Harsh reality hits Houllier hard

Ian Ross on a fruitless first outing for Liverpool's new managerial double-act, the team's third defeat at Anfield in eight days

Like anybody who finds himself pursuing a career in a profession with a high rate of failure, Gerard Houllier has come to appreciate the virtues of taking solace when and where you can find it.

He had to look hard on Saturday evening, though, but in the end he managed to scoop together just enough crumbs of comfort to keep the wolves from the door.

Forty eight hours after his managerial partnership with Roy Evans had gone the way of all things makeshift, Houllier's were the only excuses echoing around Anfield.

It cannot have been easy for him, as he now probably appreciates, that he has assumed control at precisely the wrong time of a club where the supporters have long memories and short tempers. Fate has not been kind.

Liverpool's third consecutive league defeat - and third defeat at home in the space of eight days - leaves them so far adrift of the Premiership's leading bunch that thoughts will already be turning toward summer and the removal of the dead wood.

As Houllier took his place at pitch-side before kick-off, an awkward few days finally behind him, a large banner bearing the legend "Thanks Roy" fluttered in the breeze beneath the Anfield Road stand. An empty car-park berth apart, it was the only reminder that the Evans era is over, until the team emerged that is.

Curiously the Frenchman seems to speak much better English now that Evans is no longer at his side nodding. "I now have a psychological job and a footballing job on my hands," he said.

Houllier is an endearingly honest man, one blinkered by understandable bias but endearingly honest none the less. Whether he will be as urbane and charitable if Liverpool's fall from grace is not swiftly arrested, we shall have to wait and see.

It does not seem likely that he will find the remedy to the club's ills in his coaching techniques or in the chest-thumping partisanship of his new assistant Phil Thompson, but rather in the chequebook of the chairman, David Moores.

"We do need new players," the manager admitted. Liverpool have problems in every department but particularly at the centre of midfield and defence, although Leeds left it late before reminding Houllier that he must find a centre-back who can tackle and pass.

In the centre circle, for that is now his exclusive domain, Paul Ince moaned and whinged his way through the entire afternoon without once threatening to make a meaningful contribution.

Actually, Liverpool could not have wished for more accommodating opposition than Leeds, who made little attempt to hide the fact that a goalless draw would have been just dandy.

The visitors should have been dead and buried once Robbie Fowler had steered home a 67th-minute penalty awarded after Nigel Martyn had clattered into Karlheinz Riedle.

The crucial moment came with 12 minutes remaining, when the referee Dermot Gallagher chose not to award the Merseysiders a second penalty when Jonathan Woodgate sent David Thompson sprawling in the box. As the Guv'nor and his mates stood around arguing, Leeds swept upfield and equalised, the 18-year-old substitute Alan Smith smashing home superbly with his first touch in senior football, after Robert Hopkins's shot had been blocked.

"That goal awakened in us some nightmare," said Houllier. "I knew that it would have dreadful consequences and it did." Six minutes later, after two precise finishes by the hitherto disgracefully lazy Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Leeds were coasting.

"I though it would be harder for us, I honestly did," said O'Leary. He might have been speaking for Messrs Houllier and Thompson.

Copyright - The Guardian

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