GERARD HOULLIER would have been forgiven for dancing an anniversary waltz around Anfield on Saturday. Who could have begrudged him such revellry as he approaches the end of his first year in sole charge of Liverpool this week, with his side celebrating a third consecutive home win and fifth place in the Premiership?
Houllier's New Order has made more headway than anybody dreamed possible this time 12 months ago, when the Frenchman finally inherited full responsibility for a rag-bag team of under-achievers. Not to mention the odd spent force or two.
To gain full measure of how far Houllier's Red Revolution has advanced, one need only remember the bleak outlook last November as an alarming slump saw Liverpool's worst run in six years and sent them plummeting to 12th in the table.
Ironically, a miserable defeat against a half-strength Derby County side on this same weekend last year was enough to convince most people Roy Evans' inevitable departure would be sooner rather than later.
An embarrassing Worthington Cup defeat against Tottenham at a half-full Anfield a few days later compounded a miserable period and Evans made his exit soon after.
Houllier's first game as manager in his own right saw no immediate improvement, with a second half capitulation at the hands of Leeds United consigning Liverpool to a third home defeat in a week.
But, with patience the watchword, he has successfully set about reversing the decline. Slowly, but surely, the mentally frail, ill-disciplined Liverpool of a year ago is being replaced by a hard-working, well-organised and more mature side. The team we have before us bears little resemblance to the previous vintage.
It was necessary that blood be spilt along the way. Some of it bad blood. Paul Ince just had to go, while the likes of David James and Oyvind Leonhardsen made way for the influx of new players last summer. They have not been missed. New boys, new culture.
It hasn't always been pretty. Certainly rousing, stylish, tub-thumping victories over Arsenal and Leeds United back in August have been the exception rather than the rule.
But Liverpool are undoubtedly a damn sight further along the road to resurrection. And it is in victories like this latest over Derby County, that the evidence of Houllier's transformation can been seen clearest.
Liverpool have played better this season. They may have done so last season. But they are acquiring a powerful determination to win.
Liverpool were tight at the back, dominant in midfield and persistent in attack against a well-drilled opposition determined to defend in numbers. The goals took their time coming, but the result was fully deserved nonetheless.
And you sensed this performance gave Houllier almost as much gratification as any of the more aesthetically-pleasing that have gone before.
"We know it wasn't our best game," he admitted. "But it was a very good Liverpool performance. It shows we have a bit more maturity. We've been working a lot on that.
"We have patience, which is a big virtue. Maybe a year ago we would have lost such a game. That shows me the difference in a year."
At this rate of advancement, it is impossible to predict where Houllier may take Liverpool in the next 12 months, never mind the next two or three years.
Saturday's official match programme featured an entertaining insight into the first five years of Bill Shankly's legendary reign at Anfield.
But when plotting a timetable to predict Houllier's long-term progress, it's perhaps worth remembering it was two and a half years before Shanks secured promotion and a further two years before the championship trophy was held aloft in the Great Man's hands.
Houllier, however, has the advantage of being able to speed along his rebuilding with more extravagant deals in the transfer market than Shankly was ever allowed.
He spent big during the summer, but those purchases appear to be coming good at a rate of knots.
Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia are fast developing the sort of influential central defensive partnership which has been dreamt about since Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen faded away.
Finnish international Hyypia dominated against Bradford last Monday, Swiss star Henchoz assumed the role on Saturday.
Midfielder Dietmer Hamann has settled to life in the middle alongside Jamie Redknapp and both excelled in workrate against Derby.
The German international appears to have shaken off his early season injury problems, but Houllier has fresh casualties to contend with after the weekend.
Vladimir Smicer and Titi Camara both limped off with hamstring injuries which, on first impressions, are likely to need at least a fortnight's rest. The international break takes care of that, but Houllier won't want either sacrifice match fitness at a time they are getting their game together.
Anybody who may have doubted the wisdom of Houllier's summer spending spree need only take note of the degree to which Smicer and Camara were missed after they departed.
Smicer's untimely 12th minute exit left the Reds desperately lacking width while Camara's withdrawal in the 56th minute cost Liverpool an unpredictability in their attack play that has unlocked defences in the previous three games.
But two goals from midfielders in a stunning four-minute spell in the second half proved Houllier, even with a half-fit Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler sidelined, is not short of fire-power.
All eyes were on Owen, returned to the starting line-up after a hamstring injury. The teenager came through without any ill reaction to the strain, but his match-fitness is open for debate.
Certainly England manager Kevin Keegan will watch the youngster long and hard in training this week before selecting him to lead the attack alongside Alan Shearer against Scotland on Saturday.
Liverpool didn't need Owen in a devastating opening 15 minutes which should have sewn up the points before Derby had even drawn breath.
Smicer hit the side-netting, Camara smashed a spectacular overhead kick high, Jamie Carragher lobbed a shot over the bar and Redknapp lashed two long-range efforts wide.
The loss of Czech star Smicer, replaced by Danny Murphy, played havoc with Liverpool's shape as Houllier's side momentarily lost impetus.
Derby twice threatened Sander Westerveld before their match plan was also thrown into chaos by the loss of Italian star Stefano Eranio with a broken leg following a 20th minute challenge by Hyypia.
Furious County boss Jim Smith later slammed the tackle as "diabolical" and blasted referee Uriah Rennie's failure to send off Hyypia.
But the Finn's tackle was clumsy and ill-timed rather than malicious, a fact recognised by the Sheffield official who awarded a free-kick but opted against a yellow card.
The visitors enjoyed the better of the early exchanges after the break, with Tony Dorigo and Dean Sturridge wasting good chances.
Liverpool's loss of Camara came when it appeared they would never break beyond Derby's back line. But the reward for their patience and persistence came in the 65th minute.
Westerveld's long clearance found Steve Staunton in space and his chip found Murphy, who smashed a low shot which crucially deflected off Spencer Prior and past goalkeeper Russell Hoult.
Liverpool bagged their second four minutes later as Redknapp raced clear of Derby's defence, although the England star looked at least two yards offside.
Hoult's misery was completed as he came rushing out, but woefully missed an attempted clearance allowing Redknapp to clip home his second goal in two games to guarantee the points.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Henchoz, Staunton, Smicer (Murphy 12), Owen (Gerrard 80), Redknapp, Hyypia, Heggem, Hamann, Camara (Meijer 56), Carragher. Subs not used: Thompson, Nielsen.
DERBY COUNTY (3-5-2): Hoult, Carbonari, Schnoor, Powell, Dorigo, Johnson (Prior 51), Burton, Delap, Laursen, Fuertes (Sturridge 51), Eranio (Borbokis 20).
Referee: Uriah Rennie (Sheffield).
Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post