Sam Wallace: Villa's new man has nothing to prove but that won't stop him raging against the past

Talking Football: What was striking about Houllier last Friday was that, at 63, he looked fitter and healthier than when he left Liverpool. So why come back?
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The Independent Online

There was a moment in Gérard Houllier's press conference on Friday that was unmistakably the Houllier of old. It started with a jokey aside that he had a good record at Villa Park with Liverpool. "Every time we came here we drew or won," he said. Then, in case anyone had missed the point, he checked a piece of paper and added solemnly: "So that means Liverpool have not lost at Villa Park since February 1998."

In terms of relevance it reminded me of Alan Partridge telling a group of schoolchildren the viewing figure (8,000) for his cable television quiz show. "To put that in perspective," he adds. "It's 11 times the population of Hemsby."

In the six years he has been away from English football, Houllier has not lost any of that sensitivity about his record at Liverpool. By the end of his time there, he would recite shots-on- goal statistics in defence of bad results. Once, a sympathetic reporter gently told Houllier that by quoting all these irrelevant stats he was just giving the critics a stick to beat him with. Houllier ignored him.

Houllier did a great job at Liverpool up to and just beyond the aortic dissection he suffered in October 2001. When he came back it was for that electrifying 2-0 win over Roma that meant Liverpool qualified for the Champions League quarter-finals. That season Liverpool finished second in the Premier League. It remains the only time they have finished above Manchester United since 1991.

Contrary to what Houllier might believe, he has nothing to prove to English football. He steered Liverpool through a difficult stage in their history. He established Steven Gerrard in the first team, even if he did not have quite the role in Gerrard's career that he claimed. Having tried to replace Jamie Carragher a few times he eventually stuck with him. He bought Dietmar Hamann and Sami Hyypia.

He also won five trophies (Houllier regards the European Super Cup as a major European trophy), which is more than Rafael Benitez who always trumps him in the affections of the supporters because of the Champions League in 2005. Like all Liverpool managers since Kenny Dalglish, like Benitez too, ultimately Houllier had to go because he could not win the league.

"Illness cruelly deprived him of the sharp judgment that had led to swift early progress." That is Carragher's take on Houllier in his autobiography which is, on the whole, generous and warm towards his former manager. And it also gives a stark insight into the state Houllier was in by the summer of 2005.

By the end of Houllier's reign, Carragher wrote, his manager was deferring to Gerrard and Michael Owen on team selection. "By this stage, the Gerard Houllier in front of me was a pale imitation of the man who'd strolled into Melwood [the training ground] and taken on the most powerful player [Paul Ince] in the club," Carragher wrote.

It does make you wonder if Randy Lerner and his chief executive, Paul Faulkner, took a look at Carragher's autobiography before they made their decision.

On Friday, Houllier tried very hard to position himself as a man taking over a club that was virtually a lost cause. That is not Villa. They have finished sixth for three years in succession and last season they won away at Old Trafford and Anfield. There is a good case for saying they achieved as much as they ever will unless Lerner starts spending again, but Aston Villa are hardly a basket case.

His analysis of Villa as a team who have "belonged between seventh and 12th" was insulting to the achievements of Martin O'Neill. In fact it is exactly the kind of dig that would have infuriated Houllier when he was manager of Liverpool.

His delayed start – still potentially 13 days away – is peculiar, especially as it hard to imagine what could be so pressing for Houllier to do at the French football federation. Having said that, what was striking about Houllier at his press conference was that, at 63, he looked fitter and healthier than when he left Liverpool. So why come back?

The answer seems to be that the end of his time at Liverpool still gnaws away deeply at Houllier. Another great story culled from Carragher's book is when Houllier came into the dressing room in Istanbul as a guest after the 2005 Champions League victory and, amid the celebrations, bollocked John Arne Riise for having criticised him publicly.

There is a serious side to that story. Houllier regards the team that won the Champions League as the team that he built. Indeed, 10 out of the 14 players who played that night were signed by him (he cannot claim the credit for Gerrard and Carragher), so he does deserve some credit. But if it ends badly at Villa, Houllier will look even more like a man raging against the past.

In his day he was a charismatic, tough coach who had three great years at Liverpool. He had the courage to sell big players like Paul Ince and Fowler and was vindicated by their subsequent decline. He was also responsible for signing El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou in 2002.

To say he takes things personally is putting it mildly. You only had to watch him on Friday to know that the old prickliness is still there. But he will have to be a different man from the one he was in that last year at Liverpool to succeed at Aston Villa.

Sponsors have no place getting in a fizz over Rooney

I cannot turn on the radio for fear of hearing another wretched 'branding expert' (nope, me neither) opining on whether Wayne Rooney will be dropped by his sponsors because of his alleged extra-marital.

So we have reached the point where his most lucrative sponsors Nike, Coca-Cola and EA Sports are the great moral arbiters of our age. The fizzy drinks men decide who hath sinned. Just as when Accenture's decision to drop Tiger Woods was reported as if it was a judgement handed down on a tablet of stone. Who cares what Nike or Coke think?

The obvious answer is they will keep Rooney on board as long as he is useful to them.

No surprise to see Rovers' takeover hit the rocks

It was interesting to hear Sam Allardyce say on Friday that it looks like Ahsan Ali Syed's takeover of Blackburn Rovers will not go ahead – which means it is as good as dead.

The man with the £100m transfer kitty always looked like a long shot for a club who need their £20m debts addressed, not lavish spending. The Rovers No 23, David Hoilett, will not have to give up his shirt just yet. I don't think David Beckham is coming for the foreseeable. As for Syed, the free publicity will come in very useful.

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