Houllier fights to bear burden of history

'I broke the boot room tradition. That was the first handicap. And the tradition of success makes expectations even higher'
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At the end of Sunday's third-round FA Cup tie at Huddersfield Town, Liverpool fans celebrated a 2-0 victory by chanting the name of Bill Shankly, manager and messiah from 1959 to 1974. This was not meant as a slight on the current manager, Gérard Houllier, but an acknowledgment that when Huddersfield last beat Liverpool at Leeds Road - with the help of the young Denis Law - Shankly was the Yorkshire club's manager. That was November 1959. Three days later Shankly crossed the Pennines to join Liverpool, and the rest is history.

At the end of Sunday's third-round FA Cup tie at Huddersfield Town, Liverpool fans celebrated a 2-0 victory by chanting the name of Bill Shankly, manager and messiah from 1959 to 1974. This was not meant as a slight on the current manager, Gérard Houllier, but an acknowledgment that when Huddersfield last beat Liverpool at Leeds Road - with the help of the young Denis Law - Shankly was the Yorkshire club's manager. That was November 1959. Three days later Shankly crossed the Pennines to join Liverpool, and the rest is history.

For Houllier, though, it is a slightly burdensome history. We meet at Liverpool's training ground, Melwood, in a large, plain room used for team meetings. This, I reflect, must be where Houllier reasserted managerial authority over the so-called Spice Boys - Paul Ince and others - who by all accounts led his genial predecessor, Roy Evans, a merry dance. Once Houllier took sole command, following his own ill-conceived tango with Evans, he took steps to make football the be-all-and-end-all again. Mobile phones were banned from Melwood, an edict I myself fall foul of on arrival. "You can't use them in here, pal," the gateman grunts.

Not only did Houllier get rid of mobile phones, he also, more significantly, got rid of the alleged troublemakers. Ince, for one, did not want to leave, and told the press that he had been tempted to punch the manager in the face. This was testimony, if nothing else, to the 52-year-old Frenchman's toughness. With me, by contrast, he is affable and charming although a little guarded, until I suggest that Liverpool's rich heritage, while obviously a source of pride to him, must also be something of a millstone. Having maintained an almost English level of self-possession, Houllier suddenly becomes all animated and Gallic.

"Ooffff!" he says, flinging his arms in the air. "When I took a job here, I broke the boot room tradition. That was the first handicap. And there is a tradition of success so present in people's minds that it makes expectations even higher. Also, the local media were frustrated. They used to travel everywhere with this club and now they were going nowhere. And remember, too, that there is no club in England with so many former players involved in press, or TV, or radio. Leeds? No. Arsenal? No. But Liverpool? Ooooh! I can name more than 10 pundits who used to play for Liverpool and they are all telling me what to do and what not to do. Woooh! You're the first journalist to say that to me. It is not an ordinary job. It is not like being manager of Aston Villa." So how does he cope with the pressure? "I try to take some breaks. And humour helps. I don't take myself very seriously."

Now that he mentions it, he's dead right, an inordinate number of ex-Liverpool players are regularly employed as football pundits. Off the top of my head I can think of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Ian St John, Graeme Souness, Mark Wright, Kenny Dalglish, David Fairclough, Steve McMahon, and for that matter Kevin Keegan, not to mention Tommy Smith, author of some studs-up diatribes in the Liverpool Echo. No wonder Houllier is sensitive to their criticism. But not even Tommy Smith, sticking the boot in, will easily deflect this admirable, purposeful man - who never played professional football himself - from his methods. "Nobody knows everything about football but I am prepared to live and die by my ideas," he says.

Those ideas began to take shape at Noeux-les-Mines, an unfashionable club in northern France, which Houllier joined as assistant manager in the mid-1970s. If anyone has been his inspiration, it was the Noeux manager, Guy Debeugly. "He was so clever and progressive," Houllier recalls. "He was 20 years ahead of everyone else." When Debeugly retired, Houllier took over, and gradually acquired a reputation himself for progressive thinking and tactical acumen. He moved to Lens, guided them into Europe in his first year there, then won the league title in his second season with Paris St Germain. In 1988, he was invited to coach the national team as assistant to the great Michel Platini. What did he learn from Platini? "Detail. Michel believed that football at the top level was about detail, even the position of the players' feet at set-pieces."

In 1992, Houllier succeeded Platini as head coach, and was firmly expected to guide France to the 1994 World Cup finals. However, the team performed inconsistently in the qualifying stages, and finally faced Bulgaria in Paris, still needing only a draw to qualify. At 1-1, with less than a minute to go, everything went poire-shaped. The substitute, David Ginola, gifted the ball to Emil Kostadinov, who scored the killer goal. Houllier, reportedly, was so furious with Ginola that he branded him "a criminal."

In football terms, with France the reigning world champions and Ginola's international career long finished, this is all ancient history. I rake up the barney because both men are still pained by it. Before I interviewed Ginola a year ago, his agent, a stern Frenchwoman, warned me practically on pain of castration not to mention "ze Houllier episode." But when I tentatively bring it up with Houllier himself, he welcomes the opportunity to set the record straight.

"David is a very nice man and a fantastic player. I bear no grudge. What I regret is the way the media put it. There was a discrepancy between what happened and what was written. I never reproached him for his missed cross. I forgave him for that. I said he had committed a crime against the team, but in French the word for crime means 'moral error.' Two days before the game he spilled himself in the papers saying he should play, instead of Cantona or Papin. I thought David was a striker, I still consider him a striker, but Cantona and Papin had scored all our goals.

"Now don't forget that we were playing at the Parc des Princes, where Ginola played with Paris St-Germain. Imagine if England had played Scotland in Manchester, and Cole had said publicly that he should play instead of Shearer. It was the same. Cantona and Papin had played with Marseilles, and every time Papin touched the ball there was whistling and booing. So I thought David had done something against team spirit, but I said he would learn, which he did, because he said later, in an interview in England, that he had matured and become more team-orientated."

And so to Cantona, another complex character, whose momentous move to English football was brokered by Houllier. In 1989, Cantona had been suspended from playing league football in France, and was thinking of quitting altogether. "Platini went to see him and tried to convince him to come back, then asked me to see whether we could get him into English football. He went first to Sheffield Wednesday, but Trevor Francis delayed signing him. Then I was on a trip somewhere and my secretary asked me to call [the Leeds manager] Howard Wilkinson very quickly. Howard asked me about Eric and I told him what I thought. Howard was clever. He signed him very quickly and they won the title. Then there were problems and we had to find Eric another club. I knew Alex [Ferguson]. I appreciate Alex very much and had known him for many years. So I phoned him up..."

And Cantona duly joined Manchester United. The news that Houllier was instrumental in Cantona going to United - which arguably turned United into the force they are today - might not endear him to the Kop. But Ferguson was the manager he knew best and, besides, Houllier's own credentials as a Liverpool fan are beyond reproach. He has loved the club since 1969, when he spent a year in the city teaching French. "The first game I saw at Anfield was in the European Cup, Liverpool v Dundalk," he recalls. "Liverpool were 5-0 up at half-time, 8-0 up with five minutes to go, and won 10-0. That would have been absolutely impossible in France. After four or five goals, the game would have been over. I was very impressed by that."

So much for what French football can, or once could, learn from the English game. But what, I wonder, do French coaches have that their English counterparts lack - witness the accomplishments at Arsenal of Houllier's great friend Arsÿne Wenger (they talk on the phone several times a week, "not always about football, sometimes about life"), and his own considerable improvements to the Liverpool side?

He is coy about the influence of overseas coaches. "It would be conceited of me to say I bring this or that," he says. "There was not much difference between Roy and me in terms of our philosophy about the game. We were different in our approach to the preparation of the team. One difference is that, in France, coaches are trained. You have to qualify, to go through stages, to go on refresher courses and so on."

I ask whether there is one player who, given unlimited funds, he would like to bring to Anfield? At first he sidesteps the question, citing loyalty to his current squad, but later admits that he would not be averse to introducing Zinedine Zidane to the Kop. He bridles at criticism that he has already brought in more foreign players than are good for the club.

"You've got to live with your times," he says. "I tried the English market first. That is always my priority, but the quotes are usually so ridiculous that you go away. Sometimes when you want a player, the club won't let you near. And sometimes they let you near, but they want £12 million. With that money we've bought seven overseas players of good quality. And why pick on me all the time? Manchester United won the treble, but they bought a Frenchman, a South African, a German, a Dutchman..."

In any case, to most Liverpool supporters it won't matter if 11 Martians bring the championship back to Anfield, as long as it comes. And even impartial observers can see a team of championship-winning potential beginning to take shape. In defence Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz are developing an understanding that must warm the heart of Houllier's assistant, Phil Thompson.

"And don't forget that they played together for the first time only at Aston Villa [on October 2]," adds Houllier, "or that Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen have played only 60 minutes together all season. There are still two or three areas I would like to strengthen in depth, but I have more or less the squad I want. I didn't want Leonhardsen to leave at the end of last season because I knew he could still do well for us, but we let him go to Tottenham and I took the young players aside, David Thompson and Danny Murphy, and said 'listen, I am not going to recruit, so it is up to you to show what you can do.' And they have. I didn't think Danny Murphy would reach the top level so quickly, but he has really blossomed."

In the Echo, Tommy Smith asserts that Houllier has until the end of this season to prove himself. When does the man himself believe he should be judged?

He sighs. "In football you work for success but you can't programme it. Manchester United started their revolution over 10 years ago. It took Alex four years to win a trophy and seven years to win the title. Chelsea started their revolution over five years ago, and they still haven't won the title. Don't forget that we have a new, young team. When we won at Sunderland our oldest player was only 26. The other day Ronnie Moran reminded me that when Bill Shankly came here, it took more than two years just to get out of the Second Division." He doesn't spell it out, but the message is clear: patience is needed, and those who chanted Shankly's name at Huddersfield on Sunday would do well to remember it.