Houllier in dignified exit after sacking by Liverpool

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In a new twist to the old joke about being fired with enthusiasm, Gérard Houllier was yesterday sacked with sensitivity, leaving Liverpool to start the search for a manager to end their long wait for the championship trophy that was once part of the fixtures and fittings at Anfield.

In a new twist to the old joke about being fired with enthusiasm, Gérard Houllier was yesterday sacked with sensitivity, leaving Liverpool to start the search for a manager to end their long wait for the championship trophy that was once part of the fixtures and fittings at Anfield.

Barely 48 hours after insisting he felt "100 per cent certain" he enjoyed the confidence of Liverpool's board, Houllier sat, his face etched with sadness, alongside Rick Parry as the chief executive announced an "amicable parting". Both made it clear that the Frenchman's six-year tenure was not ending of his own volition. His departure follows weeks of speculation over the manager's future which had been fuelled by rival bids for control of the club.

Parry later maintained that Liverpool had not yet identified his successor. The front-runner is Rafael Benitez, coach to the Spanish champions, Valencia, although there is also strong interest in Alan Curbishley, the Charlton Athletic manager.

The credentials of Jose Mourinho, of the Champions' League finalists Porto, will also be examined, along with those of the former Southampton manager, Gordon Strachan, Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren and Celtic's Martin O'Neill.

Curbishley is the early favourite among British-based candidates. He signed a four-year contract at The Valley in February but has a get-out clause that would allow him to join Liverpool.

O'Neill, perhaps surprisingly, is rated as an outsider. He has the European experience Curbishley lacks, but there are thought to be reservations about the type of football his teams play.

The single "key criterion" for the next incumbent, Parry said, in what was the closest he came to criticising Houllier, was that he must be "somebody who can take us from where we are to being realistic contenders for the title".

Where Liverpool are would satisfy the followers of all but three Premiership clubs. They finished fourth and will take part in the qualifying for the Champions' League. Yet in the context of Liverpool's former pre-eminence - their last title, in 1990, was their 13th in 26 years - many fans did not share Houllier's belief that trailing in 30 points behind Arsenal was "a magnificent achievement".

Houllier, whose sharp intelligence and personable manner could not mask a thin skin, addressed the assembled media about what he clearly regarded as an unfair clamour for his head. "I want to make clear how much this club means to me," he said. "I would have been extremely happy to carry on with my job. Actually, I wanted and intended to.

"The reason we have agreed to part company is the sudden excessive pressure on the board and myself. I can cope with the pressure, but I thought it could be harmful to the players next season. That's why we agreed to come to this situation. I've always said that the club comes first. I'm not here for myself, but for Liverpool."

Houllier's parting shot was, characteristically, laced with statistics. Just as those who decried Liverpool's football as one-dimensional and even rooted in a long-ball game were exhorted to study facts showing they had had more shots than any of their rivals, so he now pointed out that they had qualified for the Champions' League in three of the past four seasons. "And in over 50 European games," he concluded, "we have had only seven defeats."

Parry spoke warmly of the spring of 2001 when Liverpool won the Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup, and said he would "never forget" the reception Houllier received from the Anfield crowd in 2002 upon his return after major heart surgery.

"The club is in a considerably better state than when he arrived, so it's a sad day in some ways," Parry added. "But although we have reached the Champions' League, that's the minimum standard rather than our goal."

Pressed as to whether Houllier had actually been dismissed, Parry avoided answering directly, saying: "The board had decided we needed to make a change. Gérard accepted that with quiet dignity, as is his way." His disappointment may be softened by a £1.2m pay-off, Liverpool having agreed to pay the remaining year of his contract in full. Houllier is understood to be keen to remain in football.

The last manager to be sacked by Liverpool was Don Welsh in 1956, after the team had finished third in the old Second Division. Three and a half years passed before the board turned to a former Grimsby and Workington manager called Bill Shankly, who would launch the era that proved such a millstone for Houllier.

TRANSFERS UNDER HOULLIER

PLAYERS BOUGHT

1998

July V Heggem (Rosenberg) £3.5m

S Staunton (Aston Villa) free

1999

Jan J-M Ferri (Istanbulspor) 1.5m
F Kippe (Lillestrom) £700,000
R Song (Salernitana) £2.7m

Feb D Traoré (Laval) £550,000
May S Hyypia (Willem II Tilburg) 2.6m
June T Camara (Marseille) £2.8m

S Henchoz (Blackburn) £3.5m
S Westerveld (Arnhem) £4m
July D Hamann (Newcastle) £8m
Vr Smicer (Lens) £4m
E Mejer (Bayer Leverkusen) free

2000

Mar E Heskey (Leicester) £11m
June B Diomède (Auxerre) £3m

P Arphexad (Leicester) free
July N Barmby (Everton) £6m
G McAllister (Coventry) free
M Babbel (Bayern Munich) free

Aug C Ziege (Middlesbro) £5.5m
Sep G Vignal (Montpellier) £500,000
Nov D Sjolund (West Ham) £1m
Dec I Biscan (Dynamo Zagreb) 5.5m

2001
June J Litmanen (Ajax) free
J A Riise (Monaco) £4m
Aug M Baros (Banik Ostrava) £3.4m
J Dudek (Feyenoord) £4.85m
C Kirkland (Coventry) £6m
Sep A Le Tallec and F Sinama Pongolle (Le Havre) £6m

2002

Jan A Xavier (Everton) £800,000
June El-Hadji Diouf (Lens) £10m
July B Cheyrou (Lille) £3.7m

P Luzi free
A Diarra free
Aug S Diao (Sedan) £5m

2003
July S Finnan (Fulham) £3.5m
H Kewell (Leeds) £5m

TOTAL £132.1m

PLAYERS SOLD

1999

Jan J McAteer (to Blackburn) £4m
Mar S Harkness (Benfica) £750,000
June D James (Aston Villa) £1.7m
July S McManaman (Rl Madrid) free

J-M Ferri (Sochaux) £1.5m
T Warner (Millwall) free
S Dundee (Stuttgart) £1m
P Ince (Middlesbrough) £1m
Aug O Leonhardsen (Tottenham) £3m
B T Kvarme (St Etienne) £1m
Sep K Riedle (Fulham) £200,000

2000

June S I Bjornebye (Blackburn) £300,000

Aug D Matteo (Leeds) £4.7m
Nov B Friedel (Blackburn) free
Dec E Meijer (Hamburg) free

2001

July C Ziege (Tottenham) £4m
Nov R Fowler (Leeds) £11m

Dec S Westerveld (R Sociedad) £3.49m

2002

Jan A Navarro (Tranmere) £225,000
Feb F Kippe (Lillestrom) undisclosed
May G McAllister (Coventry) free
July J Nielsen (Farum) undisclosed

J Redknapp (Tottenham) free
Aug N Barmby (Leeds) £2.75m
S Wright (Sunderland) £3m
J Litmanen (Ajax) free

2003

June P Berger (Portsmouth) free
Aug P Arphexad (Coventry) free

2004

Jan D Sjolund (Djurgardens) free
May E Heskey (Birmingham) £6.25m

TOTAL MONEY RECOUPED (from disclosed sales) £49.8m

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