Houllier pays the price for failure to live up to Liverpool's golden past

Glenn Moore analyses the record of a manager who missed out on the major titles despite a transfer deficit of £83m over six seasons
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Gerard Houllier was a brave and honourable man but none the less flawed. He brought a deep love of Liverpool's traditions and the city's sense of self to his post as Anfield manager, but his work was undermined by his inherent conservatism, poor transfer judgement, a propensity to seek scapegoats and a thin-skinned response to criticism.

Gerard Houllier was a brave and honourable man but none the less flawed. He brought a deep love of Liverpool's traditions and the city's sense of self to his post as Anfield manager, but his work was undermined by his inherent conservatism, poor transfer judgement, a propensity to seek scapegoats and a thin-skinned response to criticism.

Twice it seemed he was about to get it right only for the club to go backwards on each occasion. Always he pleaded for more time, promising to deliver in the end. The board backed him when others might not have done, but once Houllier's continued failure began to threaten their own position there could be only one conclusion. Directors, even more than managers, are far quicker to apportion blame than accept it.

Houllier made much of delivering six trophies in his six seasons at the helm but none of them, not even the FA Cup and Uefa Cup, threatened to banish the ghosts of Liverpool's golden past. At Anfield success is measured in League titles and European Cups - they have put 18 of the former and four of the latter in the trophy cabinet.

Houllier came closest to delivering one of these honours in 2002, the club coming second in the Premiership for the first time since 1991 and ending a 17-year-absence from the knock-out stages of the European Cup. Yet even then Liverpool finished seven points adrift of the Premiership winners, Arsenal, and reached only the quarter-finals of the Champions' League before losing to the unheralded Bayer Leverkusen.

Liverpool began the next season well, moving seven points clear in November. Then came the collapse. They failed to win another League game until late January by which time they were out of the running and also the Champions' League and FA Cup.

The second false dawn was this autumn. Houllier's team notoriously lacked width and imagination. If Liverpool scored first they were well-equipped to hold on to a lead, but they struggled to break opponents down, a major failing at home. Anfield, once a venue visiting teams feared, had become just another ground.

In the summer, eschewing his usual fancy for French-speaking dilettantes, he signed Harry Kewell and Steve Finnan. They appeared to be the final pieces of the jig-saw, remedying those faults, but team selection lacked conviction. The season began fitfully not helped by unfortunate reverses in some of the more adventurous performances, notably at Charlton and at home to Arsenal. The team's collective confidence, never good, dwindled fast. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United disappeared over the horizon and the cup competitions offered no solace. Only Newcastle United's injury problems, and the inability of clubs such as Charlton, Birmingham and Fulham, with their smaller squads, to sustain form, enabled Liverpool to snatch a Champions' League place. It was not enough, not after a net transfer deficit of £83m over six seasons.

The inevitable, and unflattering comparison is with his fellow French manager. Arsène Wenger has been at Arsenal only two years longer than Houllier, has spent less than half as much in net terms, and built a thrilling team that has won three championships. Wenger inherited an ageing team that had come 10th, 4th, 12th, and 5th the previous four seasons under George Graham and Bruce Rioch. Houllier took on one which had been 4th, 3rd, 4th and 3rd under Roy Evans.

It has been said that Houllier needed to have a clear-out which he did dispensing with the "Spice Boys" - Paul Ince, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler and David James earning £13.7m in sales. But did he really improve the team by replacing them with Igor Biscan, Bernard Diomede, Bruno Cheyrou, Titi Camara and Jerzy Dudek, signed at a collective cost of £20m.

His supporters will justly argue this interpretation ignores the smart recruitment of Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann, Gary McAllister and Stéphane Henchoz. Good signings all, but they are the exceptions. Failures to add to the quintet previously listed include El Hadji Diouf, Rigobert Song, Salif Diao, Sean Dundee, Frode Kippe, Daniel Sjolund and even, given their respective £11m and £6m cost, Emile Heskey and Nick Barmby.

One former Liverpool player said to me at the weekend, raising doubts about Houllier's man-management, and his reputation in his native land: "Why have no world-class French players signed for him?" Equally damning is the search for his equivalent of the unknown Frenchmen Wenger signed and polished into pearls, like Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and, it would seem, Gael Clichy. Florent Sinama-Pongolle shows promise but Jean-Michel Ferri, Gregory Vignal and Djimi Traore proved disappointments. Tellingly, Houllier's best players, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, were inherited.

Houllier arrived, in July 1998, with an impressive reputation, having developed the French player-education system that was the foundation of that summer's World Cup winning side. His experience in this field has been put to good use with the superb redevelopment of the club's Melwood training ground, perhaps Houllier's finest legacy to the club, and fitting out of the youth academy.

Initially, Houllier was made joint manager with Evans, but it was soon clear that the partnership did not work and the board opted for Houllier. Though Evans was a long-standing servant of the club Houllier had been a schoolteacher on Merseyside and he soon established an empathy with the supporters.

Ince's and James' departures were welcomed by The Kop and McManaman's seen as inevitable. Discontent over the team's prosaic nature was muted while the trophies rolled in, especially when the Uefa Cup was won with a dramatic 5-4 win over Alaves. Houllier's brave and dedicated return from heart surgery appeared to cement his popularity but results are the ultimate arbiter and the love affair turned sour.

Robbie Fowler's sale provoked disagreement on Merseyside, though to have got £11m for him now looks a good deal. More significant was the linked suggestion that internal dissent would not be countenanced. It was thought to be behind the swift departure of Fowler and Jari Litmanan, a player Houllier's Liverpool seemed to be crying out for. External dissent, which grew steadily, was equally unwelcome. Houllier responded to criticism by reeling off reams of statistics detailing how his team had more shots than anyone else. But supporters and critics could see with their own eyes that the team were one-dimensional, lacking in style and unadventurous.

Houllier deserves credit for overseeing the development of Gerrard, but other young players, such as Heskey, Diouf, Traore, Biscan and Milan Baros have failed to progress while Owen has endured five years of frustration, often toiling alone in attack. He will be hoping the new manager encourages a more fluid approach, one which exploits his gifts and gives him a platform to lead the club back to success. Otherwise he, and Gerrard, will look elsewhere to realise their potential. That is one scenario that Liverpool, if they are ever to regain their perch, cannot allow.

HOULLIER'S ANFIELD RECORD

Premiership finishes

1999: 7th 2000: 4th

2001: 3rd 2002: 2nd

2003: 5th 2004: 4th

Trophies: FA Cup (2001), Uefa Cup (2001), League Cup (2001, 2003), European Super Cup (2001), Charity Shield (2001).

IN THE FRAME: POSSIBLE CONTENDERS FOR THE ANFIELD HOT SEAT

JOSE MOURINHO (Porto)

The former Barcelona assistant coach is arguably the hottest property in European football at the moment. A year after winning the Uefa Cup with Porto, his side contest the Champions' League final tomorrow against Monaco. He has been strongly linked with a move to Chelsea but is thought to prefer Liverpool.

MARTIN O'NEILL (Celtic)

If Liverpool want to return to a British manager, then O'Neill will figure at the top of the Anfield club's list. He has won everything he can in Scotland, including this season's league title by a distance, but, after four years there, the man who made his name with Leicester may feel the time is right to move on.

STEVE McCLAREN (Middlesbrough)

After doubts began to emerge about his work in the North-east, his stock has rarely been higher because of guiding Boro to the Carling Cup. He knows several Liverpool players well, given his time assisting Sven Goran Eriksson with England and would no doubt be keen to take on the challenge.

RAFAEL BENITEZ (Valencia)

The Spaniard is on the crest of a wave after winning La Liga, comfortably ahead of Real Madrid, and also lifting the Uefa Cup by defeating Marseille last week. He is a man who has produced a solid team that gives little away in defence but is rarely spectacular in front of goal. A definite outsider.

ALAN CURBISHLEY (Charlton)

The Londoner has been in sole charge of Charlton for nine years and has transformed them from a First Division side into a team that can more than hold its own in the Premiership. He would relish the chance of taking over at Liverpool, but the fans at Anfield may be wary given his lack of titles.

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