverpool radio stations have been red hot this week. The knee-jerk reaction in the wake of one point from the last 18 has been that Gerard Houllier has lost the plot and Phil Thompson must go.

Christopher Davies

With Liverpool experiencing its worst run for 19 years and suffering the ignominy of a first-round, Champions League knockout, supporters were hardly going to keep quiet or offer rational comments.

Football is not like that. We have seen similar situations in recent months with Sir Alex Ferguson when Manchester United hit a blip while questions were asked about Arsene Wenger when Arsenal lost a few games.

Never mind that Houllier has taken Liverpool to unprecedented heights, winning the F.A. Cup, Worthington Cup, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 2001 while finishing fourth, third and second in the Premiership in the last three years.

Forget that he rid the club of the "Spice Boy" image or that last season, with Houllier recovering from heart surgery, Thompson took over the reins and guided Liverpool toward the runnerup spot in the Premiership.

Liverpool will not panic as some clubs do when things go wrong. Fifth place in the Premiership is hardly the relegation zone though the fact that Everton, which visits Anfield on Sunday, is an unexpected fourth does not help matters. Liverpool is not used to looking up to its neighbor.

Houllier has got it right before and Liverpool will allow the Frenchman the time to put it right again though the manager may reflect and perhaps have a rethink in some areas as he prepares for 2003.

The main criticism is that Liverpool is boring which, of course, was not the case when it was winning. Same style, different results.

Houllier prefers a diamond formation with no wingers and Michael Owen a lone striker. He says teams do not play with wingers these days but players who play from the wing, such as Robert Pires, David Beckham or Freddie Ljungberg can make a significant impact.

What width Liverpool has tends to come from the full-backs Jamie Carragher and Djimi Traore. Using Emile Heskey, who is becoming a non-scoring striker, on the left flank would gain minimal support among the Anfield faithful.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of wingers, it is fair to say Liverpool has become too predictable while Traore and Vladimir Smicer do not appear to be of the standard required at this level.

Steven Gerrard has lost form and so has Jerzy Dudek. Uncharacteristically Houllier criticized Gerrard in public and after three poor games the Polish goalkeeper was dropped in remarkable circumstances.

Houllier said Dudek would not play in the Worthington Cup against Ipswich but went back on his word to give Dudek a vote of confidence and then left him out of the team in the next match.

Senegalese World Cup stars El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao have not yet adapted to the English game. However, Milan Baros, the Czech Republic striker, is slowly but surely making the impact Houllier predicted even if the burden of scoring usually falls on Owen's shoulders.

Every manager has his idiosyncracies, his own way of handling situations and dealing with players and when the squad arrived back from last Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Sunderland, Houllier called them in for a debriefing.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week Houllier held a series of heart-to-hearts with his players individually.

"I'm trying to find out what's wrong," said Houllier. "I still think we're a good team but this is the worst month I've experienced.

"It's a time when you have to stick together and work hard, refocusing on a few things. You have to maybe take the opportunity to sharpen some of the qualities and that will see you back on your winning ways."

Houllier's success over the past four years demands he is given the chance to rectify what has gone wrong, though defeat in the Merseyside derby would have the phone lines buzzing again.

But for the grace of God, Lee Bowyer would be a Liverpool player now.

His proposed transfer from Leeds fell through because, it seems, the midfielder was unhappy with the terms.

Five months on Bowyer has become almost untouchable and while he would never admit it, the player must surely regret not moving to Merseyside.

His image has never been the best. Bowyer and bans have become synonymous and while he was cleared of all charges regarding the assault of an Asian student a year ago even the "not guilty" on his CV does him no favors.

Earlier this month Bowyer trod on the head of Malaga's Gerardo in a UEFA Cup tie which brought a charge of unsporting behavior from UEFA which could result in a five-match ban.

Bowyer is letting his contract with Leeds, which ends next June, run out so he is available on a Bosman free. It will be interesting to see how many and which clubs show an interest. He will probably struggle to find another club of Liverpool's stature coming in for him, even with no transfer fee.

If the phone-ins and letters pages are a reliable yardstick then it appears fans do not want Bowyer at their club. The baggage has become too heavy.

Those who believe the good guys and the bad guys eventually get what they deserve are no doubt hoping Bowyer finds himself in a footballing limbo. It is one thing to have talent, though Bowyer has lost form this season -- yet the continued disciplinary excesses have made him an outcast even at Leeds where last season he was probably the fans' favorite player.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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