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Tuesday, 25 May 2004

800: PREMIERSHIP: Houllier leaves d

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by : James Prentice

Liverpool supporters and unbiased observers cannot claim that Grard Houllier’s departure as manager came as a shock. While it seemed that the Frenchman had bought himself some time when the Reds guaranteed a Champions’ League spot for another season, his failure to restore the club to its former glory has ultimately been his downfall.

To his credit, Houllier has won the UEFA Cup and the League and FA Cups for the Merseyside club and has brought silverware back to Anfield after many barren seasons. But because he has not been able to live up to the standards expected by such a great club, the former France manager has been the victim of the past achievements of such greats as Joe Fagan, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish.

Realistically, Houllier’s departure has been on the cards for some time. His well-publicised heart problems of 2001 stole so much of the drive and zest for the game that Houllier possessed. Maybe his illness put football into perspective and made him realise that there are more important things in life than the Beautiful Game. But Houllier’s sickness sapped his energy sources and for a long time he looked like a drained, weary man, and he has never properly recovered.

Aside from his health dilemmas, Houllier has spent an astronomical £120 million on players that have not come close to winning two of the biggest competitions in club football – the Premiership and the Champions’ League. Somebody had to pay the price for years of failiure to challenge for those major honours and the blame has eventually landed squarely on the shoulders of the Frenchman.

The big question being asked now is: who will become the new Liverpool manager? It has to be someone with a proven track record; personality; and excellent man-management capability. The man for Liverpool is none other than Celtic’s Martin O’Neill.

New brooms tend to sweep clean, and new regime could spur Liverpool’s players on to achieving what their forefathers did. O’Neill would be more of a cyclone if he is appointed to the Anfield hot seat, as his CV demonstrates.

Celtic were a club in utter disarray before O’Neill arrived in Parkhead in 2000. The Northern Irishman bought the players he wanted, moulded them into a team within weeks and motivated them to the point of spontaneous human combustion. Within a year, O’Neill was the manager of the best team in Scotland, and added to his first triumph, he has won the league twice in addition to several assorted cups, and took a team of relative unknowns and failures to the UEFA Cup final, where they were unlucky to lose to FC Porto.

O’Neill has proved that he can manage a club of Liverpool’s size with his successes at Celtic. The only question that remains unanswered is whether his autocratic management style would be tolerated by world class players.
Liverpool’s supporters are not unanimous over O’Neill’s appointment as manager, and there are other big names being linked with the vacancy at Anfield. But the appointment of the former Nottingham Forest player would be the best thing that has happened to Liverpool since the 1980s. He does not tolerate failure and demands that players give their all for victory in every challenge they face. Anybody who dares to cross him will be having their income topped-up with Social Security benefits come Monday morning, as Eyal Berkovic found to his cost and Reds fans would, like supporters of Celtic and Leicester did, warm to O’Neill’s style rather quickly, because he demands, and always seems to deliver, instant success.

O’Neill is every bit Brian Clough’s star pupil. People didn’t believe that ‘Old Big ‘ed’ could mastermind the attainments he did at Forest, and like O’Neill, revelled in playing the underdog. And given the backing of the board and a few quid in his transfer budget, O’Neill’s achievements will be just as good as – if not better than – his master’s.

James Prentice

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