A new week began with the tragic news of Gérard Houllier’s death. He made his name in England as Liverpool manager from the turn of the century. He also managed a host of French clubs, including PSG and Lyon, as well as a spell as French national manager.
For Liverpool fans, he brought back the trophy winning days to Anfield. For people like me who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, trophies were expected. Between 1973-1992 the club only went through a season trophyless, once. By the time Houllier’s Liverpool won the League Cup in 2001, they’d won just one trophy in the previous eight years.
Houllier’s love affair with the club began back in 1969, as Dan Fieldsend tweeted;
“Lest we forget that Houllier came to Liverpool in 1969, lived on Falkner Street, taught at Alsop, stood on the Kop and drank in the Royal Oak. A Scouser from Pas-de-Calais”
Houllier spent a year as a teacher at Alsop School, and invited his good friend, Patrice Bergues over. The two went to their first match at Anfield on a September evening for a Fairs Cup (pre-UEFA Cup/Europa League) tie against Dundalk. From that moment he became a Liverpool fan.
Years later he would recall
“What impressed me first of all was the atmosphere inside the stadium. We were on the Kop and it was fantastic to see the unconditioned support of the fans. I was also impressed by the energy which was shown in the game, and the stamina of the players. I think 15 minutes before the end of the match the score was 8-0 and still Liverpool went looking for goals. In France, if you are 5-0 up at half-time the game is over in the sense you don’t bother trying to increase your score. It’s not like that in England” [source- LFChistory.net]. Liverpool won 10-0.
He moved into management from the age of 26, in 1973, when he took over French club, Le Touquet. He had a spell at Lens and then took PSG to the title in 1986.
Soon after he was appointed technical director and assistant to the French national team, under Michel Platini. He became manager in 1992 but resigned a year later when they failed to qualify for USA ’94. He returned as technical director in 1996, in charge of the youth sides. He was instrumental in laying the foundations for the French side which won World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000.
In July 1998 he was invited to become joint manager of Liverpool alongside Roy Evans. Pretty soon it was obvious the experiment wasn’t working. Evans, through his love of the club, stood down and Houllier assumed overall control. In summer 1999 he went on a spending spree and bought eight new players to the club. Most were successful, some not. His purchase of Sami Hyypia was inspired as the Fin went on to become one of the finest defenders at the club. He added Stephane Henchoz and the two formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the defence. Dietmar Hamann was also acquired from Newcastle United and become a fundamental part of the midfield. He also brought through young players such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Danny Murphy.
But one of the most important changes he made was to the training facilities at Melwood. Liverpool had been a club which hadn’t really moved on from the ’70s and ’80s, as the management and acquisition of players was at such a level to ensure continued success. But during the ’90s, the club was falling behind the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. It could no longer be sure to attract the best players. Houllier realised the facilities needed to be dragged into the 21st century. He also set about the players diet and fitness regimes.
In 2000 five further signings were made which would bring the good days back to Anfield. German internationals, Markus Babbel and Christian Ziege came in, along with Emile Heskey and an inspired addition, Gary McAllister. McAllister, 35, added much needed experience to a young and exciting squad.
The 2000-01 season has gone down in Liverpool legend alongside some of the greatest seasons the club has ever known. A treble of cups. They beat Birmingham City in a penalty shoot-out to lift the League Cup. In a balmy hot May, the drama and tension was turned up to 11. Coming from a goal down, two Michael Owen goals gave them a dramatic win over Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. Four days later they took it up another notch winning the UEFA Cup. In an incredible game they beat Spanish club, Alaves 5-4 thanks to a ‘golden goal’. Champions League football was secured three days later when a wonderful Robbie Fowler goal secured third place in the League.
The Charity Shield an European Super Cup were won at the beginning of the following season, giving the club an unprecedented five trophies in twelve months. Then it nearly all ended rather shockingly in October 2001.
At half-time during a Premier League match at Anfield against Leeds United, Houllier was taken ill. He was suffering from chest pains and rushed to hospital where he underwent open-heart surgery. He died on the operating table. Thankfully he was revived, and eventually made a recovery. His assistant, former club captain, Phil Thompson took over the managerial duties. Houllier was away from the Anfield for five months and returned to a rapturous welcome for the crucial Champions League tie against Roma. He gave the team talk and the players responded with a famous win. It was another one of those compelling European nights at Anfield.
2001-02 proved to be Liverpool’s best league finish since 1991 as they ended second to Manchester United.
But the club failed to kick-on from there. Another League Cup success, against Manchester United, couldn’t hide the disappointment of the league season. At one stage they went 11 games without a Premier League win. The man appeared unable to arrest the slide.
With several signings failing, the pressure soon told and the club and Houllier went their separate ways in May 2004.
He returned to France to guide Lyon to two successive league titles but couldn’t bring European success to the club. After a disappointing spell back as technical director of the French national team, he was soon back in England as he replaced Martin O’Neill at Villa Park.
Perhaps not considered a success, his one season at Aston Villa saw them finish ninth. At the time the supporters demanded more, but it’s interesting to note they’ve never finished as high since.
During his time at Villa he suffered more health problems. This was his last management position in football.
He died in Paris on 14th December 2020, aged 73, following a heart operation.
He was a student of the game, someone who always seemed to have time for people. He was a principled man who instilled in his players a sense of responsibility and pride for the badge on their chest.
Tributes have poured in from around the world of football. Social media has been awash with praise and admiration for a man who was respected throughout the game.
Phil Thompson said
“Absolutely devastated and heartbroken at the sad news of the passing of Gérard. My mate, my colleague, my boss. One of the greatest moments of my life was when we came together in 1998. Just to be in his company was an absolute treat. So loyal, so passionate and extremely fierce.”
Danny Murphy was in the studio at Talksport when the news broke. This was his immediate reaction
“He always wanted you to be the best you, overcome fears. He changed my career. He made me see football differently, think differently about myself, how I looked after myself, the way I conducted myself. He made me see the world through a man’s eyes, not a young kid. For someone who couldn’t kick a ball straight, he knew his football. In terms of knowing tactics, captivating a room, he was brilliant.”
“He changed the mentality, the training ground, everything. He laid the foundations for what Liverpool is today. Thanks to Houllier, I even surpassed what my own expectations of what I could achieve were.”
Houllier worked very closely with Steven Gerrard. As a young man, Stevie was beset with plenty of injuries. Houllier reckoned many of the problems not only lead to the fact Stevie’s body had grown very quickly, but also some of the problems pointed to his teeth. In 2000 Houllier arranged for the player to visit a French specialist. Within the French national team, they had diagnosed how mouth infections can lead to tendinitis and muscle problems. Chart Gerrard’s career and you can see there were fewer injury issues after then.
On another occasion, he visited Gerrard’s parents to have dinner with them and discuss their son’s development. Such was his attention to detail.
Gerrard posted his reaction on Instagram
“Devastated to hear news of my former manager Gérard Houllier has passed away. I will never forget what this man did for me and my career. Rest in peace Boss. YNWA”
Roy Evans also spoke of his sorrow;
“Incredibly sad news hearing of the passing of Gérard Houllier. A gentleman I have the greatest respect for and what he achieved at Liverpool football club. Condolences to his family. RIP”
Alex Ferguson called him a true gentleman;
“The news has come as a total shock this morning. Gérard Houllier is still a young man at the age of 73.
“Gérard became a really good friend during his time at Liverpool. We remained great friends after he left and he was always a great ally to have”
“When we saw each other at UEFA meetings or other events, we would often enjoy a chat, he was always great company and I will miss dearly.”
Many fans point to some of their greatest memories as Liverpool fans from when Houllier was in charge.
As Phil Blundell said on twitter
“Houllier gave people under the age of 40 or so, the kind of nights you’d have only watched on video”
Another fitting tribute was posted by Andy Heaton;
“Liverpool, as a city, leaves a mark on you. But sometimes, great people leave a mark on it.