French accent dominates the Swedish lesson

Houllier's Liverpool achievements are being mirrored at national level as Eriksson's crusade gains momentum
Click to follow
The Independent Football

If Sven Goran Eriksson deserves to be knighted for services to English football, then the least Gérard Houllier can expect is an OBE. Indeed, the roots of England's renaissance can be found in France as much as in Sweden, and while no one doubts the positive influence that Eriksson has had on the young squad, Houllier has also played his part in the national team's recent successes.

Robbie Fowler's goal against Albania on Wednesday night was England's seventh without reply. It was, by the same token, the seventh consecutive international strike by one of Houllier's men. No wonder, then, that the red half of Merseyside have been so bold as to suggest that the last two England scorelines should have read: Germany 1, Liverpool 5; and Liverpool 2, Albania 0.

Seriously, Houllier's players are beginning to exert the same kind of influence that the Liverpool stars of old once did. Liverpool had more players (four) in each of the last two starting line-ups than any other club. Houllier shies away from any personal praise, but much of the renewed Red vigour can be attributed to his intelligent style of management. Whether it be nursing Steven Gerrard through injury, moving Jamie Carragher to left-back, honing Emile Heskey's raw talents, keeping Fowler on the straight and narrow, making Nick Barmby a better right-footed left-midfielder, or filling the Boy Wonder – Michael Owen – with the confidence he needs, the Frenchman has already left an indelible mark on the current England set-up.

"Sven is the one doing a great job," Houllier said modestly on Friday, before admitting that there were some parallels between Liverpool and Club England. "I think that Sven has tried to mirror what we've done here. He's attempting to create a good atmosphere and a positive environment for the players. I'm all for that because I know it works."

Not that Houllier is blasé about his achievements. Faced with the choice of watching his native country play a friendly against Chile or England take on Germany, the Frenchman opted for his adopted nation. "I was in Paris with some friends on the night of the Germany-England match, so I took them to the offices of L'Equipe [the French sports daily] to watch the game on the big screen. Well, I'll tell you what, it was really exciting. Whenever one of my players scored for England, I felt as if they were scoring for Liverpool. All my friends were saying, 'God, your players are good'. When you hear compliments like that, you can't help but feel extremely proud."

Houllier added: "What happened in the last week is a good sign for English football – and for Liverpool. As a club manager in this country, I want England to do well. It is not my duty to help the national team, but I am very happy to see England getting close to reaching the World Cup finals next summer. I think it has a very positive effect. You always want your national team to do well because there is nothing worse than your players coming back from internationals really depressed.

"I also believe that if England succeed, then my team will do well too. And it works both ways. England benefited from our good win against Bayern Munich [Liverpool defeated the German champions 3-1 in the Super Cup eight days before England's 5-1 triumph], and I hope that we will now do well because the players are on a high from their time with England."

So far as Houllier is concerned, success breeds success, and it is perhaps no surprise that the young English players who form the backbone of his Liverpool team have blossomed on the international stage at the same time. "I always said that I wanted the core of my team to be English," he explained. "So I guess it is rather flattering for me to see that policy be rewarded by so many of my players being selected for the national side. But England are lucky, you know. Not many countries have such a wonderfully talented generation of players between the ages of 19 and 24. I can name 40 who are good players, and at least 20 who are good internationals. That is very rare.

"Just think of the players who weren't even in the last England squad: Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith. It's incredible how many promising talents England possess and I want to see as many of them as possible go to the World Cup, because that will give them invaluable experience. Look at Stevie Gerrard: he went to Euro 2000 and came back with a little something extra."

With international matters on hold until next month's final qualifying tie against Greece, Houllier expects his England players will now focus on club duties. On Tuesday, Liverpool make their long-awaited debut in the Champions' League, against Portugal's Boavista. Houllier is excited. "This is the club's first-ever participation and I can't hide that this is the competition we've been craving for years," he said. "We've had this burning desire to get into the event and now we hope to make an impact.

"It won't be easy, but Leeds had a good first year last season [reaching the semi-finals] and I think the experience we gained from winning the Uefa Cup will stand us in good stead. That said, it's a different type of tournament from the Uefa Cup, mainly because you can't go away from home looking only to defend. You need 12 points or so to qualify from the initial group stages, so you have to be positive in every match."

No doubt Houllier would dearly love to guide Liverpool to their first European Cup final since 1985, but domestic glory is still crucial. "My priority was the League last year and will be the League again this time around," he said. "But it's not just me saying that. Players like Michael Owen are also desperate to win the Premier League with Liverpool. As a foreigner, this has particularly struck me, because I would have thought that winning big European trophies was the dream for most, but my players are more inter-ested in the domestic titles. I can tell you, they were happier to win the FA Cup than the Uefa Cup in May."

A year ago, most of the Liverpool players would have been more than happy with any kind of silverware. But Houllier has instilled a winning mentality and his players now set their sights on the biggest prizes available. Eriksson will be hoping this is another Liverpool trait which catches on with England.

Comments