It is hard to exaggerate how badly Gérard Houllier, who will be presented today as the new manager of Aston Villa, had wanted to return to the Premier League.
Friends advised him that at 63, and still needing the regular heart check-ups which followed the acute aortic surgery which saved his life in October 2001, a second-tier job might be the best level to aim for. But Houllier was having none of it. The other clubs who have tried to lure him out of his dull desk job with the French Football Federation (FFF) proved resistible – Wolfsburg approached him before Steve McClaren this summer only to find the Bundesliga did not appeal – but Villa did not.
And so it has come to pass that, six years after the valedictory press conference at Liverpool's Melwood training ground at which he cited an early morning jog in Sefton Park as proof that "my leaving [is] in no way health related," Houllier accepts the unenviable gauntlet of keeping Villa sixth or higher at a time when his new chairman Randy Lerner has just signalled that the spending of the Martin O'Neill era cannot go on. There is also the small matter of two of the key individuals in the dressing room being less than delighted to see Houllier's face: the Frenchman, remember, brought the curtain down on the Liverpool careers of Brad Friedel and Emile Heskey when at Anfield.
Houllier's reaction if that issue is put to him today may be an acid test of how his six years out of the Premier League have changed him. His characteristics as Liverpool manager included his generosity, warmth and openness, and he certainly could not lose his temper with the same malevolence as Sir Alex Ferguson. But paranoia was the less palatable part of Houllier's make-up. He was always acutely attuned to any criticism – both real or imagined.
In a Premier League where the spotlight is trained with a brilliant intensity far beyond that of six years' ago, Houllier will certainly have to deal with the flak and if Villa do not start well under his tenure – Monday's visit to Stoke's Britannia Stadium is a cruel re-baptism – then there is also the indignation of knowing there will be no new players for four months. Doing good business in the January transfer window is also a task most managers have all but given up on in the past few years.
Houllier's attempts to persuade his former Liverpool assistant Phil Thompson to be by his side was perhaps a recognition that the career which took him to a successful two-year stint at Lyons before the FFF has also made him out of touch with the Premier League. Thompson suggested yesterday that the enforced absence from his family had prevented him accepting. Given the choice between a Premier League job and Saturday afternoons in the Sky Sports studios, you imagine that wild horses would not have dragged Thompson from a job like Villa. His relationship with Houllier is in fact not as close as some believe, despite the job Thompson did as stand-in, with not inconsiderable success, when the manager underwent surgery. Houllier will bring with him Patrice Bergues, his assistant both at Liverpool and Lyons.
Though the two-year contract he arrives on suggests that Villa are not planning for the long-term, he will expect money to develop the team in his mould. Houllier's work in France provides a knowledge of some of the talent in the youth ranks. But his spending at Liverpool was mixed and the arrival of El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao from French football for £18m in the summer of 2002, after Liverpool had finished second in the Premier League, was calamitous and the beginning of the end. Jamie Carragher, who adored Houllier and welcomed him to his testimonial dinner at the Liverpool Echo Arena on Saturday night, reflects in his biography that "the illness was the biggest factor in Houllier's demise, but he also reached a stage where he became curiously obsessed with the team's coverage."
But Steven Gerrard, whose affection for Houllier reflects the way he can inspire those who do a job for him, reflected yesterday: "I don't think health is a problem. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to get a winning team."
Houllier has lost none of his appetite for challenging the status quo. While at the FFF, he controversially sacked the France Under-21s manager René Girard after he had taken the side to a play-off for the European Championships. So Lerner and his chief executive, Paul Falconer, have found someone who is no less complex and challenging than O'Neill. The familiar sunny countenance will be back before the cameras today but expect some thunderclaps to follow in the weeks ahead.