Houllier switches the balance

Champions' League: Five months on and the man has changed his outlook, but the manager's focus is still the same
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If a visit to the trophy room at Anfield is one way of gauging the weight of Gérard Houllier's formidable legacy to Liverpool, a guided tour of the new Melwood training centre is almost the more potent measure. This is the house that Gérard built, the one which will be bequeathed to generations of future Liverpool players.

Every detail speaks of the Frenchman's meticulous mind. The open-plan dressing-room, no pillars or divisions to fracture the sense of community; the fitness room, which has a separate balcony where the injured players work. They can hear the fit players down below but are specifically forbidden to join them. Bill Shankly, who refused to acknowledge injured players, would have approved. The swimming pool with the Liverpool crest on its Caribbean-blue floor; the Boot Room, now the size of an executive boardroom and smelling of wood more than dubbin, but still the place of congregation for Houllier and his staff every morning. This is where tactics are devised and jokes shared, the hub of a club at work and the place Houllier missed above all during his five-month recovery from aortic surgery. The indoor five-a-side pitch, open to the wind but not the rain, boasts a simulated surface which is a near- perfect match for the pace of outdoors; a special rack for the row of footballs the players sign every day. Houllier shows you round like the proudest new house-owner. His work? "Absolutely," he says with particular emphasis. "Ever-y-thing." Houllier is in good form today. Some days are still better than others, but his team are on the verge of qualifying for the semi-finals of the Champions' League after eking out a precious one-goal advantage for the second leg in Leverkusen on Tuesday, and are central to the race for the championship for the first time in more than a decade, both ample reflection of a soul reborn under the careful guidance of Houllier and his assistant, Phil Thompson. So he talks with fluency and openness for the first time about the quest for a new balance in his life and the personal impact of the day he almost died.

"As a manager, no, I don't think I have changed," he says. "But as a man, yes. People ask me if I am going to ease off and I say, 'No', because you only succeed in this job if you are 100 per cent. Since I've been back, I've been here every morning at 8.15 or 8.30 and done my job exactly as I did before. As a man, I don't think anyone could go through that sort of experience in their lives and not come back and say: 'Oh my God, it's a miracle I'm alive here'. Yes, of course, it changes your outlook. It really has affected my personal life.

"It is wonderful to be here with you. The problem I had was that I was overworked. I was good at doing several things at the same time. That's going to be a bit different. I want to be better in quality than quantity now. Now, when I am with the press, I am with the press. The same with the players, I will give more time to people. Normally as a manager you're trying to do two or three things at once. The only thing I have to be careful of is to find time to switch off." As an example, he cited the day before. "I put my feet up and watched Inter against Feyenoord. I can relax and watch football." So, no painting or crochet classes just yet, then.

Houllier never had any doubt that he would be back. From the day he left intensive care, his hand has been on the tiller, lightly at first, but with growing pressure. Thompson would come to his bedside, then to Houllier's dockside apartment and, when the doctor ordered a change of scene, they would be in contact by phone from south-west France. This week, Houllier will retake his seat alongside Thompson on the plane to Germany, reviving one of the little rituals Thompson missed most. "Having me mate alongside me, sharing the wine gums and talking football." It must be the Frenchman's turn to buy.

He learnt early in his convalescence not to trust the impressions of the camera or the commentator, and he laughs at one needless imposition of stress. It was the Sunderland game, which followed a humbling by Barcelona in the opening group stage of the Champions' League. No good team, in Houllier's book, lose two on the trot, so the arrival of Sunderland gained a peculiar significance.

"I thought that game was important, so I committed myself more, probably too much," Houllier recalled. "The doctors said I had to be careful, but Heskey scored and then Didi Hamann was sent off after about 40 minutes, and when you watched the game on television, the commentator made it seem as if they would equalise whenever they got the ball. But afterwards, when the staff came to my place, they said: 'Gérard, we never felt in any danger'. After that, I decided not to watch any more games live. I watched them only after I knew the score."

The incident brings another to his mind, to the time his blood pressure was being monitored in those early days in hospital and the patient in the next door room brought the television through for a Champions' League game. The doctors were very pleased with him, no change in the heart patterns at all. "But they didn't know that when Danny Murphy scored the goal, the television had packed up. So I didn't see it." The lightness of being is utterly understandable. The camera caught Houllier in fits of laughter during the Roma game. Phil Thompson, an inveterate whistler, had lost his front teeth in the grass. "I couldn't help but laugh at that," Houllier says.

But when he talks of his team, the mood changes perceptibly. His heroes, he called them in midweek, in a neat and typical deflection from his own status on Merseyside. "They won three cups in the same year and finished third in the League, then they won the Charity Shield and the Super Cup and they lose Markus Babbel, no ordinary player, and they lose their manager. We change the goalkeeper, Sander Westerveld, who was very popular, and five games before the end of the season we are still in contention in the League and the Champions' League. Sometimes, I agree, we do not play well, but, hell, we've got something about us. I mean it."

Houllier and Thompson will address the need for more creativity during the summer. An injection of self-expression is the next step. "I want the players to be more themselves, to play without restriction," he says. But probably not this week. Houllier will not be drawn into trading insults with Franz Beckenbauer, the latest critic of Liverpool's pragmatism. From the president of Bayern Munich, hardly football's light brigade. Leverkusen will be tackled on Liverpool's terms, on the well-worn ground of discipline, control and strength of spirit.

Those closest to the Frenchman say he is getting stronger every day. But you still worry for him and the toll his relentless pursuit of perfection has taken. "I have trained myself to be emotionally detached," he adds in self-defence. But compromise is not an option for team or manager, not at Houllier's new Melwood.