And here we go again. Smug armchair critics – not that there is any other kind – write articles on the basis of the prevailing paradigm. They work on a particular article, polishing and perfecting it until it shines like a diamond ring…then Houllier goes and signs the most gifted, the most mercurial, the most cantankerous player to lace up a pair of football boots since, er, Stan Collymore, and suddenly all that went before is more worthless than a contract to sell sausage to a synagogue.
Nicolas Anelka, eh? It’s indicative of the splash this fool made the last time he was on these shores that despite completely falling off our radar screens, his return to English football has created ripples that would capsize a supercarrier. The first question must always be: will he be any good for us? And while many people already know the answer for certain because they use Windolene on their crystals balls (“he’ll score two hundred goals a season!” “He’ll burn Anfield to the ground!”), the reality is somewhat murkier. He’s one big ball of trouble, of course, and that’s before you even factor in his brothers, folk who hang around kid brother more effectively than Gary Lineker used hang around the goal. The question of whether he can ever settle down is a valid one. It’s not unreasonable to want to leave Arsenal for Real Madrid – that’s self-evident, Arse fans, we saw one of our top players do the same, albeit with rather more success – but to then want to leave Madrid to go to Paris Saint Germain, a club whose descent to European mediocrity was as fast as their Ged-inspired rise to the top of the football tree, was a sign of modest madness.
When he was bad, he was horrid. But by golly, when he was good he was very, very good indeed. I witnessed his performance at Anfield just after they had won the double, a frustrating 0-0 draw, the only time we have failed to beat them in the history of the Premiership – so if we fail on Sunday, you know where to send your accusations of being a Jonah. Memories have a funny way of playing tricks on you. My ticket stub, which like all the truly sad day-trippers, I have kept to his day, tells me that I was seated in the Upper Centenary. Yet I have the most vivid images running through my head of viewing the proceedings from the Upper Anny Road. Perhaps the memories of Anelka being quite superb that day, generally terrorising the pre-Henchoz-and-Hyypia back four, are merely false memories placed in my brain by Didier Anelka in the hope that it will ensure some sort of good press for his brother.
Equally curiously, I couldn’t tell you who our central defence was that day, so effectively have SH & SH made those positions their own. Or maybe it’s the senile dementia taking hold.
The jury is out then on Anelka, on whether he’s worth the grief. But other matters can be spoken of with much more certainty. Not for the first time, Le Boss has demonstrated this uncanny ability to pull a fast one on everybody. Most modern day managers can’t look at a player without bellowing the fact on a megaphone to the assembled press. And let’s not ignore the role of the press in disseminating every mouldy piece of football nonsense. Eager to fill acres of newspaper with ‘exclusives’, a manager can’t go on holiday to Spain without being associated with every player plying their trade in the Primera Liga. Sven-Goran Eriksson will almost certainly turn up at Anfield on Sunday (he’s your Jonah, not me) and with Anelka in place, some paper is bound to link Owen with Eriksson’s old club Lazio. What else would he be doing in Liverpool on a dreary December when he should be out buying his true love a partridge in a pear tree?
But Houllier seems to operate in a manner that would impress the protagonist of a John Le Carré novel. Interested in a player plying his trade in Paris? Negotiate a deal in Corsica! This makes it more difficult for the hacks, who are obliged to link us with everybody and anybody. And it’s always fun to see their figurative jaws drop when a stretch limo pulls up at Anfield and out steps a character that they never predicted, nor indeed ever expected to see on this sceptred isle again.
Another thing that is indisputable is the plain excitement of it all. Chris Royle captured the mood perfectly in his article yesterday. When Houllier sat down – or lay down, as the case may have been – to plot his next move, it would have been so easy for Le Boss to have sat on his hands and waited until the end of this season before making his next move. But no, he decided that the time had come to dispense with the most revered player of his generation and bring in a petulant sack of merde whose antics have been a source of ridicule throughout all of footballdom. On the other hand, it could be said that we have dispatched a player past is past due to injuries and personal problems to the outer reaches of Hell AKA Yorkshire, and replaced him with a player with the most extraordinary talent and brio.
Which assessment is right, we’ll have to wait and see. But personally speaking, I applaud Houllier’s commitment to doing things rather than just going with the flow. All the grief he is getting at the moment, he could have avoided had he just left Our Robbie where he is. If we fail, he’ll get such a kicking from the scallies that he’ll look like Le Tricolore. And if he succeeds, people will shower credit on Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. It’s the price of being dynamic. But whatever happens, it’s going to be fun watching it all unfold.