Gerard Houllier: Football manager who restored belief for a generation of Liverpool fans

The coach had spells in charge of the Reds, Aston Villa, France, PSG and Lyon among other teams

Ivan Ponting
Monday 14 December 2020 13:33
<p>Houllier celebrates during a 4-0 Liverpool win over Charlton in 2001</p>

Houllier celebrates during a 4-0 Liverpool win over Charlton in 2001

Gerard Houllier was the man who restored belief to a generation of Liverpool football fans mortified by the Reds’ modern failure to live up to past glories.

During three decades under the inspired stewardship of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool had emerged as the most successful club in the history of the English game, collecting an unprecedented treasure trove of trophies, both European and domestic. In stark contrast, the 1990s spawned desolate anti-climax until the advent in 1998 of the enlightened, but deceptively tough-minded Frenchman, who had played an integral part in his country’s rousing World Cup victory earlier that summer.

Within three seasons Houllier had transformed the underachieving Anfielders, leading them to a unique cup treble in the 2000-01 campaign and offering genuine hope that soon they might challenge the Premiership hegemony established by their most bitter rivals, Manchester United.

Usually Houllier’s demeanour was genial, composed, sensible; he might have been anyone’s favourite uncle. But, not far below that engaging affability there was a core of tempered steel, as anyone who crossed him found out to his cost. An eloquent and erudite progressive thinker, but one who recognised the need for discipline, he could blaze with fervour when in full flow, a formidable, fiery-eyed crusader consumed by his passion for the game.

Rather peculiarly for a top football coach, Houllier never played professionally. Instead, after training and working as an English teacher, he turned out for and then coached Le Touquet, an amateur side not far from his birthplace of Therouanne in northern France. Next he became the youth coach of Arras before, in 1979, he took charge of his first senior club, Nouex les Mines, at that point languishing in the equivalent of the French fifth division.  Three successive promotions led to employment by a more fashionable club, Lens, whom he guided into the top domestic flight and to qualification for the Uefa Cup before moving into more rarefied territory with Paris Saint-Germain in 1985.

Unfazed by the quantum leap in expectations – an experience that went some way towards preparing him for his subsequent arrival on Merseyside – Houllier flourished in the capital, leading his side to the French championship in 1985-86 and establishing him as a major force on the European scene. Though he never repeated that early success with PSG, he was much in demand and was recruited to the French national side’s technical staff in 1988, becoming assistant to team boss Michel Platini and then technical director in 1990.

His brief was to raise the overall standard of French football, which he realised must begin with children. Thus he targeted 10 to 12 year olds and placed the emphasis on improving their ball skills, at that early stage eschewing demands to hone physical fitness and capacity to absorb pressure. His results were so outstanding as a new wave of precocious talent emerged – the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezuguet passed through his hands – that he was hailed as something of a guru, and following the Euro 92 tournament, he succeeded Platini as manager of France.

However, the top job did not bring unalloyed joy and he resigned in November 1993 after his country had failed to qualify for the finals of the next World Cup. At the time much was made of his fury with David Ginola, whose last-minute surrendering of possession allowed Bulgaria to score the goal that doomed the French to elimination, though some commentators believed the manager’s reaction had been out of proportion to the error. 

Thereafter Houllier resumed his role as technical director, ostensibly taking a back seat but working assiduously alongside new boss Aime Jacquet, his former assistant, to continue the youth revolution that contributed hugely to the French World Cup triumph of 1998. Certainly Jacquet entertained no doubts concerning Houllier’s input, arranging for a special medal to be struck in recognition of his crucial work.

Houllier with the France squad in 1993

With that mammoth achievement behind him, Houllier set his sights on club football once more, and that July he accepted the unusual commission of joint manager of Liverpool, operating in tandem with the existing incumbent, Roy Evans. In fact, it was his second invitation from Anfield, the first having been issued following the departure of Graeme Souness in 1994. Already the city was dear to his heart, as he had spent a year there as a student teacher in 1969, and he had felt an affinity for the club ever since standing on the Kop to watch the Reds demolish Dundalk 10-0 in a European Fairs Cup tie that same year.

Now it was judged that Liverpool – having slipped unacceptably far behind a Manchester United team boosted incalculably (and ironically) by Houllier’s brokerage of Eric Cantona’s entry into English football some six years earlier – were in need of their own infusion of continental ideas, although they were unwilling to sack the loyal and amiable Evans. The prophets of doom predicted that such blurred demarcation of responsibility could not work and so it proved, with poor Evans being eased out of Anfield that November following a deeply troubled autumn studded with unsatisfactory results.

Placed in sole charge, Houllier took a flintily unsentimental look at his footballing inheritance and resolved that fundamental changes were necessary if the club was to have a chance of even approaching its former eminence. For several years critics had ridiculed certain Liverpool players as “The Spice Boys”, insinuating that, although richly talented, they were overwhelmingly complacent and more interested in the glamour and vast financial rewards attached to their privileged profession than in playing football. This was a culture that Houllier was determined to eradicate, although he knew the revolution could not take place overnight.

Accordingly, while he took stock and laid his patient plans, the Merseysiders endured what was arguably their least successful season since 1953-54, when they had been relegated from the top flight. To place this in perspective, they finished seventh in the Premiership, which would have been welcomed by most sets of fans, but was scorned at Anfield, particularly as the rival Reds at the other end of the East Lancs Road were celebrating the most glorious campaign any English club had ever known.

The manager led Liverpool to a unique treble in 2000-01

But come the summer of 1999 Houllier, who had been widely viewed more as soccer boffin than hatchet man, began to demonstrate his iron strength of purpose. In addition to acquiring some £25m worth of overseas recruits, including the little-known but majestically effective Finnish central defender Sami Hyypia, he presided over several high-profile exits. That of the sumptuously gifted Steve McManaman to Real Madrid he might (or might not) have regretted, but that of his skipper, England star Paul Ince, fell into a different category.

The ageing but still effective Ince, who liked to be called “The Guv’nor”, exercised vast influence over the Liverpool team and he was keen to stay. But Houllier wanted him out, and so he went, to be replaced by the less flamboyant, more composed German international Dietmar Hamann. Now no one at Anfield doubted who was “The Guv’nor” and during the 1999-2000 season the side began to develop encouragingly. It retained ample flair and inspiration, in the shape of such scintillating young performers as Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, but also there was a new defensive solidity, a more convincing tactical organisation and, most important of all, a sterner mental resolve.

Still the Reds were far from the finished article, as they proved by collapsing dismally over the last five matches, failing narrowly to qualify for the European Champions League, but gigantic steps in the right direction had been taken. Devastated by that abysmal finale, Houllier resolved that it should never be repeated and by the autumn of 2000 his spending as Liverpool boss had soared to beyond £60m. When it became clear during the early months of the new season that, yet again, Liverpool would trail United in the championship race, brickbats were rained on the head of the Frenchman, many of them emanating from former Anfield heroes, a source of criticism that he resented deeply.

But as the campaign wore on, it became evident that Houllier’s Reds were on the brink of something special. Though their football was infuriatingly cautious at times, they displayed remarkable resilience in winning all the major cup competitions they had entered, first the Worthington Cup, then the FA Cup and finally the Uefa Cup. This time, too, buoyed by their knockout exploits, they finished strongly in the Premiership, qualifying for the Champions League on the last day. The hard-edged nous and singleminded perseverance of Houllier had paid handsome dividends and the red half of Merseyside partied all summer.

The Kop sends a message of support to Houllier in November 2001, following the coach’s heart surgery

Still, though, he saw that magnificent treble as merely a platform, a statement of his credibility as he sought to capture even more glittering prizes. He understood completely that Kopites demanded nothing less than the usurping of the Mancunians as Premiership kingpins and for Liverpool to be crowned once again as champions of Europe. To that end Houllier continued to tinker with his combination, including the ruthless ditching of Dutch international goalkeeper Sander Westerveld in favour of the Pole, Jerzy Dudek, and he remained immovably firm in dealing with his collection of hugely paid stars, notably the dazzlingly brilliant but occasionally recalcitrant Robbie Fowler.

On 13 October 2001, during Liverpool’s home fixture with Leeds United, Houllier complained of chest pains and was rushed to hospital. He underwent 11 hours of cardiac surgery where it was discovered that he was suffering from a dissection of the descending aorta, a condition where layers of the main vessel out of the heart can come apart, allowing blood to force its way out. 

His recuperation meant a five-month absence from the game, during which assistant manager Phil Thompson stepped up to the plate. Although another League Cup landed on Merseyside in 2003, the Frenchman left the club at the end of the 2003-04 season, to be replaced by Rafael Benitez, ending his six-year reign at Anfield. 

Houllier was the first Liverpool manager not to come from the club’s “family” since the great Bill Shankly, founding father of the modern Reds, took office in 1959. Comparisons across eras are meaningless, but certainly it can be said that in the three years the Frenchman spent at the Anfield helm, he attained heights of which even his illustrious predecessor would have been proud.

His penultimate job proved one of his most successful, as the Frenchman won back-to-back Ligue 1 titles with Lyon in his two seasons in charge of the French club between 2005 and 2007.

And, finally, Houllier managed Aston Villa during the 2010-11 season, stepping down by mutual consent in June after falling ill in April and failing to oversee the remainder of the club’s matches that term. Regardless, he led Villa to a ninth-placed finish, a feat they have not since matched.

From July 2012 Houllier worked as head of global football for Red Bull. He was responsible for Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg, Germany’s RB Leipzig and American club New York Red Bulls, as well as the now dissolved Red Bull Brasil and Red Bull Ghana academies. He became the technical director of women’s football clubs Olympique Lyonnais Féminin and OL Reign just one month before his death.

Gerard Houllier, football manager, born 3 September 1947, died 14 December 2020

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