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Final flourish lures Rush

HE WAS the last out on to the pitch, through a guard of honour, and the last to leave it, through misty eyes. For the majority of the time in between, he occupied his now traditional place on the substitutes' bench and, granted 31 minutes in which to apply a trademark finish to an emotional afternoon, he failed - although not by much. But when your name is Ian Rush, and when you have performed that task 345 times in the past 15 years, it takes more than a fruitless half-hour to undermine a legend. Rush's last Anfield game for Liverpool on Saturday was one of those "glad-I-was-there" afternoons. The match itself was instantly forgettable; the numerous nice touches all came off the pitch, with even the Middlesbrough supporters saluting the Welshman as if he were one of their own.

The best footballers can still engender genuine affection, and Rush was one of the best. Was? Make that is, and there are plenty of managers offering Rush the chance to prove it. Leeds United, Manchester City, Sheffield United and - whisper it at Anfield - Everton are all thought to be willing to give Rush the chance to show that, at 34 and available on a free transfer, he can still terrorise FA Carling Premiership defences. "He will be doing some damage somewhere," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said.

If it was a tough afternoon for Rush, it must have been an even more difficult one for Evans. Rush is not the first Anfield fixture and fitting to end up in an auction, and it will have helped that Stan Collymore, signed for 8.5 million pounds as Rush's replacement, scored the decisive goal, yet Evans's voice nonetheless seemed tinged with regret. "It is a purely football thing," Evans said. "It is not about money - we have not even talked about it - but he wants to play football, and he is still capable. Overall, the partnership between Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler [55 goals between them this season] has been magnificent for one that was not supposed to work, and so there is no guarantee that Rushie would play regularly."

Despite being pursued by cameras, microphones and autograph books, and being moved by the accolades, Rush was as pragmatic as his finishing is unforgiving. He still has hopes of playing in Liverpool's two remaining league games, and maybe even the FA Cup Final ("stranger things have happened," Evans said), when a fourth winners' medal would set a 20th-century record. "I still feel I am good enough for the Premiership, but with Stan and Robbie I think I am leaving Liverpool in good hands," he said. "Hopefully my last Liverpool goal will come at Wembley - and hopefully they will finish second [to his new club] in the league next season."

The pain was clear, the message clearer: Anfield may not yet have witnessed its last Rush goal.

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