Houllier expresses pride as he takes over at Villa

Gerard Houllier was last night confirmed as the new manager of Aston Villa, completing an unlikely return to the Premier League for the former Liverpool manager at the age of 63.

When Houllier stood down as manager of Lyons, citing a desire to step away from the limelight, after having won back-to-back titles in France, it was considered he would wile away the remainder of his career in the more genteel role of technical director of the French Football Federation (FFF).

However, he has come out of semi-retirement to succeed Martin O'Neill at Villa Park, taking up the post ahead of the likes of former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson and the ex-West Ham and Charlton manager Alan Curbishley, who were both interviewed for the job along with current caretaker manager, Kevin MacDonald.

Villa's owner, Randy Lerner, and his chief executive, Paul Faulkner, were charmed by Houllier during his interview, and the Frenchman last night spoke of his delight at returning to a Premier League club. "I am very happy and proud to join this great and historic club," Houllier said. "It was a very difficult decision for me to leave the FFF, but I could not turn down the opportunity to manage a club whose approach, both on and off the pitch, I have long admired.

"Aston Villa is one of England's biggest clubs and has an amazing set of fans. This is a tremendous challenge and one I am very much looking forward to taking on."

There have been question marks raised over Houllier's health after he suffered heart problems during the latter part of his time with Liverpool. He underwent an 11-hour operation on his heart in 2001 but has assured Lerner he is in fine health now.

Houllier will arrive in Birmingham this morning to meet the players at the club's training complex in Bodymoor Heath before being presented to the media. His appointment ends a prolonged period of uncertainty at Aston Villa, after O'Neill resigned five days before the start of the new season.

Lerner had wanted to recruit a British manager with Premier League experience to carry on the progress made under O'Neill, but Houllier's experience of six years with Liverpool, from 1998 to 2004, and his international standing made him the best candidate.

Chief executive Faulkner said: "[Houllier] stands out as a football man, who understands the ethos of our club and shares our core values. We look forward to working with Gérard and supporting him and we ask our supporters to get behind the new manager and the team as we look to build on the progress we have made over the past four years in all areas of the club."

MacDonald, who was the overwhelming choice of the Villa players, is likely to be offered the chance to work alongside Houllier, possibly as his assistant, which is being seen as a peace offering to the dressing room, some members of which are said to be unhappy at the Frenchman's appointment.

Houllier had wanted his former Liverpool assistant Phil Thompson to join him at Villa Park,but the Sky Sports pundit turned him down. The Frenchman is now considering two of his former players, in Middlesbrough's assistant manager Gary McAllister and the MK Dons midfielder Dietmar Hamann.

The new manager's first game in charge at Villa will be Monday night's trip to Stoke City.