Gerard Houllier was the pioneering manager who led Liverpool Football Club into the 21st century.He did so with deftness, diplomacy and progressiveness, easing an institution once accused of being stuck in the past on its first, slightly hesitant steps towards modernisation.
“Evolution rather than revolution,” was Houllier’s message upon arriving in the summer of 1998, initially part of an ill-fated joint-management experiment alongside Roy Evans.Houllier repeated that mantra when recalling his six years in sole charge during a conversation with Telegraph Sport in Paris last year, underplaying how fundamental his changes were.“
We had to begin the process of convincing people,” he said. Posterity allows for a fuller understanding and appreciation of Houllier’s importance in the Anfield timeline. He may not have seen himself as a revolutionary, but the Liverpool he left was radically different in its direction from that which he joined. Without question, the club has become what it is today, in part, because of Houllier’s work.
t is always tempting to return to Bill Shankly’s appointment in 1959 as the first chapter in Anfield’s modern history. While that is natural, that volume really ended in 1991 with Kenny Dalglish’s resignation and the subsequent arrival of the Premier League.
Gerard Houllier with Roy Evans on joining Liverpool in 1998
Under Graeme Souness and Roy Evans, the club promised success but struggled to adapt to the new world of Bosman, lucrative broadcasting deals, superagents and Manchester United’s dominance. By the end of the 1990s, Liverpool was in the grip of an identity crisis, caught between respecting its glorious past and being too deferential to it.Houllier overcame that to set a more relevant course for the age.Joining from the French Football Association, where his role as Technical Director was critical to World Cup success, Houllier found Liverpool prone to insularity, suspicious of change – especially overseas influencers – and still clinging on to the belief that what they needed was to restore the methods of the 1970s and 1980s rather than fundamentally rethink as well as upgrade them.Some initial scepticism manifested itself as pure xenophobia, particularly from some high profile ex-players. Houllier was the first foreign manager of Liverpool at a time when many English clubs were still resisting a growing continental influence. When we spoke during that Paris interview, Houllier offered a wry smile when considering the fanfare that followed Jurgen Klopp’s arrival, proudly seeing it as a sign of how much the club had moved on from believing every new coach needed a bootroom connection. Houllier was the trailblazer who shifted those Anfield sensibilities. Appointing Phil Thompson as his assistant was a masterstroke and a necessity, the enduring presence of a Kop legend reassuring cynics there would be no betrayal of Shankly values. But rather than seek to manage Liverpool in Shankly’s image, Houllier began the genealogical thread which led directly to Rafa Benitez and eventually to Klopp. Klopp will be among those to recognise and acknowledge his debt in the multitude of tributes.As a coach, Houllier was more focused on the character, mentality and the tactical discipline of his side than a purist ‘pass and move’ style in the Shankly, Paisley or Dalglish tradition. His side was a physically tough, well-organised unit. He brought an attention to detail in the study of opponents and fascination with diet and development in sports science. He demanded greater professionalism around and away from the training HQ. When he spoke about a ‘team first’ ethic, it was no empty slogan. Before his second season, Houllier bravely offloaded the club captain, Paul Ince. Privately, he admitted he was selling one of his best players. He did so because he was sure it would serve the greater collective good and allow the emerging Steven Gerrard to flourish under a different mentor. He was vindicated.
Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring in the Uefa Cup with Gerard Houllier CREDIT: REUTERS
Houllier insisted upon and helped design a new training facility at the training ground in Melwood – he had inherited what he described as ‘a barracks’ – ensuring the club was no longer accused of being left behind rivals such as Arsenal and Manchester United. Critically, he won the patience and support of The Kop as they saw Liverpool improve thanks to high class signings such as Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann, Markus Babbel and Emile Heskey. That success emboldened Houlier to keep pushing the club forward following his ideals.As a man, Houllier was warm-hearted and immensely thoughtful to those who met and knew him. He was a workaholic, the first into Melwood every morning and the last to leave, obsessing about every facet of the club and how it was portrayed. Equally, he possessed the ruthlessness required of every elite coach when he deemed it necessary. At the heart of his reign was the nurturing of some of the club’s greatest Liverpool-born talent.Gerrard and Jamie Carragher saw Houllier as a father figure as he oversaw their transition into world class footballers. Michael Owen also flourished under Houllier, winning the Ballon d’Or in 2001. Houllier was immortalised at Anfield for guiding the club to a cup treble in 2001 during which he restored Liverpool’s European pedigree with UEFA Cup success, adding to the FA Cup and League Cup in the same memorable season.
Gerard Houllier holds the FA Cup after his team beat Arsenal at The Millennium Stadium 2001 CREDIT: EPA PHOTO EPA/ADRIAN DENNIS
He also engineered Liverpool’s return to premier European competition, the first Anfield coach to secure qualification into the revamped Champions League, also achieved in 2001.During those initial three years of rebuilding, the job took a heavy toll. At the peak of his managerial powers he almost paid with his life in October 2001, rushed from Anfield at half-time of a game against Leeds United to undergo heart surgery.By his own admission, he came back too soon and never completely recovered. His ambition to see the job through and try to realise his dream of Champions League and Premier League success impaired his judgement.“I was very tired for a long time afterwards after I returned,” he said.Fatigue manifested itself in poor signings and curious decisions. He was not the same manager in his final two seasons, and although he qualified for the Champions League in his final year, he was perhaps a victim of his earlier success as he had made Liverpool more attractive to managers such as La Liga champion Rafa Benitez.As a reporter covering Liverpool at the turn of the millennium, I was privileged to speak to and meet Houllier virtually every working day between 2000-2004. The phone might ring at 7.30am or midnight if the Liverpool manager wished to chat football, praise or criticise a report (he did both liberally!), or even check your health if for some reason you had not checked in with him.If working on a story or an interview, he was eager for the tone to be right, acutely aware of the power of the media, especially in Liverpool.He was hurt by criticism in the final years. Given what he had gone through and achieved, much of it was wrong and unfair. Yet there was no grudge, his genuine warmth apparent whenever he saw a familiar face during his occasional visits to Merseyside, or was offering an invitation to meet him in France.In his emotional farewell to Liverpool in 2004 – the club demonstrating their gratitude even then by taking the unusual step of arranging a press conference for a manager they had just fired – Houllier delivered what was then construed as a parting shot.“If the club wants to go back to the 1970s and 80s, then fine. Not with me,” he said. There was no going back. Thanks to Houllier, Liverpool Football Club was in a position to stride ever onwards. Beyond the 2001 treble, that is the legacy to which everyone at Anfield is most indebted.