Nice men are the toughest to fire. At Newcastle, Freddie Shepherd, a man who made his money in the hard, grey waters of the Tyne, likened getting rid of Sir Bobby Robson to "killing Bambi". Sacking Gérard Houllier was putting a 12-bore to the back of Thumper's head.
Tonight, Houllier brings his Aston Villa team to Anfield, but six years ago everyone knew he had to leave Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, a man for whom Houllier was almost a father-figure, said: "A little part of me died when he left." But he added that after winning the treble of League, FA and Uefa Cups in 2001, the club had "stagnated".
Jamie Carragher thought the Houllier of 2004 "a pale imitation of the man who had strolled into Melwood and taken on the most powerful players at the club". He was still sorry to see him leave.
Liverpool tried to soften the blow by taking Houllier to a country house hotel in the Lake District to break the news. It would be a kind of footballing Cluedo – Rick Parry (the chief executive) in the lounge with the severance cheque. In the end, they all had such a good time nobody could bring themselves to tell Houllier. They did it at Anfield a couple of days later.
Because of injury, neither Gerrard nor Carragher will be in the Liverpool side to face their former manager tonight. They are the only links to his regime and were two players he inherited from Steve Heighway's academy at Kirkby.
You can judge Houllier by that academy and by the club's training ground at Melwood. On the first, the man who had overseen the great French youth team factory at Clairefontaine had virtually no impact. In the words of Robbie Fowler, Houllier – hired because Liverpool imagined he would develop young footballers for them – became "a cheque-book manager of the worst sort". Melwood, which had not changed much since Bill Shankly told the club he no longer required a cricket pitch on his training ground, he transformed to the extent of installing sleeping accommodation for the players coming back from European matches in the very wee hours.
Before travelling to Anfield for the first time in a public capacity since giving his farewell press conference in 2004, Houllier was asked what his legacy at Liverpool might be. "The mission of a manager is three-fold," he replied. "The first is to win a trophy and have silverware and we did that. The second is to leave a legacy. I would use my former chairman's words. [David Moores] said, 'You put the club into the 21st century'.
"And the legacy was the team, because it was the one that won the Champions League with Rafa Benitez the following year. The third mission of a manager is to make your players improve. We had a Ballon d'Or with Michael Owen, and Steven Gerrard became a world-class international."
Interestingly, Benitez used to point to photographs of the team celebrating the European Cup snatched in Istanbul in 2005 and point out how ordinary many of the players were and how hard they were to sell. For all the transfer fees Houllier paid, only two of his buys produced truly outstanding footballers – Dietmar Hamann and Sami Hyypia. And they were bought early in his reign.
Many would argue Gary McAllister, now his assistant at Aston Villa, counts as a third. "He will get a fantastic reception; there is no doubt about that," said the Scot when asked how the Kop would welcome their one-time manager. McAllister added that, like Sir Alex Ferguson, Houllier had mellowed with age and, although those close to Manchester United's great dictator might dispute that, it is unquestionably true of Houllier.
Perhaps because unlike his friend Roy Hodgson, whom he has known since they were managing Paris Saint-Germain and Malmo respectively in the mid-1980s, he is no longer working at a club where, in his words, "one defeat means a crisis".
His players thought the dissection of the aorta that almost killed him during a game with Leeds in October 2001 changed Houllier, temporarily and not for the better. He should have taken a year off; he re-entered Anfield's great arena, to an outpouring of emotion as Liverpool beat Roma 2-0, five months later. As he convalesced he would not leave his backroom staff to run Anfield. Phil Thompson, his nominal deputy, was bombarded with instructions. His touch in the transfer market abandoned him and, as a result, Liverpool were left with Bruno Cheyrou, Igor Biscan, El-Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao.
Curiously, at Aston Villa as at Liverpool, Houllier inherited some high-quality youth-team products and used them thrillingly in the dramatic 2-2 draw with Manchester United – a club he generally did well against at Liverpool.
There may be other parallels. His first season on Merseyside, the messy managerial coalition with Roy Evans, another the club thought too nice to fire, was his worst. At Aston Villa, his first three months have produced just a win at Wolverhampton and a narrow victory over what was unquestionably a Blackpool reserve team. After a 2-0 defeat at Blackburn, he sat in Ewood Park's shadowy media theatre looking downcast and reflective. Every sentence was bookended by long silences. At Liverpool, he would have counter-attacked by reeling off a stream of statistics that would have "proved" he should have won the game.
Even his players noticed that towards the end Houllier was growing obsessed by Liverpool's press. Once, after a dreadful night that had seen them eliminated from the Champions League by Basel, journalists arrived at Liverpool's Swiss hotel to find Houllier studying faxes of every match report of the game, almost marking them like the schoolteacher he had once been.
Earlier this season, Houllier spotted a reporter working in the foyer of Villa's training ground at Bodymoor Heath. Houllier suggested the journalist should use his office; it was more comfortable. Last week when asked whether he had an overarching three-year plan for Aston Villa, as he did for Liverpool, he replied: "Let's survive."
what the houllier years brought to liverpool
Gérard Houllier was initially appointed as joint Liverpool manager to work alongside Roy Evans in July 1998. The arrangement did not work out as planned and Evans resigned four months later, leaving Houllier to take full charge at Anfield. He stayed in the position for six years.
Win rate: 50.8 per cent
League Cup 2001
Liverpool beat the then Championship side Birmingham City 5-4 on penalties to lift the cup after the game ended 1-1 after extra-time at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Robbie Fowler put them ahead, before Darren Purse hit an injury-time penalty to take the game to extra time. Houllier's side then won the penalty shoot-out, a young Andy Johnson missing the vital kick for Birmingham. It was Liverpool's first major trophy in six years.
FA Cup 2001
Michael Owen scored twice in the final 10 minutes to defeat Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium. Freddie Ljungberg put the Gunners ahead before Owen took advantage of an ageing Arsenal defence to help Liverpool to their second trophy of the season.
Uefa Cup 2001
Houllier completed a memorable cup treble that season when in Dortmund's Westfalenstadion Liverpool beat Spain's Alaves 5-4 in a pulsating game that was decided by an own goal in extra time. The club went on to win the European Super Cup in August, beating the Champions League winners Bayern Munich 3-2 in Monaco.
League Cup 2003
Liverpool always enjoy beating Manchester United, especially when a trophy is involved and goals from Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard gave Houllier's side a 2-0 win to ease the pain of a difficult season when their early title challenge imploded.
Spent: £133.4m Received: £62.5m
* Sami Hyypia, £3m from Willem II in 1999
A boyhood Liverpool supporter, the towering Finnish defender achieved hero status at Anfield. A loyal stalwart who went on to captain the club before Steven Gerrard, he stayed with the Reds for 10 years.
* Dietmar Hamann, £8m from Newcastle in 1999
The German midfielder controlled games for Liverpool.
* Gary McAllister, free from Coventry in 2000
Doubts were raised over Houllier's decision to sign the 35-year-old but, during a two-year stay, the midfielder became an integral member of the treble-winning team in the 2000-01 season.
* Bruno Cheyrou, £3.7m from Lille in 2002
Hyped as the new Zinedine Zidane when being signed by Houllier, the midfielder's career never took off in England and he made just 44 appearances in a four-year stay.
* Harry Kewell, £5m from Leeds in 2003
Arrived with a great reputation but his Anfield career was blighted by injury.
* El Hadji-Diouf, £11m from Lens in 2002
Failed to live up to expectations at Anfield after joining in the wake of an impressive World Cup for Senegal. In 2004 he became the first Liverpool No 9 shirt to fail to score a single goal in a season. In that season he was fined by Liverpool and banned for three matches after spitting in the face of Portsmouth's Arjan De Zeeuw.