Football: Houllier hails power of original thinking

Andrew Warshaw talks to Liverpool's French coach about his special alliance
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE tension mounts at St James' Park this afternoon and Ruud Gullit gives his first pre-match team talk as Newcastle coach, in the opposition dressing-room two men will be rallying the Reds.

The same two men will address the Liverpool players at half-time and congratulate or commiserate with them at the end. Two men with different backgrounds, different cultures and different mother tongues.

A recipe for confusion and misinterpretation? Quite the opposite, says Gerard Houllier, Liverpool's articulate Frenchman now coming to the end of his second week as part of the most audacious coaching double-act this country has known. Houllier, a man of intelligence and technical know- how, is not prone to excessive remarks. But he admits he is fed up with the doubting Thomases who claim that two men can never do one man's job.

He won't give precise details about which of them - himself or Roy Evans - performs which task. Indeed, the very question brings a curt, irritable response. There is a reason for that. "Roy and I are sensitive about this because there is a kind of suspicion by some people in the game," said Houllier. "People don't want our partnership to work so they can say 'I told you so.' I am amazed by the lack of original thinking." Houllier is relishing this most unusual of challenges in a city with which he fell in love when he spent one year as a student on Merseyside, became fluent in English and wrote a thesis on social deprivation.

When Liverpool played Arsenal at Anfield last weekend, l'Equipe, the French daily sports paper, headlined its match preview "Houllier, the Missionary". Such trumpeting does not sit well with the former French national coach who is ambitious but also fiercely loyal to Evans.

"If Liverpool have any managerial success this season, it is because of my partnership with Roy, not because of me alone," he said. "The players are desperately eager to win something. There is one thing about this club you feel as soon as you walk in the door: everyone pulls in the same direction, from the chairman to the boot room."

Houllier, who is still looking for a house on Merseyside, will not countenance the widely held view that Evans will be pushed upstairs after a few dodgy results and that he will have sole control of first-team affairs. "I haven't even thought about that," he said. "What people seem to fail to realise - or don't want to realise - is that Roy and I actually LIKE working together. Partnerships are not unprecedented. Look at the World Cup. There were two organisers: Michel Platini and Fernand Sastre."

Not, perhaps, a fair comparison. Running a global tournament is hardly similar to dealing with players and tactics on a day-to-day basis. But Houllier has a point: decisions have to be taken mutually for the benefit of all involved.

Not that coaching partnerships necessarily work per se. "The combination has got to be right," said Houllier. "Roy and I works because we both have a number of things which, combined, blend very well. The personalities have to gel. And remember, I have known Roy for a long time."

Houllier has a special reason for wanting to do well at St James' today: Kenny Dalglish was a personal friend. Houllier, like so many others in his profession, seem to know a side of the Scot most of us have never witnessed. A compassionate, friendly side rather than the dour, dismissive Dalglish that comes across publicly.

"I have no right to judge Newcastle but I do have a concern for Kenny," he said. "Strange timing and a little unfair in my opinion. He hadn't lost a game. I feel very unhappy for him at the moment. If you have a good friend and he kills his wife or his mother, he remains a good friend."

A remarkable statement but, clearly, a deliberate piece of Gallic exaggeration. Houllier has his principles, simple as that. He also has a healthy respect for home-grown talent and a local academy that has produced players of the calibre of Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher.

Arsene Wenger may be a great friend of several years' standing but it is unlikely that French will be spoken as often at Liverpool's Melwood training ground as it is among the players at Arsenal. "I am aware that Liverpool has always prided itself on having a very British core," said Houllier. "If I do bring in any French players, they will have to be better than the ones we already have."