Houllier relishes promise of greatness

The Liverpool manager is back at work after heart surgery because he always believed this would be a special season
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The Independent Football

When he was seen as the future of the Labour Party, Tony Benn used to quote from the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, who said that the finest leaders go unnoticed by their people. "When the best leader's work is done, the people turn round and say: 'We did it ourselves'." It says something for the qualities of Gérard Houllier that, in his five months away from Anfield, his absence has hardly been noticed.

A measure of a team is how well it can run without its manager. The Liverpool squad Bill Shankly created reached its greatest heights after his resignation and the one Houllier returned to after open heart surgery was about to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Cup and was challenging hard for their first title in a dozen years.

When he collapsed shortly after giving his half-time team talk in October, Liverpool were seventh and now, as he settles into his seat to give his first press conference since his operation in the Anfield Trophy Room he has done much to fill, Houllier remarks his team are "10 games away from greatness".

Later, in the players' lounge, he elaborates on his statements to the cameras. His voice is strained, not due to any lingering after-effects of the surgery but a common cold. He had earmarked Liverpool's home game with Chelsea on 24 March for his comeback, but their goalless draw in Barcelona, which gave them a chance of reaching the knock-out stages of the European Cup, convinced Houllier to return to the bench at Anfield to oversee a match in which they had to beat Roma, the champions of Italy, by two clear goals. And, as everybody with even a passing interest in football knows, that is precisely what Liverpool did on a night consigned to Merseyside folklore the moment the final whistle blew. Houllier was, he admitted, "crazy to be back".

Graeme Souness, who a decade ago had also undergone heart surgery while manager of Liverpool, commented that his doctor had told him he would be under more stress sitting at home feeding his frustration than back at Anfield. Houllier, who comments matter-of-factly, that "football is my life", felt similarly. Despite an obviously curious mind, he admits to few outside interests: "I do not play golf. I could not imagine I would never be back.

"When I was working from my sick bed it helped me to recover quicker. If you are mentally sharp, it helps. My wish is to be like Bobby Robson because his enthusiasm and his passion are so great. Management is not just about tactical or technical ability, it is also a matter of personality.

"My job as a manager is not to be Mr Motivator but to create the best conditions for people to be motivated, which means the pitch, the new training facilities at Melwood, or dealing with personal problems. A friend of mine said: 'It's Christmas and other managers are putting up the tree and enjoying their lives while you are on your sick bed and have signed Nicolas Anelka'."

He was in touch with his assistant, Phil Thompson, to whom he paid a generous tribute, on a regular basis. When questioned whether Thompson should receive the title of manager of the year if Liverpool win the Premiership, Houllier smiled: "The fact that he is English should help him; to me he is already manager of the year."

The desiccation of the aorta, a potentially fatal condition, he lays at the door of overwork rather than stress. "I was delegating a lot but, when it comes to an intense decision; I never delegate. Perhaps I was travelling too much to see players and I made a mistake by not taking a proper holiday. After the end of last season I went to the Confederations Cup in Japan and thought I could relax by watching games. But I wasn't able to sleep because of jet lag and when I came back I was involved in two signings and then we went for three targets; the Charity Shield, qualifying for the Champions' League, and then the Super Cup. Then I had the decision over the goalkeepers. That takes your sleep because you cannot afford to make a mistake."

The decision to remove Sander Westerveld from Liverpool after the keeper allowed a tame shot to dribble under his body at Bolton showed the ruthlessness behind the charm. "Sander was a very popular guy, a nice guy. On the first day of the season I told him: 'I'm going to sign a new goalkeeper and his name is Sander Westerveld. You had better be a better goalkeeper than you were last season'. I thought he could be; but he can't say I took him by surprise when letting him go."

Houllier says he knew from the first training session at Melwood in July that this might be a special season. "I said to the staff: 'We are going places again'. When you win three trophies you wonder if there is going to be complacency or slackness but it never happened. The will to perform was intact and better than before."

He believes Liverpool's great years lie ahead of them. Questioned about his management style, Houllier says: "I don't ask them to do things, I ask them to be themselves." He notes with approval the surprise of a French manager at his team's self-control when dealing with a hard-tackling Charlton side on Saturday, while acknowledging on the one criticism laid at Liverpool's door this season; a lack of true flair.

"I would like them to show more expression and skill, perhaps we are too restrictive in what we ask them to do. We should ask them to free themselves. This [the operation] has made me look at things in a different perspective... I want to savour this team because I made it."