Liverpool fans will have to wait a little longer for the lasting return of their cherished French manager. Gérard Houllier, who had been earmarked for a seat in the dug-out this week, will now make his long-awaited comeback at the end of the month.
A source close to the Frenchman insists that there are no complications, but that he has yet to be given the green light for attending matches. Having experienced a serious heart failure, which required an 11-hour operation in October, the 54-year-old is being advised to ease his way back, both to full fitness and into the job, in order to avoid any excess stress. Easier said than done, however, as Liverpool embark on the most important three weeks of their season, with Champions' League matches against Barcelona and Roma, as well as the title run-in.
Houllier has been present behind the scenes and indeed addressed the players before last week's win over Fulham, but his hard-working assistant Phil Thompson will be charge against Barça.
Frustrating as the long lay-off may be, at least Houllier can draw comfort from the fact that other managers who have suffered similar traumas have made full recoveries. A case in point is his close friend, Guy Roux, the legendary Auxerre coach, who fell ill after training on 24 November last year but who has reclaimed the hot-seat since the end of January. "I came back quite quickly because my problem was less serious than Gérard's," says Roux, who returned to Auxerre last summer following a short 12-month retirement.
"That's not to say I didn't get a fright. I can tell you that the happiest moment of my life was when I opened my eyes at 3am the day after my operation and realised I was still alive. But the main advantage I had was that there was nothing wrong with my heart – it was never hurt. It was just a question of a build-up in the arteries. I never doubted I'd be back, but I had to make sure I was ready."
Roux, who says he was "lucky to have missed only 50 days of school", spent much of his recovery time with his old friend, Houllier, in the Corsican town of Porticcio back in December. The two first met more than 30 years ago, when a small Third Division team called Noeux-les-Mines ran their Second Division hosts, Auxerre, very close in a Cup match. "We won 3-2," Roux recalls, "but I thought they played really well so I wanted to meet the manager. It was a young Gérard, and we have been friends ever since."
Having kept in close contact over the years, neither could have imagined they would one day be recovering from heart trouble at the same time. "We were like a couple of old codgers in Corsica," Roux jokes. "Sometimes I would tease Gérard that we should start a syndicate for recovering managers. On a more serious note, though, we really were able to rebuild our strength down there. It was so cold in England and France, but in Porticcio I was able to walk in the mountains and Gérard was able to do his swimming. It was the perfect setting for our recuperation."
Rest and exercise were supposed to be the main ingredients of the sojourn, but the workaholic Houllier could not resist conducting a little business on the side. "You'll never really get Gérard to rest completely," Roux says, "so it was no surprise when he managed to secure the [Nicolas] Anelka deal [the Paris striker is on loan until the end of the season with a view to a permanent transfer]. Gérard is like that; he is passionate about football and I'd say he's now very close to a full return."
When Houllier does assume command again, he will have to change his habits slightly. According to the doctor of the French national team, Jean-Marcel Ferret, the heart of a manager is often pushed to the absolute limit during a live game. He believes that the combination of the pressure to achieve results, as well as the hectic pace of life, explains why managers are so vulnerable. "The ludicrously long days will have to be cut short," Roux warns, "and Gérard will have to watch his diet, but otherwise he can start living normally again.
"The thing is, after a scare like we have had, you automatically review your priorities. Suddenly, football matters do not seem quite so important and you do not get as involved on the touch line. That's no bad thing to be honest, and I would say that I am now actually in better mental and physical health than ever before. My only regret is that I can no longer eat as much of our wonderful food."
One thing is sure, Roux has lost none of his appetite for the game. He may be 63, but the excitement of leading Auxerre remains the same as when he first assumed the managerial reins in 1963. Back then, Auxerre were an amateur side, languishing in the depths of the lower leagues. By the time Roux first decided to hang up his boots at the end of the 1999-2000 season, the Burgundy club had won the Double in 1996, as well as employed some of France's greatest footballing talents. How does an all-star team of Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc, Basile Boli, Sabri Lamouchi, Bruno Martini, Jean-Marc Ferreri, Taribo West and Alain Goma sound? A quick trawl through the latest generation of Auxerrois might go some way to explaining why Roux could not resist the temptation to rejoin the football world. Djibril Cissé, the £11m-rated striker is taking Le Championnat by storm, while Philippe Mexes is developing into one of the most elegant sweepers since Blanc. Both are being watched carefully by several English clubs, most notably Liverpool and Arsenal.
Despite appearances, Roux insists that this season has not just been a simple return to Auxerre. Rather, it is a new challenge. "The former manager Daniel Rolland decided to quit at the end of last season," Roux explains. "The club then employed a new manager who just happened to have spent 39 years of his life here before. He is called Guy Roux and, believe me, he still has everything to prove." Everything, that is, apart from his obvious zest for life.