Football: Houllier the passionate enthusiast

Football: Liverpool have handed control to a Frenchman with a finely honed, deeply considered philosophy of the game
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The Independent Online
IF THE Liverpool players want to know a little more about what to expect from the man who took sole control of their destiny yesterday, they might care to consult a volume titled Entraineur: Competence et Passion, published in France five years ago. In its introduction, Gerard Houllier and his co-author, Jacques Crevoisier, write: "The best coaches haven't reached their position by accident. They owe their elevation to an ensemble of very varied qualities and a level of insight that distinguishes them from the majority of their colleagues."

They go on to list the qualities required of a good manager: "Realism, self-confidence, boldness, involvement, consistency, the ability to listen, an aptitude for making decisions, the capacity for leadership, recognised competence." To judge from Liverpool's limp performances in recent weeks, Houllier will need every one of those attributes, and then some, if he is to restore the fortunes of a great club.

Yet Houllier has already made an indelible, if indirect, mark on the history of English football. It was his enthusiasm for English football and his friendship with Howard Wilkinson that precipitated Eric Cantona's move from Marseilles to Leeds United in January 1992, thus writing the prologue to a story which was to bring glory first to Wilkinson's team and then, in much greater measure, to Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, with whom Cantona shaped the course of the Premier League's first decade.

A former schoolteacher who became the technical director of the French football federation, Houllier has the reputation of being a football boffin.

It was he who, 10 years ago, created the blueprint for France's fruitful and influential youth development policy. So significant was this initiative to the nation's footballing prosperity that Aime Jacquet ordered an extra World Cup winners' medal to be struck for Houllier, in recognition of his contribution. Two years earlier, during the finals of Euro 96, Houllier was to be seen at matches the length and breadth of England, making detailed notes for Uefa's dossier on the evolution of football tactics and strategy.

In the French way, Houllier likes to analyse and philosophize. Several years ago he responded with these words to my request for his views on his friend Cantona: "If I wanted to define him, I'd say that he's an island of freedom, generosity and pride." But such verbal flights cannot disguise the fact that he is a football man of flesh and blood, gregarious and eloquent, a passionate enthusiast and a wholehearted admirer of talent. The only thing he likes better than talking about the game is watching it.

Born in Lille in 1947, Houllier never played the game professionally. He spent several years as a schoolmaster - including a fateful spell in Liverpool, where he watched Bob Paisley's teams from The Kop. He was 32 when he took his first job in football, as coach with Noeux-les-Mines, the little colliery town in Flanders where the great Raymond Kopa, the son of an immigrant Polish miner, had been given his start in the early 1950s.

Within three years Houllier had taken Noeux from the Fifth to the Second Division.

A move in 1982 to nearby Lens, of the First Division, led to further success, and a place in Europe. Three years later he was attracted to the more sophisticated ambience of Paris Saint-Germain, bringing the French championship to the Parc des Princes in his second season.

Having established his credentials in club football, in 1988 he accepted an offer to join the French Football Federation. "I was recruited to become the technical director," he told me last year, "but I asked to postpone that for a while in order to get used to the way things worked." For two years he worked as assistant to Michel Platini, the national coach, before assuming his designated position in 1990.

His task was simply to raise the overall standard of French football. "In the 70s," he said, "we were useless. Nothing at all in terms of European or world football, at youth or senior level." Even the successes of the Platini-Giresse-Tigana side of the early 80s, including victory in the 1984 European Championship, seemed built on sand, or at least on the talents of a few gifted individuals.

Houllier's predecessor had taken the wise step of ordering every professional club to create a "centre de formation", a youth development training centre, with a five-year programme for each player. But, when Houllier took charge, he identified a more profound problem.

"We noticed that when a boy arrived at a centre at 15 or 16, if he had something lacking in his skills, it was difficult to help him catch up. So we tried an experiment. We decided to take hold of them earlier, at 10 or 12, and work on one thing: skills, skills, skills. Only skills. No physical pressure, nothing like that. As soon as we started that, the results from the first group of 20 boys were so outstanding that we knew we had to do it everywhere."

His maxim was simple: "The better the work at the base, the better it is for the elite." And of those first 20 boys, 11 went on to join professional clubs. Half-a-dozen intakes later, the figure was up to 95 per cent.

The first group included Thierry Henry, the fleet-footed star of Monaco and France's World Cup squad, and Nicolas Anelka, Arsenal's young prodigy, whom Houllier described to me last year as "the most promising player of his age I've ever seen". This week he revised his estimate, calling the young Gunner "a certain future winner of the Ballon d'Or".

In 1992 Houllier took over from Platini as selectionneur, an appointment which led to the only serious reverse of his career to date. France's campaign to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals had not been exactly scintillating by the time the last two group matches approached, but the team required only a single point from home encounters with Israel and Bulgaria to ensure their passage to the United States.

Defeat by Israel was followed by a catastrophic last-minute error against Bulgaria, when David Ginola's carelessness enabled the visitors to take a 2-1 victory.

Houllier's subsequent fury was well documented, and he resigned to return to the job of technical director, a position from which he was able to give backroom support to Jacquet, his successor. Taking charge of the national junior sides, he coached the Under-18s to victory in the 1996 European Championship. And, although he kept a low profile during France 98, his contribution was visible in the presence in the squad of Henry and David Trezeguet, both graduates of his scheme.

But it had been obvious for some time that he missed the daily contact with senior players, with the shaping and projection of a collective effort.

The Liverpool job had been offered to him in the past (notably at the end of Graeme Souness's reign), and this year the time was right.

With his French junior players, Houllier was a strong advocate of the philosophy known as le jeu vers le but, which could be translated as "going for goal". "It means that you must train your player, when he gets the ball, to go forward," he said. "It sounds silly. It is not. If your first pass is square or back, it changes the whole game. That's very, very important."

Further clues to Houllier's management strategy are to be found in his book. "There are some rare cases of players who need a very authoritarian coach," he writes, "but in general this kind of direction is demotivating, because it limits individual initiative." Nor does he favour getting a club out of trouble through the adoption of l'esprit commando: "This perhaps works in the short term for a certain kind of player, but it has its dangers in the longer term, and its effectiveness is unlikely to be sustained over the course of a season."

Superficially, it may seem that Houllier's promotion represents a further stage in the evolution of the relationship between club and coach at the top level of English football. Whereas until recently the appointment of a manager was assumed by the club, the players and the fans to be something like a marriage, in which all parties would take an emotional stake and which would endure, if successful, for an indefinite period, now coaches are coming to be seen less as "the boss" than as hired servants, providing a service on a fixed-term contract.

And yet, for all his intellectual qualities, Houllier does not quite fit the new mould. His general Anglophilia and his heart-on-sleeve fondness for Liverpool in particular ensure that his feeling for the job is rooted, like his affection for football itself, in the emotions that bind players and fans together. Whether this makes him stronger or more vulnerable in the context of Liverpool FC in the post-Boot Room era, only time will tell.