Liverpool Daily Post report

WITH the skyline dominated by a stand called 'Symphony', perhaps it was always destined to be a bitter-sweet afternoon.

Unfortunately, the only Liverpudlian celebrating was Paul Jewell.

While he rejoiced at seeing his players complete the kind of escapology act which rendered the 'Houdini lives in Bradford" banner in the middle of the home section only too apt, Gerard Houllier's demeanour was altogether different as he emerged moments after the final whistle.

For Liverpool a season of progress and ultimately achievement has also ended in regret. And lots of it.

With Leeds drawing at West Ham, victory in the end would have been good enough to bring the glitz and the glamour, the riches and the razamatazz of the Champions League to Anfield next season.

But a shocking, lifeless display, as bad as they have been under Houllier, left the chances of that remote and ensured that the events at Upton Park only held a passing interest at best.

It is unfair to pigeonhole the way Liverpool have ended the campaign with all those others in the none-too-distant past when much was promised and the minimum eventually gained.

A new team with new players has brought a new attitude and renewed hope for the future.

The campaign, however, still leaves much for the manager to muse upon.

There will be plenty more major decisions for him to make over the coming weeks and months and with far more ramifications than just leaving Robbie Fowler out of his 16 for potentially Liverpool's most important game of the season.

Whether or not the decision to confine him to his armchair along with the millions of others who watched a tense finale unfold was the right one will no doubt continue to be debated.

Certainly, as his team-mates huffed, puffed and spluttered under a searing sun trying to find an opening - never mind a goal - his presence on the substitutes' bench would have seemed welcome.

It was Alex Ferguson, the man Houllier aims to overthrow, who pointed out the Frenchman's willingness to gamble and take the consequences - good and bad. And you cannot help but be impressed by the way he rules his kingdom.

By taking Fowler out of the firing line, he demonstrated yet again that reputations mean little to him. If he had been in any doubt about that fact beforehand, then Fowler now knows that and next season will be the one where he must again prove the judges, who declare him the best, to be correct.

His team-mates are also aware they will be offered no favours and overall it should be wholly reassuring that Houllier treats everyone as an equal.

Fowler's absence was brought into even sharper focus as Bradford's moment arrived in the 13th minute aided and abetted by more of the kind of slapdash marking which has crept back into Liverpool's psyche.

Dietmar Hamann's foul on Gunnar Halle allowed the full-back to curl a free-kick into the penalty area which saw David Wetherall rise unattended and power a header past Sander Westerveld into the top corner.

For a spell immediately afterwards it appeared as if the breakthrough had almost come too early for the hosts as they dived into tackles and thumped the ball anywhere and everywhere as if there were just seconds left rather than 77 minutes.

Jewell, who deserves the chance to plot another miracle next term, was a picture on the touchline. Eyes bulging, fists shaking, arms flailing and all the time bawling "calm down, calm down" at his players.

In truth, Bradford's nerves were soothed by Liverpool's annoying inability to ensure that the possession they did muster fizzled out long before Matt Clarke threatened to vie for the status of hero of the day.

Only once did the thousands bedecked in purple and orange shirts see their hearts justifiably move into their mouths. Steven Gerrard's long ball out of defence was flicked on by Emile Heskey allowing Michael Owen to stretch his legs and accelerate past Wetherall and Clarke.

Taking a touch, he steadied himself but as he tried to make the most of the opportunity Halle filed back to clear off the line. The incident neatly encapsulated Bradford's performance. They chased lost causes and played with big hearts and no little desire.

The importance of such qualities are often over-played, but they were two elements sadly lacking in Liverpool's display.

There has been much praise rightly handed their way, but they are not above criticism and deserve to be censured for a points haul of just two from 15.

The stakes may well have been considerably higher for the Yorkshire side but it wasn't as if Houllier's charge were devoid of motivating factors.

Reflecting on the way the last five games have gone, it is possibly a good thing that the Europe's mightest names will have to wait for a former giant to mingle among them once again.

Exactly why Liverpool's dip for the finishing line has been so poor, a pale imitation of the performances which for seven long months had promised to defy logic and turn them from under-achievers to over-achievers, is the quandry Houllier will spend the summer trying to unravel.

Suddenly there are question marks appearing and by August answers must be found. There is a need for more experience in his squad, more competition for places, width (!) and indeed more quality.

Of course, none of what has happened has come as a surprise to Houllier, who has watched too many of his key players suffer a slump in form at the wrong time. "When we were competing for second and third place everyone started dreaming, but not me," he said, although he would possibly have been happy to be made a fool of on this point.

At least the end-of-season sequence will have provided the perfect antidote to any over-expectation still lingering in the minds of a few when hostilities resume in 95 days' time.

Unable to raise themselves sufficiently from their collective slumbers and start creating opportunities for Owen and Heskey to thrive upon, Liverpool never appeared capable of claiming an equaliser as the second half was played out against a backdrop of very little incident.

There were just two memorable moments - in the 58th and then the 80th minute - but came nearly 300 miles away as firstly Wayne Bridge and then Marian Parhars sent the thronging masses inside Valley Parade into raptures with the goals which condemned Wimbledon to the drop.

At the final reckoning a point would have been enough for Bradford and yet they could have added insult to injury. Substitute Isaiah Rankin missed when clear through and then Dean Windass almost caught out Westerveld with an ambitious chip.

The Dutch keeper ended the match by racing forward to take part in a corner - and looked as likely as anyone to score - as he attempted to salvage a slither of pride from a forgettable game.

But there was to be no honour in defeat.

"It is a sad way for us to finish our season," lamented Houllier.

Indeed it was. But despite carelessly tossing away third place, the season has been a success - even if it may not seem so just now. Roll on August.

BRADFORD CITY (4-4-2): Clarke, Halle, O'Brien, Wetherall, Sharpe; Lawrence, McCall, Dreyer, Beagrie (Jacobs 80); Saunders (Rankin 79), Windass. Subs: Westwood, Blake, Davison.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo (Meijer 81); Redknapp, Gerrard (Smicer 61), Hamann, Berger (Camara 61); Heskey, Owen. Subs: Nielsen, Song.

BOOKINGS: Henchoz (foul 37), Hamann (foul 74), Dreyer (foul 76).

REFEREE: Mr D Gallagher (Banbury).

ATT: 18,276.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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